SDOT takes a hit in Mayor’s budget proposal

Mayor Durkan announced her 2021 budget proposal on Tuesday, with cuts in many departments due to COVID-19 and, in the case of Seattle PD, a push from the council and the community to redirect spending elsewhere.

One of those elsewheres will be SDOT, which is inheriting SPD’s parking enforcement division along with its ~$15m annual budget. But even with parking enforcement moved over to the SDOT ledger, the department would still have an $85m funding gap on a $608m budget. Director Zimbabwe will present the new budget to council later today.

The Center City Connector is still on pause, but the Northgate pedestrian bridge over I-5 is still funded. Also new is a $100M bond(!) to help with West Seattle Bridge repairs. Madison BRT is also full steam ahead, having received a green light from the FTA’s project management oversight consultant as well as $35.8M in funds from Sound Transit (part of ST3).

What was once a bold vision for 7 multimodal corridors has unfortunately been pared back significantly. As Dan wrote last week, Metro’s deteriorating finances mean that the only in-city RapidRide routes currently funded are the G line (Madison), the H (Delridge) and the J (which we used to call Roosevelt-Eastlake but now won’t even reach Roosevelt).

Continue reading “SDOT takes a hit in Mayor’s budget proposal”

SDOT and Metro have some big ideas for Route 44

Source: SDOT

Last election cycle, virtually every city council candidate knew enough about Seattle transit to say they supported “better east-west connections.” You don’t have to ride the bus very much to know that getting across town can be a slog. Promising to fix it turns out to be a popular idea.

At a series of open houses last week, SDOT, in partnership with King County Metro, previewed Level 1 concepts for one of the most important of the east-west routes in the city: the 44. The route, which runs from Ballard to the University District, had been initially proposed as RapidRide but then de-scoped to “multimodal improvements” when the Move Seattle Levy was reset.

While the RapidRide amenities and branding are nice to have, the most important things are the speed and mobility improvements. With these initial concepts – which are drafts for discussion purposes – SDOT is trying to get creative in making east-west transit faster.

Continue reading “SDOT and Metro have some big ideas for Route 44”

Levy Spending is Slowly Ramping Up

Bike lanes on NE 65th St
Roosevelt Bus Lanes at 65th St (SDOT)

After a bumpy start, the Move Seattle levy is slowly starting to spend significant funds, SDOT staff told the Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

The meeting began with advocates from the MASS coalition giving testimony on the need for prioritizing buses in a time of climate crisis.  Committee Chair Mike O’Brien agreed, noting that if the city is going to ask people to ride transit, it ought to be reliable and convenient.

SDOT staff presented the quarterly oversight report, which includes a status update on dozens of levy-funded projects.  Spending has been lagging for several years now, due to a combination of factors, including an uncertain federal funding environment, difficulty hiring construction firms in this white-hot labor market, Mayor Durkan’s 2018 “reset,” and a surprisingly cold and snowy winter.  Indeed, money is being shoveled out the door even slower than SDOT had forecasted just six months ago:

 

Still, despite the snow and the Seattle Squeeze, this was the busiest Q1 to date in terms of project spending:

Staff were generally optimistic, pointing out that the Lander St. Overpass project is now $20M under its $130M budget.  On the other hand, contracting issues are causing challenges with the Northgate pedestrian bridge project (though the project as a whole hasn’t yet been delayed).

We’ll get more updates on the multimodal corridors, including RapidRide improvements, later this year.  Most corridor work will be in concert with Metro (e.g. RapidRidge G & H), though on Rainier Avenue multimodal updates will arrive in 2022, before RapidRide bows in 2024.

Finally, later this year SDOT also plans to identify a potential new location for the Mt. Baker transit center as part of the Accessible Mt. Baker project, which will be a welcome improvement.

Bus lanes stay intact in RapidRide H 30% design

Route 120 in RapidRide Branding by Zach Heistand on Flickr

SDOT and Metro are still hoping for a 2021 opening date for RapidRide H in Delridge, but some potential utility work could delay things until 2022, according to a presentation (PDF, video) to the city’s Sustainability Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

Staff seemed hopeful, however, that an agreement with Seattle Public Utilities to move the stormwater facilities off of Delridge Way could let the project proceed as planned.

Otherwise, the 30% design is looking good for transit, though not much has changed from the 10% design in December. Proposed improvements include:

  • 1.5 miles of 24/7 bus lanes
  • 1.2 miles of peak-only bus lanes
  • 13 station pairs being updated with RapidRide branding as well as bus bulbs
  • Signal priority and two queue jumps

(Since this was a City of Seattle presentation, it was focused on the city’s side of the route. Burien will be seeing improvements as well.)

