A project in the works to build a protected bike lane on MLK Jr Way S has been delayed. (Photo by the author)

Late Friday afternoon, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) announced that construction will not start on a protected bike lane, sidewalk, and intersection improvement project along Martin Luther King Jr Way S. Planned between S Judkins Street near the Mountains to Sound Trail and Rainier Avenue, the project will not begin until June of 2023. Prior to that update, the project’s website still noted that the project was in the pre-construction phase and that they “expect construction to begin as soon as fall 2022.”

“We had to shift the construction schedule from November 2022 to mid-2023 for a couple of reasons,” an update to the project page noted. “This project is federally funded in addition to crossing a state jurisdiction, which has required both federal and state interagency review. The final design review and coordination process has taken longer than originally forecasted and we are now on track to begin construction mid-2023.” The update notes a schedule of 180 working days to complete the project, which makes a 2024 ribbon cutting almost certain.

This announcement of delay comes on the heels of the news that the first segment of a protected bike lane in Beacon Hill has also been delayed, moving to the spring of 2024 from early 2023. In explaining that delay, the department pointed to a lack of staff capacity, a new project manager, and theft of survey equipment. The project has also drawn pushback from nearby residents who are concerned about losing parking directly along 15th Avenue S, the route chosen after months of outreach. In an appearance at the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board earlier this month, SDOT Director Greg Spotts directly addressed the frustration with the new timeline.

“The delay really made people question how much we care about those communities,” Spotts said. He told the board that SDOT was looking at a way to accelerate elements of the project.

In other areas of the city, a delay to a protected bike lane project often carries less impact. However, in Southeast Seattle it draws attention to the decades of infrastructure neglect, a fact that stands out in the city’s current bike lane map. The MLK and Beacon Hill projects were identified as being priorities in 2019 after a thorough process of updating the city’s Bicycle Master Plan implementation plan found widespread agreement around the city that SDOT should be prioritizing bike connections to South Seattle. A third project, the Georgetown to South Park Trail, is currently listed as having a construction start date of 2022. The project has not yet been put out to bid on the city’s procurement website, so all evidence points to that project being pushed into 2023 as well. We have reached out to SDOT for an official update on the timeline.

The MLK protected bike lane project, despite its name, is actually much more than a simple bike lane. Several segments of new sidewalks will be added where they are currently missing, on the east side of the road between S McCellan Street and S Bayview Street. Also included are drainage improvements needed along the corridor, along with pavement and sidewalk repair.

The MLK protected bike lane will add an at-grade sidewalk to provide walking space where it’s currently missing on the corridor. (Google Maps)
A buffer will separate walking and biking space from driving space between Bayview Street and McClellan Street. (SDOT)

The “bike lane” project is also fulfilling a major promise of the 2015 Move Seattle levy, adding improvements to the area around the Mount Baker light rail station. Funds to improve bike and pedestrian access around the intersection of Rainier Avenue and MLK Jr Way S were specifically called out in the materials available to voters, envisioned for more transformative changes as part of the “Accessible Mount Baker” project. Those changes — which now include filling the gaps in marked crosswalks at the intersection, improving sidewalks, adding curb bulbs and restricting right-on-red — were merged with the MLK Jr Way S protected bike lane project, and now will wait to be completed until the final months of the nine-year levy.

Aerial view of a massive intersection, seven lanes and five lanes, at Rainier and MLK
Improvements to the MLK and Rainier intersection, promised since 2015, were tied to the protected bike lane project as well. (SDOT)
Blueprint rendering showing improvements to Rainier and MLK
Improvements to Rainier and MLK, promised since 2015, will include better sidewalks, curb bulbs, and a way to cross the massive intersection in all directions. (SDOT)

The rest of the vision for Accessible Mount Baker, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen, with SDOT considering and deciding against applying for a federal grant this year to advance planning for the project.

The lack of separated space to bike in the South End has been an area of focus for District 2 Councilmember Tammy Morales, who has carried forward the issue after Councilmember Mike O’Brien shepherded through funding for these projects in 2019. Noting the relative lack of quality protection on the bike lanes that the city has installed in D2 in recent years, Morales has proposed a proviso in next year’s budget to add more substantial protection to bike lanes like Columbian Way S or Wilson Ave S. Adding funding for new projects, as councilmembers in other districts are doing, may only make sense after the currently funded projects stop being delayed en masse.

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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.