Morning Crank: A “Bike Lane” Gone Wild

 

SDOT’s revised bus mobility estimates, which dial back sharply on RapidRide promises

1. On Thursday night, the Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee got a few new details about the “reset” the Seattle Department of Transportation is proposing for the $930 million Move Seattle levy, which will fail to meet most of its goals for pedestrian, bike, and transit projects due to cost overruns and a lack of anticipated federal funding.

I first wrote about the “reset” in early April, when I reported that “The ‘reset’ will likely mean significant cuts to some of the projects that were promised in the levy, particularly those that assumed high levels of federal funding, such as seven proposed new RapidRide lines, which were supposed to get more than half their funding ($218 million) from the feds. “They’re calling it a ‘reset,’ but I don’t know what that means,” says city council transportation committee chairman Mike O’Brien.  “It’s not terribly encouraging.” Additionally, O’Brien says, “costs have gone up significantly in the last few years because of the pace of the economy,” making capital projects, in particular, more expensive than the city bargained for.

The Seattle Times covered the story a few weeks later, noting that when SDOT presented its initial report on the shortfall to the levy oversight committee, the agency “gave no actual numbers or estimates of the size of the funding shortfall.” The city was counting on about $564 million in federal funds to leverage the $930 million in local tax dollars in the levy, but much of that funding has since fallen through or remains in doubt.

The report presented last night gives a better, though still incomplete, sense of what the likely shortfall will look like, and how the city is proposing to scale back the projects it promised. It also, importantly, represents a point of view about both what type of projects are important and what the city assumes about the future. The “reset” plan, if implemented, will undoubtedly make life easier for SDOT. But there will be a cost in lost goodwill among the communities that eagerly campaigned for, and voted for, Move Seattle, including bike and pedestrian advocacy groups that have already been burned by a department willing to (mis)characterize a curb-to-curb street rebuild on Second Avenue as a “bike lane” gone wild.

Under the revised Move Seattle plan, pedestrian, and bus priority-related projects will take the biggest hits, while repaving of arterial streets to enhance the physical travel experience of “all people in cars, trucks, and buses” will see the least dramatic cuts. That’s also a choice. SDOT could have invested more heavily in mobility projects for non-vehicular users (or bus riders, for that matter) or chosen not to require the bike mobility program, for example, to pay for non-bike-related improvements such as new traffic signals for cars. (Seriously, read Tom Fucoloro’s report on this, which breaks down the reasons “$12 million for a bike lane” is a canard).

Some highlights from the new report:

• Protected bike lanes and greenways—the gold standard for bike lanes, because they separate riders from cars and make it easier for people at a ride variety of skill levels to bike safely—are more expensive (between $650,000 and $2 million a mile) than simply painting a stripe on the ground. With an estimated shortfall of $36 million, SDOT is recommending that many proposed PBLs and greenways be replaced “using lower-cost design treatments (i.e. paint striping and posts in lieu of concrete curbs) to deliver the maximum amount of bicycle network connectivity.”

• Sidewalk construction, as David Gutman of the Seattle Times has reported, will be scaled back. Specifically, according to yesterday’s update, the city thinks it will have to build the 250 blocks of new sidewalks it promised in 2015 through a combination of traditional concrete sidewalks with curb ramps and “low-cost sidewalks” that use materials such as stamped  concrete and asphalt to cut down on the cost of materials.

• The seven new RapidRide corridors promised in the original Move Seattle plan are, as expected, unlikely to happen, thanks to a funding shortfall SDOT now estimates at $130 million. Instead of making the capital improvements that would be required to extend RapidRide to Southeast Seattle, Delridge, and the Central District, the city may instead make small improvements such as consolidating (eliminating) bus stops, dedicating some existing lanes to buses, and “upgrades to bus stops, boarding platforms and pedestrian crossing features.”

• The city believes it will still be able to meet its original goal of repaving up to 180 lane-miles on arterial streets—a $235 million line item in the original $930 million levy—by “deferring higher-cost reconstruction projects” and repaving some new streets with asphalt, rather than more-expensive (and longer-lasting) concrete.

