Funding Outlook for Seattle’s Bicycle Master Plan is Bleak


While we wait for the full results of the Durkan administration’s reassessment of spending and deliverables in Seattle’s nine-year Move Seattle transportation levy, details are starting to emerge on where exactly we are in certain programs. Last Wednesday, Interim Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Goran Sparrman and key SDOT staff met with the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board to break the bad news about how off track we are to meet the levy’s stated goal of construction of 60 miles of protected bike lanes and 50 miles of neighborhood greenways.

The board was given an updated budget for the bicycle master plan (BMP) segment of the levy, one of 23 subprograms overall and one of eight subprograms that the department has said is in danger of not being able to meet its levy goals. While some of the subprograms, particularly the multimodal corridor improvements, assumed a level of leveraged matching of dollars that is now being called overly optimistic, the bike master plan’s budget did not. In fact, the updated budget says there’s a possibility that more outside funds in the form of federal or state grants could go toward BMP goals.

Updated bike master plan budget info, original and updated. (Source: SDOT)

In other words, in a worse case scenario, total bike master plan funding is estimated to be $2 million lower than originally estimated, with some local funding taking the place of most of the unsecured leverage dollars. With additional leveraged dollars, some yet to be identified, total funding could end up being more than originally estimated.

The problem with the bike master plan is on the spending side (or perhaps overpromising in the first place). Doing the math on the original $94 million plan, 110 miles of bicycle facilities, again both protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways, works out to the famous $860,000 per mile figure for bicycle facilities. This is one of the biggest ways in which Danny Westneat’s column was misleading: protected bike lanes were always considered to cost more than that–with the lower cost of a typical neighborhood greenway bringing down the average. Downtown bike lanes with added signals, removal of curb bulbs, and load zone improvements are obviously going to cost even more. That is not to say that it wasn’t a more expensive project than anyone would have predicted going into it. One way costs seemed to have escalated is via unanticipated utility work, the cost of which was lumped together with Second Avenue protected bike lane costs.

Exactly how we got to $12 million (“Actually closer to $13 [million]”, Director Sparrman told the board) for one mile of bike lane on Belltown’s Second Avenue isn’t exactly known right now. Darby Watson, Project Development Director at SDOT, told the board that the department has hired an outside consultant to review spending on Second Avenue, but she also stated that she will defend the decisions made around the project, that she was confident that everything that was done needed to be done to deliver that segment of the center city bike network.

2nd Ave in Belltown. (Photo by the author)

But it’s not just downtown lanes that are coming in over the original estimated costs. In 2016 and 2017 combined, the first two years of levy spending, 10.3 miles of bike facilities were constructed–less than 10% of the way toward the original goal. But during that time, we spent $23 million, almost a quarter of the original assumed BMP budget. It’s not $12 million per mile, but $2.2 million per mile is still way above the $868,000 per mile cost that we need to hit to achieve levy goals. In other words, without additional funding, we are going to need to lower our targets, dramatically. Watson also brought up the possibility of considering alternate bike facilities toward the goal. The levy goals said that projects like trails, buffered lanes or climbing lanes cannot count toward achievements. The suggestion, then, is that we could lower the standards for bicycle projects so as to produce them in the volume promised to voters.

SDOT’s bicycle projects for 2018, 2019, and 2020 are already selected, and their implementation isn’t set to change. We should have an exact project list as soon as the yearly implementation plan is released–it has been delayed this year, likely due to the reassessment of spending. According to budget estimates, which are absolutely not set in stone for most of the projects on the list because they’re still in early levels of design, 30.6 miles of neighborhood greenways and 24.9 miles of protected bike lanes set to be installed during that period will cost $56.4 million, or $1.02 million per mile. Exactly how optimistic this figure is, based on recent spending, isn’t clear.

The most worrying budget revelation is that Seattle will only have $24.4 million for the last four years of the levy (2021-2024) based on estimated costs and what’s been spent already, even with the optimistic per-mile cost estimates used for the overall BMP budget. We’re set to lose momentum on our citywide bike plan just as Northgate Link opens. Even if everything goes according to plan, 44 miles of promised bike facilities will remain to be built with that projected $24.4 million remaining in the coffers. And the current pattern of bike project delays and de-prioritization would suggest it won’t go according to plan.

Last week the national bike advocacy organization People for Bikes released a new ranking system for bike cities across the country. Seattle ranked surprisingly low on the list at 50th between Omaha, Nebraska and Bismarck, North Dakota. Despite ranking sixth overall in the category of ridership and 14th in network, Seattle was way at the bottom of the list on safety and on acceleration, a measure of “how quickly a community is improving its biking infrastructure and getting people riding.” The 0.7 out of 5 score illuminates how Seattle has stagnated in its role as a national bike city. This peek under the hood at our bike budget doesn’t bode well for that path being corrected. Seattle may need to look outside the box if it hopes to change that.

2nd Avenue’s Extended Bike Lane Officially Opens through Belltown

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the blog since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. In December 2020, Ryan started a three-month stint as editor of Seattle Bike Blog.

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How many miles of conventional bike lanes now won’t be built, because the City spent all this money on one mile in Belltown?

Helmetless Joe

The BMP called for a Greenway on 42nd SW in West Seattle. When the board of options were presented, it became options for a cycletrack/parking protected or post-protected bike lanes for 3?-4 blocks (0.3 miles). I wonder if they’ll have bike signals.

SDOT isn’t trimming project budgets, it would seem.
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Great work putting the pieces together.

As John Pucher pointed out a while back — in 1990, Seattle was the nation’s leader in cycling, with even 50% higher mode share than Portland. Now’s it’s… well… half that.

You can only make bad decisions and give lip service to critical community needs for so many years, until people catch on.

Brock Howell

Solid write-up Ryan. A few suggestions for how we should move forward:
(A) Don’t force the bike community to accept lower quality, less safe bikeways in order to hit the BMP mileage goals.
(B) Have a bigger conversation of prioritizing the overall Levy funding, such as ITS v. the BMP. ITS wasn’t a core part of what was sold to the public. The Levy (and the ballot measure campaign), were built around three core principles: (1) connecting neighborhoods/corridors with transit & bikeways, (2) Vision Zero safety, and (3) basic maintenance.
(C) Making smarter decisions about how to build infrastructure. For example, the Green Lake Area Paving & Safety Project includes 3 new signalized intersections – probably costing a collective $1 million +. At least one of those isn’t necessary, and if SDOT was willing to allow for piloting all-way stops for at least another year, we could save the entirety of the $1 million. But if SDOT proceeds with the three new signalized intersections, then I’m sure that $1 million will get billed to the new protected bikeways. So, part of saving money shouldn’t simply be about cutting back on the quality of bikeways, but should also be about cutting back on the level of service expected to be provided for vehicles.

Heads up: Seattle’s Places for Bikes Rating is mainly low because SDOT didn’t send complete information to People For Bikes. As a result, Seattle got virtually no scores for Acceleration and a few other key data inputs, and didn’t receive a 0.1 point boost overall.

Helmetless Joe

“Signal-timing improvements were a _core_promise_ in last year’s voter-approved Move Seattle property-tax levy, which earmarks $13 million, in addition to the $1 million Mercer project, to upgrade at least five corridors per year for the next nine years. Several downtown streets lack even a magnetic, car-detecting loop in the pavement, so their stoplights run strictly on a clock.”

In other news, everyone was able to see their favorite type of cheese in the list of suggestive levy projects and their personal bias comes out in long-term memory.