How WSDOT Has Blocked Completion of the Rainier Valley Greenway for Years

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A planned connection to the Mountains-to-Sound Trail from the Rainier Valley Greenway includes this state-owned property.

The Rainier Valley Neighborhood Greenway is the longest continuous greenway in Seattle, running over five miles from Rainier Beach to Mount Baker. Completed in 2018, the greenway takes a large of number of twists and turns to provide a signed, relatively calm walking and rolling route between and within Rainier Valley neighborhoods. But its utility to provide a safe crosstown biking route has always been hindered by its many twists and turns, and by another fact: it’s still incomplete. The greenway lacks a connection to the north and onto the Mountains-to-Sound Trail that connects Beacon Hill across I-90.

Current neighborhood greenway signage directs users to turn onto S College St, where the wayfinding immediately disappears. (Photo by the author)
Current neighborhood greenway signage directs users to turn onto S College St, where the wayfinding immediately disappears. (Photo by the author)

Today, if you follow the neighborhood greenway signage to 30th Ave S and S College St in Mount Baker, an arrow directs you down S College St, and after that you’re on your own. That’s because the planned final leg of the greenway, along 28th Ave S, was separated from the rest of the project after the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) ran into a problem getting permission to construct a trail connection at the end of 28th. Without that trail, sending users down 28th doesn’t work. So for years, people have been left to figure out their own way to get to the trail.

The orange connection to the I-90 trail was planned to be completed in 2018. It remains unfinished. (SDOT)
The orange connection to the I-90 Trail was planned to be completed in 2018. It remains unfinished. (SDOT)

The property in question is a part of Sam Smith Park, and is owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). A set of emails obtained by The Urbanist reveal the long battle between SDOT and WSDOT to come to an agreement around use of the property. That battle has continued into 2021, when a lease agreement was on the verge of being signed between the state and the city early this year, but city staff were surprised to find that the proposed agreement would have committed SDOT to paying nearly $24,000 per year to WSDOT in perpetuity (tied to inflation) after paying to design and construct the trail connection itself.

Discussions with the state over completing this connection date to at least late 2016. City staff, including SDOT Greenways Project Manager Summer Jawson, met with WSDOT staff in both 2017 and 2018 regarding the proposed design for the trail connection, and the design was modified based on feedback from the state. Additional documents surrounding the project, including details of how it relates to Seattle’s comprehensive plan and Bicycle Master Plan, were provided to WSDOT to develop a trail agreement.

A planned connection to the Mountains-to-Sound Trail from the Rainier Valley Greenway includes this state-owned property.
A planned connection to the Mountains-to-Sound Trail from the Rainier Valley Greenway includes this state-owned property.

In September of 2018, WSDOT’s legal division determined that they wouldn’t be able to provide a no-cost trail lease because the trail doesn’t have anything to do with a state highway. “This segment of the [neighborhood greenway] is not adjacent to, severed by, or a part of any state highway. The trail does provide a separation of motor vehicle traffic and pedestrians from municipal streets and routes (increased safety), but not from a state highway. There is no reliever effect, joint use, highway purpose or other benefit to the state. We must pass this test before the state can issue a no consideration trail lease as a highway benefit,” Marty Stickford, Northwest Region Program Manager Supervisor at WSDOT told SDOT then.

Of course, the fact that WSDOT asserts no “reliever effect” from the creation of a connection to a five-mile neighborhood greenway in Seattle is narrow-minded and incorrect. People who would be using I-90 who live in or visit the Rainier Valley would be much more likely to use the greenway connection by bike instead of driving, if the connection actually existed.

After reaching what seemed like an impasse, SDOT’s Acting Chief-of-Staff at the time, Darby Watson, went to Barb Chamberlain, the director of WSDOT’s Active Transportation division, to see if there was another path available to making the connection happen. Chamberlain reiterated the decision made by the legal department: “Given the existing connection along the sidewalk and since no existing trail was severed by a state highway, this site doesn’t meet the statutory obligations that would enable a no-cost lease.” (The sidewalk is on MLK Jr Way S, one block away from 28th Ave S.)

