On Wednesday, the Seattle City Council’s transportation committee will vote on Chair Alex Pedersen’s amendment altering spending priorities for the $20 vehicle license fee (VLF). Passed by the Council in November, the fee is expected to pull in $7.2 million per year.
While Pedersen’s amendment appears to have five votes via the five sponsors backing it — Pedersen, Andrew Lewis, Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda, and Debora Juarez — a committee recommendation isn’t assured. Only Pedersen and Herbold are members of the transportation committee, while Juarez is an alternate. Plus, some sponsors could change their mind and oppose the plan. Six Council votes and the Mayor’s signature are needed to ultimately approve bonding, and it’s not clear he has them.
Pedersen’s plan asks the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to come up with a plan to invest $100 million in bonds, with at least 75% earmarked for bridge maintenance. After engaging with various stakeholder groups as directed by City Council, SDOT has proposed investing 24% of the new VLF revenue on bridge maintenance and 73% on multimodal priorities (3% was held in reserve). SDOT’s plan was calibrated to focus investment in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, whereas most of the bridges Pedersen has namechecked seem to be in wealthier and Whiter areas.
SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe was critical of Councilmember Pedersen’s approach while testifying the at transportation committee on April 21 and followed that up with an email to stakeholders on Tuesday.
“We remain committed to the spend plan we developed with your feedback. Your time is valuable, your contributions are meaningful, and the needs of the communities you represent are important,” Director Zimbabwe said. “While we appreciate and share Council’s concerns about bridge maintenance, we are concerned that the proposed funding approach would not allow for sustainable investment in the many other needs you prioritized during the outreach process. We will continue to raise these concerns with Council and keep you updated as we learn more about the proposed amendment.”
Pedersen’s bonding plan would absorb the VLF revenues for 20 years to pay back bonds, which would get more money upfront but deprive SDOT of a funding source should new funding needs emerge later. It also locks in his spending priorities until the bonds are repaid. And while revenue at VLF’s scale could be a big deal to sidewalk and street safety projects, it’s a drop in the ocean of the city’s multi-billion-dollar bridge maintenance backlog, as I wrote about last week.
Zimbabwe also highlighted that bonding has some significant limitations in how it can be used. Banks and investors typically want collateral (such as a bridge they can toll) to guarantee the bonds, and sidewalk and safety work doesn’t really fit the bill. “Bonds are an important part of how we invest in our infrastructure but are not traditionally used for many of the things we included in our spend plan after consulting with you—like planning for the future, crosswalk repainting, sidewalk repair, bike lane maintenance, and even many of the investments we need to make in our bridges,” Zimbabwe said in his email.
Those compounding issues has pushed the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition, which includes The Urbanist and other like-minded groups like 350 Seattle, Transit Riders Union, Seattle Greenways, Disability Mobility Initiative, and Cascade Bicycle Club to oppose Pedersen’s amendment in public testimony and a recent press release. One issue the groups highlighted was climate delay and lack of equity and environmental justice lens.
“We find it deeply troubling that on the eve of Earth Day, Council is proposing cutting $80 million in multimodal funding. These are the transportation dollars that we need to reduce climate-destroying transportation emissions,” said Ingrid Elliott, from 350 Seattle, a climate justice organization. “Transportation accounts for 45% of our climate pollution in Washington State; infrastructure for low or no-carbon mobility like biking and walking is crucial to a healthy climate future, and makes our city a better place to live now. This is particularly true for the 1 in 4 residents who don’t drive. We support the original SDOT proposal that invests 75% in walking, biking, and transit projects and 25% in bridge repair. Councilmember Pedersen’s proposal to invert these investments is the opposite of what we need.”
Gordon Padelford of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways stressed the bridge funding was also being scrapped together at the expense of safe streets funding seeking to meet the City’s Vision Zero goal.
