Broadway/Madison (SounderBruce)

Heidi Groover and Daniel Beekman with a good scoop in The Seattle Times:

But the draft assessment focused on SDOT’s management makes the broader claim that the department is not yet prepared to manage a major FTA-funded construction project.

PMA Consultants concluded that SDOT “does not yet have the management capacity and capability to implement an FTA-funded major capital program.”

Seattle has received federal transportation dollars for road projects like the Lander Street overpass and Mercer Street rebuild. But the city has in recent years also sought federal funds for several ambitious transit projects.

SDOT had previously revealed that they were pushing the start date back to 2023 per the FTA’s recommendation, but hadn’t given more details. More consultants are being hired to help with oversight.

One striking thing looking at the project’s org chart is how many consultants are already involved. I count 12 separate firms. On one hand, over-reliance on consultants can make it difficult for an agency to develop in-house expertise. On the other, if it takes this many years to build a single BRT line and we don’t know if we’re going to build any more BRT lines because we don’t know if another ballot measure will pass, I’m not sure there’s a better alternative.

SDOT’s expansion over the last decade or so from primarily road maintenance to more ambitious multimodal capital projects has been uneven. I would have thought that by now we’d have reached the point where building transit infrastructure is a more routine affair.

42 Replies to “More scrutiny for SDOT and Madison BRT”

  1. Between the first hill streetcar fiasco, center city connector, and now this… why exactly is SDOT so incompetent? Why can’t Metro be in charge of transit projects instead?

    1. Don’t forget the Northgate pedestrian bridge. That was another big failure — taking much longer and costing much more than it should.

      1. It isn’t going to be iconic. The original plans were to make something grand (and pretty cool looking) but they proved too costly. They came up with something cheaper. That really wasn’t the problem.

        The problem is well described here: There is a summary of the project here: It will be built (there is even a special “groundbreaking” ceremony tomorrow). But the process seems chaotic. If this was an isolated incident, it would be one thing; but between the streetcar, the Madison BRT, and the big fiasco with Move Seattle, SDOT has some serious problems. Maybe all of there were due to Kubly (he was clearly corrupt) but they may be more systemic.

    2. It’s not that SDOT is incompetent; it’s that SDOT advertises for one thing and changes the ultimate contract significantly to be another. When contractors put in bids, they design the teams of firms and staff and budget to fit what’s requested. Once SDOT picked the preferred firm team, they appeared threw out the modest bid and work tasks — and give lots more money and new tasks to the preferred firm team.

      Grants often come with strings attached about competitiveness, and that can be different than how a department normally does business. SDOT staff appears to have a very different preferred way of doing basic business. At its worse, the SDOT process used here can be used to “rig the bid” to get the firms they want — hence the audit.

      1. Tom: yes, the Murray-Kubly SDOT seemed focused on monuments (e.g., CCC Streetcar, Madison, Roosevelt) rather than transit mobility.
        Barman: yes, SDOT could focus on transit capital as under the C, D, and E Lines and Metro could do service design.
        Was there too much chasing of limited FTA funds; where was the consideration of a budget constraint? The initial Madison budget had only $12 of $120 million as local funds.
        Note that SDOT does many things well.

      2. “Was there too much chasing of limited FTA funds; where was the consideration of a budget constraint?”

        The cities and agencies are aware that getting a grant for one project means they probably won’t get a grant for another project, so they priorities. The counties and cities articulate the priorities. The problem is Seattle prioritizes the CCC too highly so that has displaced other projects that might have gotten a grant.

    3. Metro doesn’t have the money. Its base revenue goes to operations and renewing the bus fleet. There’s a trickle of increased service with the booming economy, but significant expansions must be funded by a specific ballot measure. The last two countywide Metro expansion measures failed. (The last one was billed as preventing recession cuts, but the recovering economy superceded it, so it would have led to an expansion if it had passed. Seattle’s later TBD implemented Seattle’s part of it.) Metro is also near its tax ceiling.

      Seattle could have outsourced RapidRide G/H/J planning to Metro and paid for it. Metro wasn’t enthusiastic about the corridor (it preferred Madison-Broadway or something) but it would have gone along with Seattle’s corridors. Maybe Seattle should have done so.

      1. Mike Orr, yes, mayors Nickels, (and ST2), McGinn, Murray, and Burgess chose slow local streetcars over transit mobility.