2. Back in April, the Seattle Public Library system decided to install sharps containers in the restrooms at several branches in response to an uptick in improper needle disposal by injection drug users. The decision represented a 180-degree reversal in policy for the library. Back in March, after a custodial workers was jabbed by a needle while changing the trash in the women’s restroom at the Ballard branch, library spokeswoman Andra Addison told me that installing sharps disposal containers would be tantamount to condoning illegal drug use. Drug users, Addison added, might pull the containers off the wall and break into them to get at the needles inside, causing “a big mess.”

Earlier this month, the library sent out an update on how the pilot program is performing. (I obtained the report through a public records request). The report covers four weeks between April 6 and May 4. During those weeks, visitors to the Ballard, Capitol Hill, University, and Central library branch restrooms deposited 179 needles in the 14 sharps containers installed at those four locations—a number that is slightly skewed by a bag of 50 unused needles that was dropped in a container at the Capitol Hill branch.

Interestingly, given that Addison initially said that the library had considered installing sharps containers but decided that “we really just don’t have a need for” them, library staffers reported picking up improperly discarded used needles at branches across the system throughout the same period, including branches that did not get sharps containers. Systemwide, library workers picked up 112 improperly discarded needles during the pilot period, including a total of 50 between the Ballard, Capitol Hill, and University branches. There’s no control data to compare those collection numbers to, but it’s a fair assumption that if there were no sharps disposal containers at those four branches, that number would include the 179 needles that were left in the boxes, demonstrating not only that the Seattle Public Library does have a major problem with people discarding used needles on library property, but that the containers are working. Other branches where staffers found a significant number of needles lying around include Broadview (18), Fremont (11), and Greenwood (9).

Read the full update from the library here.

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Morning Crank: A “Reset” for Move Seattle

1. The Seattle Department of Transportation and the Durkan administration will soon propose what is being called a “reset” for Move Seattle, the $930 million levy that passed in 2015, to reflect the reality that the federal funding that the city assumed would be available for many of the projects has not come through from the Trump Administration, as well as increased cost estimates for some projects on the levy list.

The “reset” will likely mean significant cuts to some of the projects that were promised in the levy, particularly those that assumed high levels of federal funding, such as seven proposed new RapidRide lines, which were supposed to get more than half their funding ($218 million) from the feds. “They’re calling it a ‘reset,’ but I don’t know what that means,” says city council transportation committee chairman Mike O’Brien.  “It’s not terribly encouraging.” Additionally, O’Brien says, “costs have gone up significantly in the last few years because of the pace of the economy,” making capital projects, in particular, more expensive than the city bargained for.

The City Budget Office and the Seattle Department of Transportation are still having conversations about what the cuts might look like, but according to multiple current and former city staffers familiar with the situation, one possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be dramatically scaled back, but not eliminated entirely. A third possibility is that some projects could be delayed until a future levy (or Presidential administration) or paid for with other funding sources .Move Seattle taxes will be collected through 2024. The mayor and SDOT are expected to release details of the “reset” in the several weeks.

One possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be scaled back, but not eliminated entirely.  

The city was counting on about $564 million in federal funds to leverage the $930 million in local tax dollars in the voter-approved levy, but since the 2016 election, all bets are off. (Seattle’s sanctuary city status has prompted several threats from the Trump Administration to withhold federal grant funding from the city.)  SDOT has not released a 2017 financial report for Move Seattle, so it’s difficult to say how much federal money came in during the first full year under the new federal regime, but in 2016, the city received and spent just $16.3 million in federal funds on Move Seattle projects—a tiny fraction of that $564 million total. I have requested the 2017 spending report for Move Seattle from SDOT and will update this post if I receive it.

The projects on this list that could be particularly at risk for cuts include those that rely heavily on federal funding, including not just the seven RapidRide lines but bridge safety improvements, pedestrian safety projects, and sidewalks in neighborhoods that don’t currently have them. The percentage of federal funds assumed for each category of projects ranges from none to 86.7 percent.