After a site visit in 2019, Chamberlain wrote: “On our walk-through we identified a possible alternative for you to consider: A short connection to the sidewalk from the end of 28th would likely be something we could say yes to…If you were to approach this as a widening of the sidewalk that wouldn’t be a new trail.” A cost to this approach was alluded to in the same email. “SDOT is paid to maintain property on the lid. If that payment were reduced that could serve as consideration for the new facility. I don’t have a dollar figure; that would need to be worked out.”

In exchange for redesigning the trail to become a direct connection to a widened sidewalk along the east side of MLK Way, WSDOT would be able to grant an airspace lease. But emails after that point reveal it wasn’t clear to City staff that WSDOT would be adjusting the city’s compensation rate in that agreement due to the change. In 2019, WSDOT reimbursed the City of Seattle nearly $340,000 for maintenance work at Sam Smith Park. The proposed adjustment would have reduced the amount reimbursed yearly by $23,665. In 2021, when the the airspace lease was finally received by SDOT, Reiner Blanco, working on the project at SDOT, wrote to WSDOT: “We reviewed the proposed lease and were surprised to see the following, a $5,916 quarterly fee…Is there another type of agreement we should be reviewing / signing?”

The issue of whether the City of Seattle will pay for the privilege of being able to create a new connection across an underutilized property owned by WSDOT appears to be unresolved. SDOT Media and Public Affairs Lead Ethan Bergerson didn’t shed much additional light on where negotiations currently stand. “We still want to use this route to connect the Rainier Valley Greenway to the Mountains to Sound trail. The City is currently working with WSDOT to create a lease agreement which would allow us to build this portion of the route on state right-of-way,” he told me earlier this month. The city has been working with WSDOT to get such an agreement for nearly five years now.

This multiyear saga underscores the red tape and hurdles that come from having to negotiate with a state agency like WSDOT even on projects that clearly advance statewide goals around improving mobility and involve very few tradeoffs. The benefits of finally completing the Rainier Valley Greenway ran headlong into rigid and likely outdated state systems that are not set up to accommodate them. It’s unclear if a legislative fix or an administrative one would be the best final result here, not just for this specific connection but for others like it across the state. It is clear that something is broken.

Update: WSDOT spokesperson Bart Treece offered some further justification for the department’s actions in an email. He portrayed WSDOT as supportive of the greenway but constrained by state law.

“We have legal obligations that we must follow and are working with the city so we can come to an arrangement to achieve this,” Treece said. “Ideally, we look for no-cost solutions on something like this, which can be challenging at times. We are able to do this in one section of the greenway, but for another portion, the city must enter into what’s known as an ‘air space lease’ to use the property, which is required by state law.”

Treece wasn’t budging from the assertion that WSDOT’s hands were tied, meaning the City of Seattle would have to pay for the right to improve the WSDOT property and pay for the improvements as well.

“We completed a market analysis to develop the $24,000 lease fee,” Treece said. “We’ve been paying the city to maintain this property and others for some time, but since they want to change how this section is used, we will end up paying less and it becomes a credit. This is because there is a monetary value that must be associated and captured to ensure we are on firm legal footing.”

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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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Neel B

I have been riding this route, with my family and friends, for years. I’ve always wondered by the the greenway is signed to go up the steepest grades to Mt. Baker on a twisting path. Good know it’s not because the city’s Greenway designers are out to lunch, though I do have some complaints about other routes (Columbia City area, where routing is atrocious and takes you further from the business district on a twisting route).

It’s frustrating to hear it’s all over a 50-yard stripe of grass no one uses for anything that we pay to have mowed periodically. Painfully stupid. I also feel for those in the office of legal council for WSDOT, who can be held PERSONALLY liable for any decisions that run afoul of the law in any way. This legal approach guarantees the most restrictive, hard-headed reading of every little picayune detail in the state code, common sense be damned.

asdf2

In the meantime, the picture seems to you suggest you can work around this dysfunction by just walking your bike over the curb and riding on the grass.