  2. Isn’t Madison a street? Paved lanes, with some pretty-ordinary utilities underneath? And adjustable traffic signals? Standard wire for trolleybus?

    Usable under a variety of operating rules? We don’t seem to be talking “Bullet Train” here, do we? And am I wrong that Seattle has never had so much money?

    Anonymously if need be, could someone in Seattle Department of Transportation tell us Seattle Transit Blog readers what you need to get this straightened out. Like painting lanes and running signal system manually.

    And since this awful morning has put this topic in the same news day as Iowa Primary returns (Lord, that org. chart is a horror!) would be good to hear from the Democratic Party. Not needling, but asking in good faith:

    As transit riders, voters, and citizens, what, right now, can we do?

    Mark Dublin

  3. When will the Montlake Triangle changes be done? In time for the March service change and strangulation of the 255??

  4. Maybe what the city should do is just give all their transit money to Metro, with nothing more than a stipulation that it be spent on things benefitting Seattle.

    1. That’s sort of how the TBD works. With capital projects not so much. But it’s not clear to me that Metro has any particular expertise rebuilding city streets for BRT that would greatly improve the situation.

    2. Oh, that’s right. Metro doesn’t have authority over streets. Still, Seattle could have Metro do the planning and oversee the construction contracts, and Seattle would just approve it and issue the permits. That’s how Link’s infrastructure is done.

    3. Remember, METRO was not formed to be a transit agency. It was formed to build a storm and sanitary sewer system to clean up Lake Washington. It got handed the bankrupt mess that was Seattle Transit. Eventually the transit function was split off and is now what we call METRO but the organization was formed to oversee a capital works project under the financial oversight of King County.

      1. Metro took over operating buses from Seattle Transit and the private suburban agencies. There may have been an initial capital project to buy new buses and build the first P&Rs and freeway stations, but that was long ago and has no relevance now.

        The current situation is, Metro has money for operations and maintenance and some capital improvements as the economy goes up and down, but not for major expansions. Metro now has a long-range plan listing what it wants to do; most of the planned RapidRide lines require future ballot measures to fund. Metro can’t unilaterally run a bus on a new street; it has to ask the city’s permission. It can’t unilaterally modify the street; it has to get the city DOT to do it or partner with it to do it.

      2. That may have happened but it was also two generations ago and has little to no relevance to the facts on the ground today.

      3. It’s relevant that County financial oversight hasn’t had the problems that Seattle has. And this Seattle problem has been around for a long time.

      4. Bernie, that may be, but a reference to a single event that happened before I – and likely a lot of the posters here – were even born hardly proves the case.

      5. Remember, METRO was not formed to be a transit agency.

        Metro was intended to be a transit agency and much more per the enabling state legislation. The first vote in 1958 to create Metro included public transit and comprehensive planning. It passed in Seattle but was narrowly voted down in the suburbs so it failed. They came back a year later focused on sewage and it passed.

        under the financial oversight of King County

        Metro was an independent agency, governed by its own board, up to 1993. King County assumed its functions from 1994.

  5. The org chart linked in the post is kind of disturbing to me. Who is taking the financial risk on creating deliverables and getting results? Who is approving the deliverables and authorizing the invoices?

    That’s all on top of fulfilling the requirements that come with the grant.

  6. Lately really starting to regret leaving Seattle’s voter rolls, though it was farther from my own choice than the distance of the move. Because right now Madison Street is so clearly a matter for electoral politics to settle.

    Once came across the word “Depression” defined psychiatrically as “learned helplessness.” If some lane-striping and utility-adjustments are too much for a city-agency….if this not the kind of thing the people need to recall a Mayor over, what DO the voters need to do?

    Outside of Seattle Transit Blog readership, is there anything like a permanent lobby whose purview is public transit right now?

    Mark Dublin

    1. Unfortunately, Seattle transit advocacy seems to have taken a backseat to multi-modal groups that don’t prioritize the rider experience. It’s complex because transit requires other modes to reach it — at least walking. Still, I feel like SDOT has made its priorities about bicycling first, second and third. Decisions to remove two-way left turn lanes (proven much safer than the result: opposite direction traffic separated by a stripe in prior reports written by SDOT) in favor of adding protective widths and plastic sticks to existing bicycle lanes (meaning that buses get stuck behind turning cars) can only be seen as how relatively unimportant transit is to these folk.

