Morning Crank: SDOT Will Help Fund Runner-Up’s Salary; Agency Gets Acting Director During Viaduct Closure

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1. Sam Zimbabwe, the incoming director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (pictured), won’t be able to start for several more weeks, so SDOT is getting another temporary director—current SDOT interim deputy director Kevin O’Neill, who will serve as acting director until Zimbabwe starts, most likely in February. The Alaskan Way Viaduct will be shut down for three weeks, starting this Friday, for the state to reroute SR99 into the new waterfront tunnel.

Since Durkan asked for the resignation of the last permanent transportation director, Scott Kubly, in December 2017, the department has had two interim directors—Goran Sparrman, who left the city for a job with the engineering firm HNTB, and Linea Laird, the former administrator for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project at the state department of transportation.

2. Last week, Durkan announced that she was hiring the runner-up for the SDOT position, retired Air Force general Mike Worden, to a “cabinet-level position” in her office, from which he will coordinate operations between city departments during the coming “period of maximum constraint,” when traffic into and through downtown will be impacted by a number of construction projects as well as the permanent viaduct closure.

When reporters asked Durkan last week whether Worden risked stepping on Zimbabwe’s toes (in addition to the new director, who Durkan has said will be in town this month to “help with the planning” for the viaduct closure, SDOT has a director of downtown mobility whose job encompasses “traffic management, transit investments, transportation demand management, right-of-way management, coordinated regional communications, planned infrastructure investments, strategic data, and metrics”), Durkan reiterated that Worden’s job involved many other agencies, not just SDOT.

But although the mayor’s office is trying to distance Worden from the department he originally applied to direct, his $195,000 salary will be paid, at least in part, by SDOT. Given that the mayor’s office is wedded to its talking point that Worden is not part of SDOT, the fact that SDOT dollars will fund his position in the mayor’s office seems a bit like adding an insult to a snub.

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Asked to confirm reports from several sources that SDOT would be footing the bill for Worden’s salary, mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg said the money would come from “braided funding” and that the exact dollar amounts that would come from various city departments hadn’t been determined yet.  Still, it hasn’t escaped notice inside city hall that the transportation department will be paying the salary of the man who didn’t get the top job, but got hired anyway, and who the mayor insists will not be looking over the new director’s shoulder.

3. Worden, who worked for defense contractor Lockheed Martin from 2010 to 2016 after retiring from the US Air Force, has reportedly instructed all city staffers to address him as “General,” which helps explain why not only Durkan but all her communications staffers consistently refer to him as “the general” or, in writing, as “the General.” City staffers say that Worden’s executive assistant has been meeting with employees to let them know that they should use the honorific when addressing or referring to him.

UPDATE: Late this morning, senior staff were reportedly told to tell their employees to begin addressing Worden as “Mike,” a reversal of the previous directive. I have a message out to the mayor’s office to find out when this decision was made, and why. In an email chain about Worden that began yesterday, a spokeswoman for the mayor shifted from referring to Worden as “the General” (last night) to “Mike” (this afternoon).

There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule on whether retired military officials should use their rank in a professional setting. They’re certainly allowed do so so (except in federal civil service jobs)‚ but many of the protocol and etiquette guides I found online caution against it, for obvious reasons: 1) It’s weird (and potentially intimidating) to pull rank in a non-military setting; and 2) no one wants to be that guy who got a Ph.D and now insists that everyone address him as “doctor.”

 

Morning Crank: If It Isn’t Anybody’s Job It Isn’t Anybody’s Job

Friends of the Waterfront Seattle chair Maggie Walker gives Mayor Jenny Durkan a medal at a press conference announcing an agreement on the waterfront funding plan yesterday.

