Durkan, SDOT Get an Earful from Advocates About Proposed Bike Plan Cuts

Dozens of bike safety advocates lined up in city council chambers this afternoon to express their frustration at a Bicycle Master Plan update from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Seattle Department of Transportation that eliminates dozens of projects, replaces planned protected bike lanes with neighborhood greenways on distant, often hilly, parallel streets, and gives especially short shrift to neighborhoods in Southeast Seattle, where two of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s top-priority projects, on Rainier Ave. S and Beacon Ave. S, have been cut. Just prior to the meeting, the advocates held a rally and press conference in the lobby of City Hall, where council members Teresa Mosqueda and Mike O’Brien joined them in condemning the cuts.

Last year, SDOT announced significant cuts to many of the projects included in the $930 million Move Seattle levy, to reflect reduced federal funding and higher cost estimates for some projects.Meg Wade, from the climate action group 350 Seattle, talked about the abuse she has received from drivers as a queer cyclist and pedestrian. “I have been called a cunt; I have been called a bitch taking up too much space on the road; I have stepped into a crosswalk and asked a driver to move their car and been told ‘I am sick of you people’ I have been told ‘Fucking get out of my way.’ What this says is, it is okay for the harassment to continue.” Wade continued, her voice shaking: “It is astonishing to me that the mayor, who comes out of the gay community, would not understand that saying… ‘Go hide out of the public vision; get out of our public spaces’—that she wouldn’t understand the similarities” between anti-LGBT harassment and harassment of cyclists.

“Working-class people, middle-class people, families with little children, elderly individuals, community members—all of them have spoken [against the cuts]. When the mayor says it’s about community engagement, it’s about public feedback—well, whose feedback are you actually listening to?”

Immediately after Wade spoke, two cyclists, Apu Mishra and Tamara Schmautz, stood up to dramatically “mourn the loss” of three plans previously adopted by the city—the Bicycle Master Plan, the Climate Action Plan, and the Complete Streets—by destroying copies of each document in a hand-cranked portable shredder.

Members of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board, including its current co-chair, Emily Paine, expressed dismay that the plan labeled 13 of the eliminated projects “SBAB removed,” implying that the bike board had recommended those projects for removal. Some of those projects, Paine said, were not only “not recommended by SBAB to be removed,” they “were actually given our highest endorsement,” including a protected bike lane on Beacon Hill and a PBL on Rainier Avenue South.

SDOT attempted to walk back the “SBAB removed” designation on Tuesday, calling it an inadvertent error and apologizing for the confusion. (SDOT traffic engineer Monica DeWald said, “We should have rephrased that to ‘SBAB prioritized but funding limited,’ just so we sent the message that it was still an SBAB top priority but we just didn’t have the funding.”) But agency staffers were undoubtedly aware that the list of cuts included some of the bike board’s top priorities when they came up with the list. In an email to bike board members and SDOT staff, including DeWald, from last November, SDOT senior transportation planner Serena Lehman compiled a list of the board’s top priorities, which included both the Beacon Avenue and Rainier Ave. bike lanes. SDOT has not elaborated on why these two top-priority projects have been cut other than to say that the city doesn’t have the money to build them.

Bike board members also expressed concern Tuesday that SDOT has designated about half of all the bike projects that are scheduled for completion between 2019 and 2024 projects as having high levels of “risk,” which they worried might provide cover to remove them from the plan.  “A pattern has emerged in this administration of delaying and eliminating bike lanes that prove challenging or controversial,” bike board member Patrick Taylor said. “When I look at the implementation plan, I see most of the projects listed as ‘risky,’ which in an administration that does not have the gumption to follow through with projects designated as challenging, I view as concerning.”

“Our perception on the Bike Advisory Board is that this administration does not care what we think, and that when we send letters, we might as well send them as a paper airplane.”