Neel B

The grass is steep and slick in the rain. It’s a lousy route, which I still use from time to time, but.. it’s lousy, bumpy, slick, and dumb.

d reeves

great article, thanks for this.
It’s disappointing that no one at WSDOT feels empowered to use good judgement.

Cathy Tuttle

Welcome to the real world of public space planning!

Parks, streets, and plazas are typically owned by multiple public entities, and those entities are each guided by a different set of laws, risk liabilities, and maintenance constraints that differ hugely. Planning a Safe Route to School involves sitting down with reps from Schools, Streets, and often Parks and Utilities. Waterfront trails usually involve cooperation of multiple Street agencies, plus Ports, Transit, Army Corps of Engineers, and Natural Resource agencies. The Duwamish Longhouse access that advocates have been working on for over a decade requires the coordination of the Tribe, plus SDOT, WashDOT, Port, and Rail.

Who loses in this multi-agency wrangling over public space? The public loses. Projects are delayed. The staff costs of getting many agencies to agreement is huge. And the actual projects often end up less usable for people because so many regulations and maintenance agreements need to be accommodated.

What’s the solution? Smart advocates, clear plans, AND strong visionary elected leaders who support the return of public space to the public. Governors, Mayors, Port Commissioners, and other elected reps are often able to direct staff at multiple agencies to a common goal.

It’s happening in cities around the US and around the world. Streets are being opened as plazas. Networks for people who walk and bike are overlaid on multiple street and park grids. Schoolyards and parks are blending into usable public space. Let’s make sure the Seattle area elects leaders who understand and are dedicated to great public space soon!

Ellen Butzel

Spot on Cathy!

Cathy Tuttle

Thanks Ellen. I looked over the alphabet soup of agencies that have regulatory power over public space use and management and realized there are a few major ones I left out of my original comment!

In addition to Schools, Parks, Utilities, multiple Streets agencies (mainly WashDOT, SDOT), Ports, multiple Transit (Metro, Rail, Ferries), Army Corps, Department of Natural Resources, Tribes there is also Land Use Construction, Arts Commission, Landmarks, Design and Planning Boards, and a huge variety of local groups and private landowners that can make or break public space developments.

It’s a miracle anything EVER gets built for the public on public land. The tiny connection between SDOT and WSDOT public property that Ryan’s article focuses on should be easy — but clearly public space collaboration is never as collaborative as we would like.

Last edited 1 month ago by Cathy Tuttle
steve

FFS. Lease the land to the city for $1 a year and let them build the trail.

Neel B

They are not allowed by law to make sweetheart leases. It’s an anti-corruption measure. Market rate only for all public property unless otherwise indicated by law.

I’m not saying it’s a good way to do it. I’m saying, that’s how they do it.

Dave Shaw

I ride this frequently and use the connection to the I-90 trail at 29th & Atlantic. Is there an issue with assigning this route to connect the Greenway?

Jason

There’s a difference of ~40 vertical feet going up over 29th vs going to 28th, and you can’t avoid a climb if you follow 28th and then go back to 29th because Massachusetts between 28th and 29th is super steep.

Dave Shaw

Rode it today to confirm my memory. The grades on 29th are more gentle that down College then back up to the I-90 trail at 28th. The connection at 29th through the park is easy. There are Greenway signs on 29th at Massachusetts and Atlantic. Completing the greenway requires only a sign at College and 29th, or continue up 31st to Grand and sign the turn to 29th.

Neel B

All other routes are exceptionally steep.

dave

Wow, this is incredibly frustrating. Not quite at Missing Link-level yet, but still ridiculous that it is taking this long to get such a relatively simple connection built.

Neel B

In a way it’s worse than the missing link because it’s literally 50 yards of ground no one is using for anything – no traffic, no freight, no park amenities. Just grass.