No one is going to remember the Durkan administration, positively or negatively, based on its transit or land use legacy. The twin crises of the pandemic and a reckoning with racist policing will dominate the historical record. But here at STB, we always size up the outgoing mayor (Murray, McGinn, Nickels) on this basis. And her legacy will largely be stasis, with isolated progress and some major setbacks.
The preceding Murray administration had largely locked in a transportation agenda with a vehicle license fee for bus service, Move Seattle, and Sound Transit 3. A first Durkan term would therefore always have been one of consolidation. Ms. Durkan campaigned as a policy continuity candidate from a productive but scandal-ridden predecessor. On this measure, her term was a disappointment.
The item that will most likely resonate for years to come is the failure to commit to a light rail alignment. Sound Transit requested that cities consolidate their request into a single alignment within a year to streamline the environmental review process. Instead, Seattle alone has dozens of alternatives still in play in year 5, largely because of a total inability to say no to any interest group. Worse, the main purpose is to reduce “impacts” (burying lines and moving the train away from activity centers) rather than to improve the experience of future riders.
Not only has this resulted in years of delay, but it is an important cause of a steep escalation in cost for the Ballard-West Seattle alignment. The result will be years of less convenient transit trips and coping with value-engineered lines in perpetuity.
The 2020 Vehicle License Fee Renewal was the one measure the Durkan administration had to address. Regrettably, she was disinclined to fully replace the expiring revenue, and had to be dragged by the Council to limit the cut to about 200,000 service hours. 80% of voters approved the measure in mid-pandemic, implying that leaders could have pushed much harder to preserve service.
It’s often said that personnel is policy. Sam Zimbabwe was an excellent hire at SDOT, with the right values and an ability to execute. Items below the radar, like bus and bike lanes, kept happening, aided by quiet pandemic streets. Morale improved at the agency. When Metro didn’t have capacity to take the dollars Seattle voters were ready to give it, Durkan championed interesting experiments to largely eliminate youth fares and run microtransit to improve Link access. Stay Healthy Streets, though less politically tricky than many people think, have been popular and may outlive the pandemic.
When transportation programs had embarrassing setbacks, Mayor Durkan’s instinct was to press pause, arguably making problems worse. The Center City Connector streetcar connection, which would supercharge a fragmented system into a consolidated line with dedicated right-of-way, ended up in limbo, neither cancelled nor greenlit, where costs can simply escalate. Its fate remains uncertain.
On the land-use front, the long HALA effort finally finished in 2020, upzoning 27 neighborhoods and legalizing ADUs. Set in motion by Mayor Murray and driven by the Council, the Durkan Administration did not attract attention in the process. There certainly was no impetus from the Mayor’s office for another round of deregulation, like an attack on single-family zoning. But Seattle continued to build housing, albeit not nearly enough to contain housing costs.
After all that, Seattle voters approved a candidate that largely promised to continue Durkan administration themes. Mayor Harrell does not have a reputation as a transportation visionary, but he generally went along with Council majorities to approve transit measures. We’ll see how a mix of cross-pressures drives his decision making over the next four years.