      Other transit advocates seem focused on income issues like fare subsidies and free transit. It’s noble but it’s more about our income inequality than it is about transit access.

      Seattle Subway seems to be the closest. They certainly have a long-term pro-transit perspective. Still, they seem to be more utopian as opposed to being more strategic.

      The mere fact that there isn’t an active rider’s group and forum reviewing all the different projects going on (as opposed to multiple “stakeholder” meetings and presentations) with the lame excuse that everyone is a rider demonstrates the local political reality today. Rider concerns just aren’t important.

  7. I think it’s important to mention that many other urban areas have joint power structures to develop projects like these. There are independent technical committees with representatives of both cities and operators on it to provide oversight. Instead, we have a culture of fiefdoms where each entity runs the whole process — like selecting consultants with panels from only one agency, and approving scope changes without multi-agency or multi-department review. For those used to the way things happen in Seattle, they don’t see a problem — like being in a family with a dysfunctional power dynamic and thinking that the dynamic is normal or even optimal . For those like FTA who see how many different places work, the familiar ways of making decisions in Seattle seem very problematic.

  8. Thanks for the replies. Now, question: What does anybody know about Sam Zimbabwe, Seattle’s Acting Chief of Project Delivery? His own choice of his name indicates he’s not averse to being noticed in public.

    How and what is he doing right now? Anything to do with Madison BRT?

    Quick search tells me that transit-advocacy groups in Seattle are indeed focused on issues of fairness and safety. But to me, fairness and safety regarding Madison BRT is in the realm of “nuts and bolts”.

    Does Madison have a business community on the model of Downtown Seattle? Maybe just one man’s opinion, but think that, if it’s done right, we’re talking crowds of passengers from across the region being delivered right to shop-doors.

    Some older plans had a future Link station at Madison and Boren. Regional access to beg for. And Swedish and Virginia Mason Hospitals definitely with major dermatology in this game.

    But mainly, and mindful of staying [Topic Oriented], I’m seeing these BRT troubles as evidence of what I think is worst danger for politics anything like mine.

    A major party gone over from a working peoples’ tool to the service and purview of expensively book-enlightened aristocrats. And unmindful of any difference. And maybe worst difference of all:
    compared to DSTT days, this time less than no no help from the other party whatsoever.

    Some relocated trolleywire, some painted lanes, some re-set traffic signals, and some buses. If need be, fully operable with existing fleet. Seattle and your politics, pay the consultants what you owe them, walk over to Madison, and just build it.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Mark, the First Hill Link station was planned to be under Madison Street at Summit Avenue (not Boren Avenue). it would have been a mined station. the station was dropped before construction. the surface site will have affordable housing.

  9. I think a big part of the problem is that the head of SDOT is appointed by the mayor. Every new mayor brings a new director and resulting instability and turnover within the organization. And we’ve had four elected mayors in the last ten years, plus two interim mayors. Not much of a chance for the organization to get settled and build expertise and momentum when there’s a blowout every few years. Perhaps the consultants ironically represent stability that is lacking within the SDOT organization.

    1. Even under just the current Mayor we are on SDOT Director #4. Kubly resigned at the end of 2017, then we had two interim Directors. Sam Zimbabwe just finished his first year in the role.

    2. Kubly’s term had an order-of-magnitude more problems than previous terms, and it’s taken two years to get to the bottom of and clean up, get a new permanent director, and for him to establish his influence. Previous mayors didn’t always replace the SDOT director immediately, did they? Durkan had no choice, she had to fill the vacuum — especially given the number of pressing projects pending — and she’s not exactly the best on transportation so it took her a while.

      1. I agree. Kubly was a disaster. That is the root of the problem.

        Durkan had no city experience. She was not a city council member, nor a member of any part of the city administration (deputy mayor, head of the police, etc.). She came from outside, just like Murray. Like Murray, she is basically learning as she goes, and the results have not been good so far.

  10. Steve, and Ness, thanks for raising the night’s most important consideration: need not only to understand inherited wrongs and mistakes, but to get out from under their lingering influence.

    Personally, am trying to think of things the electorate can simply order its officials to fix. And also personally help with replacement or repair.

    The reworking of Madison Street seems to me to be a prime example of a “just do it.” No tunnels, nothing elevated. Maximum speed about thirty. Contraflow running, like at Bellevue Transit Center, should avoid the need for left-side doors.

