City Council Funds Continued Work on Downtown Streetcar with Herbold Dissenting

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The First Hill Streetcar rolls down Broadway next to the street's protected bike lanes. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

On Monday, the Seattle City Council voted 6-1 in favor of a $9 million appropriation to continue work on the Center City Connector streetcar, with Councilmember Lisa Herbold casting the sole no vote. Councilmembers M. Lorena González and Kshama Sawant were absent. González was in Copenhagen taking urbanism classes, and Sawant walked away from the dais before the vote.

The appropriation, facilitated by an interagency loan, means that the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will continue engineering work making design tweaks needed to finalize the revised plan and break ground on the project, as we reported last week. The biggest change is bridge strengthening on Jackson Street to accommodate the new heavier CAF Urbos streetcars that will carry up to 166 people each and thus weigh about 40% more than the older model the City uses.

Previously slated to open in mid-2020, the project has been in limbo since Mayor Jenny Durkan hit the brakes in March 2018 as construction was ramping up, citing concerns about the budget. After nine months of review, she officially backed the project in January.

The Center City Connector will unite the First Hill Streetcar and South Lake Union Streetcar Lines to create one consolidated five-mile corridor. The new timeline has the Center City Streetcar opening in 2026, but SDOT will iron out the details in the final proposal it submits to the City Council sometime in the next year or two. Presently, SDOT’s portion of the budget sits at $208 million, with the $9 million approved Monday a portion of that, and utility work (attributed to Seattle Public Utilities or Seattle City Light) adding another $77 million.

“Today’s vote is another indication of growing confidence in this project and recognition of the need for clean and efficient transit in the heart of our city,” said Emily Mannetti, spokesperson for the Seattle Streetcar Coalition. “Record levels of people are living and working in downtown and we can’t afford further delay. We applaud the Mayor and City Council for moving the streetcar forward.”

Ahead of the vote, Councilmember Herbold delivered a lengthy soliloquy assailing the streetcar as a wellspring of all manner of evil. Many of the hits should be familiar by now, and most have been discredited in this publication.

Streetcars are transit workhorses not trinkets.

Herbold Claim: Streetcars are not real transit; they’re economic development tools.

Reality: The Center City Streetcar is a highly effective transit investment projected to boost streetcar ridership 230% so that the consolidated system would carry about 20,000 daily riders, which is more than any bus line in Seattle. In short, it’s real transit. And dedicated transit lanes on First Avenue means it will be fast and reliable. While Herbold painted it as a well established fact that streetcars are economic development tools not transit, in many cities streetcars are transit workhorses, as we’ve reported. We cited the example of Budapest which has more than a million rides per day on its streetcar network. Plenty more examples are out there, including Toronto with about half a million daily boardings.

What to Know About the MASS Transportation Package

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Activists supporting the MASS Coalition held a press conference with City Councilmembers Mike O'Brien and Abel Pacheco. (Photo by author)

Last October, the Board of Directors at The Urbanist announced its decision to join the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition. The decision was motivated by the desire to increase funding for transportation solutions that would accelerate progress toward achieving Seattle’s Vision Zero safety goals and targeted greenhouse gas reductions, 62% of which are caused by transportation.

“We can’t hope to decarbonize anytime soon if we are not creating space for people walking, biking, and riding transit–and the same goes for achieving zero road deaths,” wrote the Board of Directors.

At that time the MASS Coalition had already begun to craft an action plan, which was submitted to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council in a letter that addressed the City’s proposed budget for 2019-2020.

Since then the MASS Coalition has developed a full scale transportation package that was presented to the Sustainability and Transportation Committee last Friday by coalition members Vicky Clarke of Cascade Bike Club and Clara Cantor of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.

Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Abel Pacheco have already stated their intent to introduce the three pieces of legislation from the MASS Transportation Package to the full City Council for an approval vote after the summer break. The councilmembers also promised more legislation from the transportation package would follow.

At a press conference held at the busy corner of 2nd Avenue and Yesler Way just steps away from both the Pioneer Square Light Station and 2nd Avenue Protected Bike Lane (PBL), MASS coalition members spoke to the media about the need for safer, greener forms of transportation.

Seattle’s Comp Plan Shuffle: Some Amendments Move Forward, Others Peter Out

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On Monday, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution identifying possible Comprehensive Plan amendments to be further processed in advance of a final ordinance in 2020. The resolution specifies several amendment topics to be addressed by the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) including:

  • A general docket of two site-specific proposals;
  • Industrial lands amendments;
  • Impact fee amendments;
  • Mandatory Housing Affordability program-related amendments;
  • Amendments related to the Delridge Neighborhood Plan; and
  • Amendments related to limiting fossil fuel production and storage.

Industrial lands amendments

Amendments related to industrial lands has been an ongoing issue for years with no sweeping changes having been recommended to date. Mayor Ed Murray restarted the process to review industrial lands policies during his tenure in 2015. Work on the issue dates back at least to 2013 and has continued ever since in various capacities.

On Monday, the city council approved a general objective for the OPCD to “transmit to the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee (PLUZ) a detailed work plan for the industrial land review including, at least, a calendar of key meetings, milestones, and deliverables and list of the stakeholders engaged in the process by December 31, 2019” in order to lay out a plan and eventually inform update of industrial lands policies. The city council noted that any specific docket proposals to amend the Comprehensive Plan for industrial lands on particular sites or areas, in the meantime, would be considered premature until “the more comprehensive review is complete” for industrial lands, which may take longer than the current 2019-2020 Comprehensive Plan amendment cycle.