1. Waterfront property owners have reached a deal with the city in a longstanding dispute over how much they will pay for improvements that are expected to dramatically increase their property values over time. The deal, which Mayor Jenny Durkan announced at the Seattle Aquarium yesterday, is essentially the one I described back in December: Property owners impacted by the one-time assessment, known as a Local Improvement District, will pay about 20 percent less than the city originally proposed—a total of $160 million, rather than $200 million, total—and, in exchange, will agree not to challenge their assessments. A nonprofit established to help fund and operate the waterfront, Friends of the Waterfront, will contribute $110 million to the project ($10 million more than originally planned), while the city will kick in an extra $25 million from commercial parking tax revenues, for a total city contribution of $249 million. The total waterfront budget will be reduced very slightly, from $717 million under the old plan to $712 million under the new one.

At Thursday’s press conference, Durkan said the city would pay for the additional $25 million by issuing additional bonds against the city’s existing commercial parking tax as existing bonds are retired. Besides requiring the Friends to come up with $110 million, the legislation Durkan will transmit to the city council tomorrow commits the city to spending $4.8 million a year (adjusted upward annually for inflation) on park operations and maintenance for the park, a catch-all term that includes the city’s contribution to security. That money would come from the existing parks levy (passed in 2014), the parking tax, and the city’s general fund. The legislation includes an emergency clause that allows the city to spend less on maintenance and security if general fund revenues decline in a future financial downturn.

2. The press conference included an awkward moment, when the mayor introduced Pike Place Market Public Development Authority council chair Rico Quirindongo (pictured, clapping, above), as Brian Surratt, the head of the city’s Office of Economic Development under former mayor Ed Murray, who also happens to be black but does not look like Quirindongo. After Quirindongo introduced himself and said a few words, Durkan returned to the mic and, without missing a beat, spelled his (actual) last name out loud for the press.

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3. Durkan also answered several questions about her decision to hire retired Air Force general Mike Worden, who was a runner-up for the Seattle Department of Transportation director position, as “mobility operations coordinator” during the “period of maximum constraint,” when mobility downtown will be pinched by several major projects around the center city, including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the construction of the Washington State Convention Center expansion, and the closure of the downtown transit tunnel to buses. Worden, whose career spans more than 30 years in the Air Force and six years as a director at defense contractor Lockheed Martin, has little direct experience in transportation planning.

Durkan announced her selection of Sam Zimbabwe, most recently the chief project delivery officer for Washington, D.C.’s transportation department, as SDOT  director last month. By choosing Worden for the newly created $195,000-a-year position, Durkan was effectively able to hire both of the remaining SDOT finalists—one for the position that both men originally sought, and one for a position created specifically for him. (A third finalist, Sound Transit division manager Kamuron Gurol, reportedly dropped out of the running late in the process). A similar scenario played out in Durkan’s selection of a new police chief, a drawn-out process in which she rejected, then reconsidered, then appointed then-deputy chief Carmen Best to the position, while also hiring one of the finalists, former Philadelphia police chief Cameron McLay, as a senior policy advisor.

The mayor said yesterday that she made the decision to hire Worden with Zimbabwe’s full collaboration and support. “He was very much in favor of having a person who would coordinate across all departments, because this isn’t just [about] the Seattle Department of Transportation. It’s much [bigger] than that,” Durkan said. For example, the city might need to redirect fire trucks to go around a traffic jam downtown, or offer flexible hours for people to file permit applications. “If it’s nobody’s job, it’s nobody’s job,” Durkan said. Currently, though, coordinating the city’s response to the so-called “Seattle squeeze” is somebody’s job—SDOT’s own Heather Marx, whose job title is “director of downtown mobility.” Marx did not play a role during yesterday’s press conference, and I didn’t see her in the crowd.

4. Also conspicuously absent: Deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan, the former Transportation Choices Coalition director who oversees “major transportation-related policy” for the mayor’s office and who would seem to be the natural choice to oversee Worden’s work in the mayor’s office. Instead, that role will go to deputy mayor Mike Fong, who also oversees almost a dozen city departments. Asked why she decided to have Worden report to Fong instead of transportation expert Ranganathan, Durkan said, “Again, this isn’t just about transportation. Senior deputy mayor Fong is the senior deputy mayor so [Worden] actually reports to me [and] coordinates with senior deputy mayor Fong.”

