Durkan’s Proposed Budget Adds Funding for Cops, Congestion Pricing, and Buses, But Not for Safe Consumption or New Spending on Homelessness

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $5.9 billion budget proposes hiring 40 net new police officers, funds shelter and rental-assistance programs that had been at risk of being cut while keeping overall homeless funding basically flat, and dramatically increases transportation spending, at least on paper—the $130 million in new funding consists primarily of unspent funds from the Move Seattle levy, which is currently undergoing a “reset” because the city can’t pay for everything it promised when voters passed the levy in 2015. The new transportation funding includes funding 100,000 new Metro service hours, including “microtransit” shuttles to bring riders to the ends of the existing RapidRide lines and to the water taxi in West Seattle. Those additional hours will require Metro to  work overtime to add buses, drivers, and bus parking capacity, but Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the 100,000 hours were also included in the King County budget that County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted yesterday, as part of a total increase of 177,000 hours of bus service over the next two years.

City budget director Ben Noble said that if the city wanted to significantly increase spending on homelessness, “that is going to have to happen through reprioritizing [funding] or some as-yet-unidentified source of revenues.” Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that, given the ongoing homelessness crisis, “it is unconscionable to put forward a biennial budget … without additional resources for housing.”

The budget would also eliminate about 150 mostly vacant positions, eliminate funding for 217 basic shelter beds provided by the group SHARE after June of next year, fund a new city “ombud” independent from the Human Resources Department, to help employees in city department navigate the process of filing harassment or discrimination claims, and pay police officers $65 million in retroactive pay and benefits from the four years when they were working without a union contract. Officers, Durkan said, have “gone without even a raise but also [without] a [cost of living adjustment]. There hasn’t been pay raise since the beginning of 2014, so that’s four years of pay increases. …  You can get to seemingly large sums really quickly.”

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In contrast, the budget proposes making an “inflationary increase adjustment” to what it pays front-line homeless service providers of just 2 percent—less than the actual inflation rate.. Earlier this year, the Downtown Emergency Center sought more than $6 million for salaries and benefits—enough to raise an entry-level counselor’s wages from $15.45 an hour to $19.53 and to boost case managers’ salaries from a high of about $38,000 to $44,550 a year. (Currently, the lowest-paying job listed on DESC’s job board pays $16.32 an hour.) “Even a non-police officer, just a clerical position in a city department, is earning more money in salary—let alone salary plus benefits—than somebody whom we are asking to go out under bridges and work with people who have had years of being brutalized in this world,” Eisinger says.

I’ll have a lot more to say about specific budget proposals over the coming weeks as the city council digs into the details in a series of budget briefings that start on Wednesday, but for now, here are a few more highlights from the mayor’s proposal:

• Durkan’s proposed budget does not include any additional funding for a supervised consumption site (mobile or permanent); instead, it simply pushes $1.3 million that was supposed to fund a place for users to consume their drug of choice under medical supervision, with access to wound care, treatment, and case management forward into this year’s budget. Durkan said Monday that the city would not move forward with supervised consumption site until Durkan is “sure [that King County is] still willing to step up and fund the treatment portion of” a supervised consumption site. Activists, including at least one mother who had lost her son to a heroin overdose, stood outside the Pioneer Square fire station, where Durkan delivered her budget speech, protesting the fact that Durkan’s budget calls for continued inaction on safe consumption sites. It has been more than two years now since a King County task force unanimously recommended supervised consumption as part of a holistic strategy for tackling addiction to heroin and other drugs, the rest of which is slowly being implemented and funded. 

Marlys McConnell, whose son Andrew died of an accidental heroin overdose in January 2015, was wearing a “Silence=Death” t-shirt and holding up the right side of a large banner that read, “Overdose is killing a generation. Is it time to act yet, Mayor Durkan?” She said a safe consumption site could have helped diminish the shame her son felt about his own addiction, which he tried to hide from his family. “Had there been a space available for him, I would very much hope that he could have gone and taken advantage of it and been treated with love and respect and dignity. That could have been a bridge to treatment and other services early on.” McConnell is aware of the argument that safe consumption sites enable drug users to continue in their active addiction, but says, “You don’t get [recovery] ’til you get it.”