“We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.” – Council member Rob Johnson  

It’s a particularly inopportune time for more bad news from SDOT. Last week, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was putting the Center City Streetcar on “pause” because of dramatic cost overruns, and earlier this week, Durkan announced that the city would delay a long-planned protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle until 2021, when the Northgate light rail station opens, ostensibly to avoid eliminating motorized traffic lanes on Fourth during the upcoming “period of maximum constraint” downtown. Interim SDOT director Goran Sparrman got an earful about the delayed bike safety improvements from both O’Brien and council member (and former Transportation Choices Coalition director) Rob Johnson during his presentation on the One Center City plan earlier this week; Johnson said that one of his “frustrations” was that although the city says it prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders over cars, its actions downtown have done exactly the opposite. “It’s not just that we aren’t dedicating enough of the center city to bicycle facilities, but ditto on the transit side of things, Goran,” Johnson said. “We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.”

2. On Wednesday, with little fanfare, One Table—the 91-member work group tasked with coming up with recommendations to address the regional homelessness crisis—released its recommendations, in a nine-page document that includes no cost estimates, no funding proposals, and no timeline for implementing any of the ideas on the list. The city of Seattle’s progressive revenue task force, which recommended a tax on employers that could raise up to $75 million annually, has said that it would wait until One Table to release its recommendations before recommending additional taxes, with the ultimate goal of raising a total of $150 million a year.

The recommendations, which were released jointly by King County and the cities of Seattle and Auburn, are mostly familiar: Providing 5,000 units of affordable housing across the county over three years, by building new housing and by “increasing access to existing housing choices”; treatment on demand; financial assistance for housing, including short-term help for people in crisis; and increased investment in job programs for people at risk of homelessness. Since the list of “actions” doesn’t include any dollar amounts, it’s hard to assess how ambitious the proposal truly is, but 5,000 units in three years throughout King County (to say nothing of the three-county Puget Sound region) will house fewer than half of the 12,000 people living outdoors or in sanctioned encampments or shelters in King County alone. Job programs and homelessness prevention efforts will undoubtedly prevent some people from falling into homelessness and making that number even larger, but until it’s clear how the recommendations would cost and where the money would come from, it’s hard to say what impact the proposals will have, and whether One Table will live up to its promise to “best tackle this problem to ensure expansive and lasting solutions,” as Mayor Jenny Durkan put it when the work group held its first meeting in January.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Licata’s Move Seattle Alternative Isn’t Progressive

nl1City Council member Nick Licata, who’s retiring after his term ends at the end of this year, would like his legacy to include amending Move Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed $930 million transportation levy, to be smaller and less dependent on regressive property taxes.

Arguing that voters are approaching tax fatigue and that his alternative is more progressive than the mayor’s proposed property-tax levy, Licata has introduced amendments that would reduce the overall package by $100 million and cut the levy itself to $600 million, with the $230 million difference paid for through the commercial parking tax (which would increase from 12.5 to 17.5 percent) and an annual employee hours tax, paid by businesses, of $18 per employee.

He also proposed an amendment explicitly barring SDOT from spending any Move Seattle Money on streetcars, and another requiring the department to file annual reports showing how they’d spent levy dollars each year.

The cuts and substitutions, Licata said during a briefing on Move Seattle last Tuesday, would reduce the size of the average homeowner’s annual property tax bill to $179 in the first year, compared to the Murray option’s $275. It would also reshuffle the tax burden to employers in a way that appeals to the economic-lefty crowd (the bigger the company, the more it would pay), and to drivers in a way that appeals to the transportation-lefty crowd (drivers would pay more to maintain the roads they use).

Dig about an inch under the surface, however, and the Licata amendments are far less progressive—in both the economic and the political sense—than they appear.

Let’s start with that streetcar amendment. It reads, in its entirety, “None of the Levy Proceeds may be used to build or operate streetcars.” In other words (as an increasingly agitated SDOT director Scott Kubly pointed out last week), no matter how circumstances may change, or how priorities may evolve, or how much outside funding may become available, not a dime of the Move Seattle money could be used on streetcars for the nine-year duration of the levy.

