Mounted police in Pioneer Square. (Doug Trumm)

Despite the Seattle Department of Transportation having the distinction of being the largest city department, excluding the twin utility behemoths of City Light and Public Utilities, the city council spent relatively little time discussing tweaks to Mayor Durkan’s proposed 2019-2020 transportation budget.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is now on its second interim director under the current administration (with the search for a permanent director still underway and not begun in earnest until late this year). Revolving leadership or not, SDOT is also expected to deliver major progress on some of its biggest capital projects in the coming two years, from long-planned bridge replacements to capstone mobility projects. The 2019 budget is set to be the largest spend year for SDOT over the entire nine-year life of the nearly $1 billion levy.

A last-minute decision to take advantage of increased red light camera funds, which had previously seen a portion of their funds restricted to safety projects, and was diverted into the general fund for councilmember-selected projects outside the transportation realm. This led to transportation advocates feeling like they suffered a big loss. In another light though, the council’s lack of appetite to have a policy discussion around the issue in the middle of budget belies a larger truth that the department is not making significant progress on safety.

SDOT still has not released its annual traffic report for the year, which includes finalized safety performance information for last year, but all signs point toward stagnation on our commitment to ending serious and fatal injuries on our streets by 2030. This budget doesn’t reflect that reality.

The mayor’s proposed budget already took advantage of camera revenue to move forward “deliverables” promised to the voters that SDOT was likely to come up short on funds for, but when the department is already convinced that it is on track to meet the most important goal of the levy–eliminating fatalities–and the mayor has not shown any interest in recommitting herself to the goal either, then it is not surprising that the budget we have now reflects a steady-as-she-goes mentality. And the council is not likely to make much of an impact on that goal during budget season.

Changes to the Transportation Budget Made by City Council

One of the biggest transportation-related adds by the council was a $350,000 pilot program for “home zones”–a concept not tried in Seattle yet that is seen as an alternative to expensive new sidewalk construction. A home zone would limit access to vehicles by installing traffic diverters and add impediments to ensure traffic stays slow in order to enable pedestrians walking on a street without a separated sidewalk to feel safe. Seattle Greenways made the home zones pilot a top priority and successfully lobbied it through with an assist from Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition.

Also added by council was a half million dollars for a third phase of the Rainier Avenue “Vision Zero” project. Phase 2–from S Kinney Street to S Henderson St–is on track to move forward next year and will add a bus lane but not dramatically change the layout of Seattle’s most dangerous street. According to the green sheet, Phase 3 will focus mainly on the far southern end of the corridor but also will include “spot improvements” on the busy northern segment of the street between Mount Baker and Columbia City. The half million dollars added by council brings the total budget to $1 million.

$50,000 in expected commercial parking taxes will be used by the council for a further study of 3rd Avenue as a transit corridor, working with the Downtown Seattle Association to re-envision the long term future of the corridor. 3rd Avenue’s sidewalk space remains pitifully small compared to the number of transit riders it serves, particularly when compared to other high-use transit malls across the country. Recent changes on 3rd Avenue move in the direction of fully utilizing the space available.

$250,000 in commercial parking tax is also anticipated to fund “urban freight mobility and alley congestion reduction efforts.” This follows a statement of legislative intent in last year’s budget committing the city to working with University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab, the One Center City agency partners (now Imagine Greater Downtown) to find ways to innovate around urban deliveries. UPS’s newly announced program of using electric cargo trikes around Pike Place Market would be an example of this sort of innovation.

The council also placed some restrictions on SDOT spending via provisos in the passed budget. 

The Move Seattle levy included money for short-term bicycle and pedestrian improvements on Seattle’s bridges as well as funding for studies centering on those bridges’ long term futures. A proviso signed onto by Councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Teresa Mosqueda, and Rob Johnson would set aside $1.5 million specifically for improvements at the southern end of the Ballard Bridge, an infamous unsafe spot for people on bikes and for people walking to deal with.

In another win for the MASS coalition, SDOT is also prohibited from moving forward with any adaptive signal systems, like those currently in place on Mercer Street, without presenting a plan to do a better job at detecting the presence of people walking, biking, or on transit vehicles and better integrating them into the signal cycles. The green sheet states that “[s]ignal policy should align with Seattle’s adopted climate, public health, safety, and mobility goals.” Slowing down the adaptive signal mania was an emphasis in the MASS letter to mayor and council.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold has also included a request in the budget that any operating agreement for the Center City Connector streetcar submitted in the future to the council for approval include:

a) projected performance measures for the first 6 years of streetcar system operations with the Center City Connector (including ridership, fare box recovery ratio, productivity, fare evasion, and reliability);
b) identification of funding sources for construction of the project; and
c) identification of contingency strategies and potential funding sources to address the risk that Federal Transit Agency funds are not received.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has still not made a final decision on whether to approve the Center City Connector project after an independent consultant report confirmed the internal SDOT ridership forecasts for the line.

The council has also requested reports from SDOT on:

  • What any gap in funding for a Thomas Street greenway in Uptown would be. With the Oak View Group set to provide some funding for adjacent transportation projects around the Key Arena renovations, moving this project forward could be a big mobility project for the neighborhood. 
  • What speed and reliability improvements will be funded around planned RapidRide lines within the next five years, in light of the updated spending gap anticipated due to a lack of Federal funding, and any gaps in funding that have been identified to make further improvements. SDOT must report to the Transportation committee by March 31, 2019.
  • A report on “new mobility” options not currently in use in Seattle, including scooters and “transit pods” (whatever those may be). This report will be presented to the Transportation committee by June 1, 2019.
  • A report on improvements to freight corridors connecting to Interbay, including Greenwood Ave (currently missing many blocks of sidewalks), Aurora Ave, 15th Ave W, Elliott Ave W, and Alaskan Way. The word “safety” does not appear in the green sheet, sponsored by Councilmember Sally Bagshaw and signed onto by Councilmembers Mosqueda and O’Brien.
  • A report on what SDOT intends to do with the area around the Battery Street Tunnel, after the Washington State Department of Transportation completes its work decommissioning the highway portion of the tunnel. The green sheet discusses the possibility of Seattle Public Schools utilizing a portion of the south portal property to site a school, and the potential for urban space amenities built with either private or public dollars. This report would go to Councilmember Baghsaw’s Finance and Neighborhoods committee rather than Transportation–Bagshaw represents District 7 where the work would occur.

As the council spends the next year focused on the Move Seattle reset, downtown mobility around the viaduct closure, and a possible streetcar restart, all eyes will be on the mayor and her proposed SDOT head to make significant progress around transportation. If her first year in office is any indication, we shouldn’t expect much innovation.

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Article Author

Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist 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. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.