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.

44 Replies to “Spokane Street Project Savings Could Accelerate Rail”

  1. >> 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.

    I am now very curious as to what kind of software you do. But perhaps that is a discussion for another time (and another place). To give you some context, I’ve worked as a tester, a software developer in test, and a plain old developer. You are completely right about your statement. After all, a stitch in time saves nine.

    With regards to rail versus other projects, I am a bit concerned. Frankly, except for making road repairs more efficient (as you’ve pointed out) I could care less about potholes. 125th NE, close to wear I live, was recently repaved, so it could adhere to its “road diet”. Some folks around here complained, but all in all, it has been a success. Three lanes are better than four, generally speaking. But the road is now, oddly enough, full of nasty potholes. So much so that the city will repair it again. As I said, I could care less. If you drive the road, you learn how to avoid the potholes (funny thing about a car — you can maneuver it as you see fit).

    But our lack of sidewalks is something else. Except for the busy streets, we don’t have many. A few were added, and they are great. But the north and south ends of the city are still woefully short of basic sidewalks. The recent Seattle Times article spotlighted a guy who is fighting for them on Aurora. I’m sure there are plenty of folks like me who look at him as a hero. Keep in mind, if Aurora doesn’t have them, you can bet the streets close by (where people really want to walk) don’t have them either.

    I guess what I’m saying is that surface light rail is nice, but I wouldn’t consider it a game changer. It is like fixing potholes. Maybe, if you are lucky, it saves the city a smidgeon over the long run (and perhaps a really long long run). But unlike grade separated rail (AKA Seattle Subway) it isn’t much better than BRT (or plain old bus). On the other hand, sidewalks are a huge improvement. Folks can walk safely from home to shop without worrying about which side of the street to walk on, or whether they should wear reflective clothing. Personally, I would focus way more money on sidewalks, and way less on surface rail. The mayor might want to remember his roots (when we was a sidewalk advocate) if we wants to keep his job. Only a handful of people are gaga over surface rail, while lots of people will vote for him if he manages to add a significant number of sidewalks to the city.

    1. Potholes:

      Some of 125th was repaved – I’ve cycled that section recently and haven’t seen potholes. Some of 125th is yet to come (, and that section does need it! It takes more effort to be specific about what you’ve seen, but I would like to ask you to go back and make sure of what you’re seeing – I don’t think the newly repaved portion has potholes, I think it’s the portion that will be rebuilt soon.


      The north and south parts of the city were annexed after most of Seattle’s sidewalks were built. They’re also very low density – they don’t have streetcar suburbs, so people walk less there just due to the car-oriented nature of the development. The combination means that it would be very expensive per capita to build those sidewalks, and that they aren’t in that high of demand relative to older, denser neighborhoods, and when funding is offered via a vote, it’s shot down hard by those neighborhoods, like happened in 2011. So while you want sidewalks, your neighbors say no when they’re offered.

      And surface rail:

      I understand that surface rail isn’t as good as a subway. But it is better than a bus – it’s worth investing in, for a huge list of reasons. Those reasons aren’t as blindingly obvious as the reasons for building a subway, but after a long, comprehensive process in which the public was heavily involved, a few corridors in Seattle make a TON of sense for surface rail, as it will be cheaper than a bus in the long run, move more people, and help channel economic development. A lot of moving parts go together here, and I urge you (can I beg? Would that help?) to go read the Transit Master Plan so that you can help advocate for the best solution here, which is very definitely rail, so that instead of saying “the mayor should do something bad for transit so that more people support him,” your reaction is “let’s help people understand why this is the best solution so that the leader of our city doesn’t have to do bad things because public opinion isn’t well informed.”

      Also, there will be a BRT component to the Eastlake study, largely because so many people have said “it’ll be cheaper!” (even though the TMP planning already showed we should build rail). So you’ll get more hard data on the comparison from this study. So even if you want BRT, this study is the way to go. :)

      1. Pavement: The area between 15th NE and Lake City Way has tons of potholes. I am pretty sure they dug it up when they changed the configuration. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. The potholes are in the left center section of the lane, so you probably don’t experience it when biking. Driving is another matter. By the way, kudos to you if you grind up that hill on the bike — you are in better shape than me.