This is no small prohibition.  Currently, Kubly noted, the city is finishing up the First Hill streetcar and may want to extend its northern terminus to Aloha in the future. Under the Licata amendment, the city would have no “flexibility to use the funds [for] the streetcar to have better access to light rail.” With per-mile ridership projected at about double what Link light rail is currently carrying, Kubly said, “This is a real transportation option. It’s not a toy.”

msLicata, a frequent rail opponent during his 18 years on the council, noted that Move Seattle currently includes no explicit references to streetcar, making it only logical to make the prohibition official. “This simply memorializes what was seen as the intent from the mayor,” Licata said. After a test back-and-forth with Kubly about whether the streetcar was or was not inherently a boondoggle, Licata concluded with a pretty cheap shot—”This is new information, that the levy’s intent is to build and operate a streetcar”—to which Kubly responded tersely, “That’s a mischaracterization of what I said.” Continue reading

Murray Releases Revised $930 Million Transportation Levy Proposal

I’ll have more to say about the latest iteration of the ever-costlier Move Seattle levy (Mayor Ed Murray says the tacked-on $30 million will come from higher revenues from new housing), but I wanted to throw up a quick side-by-side comparison of the two proposals. (Original proposal here; latest version here.) My initial reaction (other than frustration that Murray refuses to release the full details of any new proposal, opting instead for a standard-issue series of blue-and-black handouts), is that this is a good proposal with something for everyone that will inevitably be “right-sized” by a council that’s largely aligned with the mayor but scared of imposing a major property tax increase.

I could be wrong, but last I checked, $275 (the amount a typical homeowner would have to pay per year) is more than $130 (the expiring Bridging the Gap levy’s annual price tag). Readers desperate for sidewalks in their neighborhood at any cost may find charges of “tax fatigue” tiresome (I know I do), but this is a big tax increase, and the council (five of whom are running for reelection) will surely have something to say about that.

My other reaction is that this proposal leans heavily on neighborhood greenways and segregated bike lanes, potentially at the expense of safer bike facilities on streets that already have heavy bike traffic. The recent Metro bus collision that put a cyclist in the hospital with life-threatening injuries happened at an intersection (12th and Jackson) where cyclists from Mount Baker, Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, and many other parts of the city converge, and which may be even more dangerous now, with the streetcar tracks posing a new threat to cyclists.

Much the same could be said of high-bike-traffic intersections across the city. Yet the emphasis on neighborhood greenways (which were never meant to be major commuter corridors) could–and I say could, because the devil’s in the details of this still-somewhat-opaque proposal–come at the expense of streets that will always be filled with cyclists.

I have a call in to the mayor’s office for a more detailed project breakdown for the $930 million proposal.

Screen shot 2015-05-06 at 12.57.28 PM

Then…

 

... and now.

… and now.

 

Here are some other changes the new plan proposes:

• The new proposal reduces funding for maintaining and improving the city’s traffic signal, sign and marking system, reducing that line item from $67 million (with $20 million in additional leveraged funds*) to $37 million (with $7 million in leverage).

• It slightly reduces protected bike lane and greenway funding, which is down $2 million from $67 million; that money would pay for 50 miles of protected bike lanes and 60 miles of greenways.

• It includes an additional $1 million for curb ramp and crossing improvements.

• The proposal reduces funding to repave arterial streets by $20 million, from $255 million with $70 million in leverage to $235 million, with $50 million in leveraged funds, and reduces funds for repaving “targeted locations” (presumably this is the pothole line item) from $20 million to $15 million, with $5 million in projected leveraged funds for each level of funding. Even with reduced funding, the mayor’s proposal says the money would pay for the same amount of improvements—repaving “up to” 180 lane-miles of arterial streets (not the same thing as actual miles) and 65 targeted locations per year.

• Multimodal and “transit plus” improvements (i.e. RapidRide) get a bit more funding in the mayor’s latest plan—$100 million, compared to the original $75, with $246 million in leveraged dollars under each plan. The transit/”multimodal” improvements have been shuffled and consolidated in this latest plan, though, making it tough to tell how much was originally allocated for signal re-timing and “intelligent transportation system improvements,” for example (those items were lumped into larger categories in the original proposal) and whether the new numbers are an increase or a reduction.

• Sidewalks, the hottest topic at every council district forum, get more love under the latest plan, with $35 million in additional funding for sidewalks and improvements for streets without sidewalks, up to $61 million from the original $26 million (leveraged funds are the same under both expenditure levels, at $9 million).

• Neighborhood projects, vaguely defined, get $3 million more under this plan, with $26 million total compared to the initial $23.

• And South Park Broadview gets $8 million less for flood drainage.

Notice anything I missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@ericacbarnett).