Council members, including O’Brien, committee chairman Rob Johnson, and Kshama Sawant, expressed frustration that the mayor had rolled the bike plan back so dramatically. Sawant, who has not historically been among the council’s most vocal bike advocates, was particularly vociferous, arguing that it was “meaningless” for SDOT staffers to tout the city’s progress on bike infrastructure “at the same time that the mayor’s office and SDOT leadership has dealt a significant blow to the whole plan. … Working-class people, middle-class people, families with little children, elderly individuals, community members—all of them have spoken [against the cuts], Sawant said. “So I don’t really understand. When the mayor … says it’s about community engagement, it’s about public feedback—well, whose feedback are you actually listening to?” Sawant’s comments were a rebuke to activists who helped defeat a long-planned protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE, who argued that only “privileged” white people ride bikes or care about safe bike infrastructure.

Members of the Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee hit on many of the same themes at their monthly meeting Tuesday night, and discussed issuing formal recommendations to the council in response to the scaled-back plan. Committee  member Joseph Laubach, who noted that the new plan delivers only about 60 percent of the miles of new bike lanes, trails, and greenways included in the original levy, called the new strategy “unfair” even in light of the Move Seattle “reset.” Taylor, who also sits on the Move Seattle committee, noted that the bike board prioritized projects in South Seattle neighborhoods like Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley precisely because they connected those historically neglected neighborhoods to downtown. “All the projects that rose to the top of our list for extra emphasis are in Southeast Seattle… and those were the projects that disappeared without a trace,” he said. [Editor’s note: This paragraph initially said that the new plan eliminates 60 percent of the new bike lane-miles; in fact, it eliminates 40 percent and preserves 60 percent.]

Both O’Brien, who attended Tuesday night’s committee meeting, and Taylor, who noted that the bike board itself will discuss the new plan at its own meeting tomorrow night, urged the committee to consider making a formal recommendation to the council. “Our perception on the Bike Advisory Board is that this administration does not care what we think, and that when we send letters, we might as well send them as a paper airplane,” Taylor said. “Having this board’s letter as well might elevate [the concerns] to a higher level.”

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Bonus Crank: “Why Can’t It Be an ‘And’?”

1. In a letter sent on Tuesday to members of the city council’s select committee on Mandatory Housing Affordability, the Seattle Coalition for Livability, Affordability, and Equity (SCALE) urged council members to adopt a raft of amendments scaling back the (already watered-down) citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow duplexes, townhomes, and some small apartment buildings on six percent of the city’s exclusive single-family areas.

SCALE’s letter encourages the council to adopt all “neighborhood self-determined amendments and resolutions,” which I wrote about last week, and zeroes in on a few specific amendments, including:

• An amendment reverting the MHA zoning back to whatever it was before the council adopted the plan, “should the courts find the affordability housing requirement sections (e.g. requirements to build on site or in-lieu fees) not legal.” MHA requires developers to fund or build affordable housing in exchange for the higher densities allowed by the plan.

• An amendment requiring “one-for-one replacement” of any housing removed as the result of development under MHA. The city has argued that mandatory one-for-one replacement discourages new development and does not accomplish the broader goal of producing more affordable housing throughout the city than is lost directly to development through physical displacement.

• Another, similar amendment requiring that any new development that results from developers paying a fee into an affordable housing fund be inside the same urban village as, or no more than 10 minutes’ walking distance from, the new development. This would also have the impact of reducing development, and thereby lowering the number of new affordable housing units built under MHA.

• Amendments mandating large new setbacks (15 feet in the front and rear, and between 5 and10 feet on the sides) and yards for new development, including small, low-rise apartment buildings, which would be required to have “at least one 20′ x 20′ area at grade for landscape and a large tree planted in natural soil.”

• An amendment changing the definition of “family-sized housing,” which is required in some affordable-housing developments, to three bedrooms (from the current two). The letter justifies this change, which would likely prevent some development because larger apartments are both more expensive and less lucrative, by arguing that “[f]amily sizes for low income, immigrants and refugees and people of color tend to be larger.” The average household size in Seattle, as of the 2017 American Community Survey, was 2.11—1.85 for renters.

