This week, the Spokane Street Viaduct widening project has officially come in under budget by $11.75 million. The savings stay in the city, to be used on other SDOT projects.
The mayor and SDOT have released their highest priorities for this funding – and the list is something urbanists should be happy with, a good balance between road reconstruction and pothole prevention, neighborhood streets, intelligent transportation systems, sidewalks, bicycle improvements, and a little at the end for transit.
This is the kind of balance that is too diffuse for voters to be happy with – there’s no “big ticket” item to frame the package – but grabs low-hanging fruit across the board and targets cost effective investments like adaptive traffic signals to improve traffic flow without manual tweaking, and crack sealing to stop potholes before they start. As an aside (and an abuse of blockquotes):
The crack sealing program is pretty interesting to me – it’s much like my day job. I find software problems before users get to them: it’s cheaper to fix a bug before it goes to customers than it is to release a patch. Much like this, crack sealing stops potholes from forming in the first place, preventing more expensive patches. This week council member Burgess attacked the mayor over potholes, but the mayor pioneered this program to prevent them at much lower cost, making city dollars go farther. It’s a classic attack, but it’s really damaging to the conversation, because we’re past that as a city.
Under McGinn (and Nickels before him), the city patches potholes when they’re reported, which means the ones most important to citizens are addressed first. Burgess said he wanted to move to a system where teams go neighborhood to neighborhood to patch on a schedule – but that’s the system we moved away from, because it’s less efficient. This is similar to how modern building management systems have moved away from regularly scheduled maintenance, and to a sensor-driven model that lets maintenance know when a valve is stuck or a light out, so they can choose the repairs with best cost benefit first. This saves a lot of money for building managers just as it saves the city money for potholes.
The prevention first model is also what effective people do when prioritizing tasks. The Getting Things Done/Seven Habits model suggests prioritizing preventative work over more reactive work in order to prevent what software engineers call “fire drills”. Fixing potholes is expensive and unplanned work that we should design out of the system entirely by permanently funding prevention and replacement. That’s a goal I have for the city, and it’s one the current mayor seems to share.
It sounds like Burgess wants to move back to a less efficient model that doesn’t fix the most important potholes first, and doesn’t fund preventative work. While it sounds good, it would increase the total number of potholes with a given amount of funding.
So past all this, there’s $1 million toward pedestrian master plan implementation, $1 million toward bicycle master plan implementation, and $800,000 for transit master plan implementation. The transit master plan work is the two projects that are the next priority:
1) $500,000 to add to the ship canal crossing. The Ballard to Downtown Rail Study will do basic consideration of ridership and alignment for a new ship canal crossing, but it will not consider the costs or engineering feasibility of different bridge types or crossing locations, and it won’t be particularly multimodal. Doing this deeper work in concert with the Ballard study will provide better concrete data to determine cost, and will pair transit with bicycle and pedestrian connectivity, so that when we build transit, we can serve non-motorized modes too.
2) $300,000 to get Eastlake rail planning started this year, so that it isn’t a “maybe” for the 2014 budget as the Council has currently left it, but instead it’s under way this year, and inevitable. This is the same tactic the state uses to get megaprojects started – but used for good. Eastlake rail is planned for all the way to NE 65th St., and could help provide U-district local service so that the 71, 72, and 73 service hours can be reinvested south of Roosevelt Station, rather than caught in congestion in the U-district.
We’re going to need support from transit advocates to get this through the Council. As a budget supplement, this starts in Burgess’ budget committee. With Burgess going after McGinn on potholes and now with his new rail-free transportation proposal (which we haven’t yet written about, but it pretty much looks like Steinbrueck’s), it’s likely that he’ll come up with some reason to oppose this well balanced set of investments.