• Durkan said she would not support selling off more public land to pay for city budget priorities, as the city has done in the past. (The sale of land in South Lake Union funded new shelter beds and “tiny house village” encampments, as well as a rental-assistance program—all part of the nearly $20 million in services that this year’s budget proposal makes permanent.) The city has put its largest remaining property in South Lake Union, the so-called “Mercer Megablock,” on the market, but Durkan said the city would strongly prefer leasing the property long-term under a master lease to selling it outright. Affordable housing advocates have suggested that the city hang on to the property and use it to build high-rise affordable housing. Noble told me that nothing technically bars the city from using at least some of the land for affordable housing (either city-owned or built by a nonprofit housing provider); however, he noted that because the Seattle Department of Transportation used restricted gas-tax funds to pay for some of the Mercer Corridor Project, which used part of the megablock for construction staging, the city has to pay back SDOT (a cost that could account for about 40 percent of the proceeds from the property) before it can start building anything or funding other projects on the property. The city also has taken out significant debt on the future proceeds from the sale of the megablock site, which would also have to be repaid. Finally, high-rise housing is generally much more expensive (and therefore less appropriate for affordable housing) than low-rise, because it involves glass and steel, although advances in technology are slowly making high-rise affordable housing more feasible.

• Durkan’s budget is mostly silent on the question of the over-budget Center City Streetcar (currently stalled so city consultants can determine whether the city should finish building the downtown connector or cut its losses), but it does include about $9 million in funds over two years to help operate the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars. Previously, the city had backfilled streetcar revenue shortfalls periodically as revenues consistently fell short of projections. The new budget pays for those anticipated shortfalls up front. “We’re trying to be more upfront and honest about what it’s costing for the streetcar so that we won’t continue to run in the red and having to incur the debts that we’ve seen” in the past, Durkan said.

• The transportation budget is otherwise a mixed bag for transit proponents. It includes $1 million to pay for an expanded study of congestion pricing (as currently conceived, a toll for people who want to drive into the center city during certain hours); funds new investments in adaptive signal technology, which Durkan touted as a solution for slow and delayed buses but which the National Association of City Transportation Officials says “can result in a longer cycle length that degrades multi-modal conditions” and is best for moving cars in suburban areas; and proposes asking the legislature to change state law barring the city from using traffic cameras to enforce rules against blocking bike and bus lanes. “Right now, you have to have an actual officer come over and pull them over,” Durkan said—an expensive proposition. The budget also eliminates funding for the “Play Streets” pilot program, which permanently activated some street right-of-way for active (non-car) use, and cuts funding for any new “Pavement to Parks” projects, “takes underused streets and creates public spaces for community use on a year-round, daily basis,” according to the budget.

• The proposed budget moves almost half a million dollars from parks department spending on the city’s four golf courses into the separate capital budget as a “bridge solution” for an ongoing revenue shortfall. Although the city recently invested in improvements to its golf courses—hoping that better facilities, along with higher fees, would bring in more revenue—that hasn’t panned out, and the city has hired a consultant to evaluate the program. Asked why the golf courses aren’t penciling out the way the city had hoped, Noble said that it may be that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least some of the city’s golf courses and using them as sites for affordable housing.

The city council begins hearings on the mayor’s budget this week; a full schedule of budget meetings is available on the city’s website.