As usual, the messy tradeoff between bikes, buses, and on-street parking leads to some compromises. Parking will be removed in some areas, especially where SDOT is adding both bus and bike lanes. There will be some protected bike lanes and some diversion to neighborhood greenways on either side of Delridge. The (generally high quality) greenways themselves will be improved.

SDOT is responding to the community’s desire to extend the northbound bus lane further south, to reduce delays in the AM peak. We’ll know more at 60% design (this would be a good thing to advocate for if you go to one of the spring design presentations).

Finally, SDOT is interested in working with Sound Transit to coordinate capital improvements with a future Delridge link station, though it’s still very early in the ST planning process.

The long, narrow nature of the corridor and lack of major cross-streets means that there’s real potential for speed and reliability improvements with dedicated lanes, in-lane stops, and queue jumps.

The next round of outreach will happen this spring, with a goal of construction in 2020 and opening in 2021. Route 120 is the 10th busiest in the system, with 9,000 daily riders. The $70M project budget includes paving and stormwater as well as the bus & bike infrastructure.

RapidRide Update: Some Now, More Later

RapidRide E on 3rd Avenue Credit: SounderBruce

Several of Metro’s busiest routes are scheduled to be upgraded to RapidRide before 2024, while several others will get speed and reliability improvements but without the RapidRide branding, according to the agency’s latest Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

While RapidRide is a program of King County Metro, Seattle’s 2015 Move Seattle Levy promised “seven new RapidRide+ corridors” in the city, which were pitched as above and beyond current RapidRide in terms of dedicated right-of-way. In the face of budget pressures and an increasingly hostile federal funding environment, SDOT reassessed the levy earlier this year, SDOT saying that while it “can deliver investments on all seven RapidRide corridors…the cost to complete a level of investment that aligns with the higher mobility needs of our growing city and meets community expectations is greater than available funding.”

As Metro and the City work out what they can actually deliver and on what timeline, that level of investment is coming into focus.  Continue reading “RapidRide Update: Some Now, More Later”

Roosevelt BRT Will Not Be Rapid

Northgate-Downtown HCT-01
Latest Concept Design – Graphic by the Author

At an open house last night at the TOPS School in Eastlake, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) presented updated ‘concept designs’ for the Northgate-to-Downtown High Capacity Transit Project. Like Madison BRT before it, the concept design will be refined and completed over the summer, after the which the project will seek funding. As a RapidRide+ corridor under the Move Seattle levy, the public will surely have an expectation that they have already funded most of the work, though they are likely to be disappointed in that regard.

When we last left the project, SDOT was analyzing three levels of investment, RapidRide (basically nothing), Targeted Investments (“Rapid Ride+”), and full Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Mobility outcomes between the three options varied widely. The “Targeted Investments” alternative – clearly being telegraphed as the most likely – would yield 28% faster travel times, improving from 6.5mph to 8.3mph. The Full BRT option would yield nearly nearly light rail speeds, improving to a 21.5 mph corridor average.

Average Speed Roosevelt BRT

As expected, SDOT has chosen to advance the Targeted Investment option, largely foregoing dedicated bus lanes in favor of a patchwork of Business Access and Transit (BAT) lanes, queue jumps, and small intersection improvements. In short, though the investments in frequency and electrification are fantastic, there is very little in the plan that could plausibly be called High Capacity Transit or Bus Rapid Transit, and the project will have far less in terms of transit priority than Madison BRT.

So what did SDOT show last night? Details after the jump… Continue reading “Roosevelt BRT Will Not Be Rapid”

Licata’s Move Seattle Alternative Isn’t Progressive

nl1City Council member Nick Licata, who’s retiring after his term ends at the end of this year, would like his legacy to include amending Move Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed $930 million transportation levy, to be smaller and less dependent on regressive property taxes.

Arguing that voters are approaching tax fatigue and that his alternative is more progressive than the mayor’s proposed property-tax levy, Licata has introduced amendments that would reduce the overall package by $100 million and cut the levy itself to $600 million, with the $230 million difference paid for through the commercial parking tax (which would increase from 12.5 to 17.5 percent) and an annual employee hours tax, paid by businesses, of $18 per employee.

He also proposed an amendment explicitly barring SDOT from spending any Move Seattle Money on streetcars, and another requiring the department to file annual reports showing how they’d spent levy dollars each year.

The cuts and substitutions, Licata said during a briefing on Move Seattle last Tuesday, would reduce the size of the average homeowner’s annual property tax bill to $179 in the first year, compared to the Murray option’s $275. It would also reshuffle the tax burden to employers in a way that appeals to the economic-lefty crowd (the bigger the company, the more it would pay), and to drivers in a way that appeals to the transportation-lefty crowd (drivers would pay more to maintain the roads they use).

Dig about an inch under the surface, however, and the Licata amendments are far less progressive—in both the economic and the political sense—than they appear.

