The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is going through a tough couple of years, and it doesn’t have a permanent leader.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has not made any indication that they are searching for a permanent SDOT director, though the administration has been in office for a year. Durkan’s staff did not respond to repeated questions from STB, starting on November 27, asking whether an SDOT director recruitment process was under way.
The agency has had trouble completing the large capital projects it has asked to deliver. The First Hill streetcar opened several years late after delays from the vehicle manufacturer. The downtown Center City Connector streetcar has been delayed indefinitely, albeit due to interference from Durkan.
More worryingly, SDOT has not delivered on the ambitious bike and bus projects promised in the Move Seattle levy, as Frank wrote yesterday. Move Seattle promised seven RapidRide bus lines on major corridors. Now, SDOT can only deliver four, and those projects are each delayed by at least a year. Madison BRT, which was supposed to be up and running next year, will instead launch in 2022.
SDOT’s struggles can’t be helped by its recent leadership tumult. SDOT has been working under temporary directors for nearly a full year: the last permanent director, Scott Kubly, resigned on December 15, 2017. Kubly’s tenure was itself fraught, as Kubly was fined for ethics violations related to the city’s docked bikeshare program, Pronto. Goran Sparrman took over for Kubly until August of this year on an interim basis, then was himself replaced by the current interim director, Linea Laird.
SDOT still has a full plate. The downtown streetcar may still yet be built and RapidRide must be finished. The Viaduct is set to close on January 11 and be demolished over the course of 2019, while the Convention Center expansion will simultaneously kick off. In combination, those projects will cause all sorts of mobility complications on SDOT’s right of way.
Meanwhile, Sound Transit will settle on its locally preferred alternative for the West Seattle and Ballard light rail lines in April. Those projects demand serious input, attention, and coordination from the City of Seattle. After all, the Sound Transit board is designed to silo spending in subareas, and dilute Seattle’s influence over capital project planning.
Snohomish and Pierce County officials have made clear that they see heavy Link spending in Seattle as a zero-sum threat to their own Link projects:
Seattle stakeholders have generally expressed preferences for the most expensive alignments presented by ST. In West Seattle, for example, residents prefer a tunneled line near the junction. An elevated line would be much cheaper to construct, and would offer the same quality of service.
“If they want a tunnel, they’ve got to figure out how to pay for it,” Somers says. “I’ve said this before: we could easily spend the entire $54 billion Sound Transit 3 package going to West Seattle and Ballard. But we’re not going to let that happen, because we’ve got a commitment to finish the darn system. I’m not against a tunnel, but the rest of us are not going to sacrifice our portions of the system for a tunnel.”
The City of Seattle could defuse that tension by kicking in funds for West Seattle and Ballard extras, but the City Council and Durkan have been mum on the subject. Presumably, a permanent SDOT director would be an essential player in developing a City-directed third party funding plan.
With so many generational projects at critical junctures, it’s surprising that Mayor Durkan has still not found an official to permanently direct them.