Buses May Leave Downtown Tunnel for Surface Streets As Soon as March 2019

Dozens of buses per hour may move from downtown transit tunnel and onto surface streets as soon as next March, thanks to an amendment  adopted by the city council’s transportation committee on Tuesday. The amendment, proposed by council member Rob Johnson, alters legislation vacating several public alleys for the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center,  which will require buses to move from the tunnel onto surface streets sometime next year. Johnson’s amendment, which passed 4-3, struck language that would have barred the convention center  from kicking buses out of the tunnel until September 2019, which bill sponsor Mike O’Brien said was intended to give the city and King County Metro more time to implement transit improvements downtown. The amended legislation would allow the developers to evict buses from the tunnel as early as March 2019,  adding 40 more buses  to downtown streets in each direction during rush hour. (March and September were the two possibilities because those are the months when Metro implements its service updates.)

Although a group of Seattle Department of Transportation and council staffers warned committee members that the city and  county might not be able to implement all the improvements they need to make by March, Johnson countered that it was time to “hold SDOT’s feet to the fire on getting some of these transit pathways up and running in a more aggressive timeline.” If the council gives SDOT an additional six months, he added, they are likely to take it. Johnson also echoed comments made earlier by convention center developer Matt Griffin about the need to avoid unnecessary delays that could increase the cost of the project and forestall job creation and affordable housing construction.

On Tuesday, O’Brien argued that adding so many buses to surface streets in March will result in unnecessary traffic chaos at a time—known as the “period of maximum constraint”—when downtown streets will be most impacted by various downtown construction projects, including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the opening of the new  tunnel on the downtown waterfront. March 2019, he added, may be an unrealistic deadline for the city and county to coordinate and complete all the improvements planned as part of the delayed One Center City project, including the implementation of off-board payment for all buses that travel on Third Avenue and the reconfiguration of Fifth and Sixth Avenues for buses, which will require new bus lanes and tricky signal timing changes.

“Next March, I think we’re all going to wish we had six more months of buses operating in the tunnel,” O’Brien said. “Even with buses operating in the tunnel, we’re going to have some major chaos on the streets downtown. … We’ll survive. The city won’t end. But I think it’s going to be a real mess.”

Contacted after the vote, Johnson said he isn’t convinced that the “period of maximum constraint” will be as cataclysmic as some of his colleagues, and SDOT, seem to think. As evidence, he points to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carried 120,000 cars a day as recently as 2009, when the city, county, and state signed an agreement to build a four-lane bypass tunnel and a wide surface Alaskan Way to replace the aging bridge that spans the downtown waterfront. At the time, advocates for building a bigger tunnel or rebuilding the viaduct said the number of cars driving through downtown would only grow. Instead, the number has steadily shrunk—to just over 90,000 in 2016, according to Johnson.

“I’m cognizant of the doomsday period of maximum constraint that everyone’s talking about, but also, I look at downtown, with its 24-plus lanes going north-south, and I think, that’s plenty of capacity, if we could just do a better job at managing that capacity,” Johnson said. “I get frustrated by the delay of projects that could have real benefits for transit pathways. I  really want to light a fire under SDOT to make some of these projects happen and not just take as long as we give them to do it.”

O’Brien says it’s unfair to lay every delay at SDOT’s feet; in the case of implementing off-board payment for buses on Third Avenue, for example, King County Metro is equally responsible.  “The frustrating thing for me is that Rob is just saying, ‘We think SDOT needs to work harder,’ and I’m like, Our experts just showed up and said we can’t do it in six months. And Rob is just saying, ‘You better.’

“This is all in the context of the new tunnel and tolling and rebuilding Alaskan Way. It’s not like SDOT just has nothing going on,” O’Brien says.

On Tuesday, the developer, Griffin, suggested that if the city allows buses to stay in the tunnel until September, it will result in costly delays, the elimination of tens of thousands of “bed hours” in affordable housing his firm has agreed to build as part of its deal with the city, and could potentially scuttle the project. O’Brien says that when Griffin made that last claim, he thought, “we’re outside [the realm of] rational thought—now you’re just making threats.”  He added: “Matt’s a powerful guy who has some influence about other things that other people care about.”