The city council took up the first set of district-specific MHA amendments, including some proposed by residents and some from council members themselves, on Monday; on Wednesday, they’ll consider the second batch. I wrote about all those amendments here.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and citywide mobility director Mike Worden

2. As the longest (by one week) Seattle highway closure in history enters its third weekday, predictions of “viadoom” and “carpocalypse” haven’t come to fruition. But as city, state, and county leaders reminded the city at a press event last week, the “period of maximum constraint” is a long-term issue, which is one reason, Mayor Jenny Durkan explained, that the city needed to hire retired Air Force general Mike Worden, one of the two finalists for the Seattle Department of Transportation director job that was ultimately filled by Washington, D.C.’s Sam Zimbabwe, to oversee the city’s “mobility operations.”

It didn’t get coverage at the time (most of the assembled press were focused, understandably, on the coming permanent closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct), but Durkan offered her most detailed explanation yet of why she believes the city needs not only a new SDOT director and a director of downtown mobility, but a “director of citywide mobility operations coordination,” which is Worden’s full, official title.

“Both Sam and the General came up through the SDOT search, and both of them were enthusiastically supported by the search committee, who said, ‘Either one, you’re going to get a winner.’ And I said, ‘Why does it have to be an or? Why can’t it be an and?'”

Durkan went on to joke that Worden would benefit from his past experience under “enemy fire” and reiterated that Worden’s job wasn’t just monitoring traffic, but coordinating responses from “29 city departments” (which is, incidentally, all of the city departments). For example, “When a tree comes down and blocks a road, that’s not necessarily a Seattle Department of Transportation issue; it could be a City Light issue because it could take wires with it. It could be a Parks Department issue, because the tree was originally in a park.”

Worden also cited his military experience as something that uniquely prepared him for his new job as, effectively, the city’s traffic czar. “My experience with coming together on the eve of a crisis with a bunch of strangers who are arriving from different locations, different countries, facing a crisis, and the ability to work with them to build relationships, to get everyone on a common frame of reference, to achieve the objectives, may come into play … as we transform like a butterfly into the city that everybody wants to be,” Worden said.

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

1.

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.

Durkan Names D.C.’s Sam Zimbabwe to Head Seattle Transportation Department

Sam Zimbabwe, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s pick for Seattle Department of Transportation director, will (assuming he’s confirmed by the city council) walk into his new office early next year facing an immense amount of scrutiny: From bike and pedestrian advocates, who are (understandably) skeptical about Durkan’s commitment to the Bike Master Plan; to supporters of the downtown streetcar, which remains on hold; to transportation advocates of all stripes who have criticized the mayor for appointing one interim director after another to replace former SDOT leader Scott Kubly, who stepped down shortly after Durkan was elected. Since Kubly’s departure, SDOT has been led by a series of interim directors.

Zimbabwe’s resume includes a stint as director of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development at Reconnecting America, a D.C.-based smart growth nonprofit, and seven years at the District Department of Transportation as associate director for planning, policy and sustainability. When he took that job in 2011, the urbanist transit nerds at Greater Greater Washington hailed it as  “a very exciting choice.”

Since 2017, he has been the D.C. agency’s chief delivery officer, a new position created under current D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser in 2017. Opinions vary on whether Zimbabwe ultimately delivered for multimodal advocates in D.C., where bus riders have spent years asking for bus lanes on 16th Street, a central thoroughfare.

And, regarding the latest flash point for transit advocates—scooters, which Durkan has said she considers too dangerous and risky unless the city is indemnified from crash-related lawsuits: They are allowed in D.C., but only under conditions that scooter companies have criticized as too onerous.

At a press conference today, both Durkan and Zimbabwe  avoided directly answering questions about how much autonomy Zimbabwe would have as director.  Instead, they both swerved to sound bites about “the city of the future” (Durkan) and “a safe, equitable, multimodal transportation system” (Zimbabwe.)

Observers of Zimbabwe’s time in D.C. describe him as a capable administrator, but more of a “process guy” than a “vision guy,” which raises questions about whether he’s likely to push back when Durkan calls for more process and deliberation on contentious proposals like bike lanes and transit investments that take lanes back from cars. (On the other hand, people who don’t like “vision guys” may be relieved to hear that Zimbabwe doesn’t take after his elbow-throwing predecessor Kubly, who also preceded him at DDOT).