Stadium district investments near Fenway Park in Boston. (Washington State Public Stadium Authority and the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District)

In committee, Councilmember Mike O’Brien sponsored an amendment to strike site-specific docket proposals in industrial areas and table a proposal to establish Stadium District changes. The amendment passed removing those provisions from the draft resolution. A substitute resolution further refining objectives and expectations surrounding industrial lands noted that specific requests related to a Stadium District should not be entertained until after a full industrial lands policy review has been completed.

Metro Seeks Feedback on RapidRide I Line Proposal Linking Renton, Kent, and Auburn

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King County Metro has released a draft proposal for the RapidRide I Line that would stretch from the Downtown Renton to Downtown Auburn. Along the way, the route would run through Fairwood, East Hill, Kent Station, and the East Valley Highway. The entire corridor is about slated to be about 17 miles long as it snakes its way through the three cities from the Renton Transit Center to Auburn Station. Metro is seeking feedback on the proposal through August 25th.

The RapidRide I Line will essentially blend together Route 169 (Renton-Kent) and major portions of Route 180 (Auburn-Kent-Burien), which collectively have about 8,000 daily riders. The corridor will run through a mix of suburban residential areas, denser multifamily areas with some local commercial districts, and the downtown areas of each of the three cities. A short ten-block segment will run through some of the last farms in the Green River Valley. Metro has also released draft concepts for other local routes to better integrate with the RapidRide I Line (we will cover this in a subsequent article).

Planned corridor for the RapidRide I Line. (King County)
Planned corridor for the RapidRide I Line. (King County)

Seattle Advances SEPA Reform with Equity and Affordability in Mind

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Seattle, which has long taken pride in its pro-environment reputation, has struggled in recent years to adapt to a growing population. Advocates believe that SEPA reform could allow the city to become denser and thus more environmentally sustainable. (Credit: Jonathan Moreau)

Since its passage in 1971, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) has been a cornerstone of environmental protection in Washington State. However, in recent years SEPA has become more readily identified with obstruction than protection. SEPA appeals have been used to create decades long delays for projects such as completion of the “Missing Link” of the Burke-Gilman Trail in Ballard and construction of affordable housing at Fort Lawton near Discovery Park in Magnolia. Implementation of backyard cottage reform and Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) in Seattle were also both impeded significantly by SEPA appeals.

It’s important to note that Seattle is not the only jurisdiction in Washington to be impacted by SEPA lawsuits. Across the state, many smaller cities have avoided updating their land use and zoning laws out of a fear that proposed developments could trigger costly legal battles they cannot afford to take on.

Thus fear of SEPA lawsuits has quietly suffocated development of new housing supply across the state, leading Dan Bertolet, Senior Researcher of Housing and Urbanism at Sightline, to call SEPA in its current form “a bane to sustainable urban development.”

Construction of the Bullit Center, which advertises itself as the “greenest commercial office building in the world,” was delayed by a SEPA appeal centered on the building’s lack of a parking garage. (Credit: Mark and Andrea Busse)

That was certainly not what SEPA’s creators hoped its legacy would be almost fifty years on, and it is why some local environmental leaders, including Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien have expressed enthusiasm for state level legislation passed earlier this year in House Bill 1923, which provides cities with a menu of options for increasing their housing density and then provides “safe harbor,” or protections from SEPA lawsuits, for actions taken from that menu.

“I have not seen in my ten years here an environmental group challenge the SEPA analysis, and that is why I believe we have environmental organizations here today saying we are ready for this to be changed because this law which we have supported is being used to undermine the very policies we are trying to advance,” said Councilmember O’Brien in a recent Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee meeting in which he and Councilmember Abel Pacheco introduced Council Bill 119600, which would align Seattle’s environmental review process with recent changes state level changes made to SEPA.

Sunday Video: EPCOT–Yesterday’s City of Tomorrow

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Dave Amos looks at Walt Disney’s unrealized tomorrow city plans (known as “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” or “EPCOT”), which were largely Modernist delusions of grandeur.

What We’re Reading: Fare-Free SLC, Failed Venture, and Trim Their Trips

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Corporate meddlers: The Koch brothers are trying to derail a Phoenix light rail project.

Unwise plot: California could end up shifting billions of dollars from high-speed rail to local rail projects in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Fare-Free SLC: Salt Lake City could wind up making transit fare-free.

Locking out opportunity: Des Moines, Iowa is going out of its way to downzone areas of the city.

Pound foolish: Planned transit cuts in the middle of Pennsylvania appear to already be pushing business to find ways to get their employees to work.

Walk up, please: Minneapolis has followed Portland’s lead in banning drive-through windows at businesses.

Fail venture: Uber has managed to post another massive multi-billion-dollar quarterly loss.

Filling the gap: Virgin Trains USA (Brightline) is seeking $800 million in bonds to bankroll higher-speed rail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Seattle Walk Report: A comic illustrator shows that the best way to fall back in love in Seattle is to explore it by walking.

A delicate dance: BikePortland highlights a good design for integration of bus and bike facilities at a transit stop.

Racial bias: Do police treat black and white suspects differently?

Trim their trips: Uber and Lyft are causing a lot of unnecessary traffic in cities.

New rolling stock: TransLink is putting out a bidding process for 205 new SkyTrain vehicles.

Inequality maintained: According to a recent study, the benefits of high-tech job growth do not provide spillover benefits to communities at large.

Nathan’s TED Talk

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What does it mean to be urbanized? What does living in a city require of us in terms of social engagement, and to what degree could we be benefitting more than we are now? Click to watch my recent speech about what strangers can give us that friends et al can’t!

A big fat thank you to every one of the lovelies who did the hard work to make this happen. Only they will know how much had to go into the creation of this mammoth undertaking. I hardly know myself, and simply count myself lucky they wanted me to crash their party. It’s about the little people.

Thanks for reading and watching (and sharing! Don’t be shy about it!)!

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