“As the Seattle Times reported in January ‘The latest numbers show once again Seattle is not making significant progress toward reaching Vision Zero, its stated goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.’ This is not acceptable,” Padelford said. “We must make it safe to walk, bike, and roll to bus stops, business districts, schools, parks, homes, work, and other community destinations. The best way to make meaningful progress towards keeping people safe is to increase funding for the data driven and evidence based Vision Zero program.”
Some people who donated their time to engage with SDOT on their spending plan also felt the rug had been pulled out from under them seeing a new plan that sidestepped the outreach process, as demonstrated by statements from Ellany Kayce, who serves on SDOT’s Transportation Equity Workgroup, and Patrick Taylor, who serves on the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board and Move Seattle Oversight Committee (in addition to being The Urbanist’s education and programming director.)
“We voted on multiple aspects of the transportation spending plan while centering ‘equity’ on all the financial decisions because of historical racism, displacement of BIPOC folx. For City Council members to agree with their amendment to utilize 75% for bridges, prior to the public hearing, undercuts all of our ‘equity’ work, time, and effort,” said Kayce, who is an enrolled Tribal member of Tlingit Nation/Raven Clan.
The MASS press release is in full below.
Take action: To contact City Councilmembers about the VLF spend plan, send an email to email@example.com or look up their phone numbers here. Seattle Greenways also created a letter-writing tool as a quicker option. Even better, testify Wednesday at the City Council’s 9:30am transportation committee hearing. Register for a public comment slot starting at 7:30am Wednesday.
Climate and Mobility Advocates Oppose Pedersen VLF Amendment Erasing $80 Million in Safe Streets Funding
The Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition urges the Seattle City Council to follow the outreach process it mandated when passing a $20 vehicle license fee (VLF) in November 2020. The Seattle Department of Transportation engaged stakeholders and struck a careful balance in its spending proposal that incorporated the City’s stated priorities of safety, climate action, mobility justice, and equity. SDOT’s proposal would invest 73% of the VLF on walking, rolling, and biking, while spending 24% on bridge maintenance.
Pedersen’s amendment to CB 120042 does the opposite, flipping the spending priorities. Instead of valuing input from the City’s modal boards and equity stakeholders, it bends the investments to his own preconceived vision — the same one he pushed for five months ago — erasing weeks of work with those groups and devaluing their time. The transportation chair overwriting and inverting that vetted plan does not honor that process, it subverts it.
Bonding is a big decision that would lock up these VLF proceeds for 20 years and add $40 million in financing costs, but instead of including the idea in the outreach phase, Pedersen waited until afterward to reveal the scheme. If the City of Seattle is going to ask people to donate their time to a stakeholder process, they should intend to follow through with that feedback rather than discard it almost immediately. If the City means to do right by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities and the equity stakeholders it engaged, the days of checking a box during outreach and proceeding with whatever the councilmembers wanted to do beforehand has to be over.
“I am an enrolled Tribal member of Tlingit Nation/Raven Clan and active member of the Transportation Equity Workgroup (TEW) with SDOT. The City Council asked SDOT to engage with the community regarding the VLF. We voted on multiple aspects of the transportation spending plan while centering ‘equity’ on all the financial decisions because of historical racism, displacement of BIPOC folx. For City Council members to agree with their amendment to utilize 75% for bridges, prior to the public hearing, undercuts all of our ‘equity’ work, time, and effort,” said Ellany Kayce (not an official member of MASS).
“As the Seattle Times reported in January ‘The latest numbers show once again Seattle is not making significant progress toward reaching Vision Zero, its stated goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.’ This is not acceptable. We must make it safe to walk, bike, and roll to bus stops, business districts, schools, parks, homes, work, and other community destinations. The best way to make meaningful progress towards keeping people safe is to increase funding for the data driven and evidence based Vision Zero program” Gordon Padelford from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways said.