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Durkan said she expects that “when we go to the city council and when the SDOT team members get to know Sam as I’ve been able to do, that they will think that Sam is actually from Seattle.”

But Seattle is different than D.C., in ways that have sometimes confounded outsiders who come here for high-profile jobs in the city. (Kubly, a D.C. transplant, experienced this first hand.) For one thing, the other Washington tends to be a transient place—people come for jobs, stay for a few years, then move on to another place. Seattle is more settled—the people lobbying against bike lanes or or transit-oriented development in 2018 are pretty much the same people who were arguing against those things 20 years ago, and they’ve spent decades honing their arguments against “big-city” ideas (like, say, bikesharing.) As an outsider, Zimbabwe will be subjected to a level of neighborhood processing which he may not be fully prepared for.

Zimbabwe hasn’t witnessed the Seattle Process, wherein leaders and stakeholders debate and focus-group and charrette ideas for years on end, and sometimes to death. Will  he be the kind of leader who will put his foot down when (for example), neighborhood activists delay and stall and file endless appeals to stop a bike project that has been on planning maps for nearly a decade? Or will he follow the lead of his new boss, whom urbanists and bike and transit advocates have criticized for delaying the implementation of projects that would make streets safer for all users?

Asked about his capacity for dealing with pushback from the public, Zimbabwe responded, “I come from a place—Washington, D.C.—where we’ve met a similar set of growth challenges. … It’s something that I relish and that I look forward to.”

City council member Rob Johnson, who chairs the planning and land use committee, says he “really likes” Durkan’s pick. “His pedigree and work experience and track record lead me to think he’s going to be very strong on the multimodal investments that we want to continue to make as a city,” Johnson says.  “I think about Sam as the kind of person who has a good, strong set of values but isn’t going to try to be in your face about them or spend a lot of time trying to convince you of the righteousness of those arguments—he’s going to use data and expertise to make those arguments.” That assumes, of course, Durkan lets him.

One final note on today’s SDOT announcement: The three finalists for the position, whose names were first reported by Crosscut, were all white men. (One, Sound Transit north corridor development director Kameron Gurol, apparently dropped out of the process before Durkan made her pick). SDOT has only had one female director in its history—Grace Crunican, who served under former mayor Greg Nickels between 2002 and 2009.

Morning Crank: Mariners Giveaway, Bike Lanes Downtown, and Public Land for Housing People

Image via Wikimedia Commons; photo by Cacophony

1. King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles withdrew her support yesterday from legislation that would dedicate up to $190 million in proceeds from the county’s hotel/motel tax to Safeco Field, proposing an amendment that would instead direct almost all of that money to affordable housing instead. The Mariners are demanding the upgrades as a condition of signing a new 25-year lease on the stadium.

King County Executive Dow Constantine has insisted that the hotel/motel tax proceeds must be spent on purposes related to tourism, including improvements to the stadium, but the legislation that authorized the tax actually does not limit the percentage of proceeds that can be spent on affordable housing, nor does it require that any money be spent on tourism at all. Instead, the law says that at least 37.5 percent of the hotel/motel tax must be spent on arts and affordable housing, respectively, and that whatever money remains after that can be spent on tourism. Kohl-Welles’ proposal would increase the affordable housing expenditure to 52.5 percent, leaving about $25 million for stadium improvements.

One thing worth noting as this debate plays out: Mariners owner John Stanton, a billionaire telecom executive who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and conservative causes, maxed out to just one candidate in the 2017 primary and general elections. That candidate? Dow Constantine.

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2. The city council passed a resolution Monday urging the Seattle Department of Transportation (i.e. Mayor Jenny Durkan) to complete the downtown bike network, after interim SDOT director Goran Sparrman informed the council that the city planned to delay the construction of a long-promised protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue downtown for three years while construction projects downtown (including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the construction of a new Washington State convention center) reduce the number of lanes available to car commuters.