        I’m well aware of why we don’t have sidewalks in certain parts of the city. But I would also suggest that to a certain extent it becomes a chicken and egg problem. The areas without sidewalks are less popular because they have fewer sidewalks. Sidewalks can’t be built because there isn’t enough density there.

        Wait, what? My neighbors say no when offered sidewalks? I know of no one who refused sidewalks. Whenever new sidewalks are offered, it is usually met with unbridled enthusiasm (read Pinehurst Blog if you want a taste). There may be some yahoo who doesn’t want them to tear up his yard, but for the most part, folks think that is a small price to pay.

        It is not that I’m against surface rail per say, its just that, after being on this blog a long time, I don’t see a strong case for it. Yes, I understand that in some areas it makes a lot of sense. It saves money in the long run. I would expect that. But the same could be said for fixing potholes. Maybe someone can write a post about surface rail and run the numbers. I’ve asked the question before and got mixed responses.

        Furthermore, I don’t see surface rail as a game changer. I know it is supposed to “channel development” but Seattle does not need that. None of the places where surface rail has been built or is planned need that. South Lake Union? Boomtown and I said as much ten years ago. The SLUS has nothing to do with it. It is simple geography. Capitol Hill? Same thing. Ballard? Booming without it.

        On the other hand, I see sidewalks as a game changer. It is a way to differentiate between Seattle and Shoreline. New sidewalks make folks want to live in the area and walk in the area. It makes the shopkeeper want to invest in the area. All of these things generate growth and density, along with less driving.

      2. Yeah, the section between 15th and Lake City hasn’t been rebuilt yet! I mean, maybe they reconfigured it but didn’t do the resurfacing. It’s on that map (unless I’m crazy?)

        I’m pretty sure Prop 1 failed pretty hard up in the north end of the city. :(

        I will write a bigger post about why streetcars are good – a lot of it is just that they have more and different impacts than buses, like driving economic development, and they get federal dollars that buses don’t, so they cost less locally than it seems.

        The SLUS definitely had an impact on the development in SLU, but that impact is as political as it is economic. The streetcar was a signal that the city was committed to a long term investment there – and with the park, Mercer, and MOHAI, that’s continued to be true. Portland has studied this for the Pearl, and found that their streetcar is directly attributable to a lot of the development in that part of the city.

        So back to the very first thing you said – yeah, I’m a test dev. That’s part of why my reaction to all this transportation stuff is “hey, we can fix this, there are patterns!”

    2. I’ve frequently heard similar thoughts. I think it would be wise for some politician to put a full sidewalk package in front of voters – it would probably be quite popular. I imagine the costs are quite high to fully build out sidewalks in our further out neighborhoods, the exact places they’d be used the least. But a package that also widens sidewalks in high-pedestrian-traffic areas could be fairly balanced.

      1. There were a lot of sidewalks in 2011 Prop 1. Nobody even talked about them.

      2. 10% is not a lot. This gets back to the original proposal, suggested by Matt. How about 50% sidewalks, or maybe 100%.

      3. The Tier 1 projects in the Pedestrian Master Plan alone are more than $800 million. $23 million is pocket change. Prop 1 failed for plenty of reasons; I have a hard time believing that people didn’t want sidewalks is one of them.

        Remember, always, the drainage costs associated with sidewalk construction. So yes, the costs are quite high.

    3. I don’t think the city should worry about sidewalks on side streets at this point. Side-street sidewalks have traditionally been built by adjacent property owners and completeness is a pipe dream without serious funding. We’d be better off doing cheaper things to reduce vehicle speed and cut-throughs on side streets… ideally we should work toward laws, enforcement, and culture where it’s unacceptable for a driver to hit a pedestrian on a side street for nearly any reason — that drivers have practically absolute responsibility for keeping track of their surroundings.

      The sidewalk focus should be on arterial roads. These are the roads where through-traffic must go, and where people must walk to access businesses and transit. Regardless of where we want to walk, we need to walk on arterials. On the north end, that’s roads like Aurora and LCW, but also roads like 15th Ave NE and 3rd Ave NW, smaller roads that are mostly residential but carry lots of fast traffic.

      1. Yeah, that $1 million probably won’t get past arterials. The Pedestrian Master Plan has a prioritized list, I think.

      2. We’ve got a lot of sidewalks on the arterials in Shoreline, but even there, the sidewalks can be very old and narrow. Walking on 5th NE to the library, the sidewalk is so narrow that I have to step onto the property of people if someone is walking/jogging towards me. And, if there is a tree planted, the sidewalk there is cut away, making it even more narrow, instead of going around the tree. Sure, its better than nothing, but certainly not great.