“We have such a tremendous backlog of streets without curb ramps, with cracked and inaccessible sidewalks, or without sidewalks at all, especially in historically redlined parts of Seattle. This leaves old people who can no longer drive, youth, disabled people and people who can’t afford cars/rely on transit without the critical connections we need to get around our neighborhoods or to the nearest bus stop. Just last week we were in Delridge filming Tanisha Sepulveda, who cannot get to the nearest bus stop on 16th and Holden without rolling down Holden Street, in traffic, because of missing curb ramps and inaccessible sidewalks. She used to live downtown, but needed to move somewhere more affordable. And unfortunately, the more affordable areas of our city often lack accessible pedestrian infrastructure,” said Anna Zivarts, executive director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington.
“We find it deeply troubling that on the eve of Earth Day, Council is proposing cutting $80 million in multimodal funding. These are the transportation dollars that we need to reduce climate-destroying transportation emissions. Transportation accounts for 45% of our climate pollution in Washington State; infrastructure for low or no-carbon mobility like biking and walking is crucial to a healthy climate future, and makes our city a better place to live now. This is particularly true for the 1 in 4 residents who don’t drive. We support the original SDOT proposal that invests 75% in walking, biking, and transit projects and 25% in bridge repair. Councilmember Pedersen’s proposal to invert these investments is the opposite of what we need,” said Ingrid Elliott, from 350 Seattle, a climate justice organization.
“As we work to create a better Seattle, we must invest in transportation projects that improve equity and safety, and advance our climate goals. Our city’s underserved communities are asking for and deserve better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. We are failing on our Vision Zero goals, and we saw this real life impact with three tragic recent deaths in Georgetown, Lake City, and Seward Park. It is not safe to bike and walk in many Seattle neighborhoods, and that’s not right. We cannot afford to backtrack on investments that advance racial equity, Vision Zero goals, and help us solve the climate crisis. Investing in active transportation, community identified projects, and meaningful neighborhood improvements must be prioritized in our funding and development plans,” said Tamar Shuhendler of Cascade Bicycle Club.
“Active transportation projects like bike lanes create more jobs per project dollar than roads and bridges. As we emerge from the pandemic, we can create good union jobs and reduce carbon emissions by investing in infrastructure that makes it easier for people to walk, roll, bike and ride transit,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union.
“The West Seattle Bridge is a 37-year-old bridge. Its failure was a result of a bad design and a likely construction defect, not a lack of maintenance funding. If councilmembers want to address the billion-dollar-plus bridge maintenance backlog, it’s going to take a lot more than $75 million. I encourage them to come forward with a real funding proposal not a bonding scheme swiping safe streets funding. The $80 million cut from safe streets and sidewalk projects could make a huge difference, more equitably distribute benefits, and create more jobs in the process. Let’s stick with SDOT’s vetted plan,” said Doug Trumm, executive director of The Urbanist.
“It is critical that the City Council allocate $3 million of VLF funds to complete updates of the transportation master plan. Without doing this work, we will lack a coherent and cohesive direction for future expansions. Without a Seattle light rail vision, there will be a downtown light rail tunnel that could help connect many Seattle neighborhoods but won’t. Without a citywide light rail plan and local champions, the ST3 tunnel downtown will lack the futureproofing necessary to add access to key future light rail corridors including Aurora, Route 8, and Madison,” said Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of Seattle Subway.
“The SDOT plan reflects both the feedback that was given as part of their outreach process and aligns with the city’s values as embodied in adopted policies such as the Climate Action Plan, Vision Zero, the Bicycle, Transit, and Pedestrian Master Plans and the Race and Social Justice Initiative. The Pedersen amendment will ignore public feedback and waste a whopping $40 million dollars on interest payments. The council should not ignore the work of stakeholders and accept the spend plan as proposed by SDOT which will support the health and safety of Seattle residents, reflect our climate commitments, provide jobs in our community, and help fulfill unfunded Levy and Bicycle Master Plan commitments that council has made,” said Patrick Taylor, co-chair of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board and their representative on the Levy Oversight Committee (speaking as an individual).
Doug Trumm is the executive director of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.