Mariners owner John Stanton, a billionaire telecom executive who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and conservative causes, maxed out to just one candidate in the 2017 primary and general elections. That candidate? Dow Constantine.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, just home from a trip to Minneapolis where she met with members of the bike equity group Tamales y Bicycletas, added language to the legislation emphasizing the importance of creating safe bike routes for low-income people, communities of color, and women. The resolution now says that although the Center City bike network itself is located downtown, “connecting routes to surrounding neighborhoods, and between neighborhoods, particularly in historically neglected communities with higher needs of safety improvements for pedestrians and cyclists, must be a focus for the city in making connections with the Center City Bike Network.” The verbiage, along with language about the city’s historical disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color, serves as another rebuke to unsupported claims that bike lanes “displace the underprivileged” and kill minority-owned businesses in neighborhoods like Wedgwood, in north Seattle.

But will the resolution matter? SDOT is already trying to dampen expectations that the downtown bike lane network will be built within 18 months, as the council resolution demands. And the agency is still figuring out the details of its planned  “reset” of the $290 million Move Seattle levy in response to higher-than-anticipated construction costs and lower-than-expected (or entirely absent) federal funds for Seattle projects. Late last month, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien told me that “there’s nothing we see right now [in the resolution] that’s a deal breaker,” but added that he hadn’t heard much from the Durkan Administration about whether they planned to move forward on the council’s recommendations, which include new bike lanes from 8th Avenue in Belltown down to 12th Avenue South in the International District. “My sense is they are still getting up to speed on a lot of things,” O’Brien said. “I think the bike capacity in Mayor Durkan’s brain has been spent on the Burke-Gilman trail [completion] and 35th” Ave NE, where anti-bike activists are fighting a bike lane and road restructure. “I don’t know that there’s a ton that has been done on this.”

3. The council also adopted legislation that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, giving Seattle City Light the ability to sell its properties to nonprofit housing developers who agree to build housing affordable to people making less than 80 percent of Seattle’s median income. Currently, the city requires property owned by its electric utility to be sold at fair-market value, thanks to a 2003 ruling striking down a fee City Light imposed to install and maintain streetlights. However, a bill passed by the state legislature last year, House Bill 2382, gives state and local agencies the right to transfer land to affordable housing developers at little or no cost, giving the city new ammunition if it faces a legal challenge the first time the legislation is tested.

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Morning Crank: Another Interim Head for SDOT, More Streetcar Fallout, A Victory for Burke-Gilman Trail Advocates, and “Tolling to Make Congestion Worse.”

KCSC_decision

1. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been headed up by an interim director, Goran Sparrman, for nearly seven months, since controversial director Scott Kubly left the position last December, a month after Jenny Durkan was sworn in as mayor. Durkan extended Sparrman’s tenure as interim SDOT chief by two months at the end of May, when the SDOT director publicly announced that he planned to leave at the end of August. At the time, Durkan’s office announced a national search to replace him, and put out a call for input from the public on what they would like to see in the next SDOT director.

Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle.

Sparrman’s departure date is rapidly approaching, and Durkan has not announced his replacement, nor, apparently, does she plan to any time soon. Instead, The C Is for Crank has learned, will announce yet another interim director—reportedly Genessee Adkins, SDOT’s current chief of staff—and put off hiring a permanent director until this winter, possibly as late as January, according to sources close to the department. The ongoing lack of permanent leadership at the embattled agency, which is dealing with fallout from cost overruns on the delayed downtown streetcar as well as a vocal backlash from bike and pedestrian advocates over Durkan and Sparrman’s decision to delay implementation of the long-planned Fourth Avenue protected bike lane until 2021, has reportedly damaged morale at the agency and contributed to a sense of an agency in turmoil. Compounding the lack of leadership at the top is the fact that all four of SDOT’s deputy directors are also serving on an interim basis, as is the current chief of staff (Adkins is currently on leave), creating an org chart headed up almost entirely by people serving on an impermanent or contingent basis. (The org chart itself, unusually for a Seattle city agency, only includes the names of the seven people at the very top, followed by the general functions each of those people oversee.)

Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle. Sparrman reportedly accepted his new private-sector position several months ago. I asked Durkan’s office whether it was a conflict of interest for Sparrman to be negotiating on behalf of SDOT with agencies that could soon be his clients. Her spokeswoman, Stephanie Formas, responded by referring me to the city’s ethics rules regarding former employees, which restrict current employees’ ability to be involved in their future employers’ “dealings with the city,” and restrict former employees’ ability to participate in certain activities, like bidding for contracts, for the first year or two after they leave the city, depending on the activity.

 

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2. Mayor Durkan issued an “update on the Center City Connector” yesterday that confirmed some of what city council member Lisa Herbold was talking about a full five days ago (when I was on vacation; sorry!): The vehicles the city ordered for the indefinitely postponed First Avenue Streetcar are wider and longer than the existing South Lake Union and First Avenue streetcars, suggesting that they may not be compatible with the existing systems the Center City Connector is supposed to connect.

Durkan, to the consternation of some transit advocates, has been lukewarm on the proposed downtown streetcar ever since initial operations cost estimates turned out to be off by as much as 50 percent and the cost to build the system ballooned by tens of millions. A long-awaited independent financial analysis of the project has been delayed because, according to today’s statement from the mayor’s office, the review “was much more complex than initially expected.” One question that could be deal-breaking is whether the new, larger vehicles are even compatible with the gauge of the existing streetcar lines, which run from Pioneer Square to First Hill and from Westlake to South Lake Union.

Formas, the mayor’s spokeswoman, says that it’s possible the lines will still be able to connect—the existing streetcars, for example, are built to slightly different specifications but can still run on each others’ tracks—but the episode brings to mind what happened with the downtown transit tunnel, whose original train tracks, installed almost as an afterthought in 1993, had to be torn out and replaced in the mid-2000s, resulting in additional costs of more than $45 million.

“We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free. We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.”

3. Advocates for completing the long-delayed “missing link” of the Burke-Gilman multi-use trail in Ballard won a small victory last week, when a King County Superior Court judge dismissed a complaint by the Ballard Coalition, a group of businesses that opposes the completion of the trail as proposed by “missing link” advocates, charging that the city hearing examiner who approved the final environmental statement for the project had a conflict of interest. The Coalition argued, essentially, that because then-deputy commissioner Ryan Vancil was up for a promotion when he determined in January that the city’s environmental analysis of the project, which took five years and cost $2.5 million to complete, was adequate. The decision was a significant victory for trail advocates.

In its complaint, the business coalition argued that Vancil violated the appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires public officials to conduct business in a way that appears fair, by applying for and obtaining a promotion from deputy hearing examiner to chief hearing examiner while the city of Seattle had a case in front of him—specifically, the “long-running [Burke-Gilman] dispute.” In his ruling rejecting that argument, Judge Samuel Chung noted that if he were to assume that anyone who applied for a promotion within the hearing examiner’s office was biased in favor of the city, it “would impose a presumption that would taint all virtually all decision making by that body. Every hearing examiner is presumed to be fair and impartial, and an advancement within that office under these facts do not form a basis for an appearance of fairness violation.”

4. Deadlines prevented me from giving my full attention to a resolution the city council passed last week vowing to build out as much of the planned downtown bike network as possible while the Fourth Avenue protected bike lane remains in limbo, but I didn’t want to let one comment from council member Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the resolution, slip by. O’Brien made the remark while we were discussing the “period of maximum constraint” between now and roughly 2021, when construction projects and the closure of the downtown bus tunnel and the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct are expected to jam traffic downtown.

O’Brien, who opposed the Alaskan Way tunnel project, pointed out that everyone who now uses the viaduct to get to points downtown will drive instead on surface streets, and even people going through downtown will use surface streets to avoid the tunnel, contributing to traffic jams during the “period of maximum constraint” from roughly now until 2021, when construction and demolition projects are expected to make downtown traffic worse than at any time in recent history. The day before we talked, O’Brien said, the Washington State Transportation Commission had approved tunnel tolls ranging from $1 to $2.25. “We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free,” O’Brien told me. “We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.” Instead, O’Brien said, Seattle is going to have “anti-congestion pricing—pricing to make congestion worse.”