Griffin gave the maximum contribution, $700, to Johnson’s 2015 campaign, and contributed $10,000 that year to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC, which was the largest contributor (at $46,500) to an independent expenditure campaign supporting Johnson. Griffin did not contribute to O’Brien’s campaign.

There’s still another situation, by the way, in which the convention center could be forced to let buses stay in the tunnel until September of next year: The legislation the committee adopted requires the convention center developer to obtain all its construction permits by July 1 of this year; if that doesn’t happen, buses must stay in the tunnel until September 2019.

The full council is scheduled to vote on the convention center street vacation agreement today at 2:00.

 

Should Amazon Cover Costs of Intern Bus Crowding?

This story originally ran in Seattle Magazine.

Last month the Seattle Times reported that hundreds of new Amazon interns, each wearing identical company-issued black backpacks, are crowding out other commuters on King County Metro’s Route 70. The overcrowded buses, which forced drivers to skip some stops when full, led Metro to take the unusual step of adding service to the route for the rest of the summer without the extensive public process that typically informs long-term service increases.

Metro service development manager Bill Bryant says the bus agency routinely provides extra service for special events, like Pride or the Women’s March, and temporary disruption such as the periodic closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. “We really do not want to see any situation where specific trips on a route are passing customers by on a regular basis,” he says. “We received multiple reports that people were getting passed by [on Route 70], and we decided to pull the trigger.”

According to Metro spokesman Scott Gutierrez, about 400 more people than usual were riding Route 70 when Metro decided to add service. The current uptick in service during morning rush hour—two extra buses between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m.—is costing Metro about $3,600 a week.

Shefali Ranganathan, director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition, says the “bottom-line question is, should Metro explore a broader partnership with Amazon where Amazon buys service hours from Metro” to mitigate their impact on the system. “Maybe this is something [Metro] should approach not just as a one-off [service improvement] but as a broader partnership that would benefit Amazon and the broader community, which is what Microsoft does,” Ranganathan says.

There’s precedent for this: Back in 2012, Amazon paid for the South Lake Union streetcar to run more frequently, although that money was compensation for land the city gave Amazon to expand its South Lake Union campus.

Microsoft, somewhat controversially, has given its workers a way to opt out of the public transit system entirely by creating a private option, the Microsoft Connector, which has grown into the largest private regional bus system in the nation. Since last year, Amazon has offered its own limited shuttle service, called Amazon Ride, which runs four shuttle buses between the company’s two main campuses in South Lake Union and the University District. The company also spends $12 million on ORCA transit passes for its employees.

Of course, Amazon’s expansion in the city isn’t limited to a few hundred summer interns. Earlier this year, the company announced that it was hiring 100,000 new U.S. employees by mid-2018, and advertised more than 9,000 new job openings in Seattle. Most of those new jobs will be in South Lake Union, meaning that the pressure on Metro service will only grow. “The growth in South Lake Union, just across the board, continues,” Bryant says. “The choice to add service to keep customers moving and to prevent pass-bys is not a hard choice for us.”

As a transit agency charged with getting cars off the roads, Metro wants to make sure all those new customers keep coming back to use its service, rather than giving up and driving to work alone. But Metro has also made a commitment, through its service guidelines, to serve low-income and minority communities, such as Southeast Seattle. When Metro decides where to add service during its twice-annual service adjustment process, it looks not just at demand but at how well the system is serving the goal of racial equity.

A few tens of thousands of dollars shifted over to South Lake Union over the summer may not sound like much. But if Amazon’s growth creates the demand for permanent shifts in service, that could put Metro in the position of choosing between racial equity and full buses passing people by.

Amazon, which provided information on its existing shuttle service through a spokesman, did not respond to a request for information about any plans to expand its shuttle service. Although the company confirmed that it is actively working with Metro to plan for increased ridership from the UW to South Lake Union, Bryant says “we haven’t had any significant conversations with Amazon about significantly increasing their shuttle service.”