Let’s start with that streetcar amendment. It reads, in its entirety, “None of the Levy Proceeds may be used to build or operate streetcars.” In other words (as an increasingly agitated SDOT director Scott Kubly pointed out last week), no matter how circumstances may change, or how priorities may evolve, or how much outside funding may become available, not a dime of the Move Seattle money could be used on streetcars for the nine-year duration of the levy.

This is no small prohibition.  Currently, Kubly noted, the city is finishing up the First Hill streetcar and may want to extend its northern terminus to Aloha in the future. Under the Licata amendment, the city would have no “flexibility to use the funds [for] the streetcar to have better access to light rail.” With per-mile ridership projected at about double what Link light rail is currently carrying, Kubly said, “This is a real transportation option. It’s not a toy.”

msLicata, a frequent rail opponent during his 18 years on the council, noted that Move Seattle currently includes no explicit references to streetcar, making it only logical to make the prohibition official. “This simply memorializes what was seen as the intent from the mayor,” Licata said. After a test back-and-forth with Kubly about whether the streetcar was or was not inherently a boondoggle, Licata concluded with a pretty cheap shot—”This is new information, that the levy’s intent is to build and operate a streetcar”—to which Kubly responded tersely, “That’s a mischaracterization of what I said.”

Although the Licata streetcar prohibition seems unlikely to pass, it did give Licata a chance to throw shade at rail investments, and on the mayor’s transit-oriented development agenda more broadly. Fixed rail is generally seen as more conducive to TOD (because a transit system that stays in place can be the foundation of a stable community in ways that buses can’t), but it’s also associated with gentrification and extra cost. Hence the tension.

In comparison, the parking and “head tax” should be no-brainers, right? Both are progressive—the former in the sense that it discourages driving by making it more expensive, the latter because big corporations pay more because they have more employees. Unfortunately, neither case is that clear-cut.

To start with the head tax: The trouble isn’t that employers pay it (Licata’s argument that it will “help shift the burden away from homeowners and renters” and onto big businesses is compelling). The problem is that in the service of making the tax more “user-friendly” and easier to implement (last time, businesses complained that the tax required too much paperwork), the Licata amendment eliminates the very provisions that made it progressive (in the environmental sense) in the first place—exemptions for employers who encouraged their workers to find another way to work besides driving alone. It was those exemptions that employers found onerous—as Licata noted, “80 percent of their complaints were about paperwork”—so Licata simply eliminated them. In the form Licata proposes, the tax would be easier for employers and give them no incentive to invest in alternatives to single-occupancy car commuting.

sk1

Although the commercial parking tax avoids this problem (there’s a direct nexus, or linkage if you will, between driving and paying to park your car), increasing the city’s already-controversial 12.5 percent parking tax by 40 percent is inherently regressive (in the economic sense). Because the tax is the same whether you’re driving a 1990s Honda or a late-model Jaguar, lower-income drivers will be hit hardest by the tax. Even if you believe, as I do, that it’s generally good policy to discourage driving and encourage alternatives, it’s undeniable that flat taxes, like the sales tax, hit poor people the hardest.

Moreover, a large increase in the parking tax for Move Seattle would tie up transportation funding capacity that could be used for other purposes in the future, such as in-city bus service. That’s one reason Transportation Choice Coalition program director Shefali Ranganathan said her group opposed using the tax to replace part of the proposed levy, because “there may be other uses” for the tax.

Finally, Licata’s proposal relies on the notion that voters are afflicted with “tax fatigue” and may balk at a $930 million but have no problem with a $600 million alternative. The consequences “if the public believes this is too large a bite of the apple,” Licata said, could be dire. First, the levy would have to wait at least two years, since the housing levy is up for renewal in 2016. In the meantime, SDOT would have to lay off a quarter of its staff and stop doing many of its core functions, Licata said. And that’s assuming another levy would pass in 2017. In other words, disaster.

Instead, Licata said last week, “Maybe the best approach is doing this [amended version] now to get the levy to pass at a smaller level. .. The goal here is to provide the best transportation package we can afford, and one that we are fairly certain the voters will vote for.”

The tax fatigue prediction will be familiar to anyone who reads the Seattle Times‘ editorial page–stretch the voters to their breaking point and eventually they’ll snap. With the exception of 2014’s county-wide Proposition 1, that alarmist prediction has never come true. In Seattle, there are approximately zero people who will vote against a $930 million package because of “tax fatigue” who will suddenly vote for it at $600  million. To the contrary, a smaller package does less for fewer parts of the city, meaning that fewer people will see value in voting for it.

Ultimately, a levy, or taxing package, will live or die based on whether voters think it’s worth the money, and whether it will help them get from Point A to Point B. Council members should scrutinize the details of the proposal, but squeezing it down to less than what we need and shrinking its impact on property owners out of fear that they’ll vote against it if they aren’t properly pandered to is a strategy for failure.