      3. @Cinesea: I’ve never been that far north on 5th Ave NE, but it sounds a lot like many other streets in the area. To be sure, these are sidewalks that should be brought up to a reasonable standard.

      4. Yes, Al, you are correct. Feet First has actually been working with SDOT to fix their model in the PMP, which in our opinion doesn’t adequately weight arterial sidewalks vs. non-arterials. Given limited dollars, transit arterials should be priority #1, non-transit arterials second, and all other streets third, unless there is a large social justice issue (senior center on a non-arterial with no sidewalks) involved. The filtering they have in the PMP is pretty good on many things, but the arterial weighting needs a bit of work.

  2. The thing that they don’t mention is that with programs like the pothole one where you have to call the city to request a fix, a disproportionate amount of the work ends up going to wealthier neighborhoods. People in low-income neighborhoods are less likely to call the hotline, either because they don’t know about it, because they don’t have time for it, or because they don’t have faith that the system will work. I don’t know if the neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach is the best, but I think it’s worthwhile to choose a more equitable system than the one they have now.

    1. Do you know that a disproportionate amount of pothole fixing goes to wealthier neighborhoods, or are you just worried about it?

      Just from eyeballing the data, I don’t see a huge equity issue:

      I would like to urge you not to suggest changing what we’re doing until you know that you wouldn’t be causing damage by doing so! :)

      1. well, to be fair, the worst section of street I’ve ever driven on in this city is at the north (golf club) entrance to Broadmoor (anyone who’s driven to the Arboretum or to the Foster Island trails knows what I’m talking about!)

        It always has surprised me that the Establishment folks within have not managed to get a gold-plated race-track-smooth drive out of the enclave.

    2. I have called and emailed the ‘pothole people’ many times over the past two years about Greenwood Avenue North for the many potholes between 135th and 145th. I don’t think anything has been done about them. I’ve even gotten very specific about their location. What more can I do? Has SDOT given up on Greenwood in that area?

  3. Fingers crossed for Eastlake rail here. I try and avoid that area since the traffic sucks.

    As for sidewalks, I agree some parts need them, But heck, there is so much space in that part of town that it is hard for me to see them getting used that much. And frankly adding more concrete doesn’t always help. More rain runoff, etc.

    1. In general, the city doesn’t just add concrete all willy-nilly. They also build bioswales and such to reduce runoff.

  4. $11.75 million isn’t a lot of money to do anything! Just extending the First Hill streetcar from John to Aloha is $28 million. $11.75M buys only about a block of streetcar in an existing street. I would agree with the other posters that spending it on pavement (especially bus pads), sidewalks or pedestrian lighting would be the way to go!

    1. Politically, we don’t have a system that lets us come up with ideas for what we want to spend things on and then apply those ideas to small amounts of money like this.

      What we’re looking at is a pretty good slice of projects that this could fund. If we organize behind this, we’ll get it. If we don’t organize behind this, the Council will come up with what THEY want to spend the money on, and we’ll get that.

      We can’t build any streetcar expansions until we plan them. This funds more of the planning we need. We don’t have any construction projects ready to put this money into, but we have some planning on the table right now that we could fund.

      1. This city has been doing nothing but “modal planning” for several years. It’s time to stop planning each mode on a citywide basis and develop 15 to 20 district transportation plans for each section of the City (and I’m not talking about neighborhood planning of only a small area). Otherwise it’s not really strategic planning but is instead project development.

      2. Al, we’re doing project development. The Transit Master Plan identified modes. Now we identify station locations, ridership, and alternatives to go into design. That’s what these are.

      3. Ben I mean “mode” in a larger context such as bicycle versus walk versus transit versus drive versus truck freight versus whatever. I respect the efforts to create the TMP. Still, the basic bias of the TMP’s corridor recommendations are to primarily define and prioritize transit projects, and not to define tradeoffs like spending money on transit versus other things. The emerging logic conflicts between transit, freight, pedestrians, cars and bicycles in SODO is profound, for example. There is a basic logic “gap” in the transportation planning process in Seattle at a multi-modal, district level. That needs to be the next planning focus.