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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.

 

Morning Crank: To Reduce the Door-to-Door Burden of People Already in Crisis

Yesterday, after city council member Kshama Sawant announced that her committee would hold a special public hearing to readjudicate the cuts to women’s overnight shelters and hygiene centers that the council made last year, the city’s Human Services Department put up a blog post enumerating all the hygiene services (showers, laundry facilities, and restrooms) that will be available in the 21 “enhanced shelters” it plans to fund this year.  “Enhanced shelters provide more of a ‘one-stop shop’ approach to reduce the door-to-door burden for people already in crisis to meet their basic needs like eating breakfast, taking a shower, doing laundry, and sleeping,” the post says. (What HSD fails to mention: The services available at those shelters probably won’t be available to people who aren’t clients at those shelters—as of last year, council members would only say that they hoped some of the shelters would choose to make their facilities available to non-clients on a drop-in basis).

The post even goes on the defensive about the well-documented lack of (legal) places for people living outdoors to relieve themselves, noting that the city “supports 117 restrooms available to all members of the public,” including Port-a-Potties near five transit stops and restrooms at libraries, community centers and parks. Parks close later than community centers, but they do close; meanwhile, the city is currently embroiled in a massive debate about encampments, one aspect of which is whether people who attempt to sleep in parks overnight should be removed.

The city budget adopted last year hews to the principles of “Pathways Home,” a human services and homelessness funding framework that deprioritizes projects that don’t focus specifically on getting people into permanent housing. As a result, the budget  eliminated or reduced funding for three downtown hygiene centers, which “only” provide places for people to clean up and use the restroom. One of those three, the Women’s Referral Center, is on the agenda for Sawant’s public hearing next Monday, along with the SHARE/WHEEL-run women’s shelter for which Sawant also wants to restore funding. (SHARE runs a bare-bones men’s shelter; its sister organization, WHEEL, runs a similar shelter for women. Both had their funding cut last year.).

It seems unlikely that Sawant’s time-tested tactic of holding a public hearing and organizing her supporters to show up to testify in favor of her proposal will restore long-term funding to either WHEEL or the Catholic Community Services-run Women’s Referral Center, but Sawant is taking every opportunity to draw attention to the issue. At a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday, Sawant argued that the roughly $100,000 the city plans to spend on a fence to keep homeless people from erecting tents under the Ballard Bridge “could be enough to extend bare-bones bridge funding for the [SHARE and WHEEL] shelters for the rest of the year.” Funding for both WHEEL’s and SHARE’s shelters is set to run out in June.

Currently, the fence in Ballard is just a temporary structure—a crude construction fence, topped by razor wire, intended to keep homeless people from taking shelter under the bridge. On Tuesday, as I called around trying to get an answer to the question, “Who decided it was necessary to build a $100,000 fence under the Ballard Bridge?”, it became clear that the fence, like the infamous row of bike racks meant to deter homeless people in Belltown, was a political hot potato no one wanted to handle—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office directed questions about the fence and the bike racks to the department of Finance and Administrative Services and the Seattle Department of Transportation, which each deflected responsibility on the other agency. (SDOT put up the fence; the question is whether FAS or its director, Fred Podesta, ordered them to do so back when the city’s Emergency Operations Center was holding daily work group meetings to respond to the city’s homelessness state of emergency*). Both departments agree that the fence is necessary, however, because of the risk that homeless campers will accidentally set the bridge on fire, causing a collapse. Mike O’Brien, whose council district includes Ballard, says he considers the fence “particularly problematic,” because “it doesn’t solve anything—I drove by there a few nights ago [before the fence was up] and there were five tents there. I’m almost certain those folks are not housed. Probably they were just destabilized. So now we’re $100,000 poorer and no one’s better off. What is our long-term strategy here? Is our ultimate goal to fence off every structure in the city because someone might use that structure as a place to live?”