In October, when Ranganathan’s portfolio was reduced in a reorganization of the mayor’s office, she told me the changes would give her time to focus on “major initiatives” like congestion pricing downtown. Yesterday, both she and Fong echoed Durkan’s line that Worden’s job will mostly involve coordinating between departments like police, fire, and utilities—a point everyone at the mayor’s office hammered home so consistently that I started to wonder if traffic coordination had anything to do with transportation at all. SDOT—the agency everyone was so keen to de-emphasize—is, of course, the primary agency that will have to deal with traffic backups, transportation construction, transit access, illegal parking, bikesharing, enforcing new restrictions on Uber and Lyft, and any number of other initiatives related to center-city mobility.

Morning Crank: Period of Maximum Complaint

1. Mayor Jenny Durkan, joined by staffers from the Washington State Department of Transportation, King County Metro, Sound Transit, and the Seattle Department of Transportation, held a press briefing yesterday to lay out the regional plan for dealing with the upcoming three-week closure of SR 99 through downtown. Although the city has presented most of the details before (this PowerPoint provides a lot of useful details), the officials addressed (or, in some cases, dodged) some of the outstanding questions about their plan, including everything from why Metro can’t just make buses free during the closure to why the city is encouraging commuters to take advantage of a promotion that gives Uber and Lyft riders a discount if they use the car service to get to light rail stations.  A few of those questions and answers of particular interest to those who don’t plan on driving downtown (for everyone else, the TV stations and Joel Connelly have got you covered):

• Given that one of the major contributors to congestion is cars “blocking the box”—that is, sticking out into intersections and preventing cyclists, pedestrians, and other vehicle traffic from getting through—why doesn’t the city’s plan include beefed-up police enforcement of laws that make box-blocking illegal?

According to Mayor Durkan, more vigorous real-time enforcement by officers would only make the problem worse. “Normal traffic enforcement can’t help that much, because when you have a police officer pulling traffic over it just blocks traffic more,” Durkan said. The city is hoping that the state legislature will give it the authority to use cameras to enforce the law in the future.

• With the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel becoming light-rail-only on March 23, how does the city plan to ensure that buses move smoothly on surface streets?

A lot of the plans are highlighted in the city’s presentation, but here are a few you may not know about. King County Metro plans to institute off-board payment, and all-door boarding, for all buses on Third Avenue, which will require the agency to install ORCA card readers at bus stops. For bus stops that don’t have readers, Metro will be paying off-duty bus drivers to stand at the back entrance to buses and manually scan passengers’ cards as they board in the back. All-door boarding—standard in many cities—reduces the amount of time buses sit at stops, and is considered a best practice by groups like the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Many cities have instituted both all-door boarding and a proof-of-payment system that doesn’t require the installation of card-tapping machines at single bus stop; although Bryant noted that Metro has to have some way of collecting fare, other cities have systems like this, with fare payment enforced by transit workers. Other cities also have card readers right on board buses; it’s hard to see why Seattle couldn’t install a similar system’s to, say, San Francisco’s, which relies on a combination of trust and enforcement.

• Couldn’t Metro really speed things up by bringing back the Ride-Free Area?

The Ride-Free Area, a zone encompassing most of downtown where riders could board buses for free (if you went outside the zone, you had to pay as you exited the bus) was discontinued on September 29, 2012, to the consternation of advocates for low-income and homeless bus riders and anyone who liked to hop on the bus for short trips downtown but didn’t have an employer-funded transit pass. Metro planner Bill Bryant said yesterday that the Ride-Free Area led to fare evasion and slowed buses down when they got to their destinations downtown, as people lined up to pay when deboarding the bus. If the point of all the changes discussed yesterday is to improve travel times through downtown, though, the ride-free area seems worth revisiting; the passenger-bunching problem, meanwhile, seems fixable—perhaps by installing on-board card readers on buses, as described above.