Relief and Skepticism Over Seattle’s Closed-Door Waterfront Settlement

Earlier this afternoon, the city council approved a settlement in a lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Pioneer Square over the city’s plans to build an eight-lane highway on the waterfront. 

I wrote about the settlement, which took place behind closed doors and with no input from transit or pedestrian advocates, on the blog in March. This story, which takes a broader look at what the settlement will mean for the waterfront once the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down, appeared in the June issue of Seattle Magazine

This past march, Leslie Smith found herself in an unusual position.

For years, Smith, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, had criticized the City of Seattle for its plan to build what she describes as a “nine-lane highway” on Seattle’s waterfront, near the downtown ferry terminal, after the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down. Instead of expanding the roadway, Smith had supported a proposal to move most of the 600 buses that use the Alaskan Way Viaduct off the waterfront and onto streets in neighboring SoDo (including S Lander Street, and First and Fourth Avenues), to enable the city to make do with a narrower roadway on the waterfront.

Smith has been one of the most vocal critics of the project. As the leader of a group whose mission includes promoting tourism in Pioneer Square, she spent years trying to convince city leaders that the planned 102-foot-wide roadway would cut off Pioneer Square from downtown, defeating one of the stated purposes of the tunnel project: to better connect the city with its waterfront.

In November, after spending nearly three years cajoling, testifying and negotiating with the city, Smith’s organization appealed the city’s environmental impact statement for the project. The legal challenge wasn’t in itself unusual. Plenty of groups have complained about the city’s plans for rebuilding the downtown waterfront. Part of the reason for this width is that the new tunnel will be two lanes narrower than the current viaduct, and won’t include any downtown exits. As a result, the new surface Alaskan Way will function much like a regional highway, with as many as eight lanes for buses, freight traffic and cars (plus an extra lane in some places for parking). What made Smith and the alliance’s case unusual is what happened next: Instead of fighting back, the city settled, striking a closed-door deal, with a private organization that will determine how thousands of Seattle residents and visitors experience the waterfront for decades to come.

The city’s Office of the Waterfront—along with King County Metro and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)—agreed to narrow the road to 79 feet, eliminating the two transit lanes when the West Seattle light rail station opens in 2033, reducing the need for most bus routes between downtown and West Seattle. Until then, Smith agreed to accept the 102-foot-wide roadway as originally planned, with lanes for general traffic, parking and ferry queues, plus those 600 buses, which will run in transit-only lanes.

“We actually have come up with what we think is kind of an elegant solution to what will be a pretty wide roadway for another decade,” Smith says.
In the settlement, Metro agrees to run no more than 195 buses a day on the new Alaskan Way surface street after light rail opens. The tunnel is scheduled to open to traffic in 2019, and the waterfront project, including the roadway, will open three years later. And the ultra-wide road will stand between Pioneer Square and the waterfront for about a decade.

To understand how this settlement came to be, it helps to know a little history. When the city and state agreed to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel with no downtown exits, that created a problem: how to accommodate transit, freight and general traffic—including the cars lining up for the ferry terminal—as well as bicyclists and pedestrians, all on a surface street.

Smith supported moving Metro buses to SoDo, eliminating the need for transit lanes on the waterfront. Transit advocates and King County Metro rejected that idea, noting that those rerouted buses would have to contend with more than 20 traffic lights. The city agreed to two transit lanes.

Meanwhile, the Port of Seattle insisted on two travel lanes for freight, rejecting a proposal that its trucks share the transit lanes with buses. The city agreed to two general-purpose travel lanes. And Washington State Ferries insisted on two ferry queuing lanes. The city agreed to two ferry queuing lanes, and two northbound turn lanes for drivers headed for Colman Dock.

That, more or less, is how the city ended up with a 100-foot-wide roadway right next to Pioneer Square, cutting off the historic district from the waterfront as surely as the Alaskan Way Viaduct has since 1953.

