The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has shelved plans for a safety improvement adjacent to Asa Mercer Middle School in Beacon Hill, the location of the most automatic tickets for speeding in school zones anywhere in the city during the last full school year.

The project had been fully funded, and was selected by both Beacon Hill’s District Neighborhood Council and the Move Seattle Levy Oversight committee as a part of the 2016 Neighborhood Street Fund (NSF) program. The idea for the project had originated in neighborhood planning dating from at least 2008 and was submitted to the NSF project in coordination with Mercer Middle School, according to SDOT’s outreach materials. It was originally planned to be completed last year.

Ethan Bergerson of SDOT told The Urbanist in a statement: “After extensive design and coordination with the community, we were unable to reach a consensus on a design that could be supported by the community as a neighborhood proposed NSF project.”

The project would have slowed traffic near the huge triangular intersection where 15th Avenue S joins S Columbian Way. Only one marked crosswalk exists on Columbian Way with a signalized crossing, and the expanse of roadway encourages high speeds through the intersection, which is used by middle schoolers before and after school in order to access transit heading north or south. Twice in the last five years a collision at this intersection has resulted in an overturned vehicle–these aren’t fender benders.

Configuration of 15th and Columbia with triangle intersection. Where 15th Ave S joins S Columbian Way is currently a huge triangular intersection. (Google Maps)
Where 15th Avenue S joins S Columbian Way is currently a huge triangular intersection. (Google Maps)

The safety improvement would have squared of the intersection by eliminating the the leg of the traffic triangle turbocharging 15th Avenue S through this trouble spot, requiring a turn to continue on 15th Avenue S south of Oregon Street. Instead, southbound 15th Avenue S transitions into Columbian Way without the messy interchange. A plaza would have been created with the remaining street space, a secondary consideration to reducing speeds.

Proposal for 15th and Columbian that squared the intersection by creating a plaza.
The original proposed design squared off the triangular intersection. (City of Seattle)

The primary design aspect that opponents of the project was the elimination of left turns from the eastbound S Oregon St onto northbound 15th Avenue S. Residents of the neighborhood to the west of the project argued that there was no good alternative to making that turn. We first reported on the objections to this safety project in July of 2017.

In response, SDOT offered to make improvements to nearby intersections that would mitigate the loss of that left turn, including adding a full all-way stop one block south at S Snoqualmie St and turning the pedestrian-only crossing signal two blocks north at S Dakota St into a fully signalized intersection. That full signal at Dakota was actually installed earlier this year. SDOT told us “we were able to accommodate this request outside of the NSF program.”

They also developed an entirely new proposal that was presented in 2018 at community meetings: keeping the signal at S Oregon St that would have allowed left turns by eliminating the crosswalk on the north side of the intersection from the design. This increased maximum wait times for pedestrians to navigate the intersection to approximately three minutes, a fact not mentioned during their outreach process even as the vehicle travel times were prominently displayed.

Design showing changes as proposed but with north crosswalk eliminated
The “compromise” proposal released in 2018 eliminated a crosswalk and made pedestrian wait times skyrocket. (City of Seattle)

The school zone speed camera at southbound 15th Avenue S adjacent to the Middle School records an astronomical number of tickets issued: during the 2018-2019 school year, there were an astounding 8,012 tickets issued to drivers exceeding the 20mph speed limit, over 800 per month. The cameras only capture speeding at certain times of day immediately before and after school hours. This makes the southbound 15th Avenue S camera the busiest school zone camera in Seattle, way ahead of the second busiest on southbound 24th Avenue E at Montlake Elementary just south of SR-520. (Montlake Elementary also has the fourth busiest camera, the northbound one for 24th Avenue E, giving that school the title for most speed tickets overall–more than 12,000 in a single school year.)

During the last school year at southbound 15th Ave there were some months with more than 1000 speed tickets issued
During the last school year at southbound 15th Ave there were some months with more than 1000 speed tickets issued. (Graphic by author)

Margaret McCauley is a member of the City of Seattle’s School Traffic Safety Committee (STSC). Reached via email, she told me, “STSC believes that SDOT should follow their own mandate to be ‘data driven’ and use the clear evidence that the current intersection design is not making it clear to drivers that they are in a neighborhood setting where children, the elderly, blind people, and people with mobility challenges are simply trying to get around and live their lives. If the speed camera data is not used to inform and improve our roads, what is the point of it?”

She continued, “I took my middle schooler to one of the public outreach sessions in 2018 thinking he might see how public engagement works. We were both horrified at the behavior of our adult neighbors. SDOT has talented engineers and designers. There are many thoughtful middle schoolers attending Mercer who are available to test potential intersection designs with SDOT. The data clearly shows that if we let the current adults decide how use this space, they choose to do so in a unsafe manner. If there is any point to school zone cameras beyond revenue generating, the City should make that clear by rapidly and physically making 15th and Columbian safe enough for middle schoolers busy impressing each other to cross.”