    Exact kind of thing that could alleviate the dreaded homelessness – probably caused by Wuhan-by offering people wages they can use to buy or rent homes. More to the point in Seattle, buy them back.

    Side-light, maybe, but there’s a precedent old as our country’s history: Institution of house-raising, whereby neighbors combined their efforts to build each other homes. Skill-level-wise, should work for bus lanes too.

    Mark Dublin

  11. Following up on Bernie’s comment about Metro’s origins, I started riding Metro in 1980. A handful of Bellevue routes (226, 235, 240, 252, 253, 340; all very different from today), and some Seattle routes (2, 7 (7/49), 43 (43/44), 48, 71, 72, 73; all approximately like their pre-U-Link counterparts). It seemed like Metro had been there for a long time, at least to my junior-high brain. But had they really started under Metro’s name and route structure only a year earlier?

    Before Metro, was there a private route like the 226? It was hourly from Overlake to Northup Way, NE 8th Street, downtown Bellevue, Enatai, Mercer Island, downtown Seattle. Or what were Eastside-Seattle routes like, particularly from east of Crossroads?

    P.S. The fare was 40 cents one zone; 60 cents two zones.

    1. The origins of Metro as a transit authority go back to 1972. I was living in Lakewood south of Tacoma and starting HS. My recollection is of driving up to Redmond to visit a tack shop in an “old” building DT (later to be Alpine Sports and probably not even there anymore). Redmond had one stop light. According to Wikipedia this was the same year METRO finally got the go ahead to take over bus service. So yeah, in Jr High 8 years would seem like forever.

      “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”

      I’ve said it before but not for a while. Take an MEHVA tour. Talk with some of the operators that were in danger of losing their pension. Really, if you care this should matter.

  12. Dig into the details of the plan from the beginning. The center lane planning along with the need for special equipment doomed this project from the beginning by making a simple infrastructure plan overly complicated. I’d be shocked if Metro was treated as an equal partner in this part of the planning and if they ever endorsed the procurement of new buses for this line.

  13. Most SDOT projects suffer from over-engineering but the Madison BRT design is the most extreme example of unnecessary wastefulness by far. There’s no way the cost-benefit analysis pencils out to put the bus in the center lane. All of the curb building, signal replacement, running electric for lights/signs into the middle of the street, special buses, etc. etc. Every other bus in Seattle runs in the right lane and Madison is already a 4-lane street with right side bus stops already in place. The bus would flow just fine with a right side bus only lane with turn restrictions and queue jumps like every other rapid ride line. $120 million and the center lane does not even include a true physical barrier to separate it from the car lane! And the bus lane constantly zigs and zags to a different position on every other block. It’s about time someone is asking these questions!

    1. Bus speed matters. This project is in place of an underground subway and it needs to perform better than regular buses. Right-side bus lanes must let cars cross them to access building driverways, and some cars abuse/misunderstand the lane to drive several blocks in it. All the factors you raise are judgment calls or technical issues. The engineers know the technical issues, do you? The judgment calls are making a values judgment. The decision is reasonable, and SDOT is the one we’ve vested to make the decision. The bus lane does not “zigzag” every other block; it divides the corridor into thirds.

  14. The question remains, what problem is the BRT or Rapid Ride G on Madison going to solve and how many new problems (unintended consequences) will it cause. It may be time to use our previous transportation dollars where it is needed most.

    I was originally for this project when it supposed to be electrified and go from the ferry terminal to Madison Park, but not the current plan for a Rapid Ride on Madison.

    So what do you think and please realize that this SDOT project will impact drivers and bus riders (routes 8, 11 and 12) is not necessarily in a positive way? I was originally for this project when it supposed to be electrified and go from the ferry terminal to Madison Park, but not the current plan for a Rapid Ride on Madison.

  15. The wisest thing Rob Johnson did during his short term was to quit the Council early. Many unanswered questions. Follow the money

  16. When I first about the federal probe I was a bit puzzled. But now it starts to make more sense. The City just flat out does not have the organizational muscle developed to execute projects and maintain compliance with federal requirements. Otherwise they wouldn’t be under investigation and they would be more reliable in project delivery. It’s unfortunate we have this individual fiefdom which is obviously creating inefficiencies and inability to develop / maintain expertise.

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