Sitting in the vast conference room of a Fifth Avenue building that overlooks the Viaduct itself in the distance, Marshall Foster, director of the city’s Office of the Waterfront, says, “The issues with the width of the road aren’t lost on anyone.” Mayor Ed Murray established the office in early 2014 to oversee the redesign of the downtown waterfront once the Viaduct comes down.

“The fundamental reason that we’re in this awkward place, I think, is that we’re [experiencing] growing pains as a city,” Foster continues. “We’re in the middle of this big transit transition, where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough” to have light rail and buses integrate seamlessly, leading to an awkward 10-year period when they don’t.

Transit advocates aren’t thrilled with the settlement. Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of the pro-transit nonprofit group Transportation Choices Coalition, had hoped for a compromise that would allow buses to stay on the waterfront while also narrowing the roadway, calming traffic and making it safer for pedestrians. She also says she had expected to be at the table when the fate of the waterfront was being decided.

“I just find it really strange that an important public decision is being made with this sideways approach of a legal challenge, where the only stakeholders are government agencies and the person challenging the environmental impact statement,” Ranganathan says.

Ranganathan also questions the assumptions Metro made in preemptively limiting the growth of transit service on the waterfront to 195 buses a day. “We don’t know what transit use will look like 10 years from now,” she says. “We see transit ridership growing at a record pace, and to limit ourselves 15 years into the future based on expectations around buses now seems short-sighted.”

Similarly, Ranganathan questions the ferry system’s claim that it will always need two queuing lanes, no matter how demand for passenger ferry service or electronic reservation technology evolves.

Victor Obeso, Metro’s deputy general manager, says the transit agency is “comfortable” with its agreement to never run more than 195 buses a day along the waterfront once the West Seattle light rail station opens. “Based on our planning assumptions, we think we can live within the [limit of] 195 in the future,” Obeso says.

There are a lot of “ifs” built into this plan. The first big one is that this roadway narrowing project is contingent on a successful negotiating process between the port, Metro, WSDOT, the city, and Pioneer Square property owners and tenants. The agreement stipulates that beginning in the late 2020s—before the West Seattle light rail station opens—these groups will spend five years working together to decide what the roadway will look like once light rail is up and running, according to the agreement.

The second is that conditions on the waterfront could change significantly over the next 10 to 15 years, in ways planners today may be unable to anticipate.

Smith, now in her 60s, acknowledges that over time, someone else might need to fight to ensure that the agreement is implemented. “But I also have a signed agreement. It’s pretty airtight.” She says she doesn’t regret filing the challenge, or fighting for her vision for the waterfront, but she’s glad it’s over. “I think it wasn’t a bad thing that I filed. If I hadn’t appealed, I’d have a nine-lane road forever.”

Deal Reached in Waterfront Highway Lawsuit: Build 102-Foot Highway Now, Narrow It When Light Rail Opens

THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED, with comments from King County Metro and Transportation Choices Coalition.

The Alliance for Pioneer Square has reached a settlement with the city, county, and state in its lawsuit seeking to stop the construction of a 100-foot-wide, 8-to-9-lane roadway on the waterfront in Pioneer Square, The C Is for Crank has learned.

The settlement stipulates that the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will be able to build the 102-foot-wide surface highway as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, with lanes for transit, general traffic, parking, and ferry queues, on the condition that once Sound Transit opens its light rail station in West Seattle in 2033 and Metro no longer needs to run RapidRide buses from West Seattle to downtown, the city will narrow the surface Alaskan Way by eliminating the transit lanes and replacing them with new sidewalks, landscaping, or parking lanes. That will eventually bring the roadway down from 102 feet at its widest point, between S Washington St. and Yesler Way, to 79 feet. In the settlement, Metro agrees to run no more than 195 buses a day on the Alaskan Way surface street after light rail opens. The tunnel is supposed to open to traffic in 2019, and the waterfront project, including the roadway, is scheduled to open three years later, meaning that the ultra-wide road will stand between Pioneer Square and the waterfront for about ten years.