A similar story is playing out around the notorious bike racks. SDOT installed those bike racks, too (and highlighted them on Twitter) but earlier this week, the agency sent out a statement saying that the policy of the Durkan administration (and thus SDOT) was not to use bike racks as impediments to encampments. Several council members praised the agency Tuesday for agreeing to remove the racks and reinstall them elsewhere in the city. “I think this is a great sign from our new mayor, from the leadership at SDOT, that … we will not go down the route that other cities have gone, using hostile architecture to displace folks,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said.

But is it? Durkan has said she supports removing the bike racks, but her office did not respond to questions about what her strategy will be for ensuring that people living unsheltered do not set up tents on sidewalks. And it’s unclear whether Durkan’s policy shop, which is still staffing up, has come up with an answer to the question: If not bike racks and fences, then what? Ultimately, the buck will stop not with any particular city department, but with the new mayor—and two months in, she still hasn’t provided a clear indication of how she plans to deal with unauthorized encampments.

* This story originally said that the EOC has “stood down,” which was incorrect; the work groups no longer meet daily, but the EOC is still responding to the homelessness crisis.

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Crashes Up, Biking Down in New Seattle Traffic Report

The annual traffic report from the Seattle Department of Transportation, which measures everything from how many cars are moving through the city to how many people are commuting by bike to how many pedestrians are injured and killed on Seattle’s streets, came out last week, and the news is not great for people who bike or walk in the city—that is, just about everyone.

Bike ridership is down (by 2.6%), the number of drivers injuring or killing cyclists and pedestrians is up, and the number of total collisions is up for the third year in a row—not an auspicious sign for the city’s “Vision Zero” plan, which aims to reduce the number of traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. The citywide collision rate increased 6.3 percent over the last year; the rate of bike collisions stayed steady and the rate of collisions with pedestrians went up. Overall, 171 people were seriously injured and 20 were killed in collisions on Seattle streets last year, a 16.5 percent increase over 2015.

With “Vision Zero” in sight, serious injury and fatality crashes have barely budged for the past five years.

Some of the main “contributing circumstances” for collisions, in terms of sheer numbers, were: Inattention, “unknown driver distraction,” failure to grant right of way, following too closely, speeding, “improper turn,’ and driving under the influence of alcohol. Other circumstances that led to collisions: “Apparently asleep,” “driver grooming,” “driver reading or writing,” “had taken medication,” and driving on the wrong side of the road. Most of the pedestrians who were involved in collisions (57%) were in marked crosswalks when they were hit, and most were hit during daylight hours, not at night or dusk, when conventional wisdom says pedestrians are most likely to be hit (a trope that enables auto advocates and drive-time radio hosts to blame people in crosswalks for getting themselves run into). Bike collisions followed the same general trend, except that cyclists were less likely to get hit during winter months, when there are fewer of them on the roads. The color a cyclist was wearing when he or she was involved in a collision appears to be largely irrelevant—of 246 collisions for which clothing visibility was recorded, just 43 cyclists were wearing dark-colored clothing, including crashes that happened during the day and at night.

The offending chart

The report notes that the city’s Pedestrian Master Plan identified several locations for the city to monitor and report on every year, to see if people are speeding more or less at those locations. Unfortunately, this year’s report inexplicably fails to pull out information on those locations, as previous reports have done, so that people who pay attention to traffic trends can compare it to reports from previous years. To find out whether speeds have gone down on, say, Rainier Ave. S—historically one of the most dangerous corridors in the city, and a focus of a lot of Pedestrian Master Plan work since 2010—someone reading the report will have to scroll through pages of data in one of its appendices. This is not an insignificant issue, because a major point (if not the point) of tracking whether, and by how much, drivers are speeding is to see if things are getting better or worse. (You can dig through the appendices to find each segment individually, but who’s going to do that? Me, sure, but who else?) What the report does include is a chart that indicates the roads where the “85th percentile speed” (the speed at or below which 85 percent of drivers travel) is highest—a basically useless number in itself, because whether someone is speeding depends on the speed limit. Going  52 mph on a 50 mph highway is barely speeding, whereas going 45 in a 20 mph school zone amounts to reckless endangerment.

Dig into the report yourself, which includes lots of additional data about crashes, travel speeds, and traffic volumes, here.

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