• Why is the city of Seattle promoting a promotion by ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft to give passengers a $2.75 discount—the amount of a Metro transit ride—if they use one of the companies’ cars to get to a light-rail station or transit center? Durkan has suggested tolling Uber and Lyft trips into downtown on the grounds that the car-hailing companies increase vehicle miles traveled, so promoting their use seems potentially inconsistent with the goal of getting people out of cars, whether those cars are privately owned or operated by a ride-hailing company.

Durkan has apparently been feeling the pushback on this issue, because she gave a heated response to my question about why the city was promoting the companies’ discount program, which began on December 17, almost a month before the viaduct will close. “I think that’s a totally false framework,” she said. “We’re not saying it’s going to remove all these trips; what we’re trying to do is have a range of services [to]… increase the number of people that get to transit. They think that can be one way. It’s their program. If it works, that’s great.” (I did not suggest in my question that Durkan was saying that Uber and Lyft were the only solution.)

Durkan continued:  “Some people will say no one will take the bikes, but we made bikes available at every transit stop. People have to pay for those bikes. It’s not a one-seat ride. I think no one of these pieces is going to fix everything. But by hopefully having a range of choices, we can make sure that people can do what they need to do to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles and driving them into town.”

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2. Linea Laird, the city’s interim SDOT director, sent a letter to scooter-sharing companies, including Lime and Bird, this week requesting that the companies indemnify the city from legal responsibility for any injuries or deaths that result from scooter crashes, and asking the companies to reveal whether they had technology that could prevent scooters from functioning on sidewalks or in bike lanes, suggesting that if scooters are allowed, people will only be able to ride them in vehicle traffic (a situation that would, logically, result in a lot more injuries and deaths.) Portland, which started allowing scooters earlier this year, allows riders to operate them in bike lanes, but not on sidewalks.

Laird’s letter reads, in part:

Thank you for your interest in obtaining the necessary permits to utilize Seattle city right of way for free-floating scooter sharing. Seattle’s successful Free-Floating Bike Share Program has provided new choices for mobility and fun. Key to the program’s success is our commitment to equitable and safe micro mobility policies that ensure Seattle taxpayers get fair value for the use of the public right-of-way.

Although the City of Seattle currently does not allow scooters, we are aware of the positive benefits this mobility option has brought to other cities. We are also aware of the safety challenges and concerns. As we evaluate your interest in deploying scooters in Seattle and weigh the public benefits of doing so, we request that you provide some additional information including the following: […]

How many injuries have occurred related to use of your scooters in each city where you have deployed? For each incident, please provide any information available regarding:

• who was injured (e.g. the scooter rider, somebody else);
• the nature of each injury;
• the cause or causes of the incident; and,
• the location of the scooter during the event (e.g. sidewalk, bike lane, road)

If Seattle permits scooters, would you agree to indemnify the City in any claim, lawsuit or other dispute relating to their deployment or use? […]

Does your company have any technology or other method for preventing or discouraging motorized scooter use on sidewalks, bike lanes, and other areas where they are not permitted under Seattle Municipal Code § 11.46.010? Alternatively, does your business plan envision scooter use on sidewalks or bike lanes?

Durkan has previously indicated that she considers electric scooters a bit of a menace (“Every mayor who’s got ‘em comes up to me and says, ‘Don’t take ‘em,” she said at a recent event), so scooter companies may see the very fact that her transportation department is looking for solid data and asking about compliance plans as a sign of progress—or an opening gambit. The city’s contracts with e-bike companies like Lime and JUMP contain a section that indemnifies the city for damages from crashes (except when a crash results from the city’s own negligence); the version posted online says that the indemnity clause only applies when a rider is not wearing a helmet, but the mayor’s office provided more recent version in which the city is indemnified whether or not a rider is helmeted.