According to the settlement, which came in response to the Alliance’s appeal of the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement on the waterfront reconstruction project,

Within fifteen (15) months of the opening of the Alaska Junction station of Sound Transit Light Rail service to West Seattle, the City will retrofit SR 519/Alaskan Way between Yesler Way and South King Street to narrow Alaskan Way by eliminating the transit lane on each side of Alaskan Way, and converting the area of the former transit lane to sidewalks, landscaping, and on-street parking.

“What we have agreed to is that I’m going to quit complaining about 600 buses a day and a 9-lane highway, and when light rail gets to West Seattle, they’re going to come back and make the road narrower, so that in the interim we are accommodating the transportation needs of a rapidly changing city, and in the future we will be more accommodating of the pedestrian and bicycling needs of the waterfront and the historic district,” Alliance for Pioneer Square director Leslie Smith says.

“What we have agreed to is that I’m going to quit complaining about 600 buses a day and a 9-lane highway, and when light rail gets to West Seattle, they’re going to come back and make the road narrower.” – Leslie Smith, Alliance for Pioneer Square

The debate over the surface street dates back to the mid-2000s, when a group called the the People’s Waterfront Coalition argued that Seattle should follow in the footsteps of progressive cities like San Francisco and tear down its waterfront highway—without replacing it. Thanks in part to state traffic modeling that assumed (incorrectly, it turned out) that the number of people driving downtown in single-occupant vehicles would increase indefinitely, that plan was rejected, and Seattle ended up getting not just a downtown tunnel, but a costly deep-bore tunnel with no downtown exits that is currently four years years late and $23 million over budget.

With the tunnel mostly off limits to transit and freight, the city, state, Port, and Metro had to figure out how to accommodate transit, freight, bikes, and pedestrians, along with cars lining up for the ferry terminal and general-purpose traffic, on the surface. No one was willing to budge on their demands—not Washington State Ferries, which insisted that it needed two car queueing lanes on Alaskan Way, not Metro, which argued that putting buses in general traffic would slow down the system from White Center to Ballard, and not the Port, which dismissed suggestions that it share a lane with transit, arguing that 18-wheelers shouldn’t be stuck behind buses that stop every couple of blocks. And that, more or less, is how the city ended up with a 100-foot-wide highway right next to Pioneer Square, cutting off the historic district from the waterfront as surely as the Alaskan Way Viaduct has since 1953.

“The issues with the width of the road aren’t lost on anyone,” Office of the Waterfront director Marshall Foster said Friday. Sitting in a vast conference room on Fifth Avenue that looks over downtown construction and, far away, the viaduct itself, Foster said the city has “worked for years to keep it as narrow as possible, [but] with the viaduct coming down, we have to not only deal with just the basic background traffic that we know will have to operate in that corridor,” but all the surface freight traffic through downtown, 600 buses carrying nearly 30,000 people a day, and hundreds of cars that line up for the ferry terminal at Colman Dock every afternoon (585 a day, according to the EIS.)

“We’re in the middle of this big transit transition where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough.” – Marshall Foster, director, Seattle Office of the Waterfront

“The fundamental reason that we’re in this awkward place, I think, is that we’re in the middle of growing pains as a city,” Foster continued. “We’re in the middle of this big transit transition where we’re bringing on a huge volume of transit service, but we’re struggling to do it fast enough.”

I asked Nicole Macintosh, director of terminal engineering for Washington State Ferries, why the ferry division couldn’t use a reservation system, like the one it  just implemented in the San Juan Islands and Port Townsend, to reduce the number of cars that need to line up on the waterfront. Macintosh said “we don’t have the funding yet to bring the reservation system down to the more core car commuter routes, like Seattle, but I can tell you that with that reservation system we would definitely need two lanes”—one for people with reservations, and one for people who just drive up. What about running more passenger ferries? Macintosh said that would require a change in state law, and reminded me that the ferries are considered part of the state highway system—an objection Foster acknowledges, but also chalks up to “a cultural thing” within WSDOT that could be shifting. Macintosh also rejected the notion that some of the free parking that WSDOT provides to dock workers at Colman Dock itself—about 55 spaces in all—could be used as ferry queuing space, saying that the parking spaces are mostly in “unusable” areas of the dock.