According to SDOT, improvements to the intersection will be re-evaluated when the process for repaving 15th Avenue S begins, which is scheduled to be completed in 2021. But without full funding and with no clear support for completing the project as approved through the NSF process, even with numerous concessions made in the name of compromise along the way, that doesn’t look very likely. 15th Avenue S and S Columbian Way will likely continue to see astronomical numbers of drivers speeding during school hours, and our chance to fix this intersection for the better appears to have passed. I really couldn’t put it better than Margaret McCauley—what is the point of saying our transportation department is data-driven if we continue to see outcomes like these?

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Donde Grovilly nailed it. That was the first design SDOT showed people, a four way intersection which was probably the original configuration, before they turned 15th into an off ramp for I5. No one complained because it retained the Oregon usability, which is really the only safe way in and out of this housing area, as it was designed to be. It was only when SDOT showed up with an army of employees to blitzkrieg the community with a completely different design that eliminated Oregon functionality that people objected, because it was a bait and switch. It was SDOT who was hostile to the community, not the other way around. In reaction to neighbors objections, SDOT held more meetings which were just arm twisting exercises to make people accept their design. At one meeting, Bruce Harrel called out SDOT for being “passive aggressive toward the community.” At another I attended, SDOT showed up and angrily shoved blank sheets paper and pencils at people sitting at the tables and said, “What would you do? Draw it!”
    The last meeting SDOT held was during a smokestorm when the news was telling everyone to stay inside, and SDOT was telling people to bring out their children to another arm twisting meeting, which I did not bother attending.
    SDOT engineers are a bunch of arrogant, rude, passive aggressive weirdos, with poor communication and people skills. Their public involvement process is dishonest and illegitimate. That is why people are just sick and tired of SDOT’s act all over this City.
    Maybe the Urbanist would like to report on why seven of fourteen speed cameras are in district 1 and 2?
    I asked an SDOT engineer why that was. He said that they want to make sure communities pay for their own improvements. A century of institutionalized discrimination and systemic under serving and underinvesting in in Seattle communities of color aside, that is not happening now, so where did the money go? Probably to the white North Side, speed camera-less neighborhoods SDOT and the clueless millenial suburbanite Urbanists live in, as usual.
    I would like to see an “Urbanist” report on that shocking detail. Maybe they could justify it like the Beacon Safe Streets Social Justice Cyclist/Urbanist who told me it was right “Because the South End is hard to police now!” You know, on account of the Department of Justice taking over the Seattle Police Department with a consent decree for abusing the people of District 1 and 2. I guess SDOT now thinks they need to take up the slack. Maybe we need to have the DOJ investigate SDOT for racial bias too.

  2. Was there discussion about how this plan could have impacted parking and access to local businesses like cafe quilombo? Also curious to hear more direct perspectives from local neighbors who objected. I am a neighbor in beacon hill and vaguely heard about this issue, and I remember hearing that the plan was developed and brought to the neighborhood rather than the other way around. It seems important that it would be in SDOT’s interest to treat the neighbors and local businesses as partners and co-creators with valuable lived experience rather than subtly implying that they do not care about safety. Change is hard, so I’d be curious what part of the process wasn’t handled well and for some self reflection – or at least that’s what I’d hope from progressive leaders in Seattle.

  3. Maybe there’s something here I’m not seeing, but it seems the obvious solution is to create a standard 4-way intersection, with 15th Ave as the North-south direction and Oregon/Columbian as the east-west direction. I mean, that solves the Oregon St access problem, allows for crosswalks at every leg, and makes the intersection easier to understand (since going straight keeps you on the same-named street). I really don’t understand why they can’t implement this obvious solution.

  4. What’s wrong with both a left turn and a crosswalk on the northern side of the intersection?

    Have they considered other alternatives, like turning this horrid intersection into a roundabout? So southbound traffic can’t proceed directly onto Columbian Way.

  5. I’m more than disappointed to read this, but also grateful for the Urbanist’s coverage: I wouldn’t know the project I’d been looking forward to had been scrapped.

    This is a terrible intersection, both for cars and for pedestrians and bikers. Columbian/15th is a freeway–when driving and I’m stopped at the light, drivers run it all the time.

    Guessing this is another #okboomer last gasp to control everything and make things miserable for everyone else. Cutting a lane and extending the bike lanes farther down 15th would have been a great step for the future, but even the proposed intersection fixes would have been better than what’s there now, especially for kids trying to get to school.

  6. This appears that SDOT is avoiding this project and avoid the costs associated with it. Choosing saving $’s over safety. Need to re-think how budget $’s are prioritized and spent with SDOT. A project fully funded but not started and completed? $’s spent on studies and design, and then stopped? Is this a proud moment for SDOT? What has this accomplished?

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