      4. @Al S.: There’s no fundamental conflict in SODO. Road right-of-ways are ample, there isn’t much congestion, freight needs are met (aside from pie-in-the-sky “we want all other traffic and modes out” desires that are simply dismissed), transit has a good deal of north-south ROW, there’s even the beginning of a cycling route (though only one, going north-south, with rather unceremonious ends on both sides).

        The Airport Way South Bridge was just rebuilt and though apparently little attention was paid to cycling there its east-side sidewalk is wide enough for all forseeable pedestrian and cycling needs (that is… it’s wider than pedestrian and cycling spaces on the Fremont and Montlake bridges, and conditions there don

      5. ‘t stop people from using those bridges.

        All that’s needed in SODO is a bit of design consideration at opportune moments. There’s plenty of space for transportation. I’m a lot more worried about conflicts downtown and in Northgate, but generally having a TMP saying “let’s grab more space for transit” and a bike master plan saying “let’s grab more space for bikes” isn’t so bad because these modes are the ones with the greatest unmet needs in these places.

  5. We need more money all around. It’s depressing that we are arguing streetcars vs. light rail vs. sidewalks vs. potholes. We can and should be building and properly maintaining all of those things.

    So…LIDs for streetcars, local parking revenue dedicated for sidewalks and other street amenities, fees on large vehicles to fund street repairs, and higher gas taxes for light rail? Dedicated revenue, for everything, so there’s a stream of money to fix things instead of being forced to go hat-in-hand to voters every time there’s a new project.

    1. The issue right now is that we have some money to do a little slice of things, and the council is going to fight it. So instead of worrying about things that aren’t on the table, what’s on the table is either getting this money for these projects, or NOT getting this money for these projects. We have to win this one before we can win the next one.

  6. Now all of a sudden he’s Mayor McCrackseal? What did SDOT spend on crack seal program over the last 3 years combined?

  7. Ben, you might get more people to read and respond to your recent writings if you allow for alternate opinions.
    Instead, you seem to want to counter every remark with your own defensive remark. It’s a blog, not a fencing match. Of the 21 total remarks, 9 have been from you, not even counting the original article.
    Just a suggestions, but let some ideas germinate.

      1. Norman has abandoned us for the Seattle Times, hence the dearth of germinations of alternate ideas.

        However, there was one thing I’d work for concerning streetcars, it would be to get the dang car traffic out of the way. It’s the glaring problem for the SLUS.

        At best, Exclusive ROW for as much time as feasible given station spacing, or at at minimum, true signal priority.

        It has to be faster than walking.

        Oh, and concerning the statements made above around “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.” , you overlook the most critical part of the software development process … Production Testing.

        (It will be addressed in the next release)

      2. Jim,
        I think you’d find little argument that any sort of transit works much better when it has its own space. Similarly transit works much better when it doesn’t have to wait for traffic lights, either via grade separation or signal priority.

      3. Jim, I can’t speak much about my specific testing processes, but yeah, I do some of that as well. Ideally I catch faults while they’re being coded, or even in architecture, but that isn’t always feasible.

      4. Old fart that I am, my experience is in the mainframe world, so when I screwed up with an online interface, everyone in the company knew, and my manager was right there to say “Fix it !!”

        The upside of that localized type of program development was that I was able to be in contact with the people who really used the programs I was writing. They knew I was the go-to guy for that particular system.

        The down side was they knew I was the go-to guy for that particular system.

    1. I don’t think those are limited by money, I think they’re limited by scheduling. Throwing money at already-executing contracts usually doesn’t help.

  8. We keep talking about rights-of-way for various public transit modes. And the general public will say “Why are we spending so much money on public transit when no one uses it compared to driving on the freeways?” Pro-transit people really need to change the conversation to point out that an interstate freeway is like a right-of-way for cars and that for public transit to be as successful(meant, as fast) as driving on the freeway, then that public transit also needs it’s own right-of-way. Imagine if you’re driving at 60mph on the freeway but then have to constantly wait for traffic lights. That sure wouldn’t be very fast, would it?

    1. I always think about comments like “nobody uses public transit” when I’m wedged in between four people on a crush-loaded bus out of downtown.

      1. Greg,

        I always think of that, too, when I am on a #41 at Northgate. I start calculating “4 busses per hour southbound, times 80 people per bus, times 15 hours” and I can’t wait for LINK to hurry up and get to Northgate!

Comments are closed.