Transit advocates weren’t thrilled when Smith filed her lawsuit challenging the waterfront plan, because Smith’s original proposed mitigation plan involved moving buses bound for downtown from West Seattle off the waterfront and onto S. Lander Street, where they’d have to traverse more than 20 traffic lights. “I just find it really strange that an important public decision is being made through this sideways approach of a legal challenge where the only stakeholders are government agencies and the person challenging the [environmental impact statement],” Transportation Choices Coalition director Shefali Ranganathan, who did not receive prior notice that the Alliance had reached an agreement with the city, county, and state, said Monday that she was disappointed that stakeholders like TCC hadn’t been involved in the settlement discussions, which she called “mysterious.”

“I was hoping for something that would bring our heads together, and this process limits that type of collaboration,” Ranganathan said Monday.

Ranganathan also questions the assumptions Metro made in preemptively limiting the growth of transit service on the waterfront to 195 buses a day. “I just don’t understand how we are making commitments about transit capacity so far into the future,” she says. “We don’t know what transit use will look like 10 years from now. Maybe Link [light rail] will be able to take all this capacity, maybe it won’t.  We see transit ridership growing at a record pace, and to limit ourselves 15 years into the future based on expectations around buses seems short-sighted.” Similarly, Ranganathan questions the ferry system’s claim that it will always need two queuing lanes, no matter how demand for passenger ferry service or electronic reservation technology evolves in the future. “The ferry system is going to change and adapt to the needs of its users, and that’s going to include how people access that facility, she says.

Victor Obeso, Metro’s deputy general manager, says the transit agency is “comfortable” with its agreement to never run more than 195 buses a day along the waterfront once the West Seattle light rail station opens. “Based on our planning assumptions, we think we can live within the [limit of] 195 in the future,” Obeso says. “Once rail is extended out to West Seattle, as we’ve done with every segment of rail so far, we would take full advantage of the capacity and speed of rail.”

Ferry queue traffic projection

There are a lot of ifs built into this plan. The first big one is that this roadway narrowing project—the first one in Seattle that Smith, a lifelong resident, can remember—is contingent on a successful five-year process involving the Port, WSDOT, the Alliance, the city, and Pioneer Square property owners and tenants, who are supposed to spend five years working together to decide what the post-light rail roadway will look like. That proposal will then have to be approved by a future city council and King County Councils, which are not legally bound to do what the settlement suggests. Smith, now in her 60s, acknowledges that “Yes, 10 or 12 years from now, somebody else may have to fight this the way I have fought it. But I also have a signed agreement. It’s pretty airtight.”

In addition, the proposal is still probably not enough to address many of the objections raised by the Transportation Choices Coalition, Feet First, and Cascade Bicycle Club in their letter commenting on the draft environmental impact statement last year. At 102 feet, the Pioneer Square section of the new Alaskan Way will be as wide as the reconstructed Mercer Ave. in South Lake Union—a vast, foreboding stretch of barren concrete that is a textbook example of pedestrian-hostile street planning—for a decade. And narrowing this short section, assuming it happens, still won’t address the fundamental issue at the heart of those groups’ objections—that widening roadways induces demand, leading to “immediate growth of vehicle miles traveled on a corridor.”

Smith, for her part, says she doesn’t regret filing the challenge, but she’s glad it’s over. “It took a series of long and very painful conversations” to get to a settlement, she says, but “I think it wasn’t a bad thing that I filed. If I hadn’t appealed, I’d have a nine-lane road forever.”

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