Strauss Amendment Leaves Door Open to Safe Streets Focus for VLF Revenue

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The Fremont Bridge is an aging "multimodal bridge" but people walking, rolling, and biking must share narrow sidewalks while motorists get four lanes. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

The Seattle City Council will vote today on the plan to invest $7.2 million in annual revenue from the $20 vehicle license fee (VLF) approved in November. On Wednesday, the transportation committee unanimously backed an amendment from Vice Chair Dan Strauss that reworded Committee Chair Alex Pedersen’s plan. The City Council is expected to approve the bill with the Strauss amendment today at its 2pm full council meeting (sign up for public testimony here).

Pedersen’s plan was laser-focused on bridge maintenance bonding, even if the exact bridges in question remained a moving target. Strauss’s plan keeps Council’s ask for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to come up with a bridge maintenance project list tallying at least $75 million. However, his framing makes it much clearer than immediately bonding on 20 years of revenue from the VLF hike is not a foregone conclusion.

“We need to have a more accurate and detailed understanding of our maintenance and investments needs, and we need to use this information to raise the correct amount of bonds at the right time to invest in our infrastructure rather than taking on unneeded debt until we’re ready to use it,” Strauss said on Wednesday. “If this non-binding language was enacted on today, we would raise bonds without shovel-ready projects. This means we would be paying bankers interest on dollars we would not be ready to spend today.”

Councilmember Strauss’s amendment was fairly last minute and wasn’t available on the City’s website for the public to preview ahead of the 5-0 vote. Public comment at the start of the meeting had come down largely against Pedersen’s amendment, with several members of the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition testifying, including Ryan Packer, senior editor at The Urbanist. “Ten people have lost their lives on our streets in the last four months,” Packer said. “This should be setting off alarm bells.”

Breakdown of the spending plan by category. (City of Seattle)
Breakdown of SDOT’s spending plan by category. (City of Seattle)

MASS also issued a statement arguing for keeping SDOT’s spend plan which had dedicated 73% of revenue to safe streets, sidewalks, and multimodal planning and 24% to bridge structure maintenance, honoring the extensive stakeholder work that SDOT did. SDOT’s plan also included an equity analysis lacking in Pedersen’s plan.

While it had initially seemed significant that Strauss’s amendment won out over Pedersen’s, Mike Lindblom at the Seattle Times, seemed to argue the legislation hadn’t substantially changed and still signaled the same intent to bond for bridges. The lede of his article read: “A majority of Seattle City Council members declared their intent Wednesday to spend $75 million in future car-tab revenue to repair aging bridges, despite pushback from pedestrian advocates who said the plan shortchanges safety.”

MLK Way Protected Bike Lane Advances to Next Phase of Design

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People walking and rolling cross MLK Jr Way S along the Mountains to Sound Trail. (Ryan Packer)

Plans for a protected bike lane on Martin Luther King Jr Way S between Mount Baker Station and (still under construction) Judkins Park Station are moving forward with construction still anticipated to start in 2023. This key connection is one of several routes moving forward to begin to connect the southeast quadrant of Seattle to Downtown and other neighborhoods beyond. Downtown and the North End saw the lion’s share of new bike facilities in the first few years of the Move Seattle Levy. It might not have happened if not for the sale of the Mercer Megablock property, which provided a cash infusion to the running-out-of-steam Bicycle Master Plan program.

The project has just reached 60% design, which means most of the design details are fully fleshed out. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has a survey up through May 20th to seek feedback on the current plans.

The most important segment of the project is the segment that intersects with the Mountains to Sound trail at I-90. There, transit riders will transfer between the workhorse Route 8 bus (and Route 4) and Judkins Park Station just down the trail at 23rd Avenue, and people riding bikes will mix with all modes as they switch between the bike lane and the trail. The current design shows floating bus stop islands in both directions on MLK Way here, with the bike lane raised up to the same height as the sidewalk and bus island to signal to bike riders that they’re entering a mixing zone. Buses will stop in-lane, with the center turn lane blocked off to prevent impatient drivers from passing the bus. There are also ramps planned to make the transition from the bike lane to the trail easier and reduce conflicts in the crosswalk.

Plans showing in-lane bus stops at MLK Jr Way S at the I-90 trail. (SDOT)

To the south, the southbound bus stop at S Massachusetts Street will be another floating island, but the northbound stop won’t have one — bus riders will enter and exit the bus directly into the bike lane. This is a bus stop design that SDOT has begun to employ more and more often when there are space constraints, but it’s essential to note that space is tight because three southbound travel lanes have been prioritized.

Sunday Video: Why Is LA Traffic So Bad?

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Dave Amos explores the history of Los Angeles’ highway building and the ways that traffic in the region is so bad. It isn’t just the congestion and air pollution that’s so awful.

The View From Nathan’s Bus: Uptown Redwood

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You have a name for the voice inside of you.

Why do we live at a speed that prevents us from hearing it? Why does it speak only at its own pace? O, pride. What arrogance for us to assume the turning wisdom of the earth will adjust to our rhythms. If the gods could speak, would not their syllables more likely sound out in years, rather than seconds?

I watched him prepare to board. It was my last trip of the night, and only a few miles removed from the last stop; not many souls out here. He gathered his bags with urgent agility, the sure and capable grip of someone familiar with manual labor. There were scuffs and scratches on his skin I don’t think he noticed. A tall man but young, short-haired lithe, slim and ragged: a quiet midwestern soul whose next word you could never anticipate.

All epiphanies are whispers, my colleague Ernie Lawton told me one night. Wisdom needs something to take root in. It doesn’t come when you’re rushing ahead, and like most great things, it often happens when you’re not expecting it.

He was talking. He remembered me from before, somewhere. People remember me to a degree I’m surprised by. Two nights ago a man walked past my darkened bus on the street side, scream-musing to the universe as he pushed a shopping cart. He saw me in the gloom and the words came bursting out: “DIS GUY GOOD. HE ALWAYS ON THE MIC, LETTIN’ ‘EM KNOW. YOU GOOD, BRO, GOOD TO TH’ PEOPLE.”

Not what I was expecting!

Back to tonight, as I listen: “I finally got off the street,” he was explaining. He was off it, he was on again, an issue with a slumlord, trying to maintain… he paused before speaking again.

State Senator Joe Nguyen Stresses Systemic Change in King County Executive Bid

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Joe Nguyen. (Courtesy of Nguyen campaign)

State Senator Joe Nguyen (D-White Center) announced his bid for King County Executive last week, promising a “New Deal for King County.” The move added immediate excitement to a sleepy race that had looked like a coronation for the incumbent. Executive Dow Constantine is seeking a fourth term and didn’t have a serious challenger until Nguyen jumped in, nor had he faced a strong challenge since his initial win in 2009 versus former Republican state party chair Susan Hutchison.

Now, he’s got one in Senator Nguyen, an outspoken progressive leader in the state senate running against him. Nguyen’s campaign stresses urgency on progressive priorities like climate change, wealthy inequity, racial justice, mobility justice, exclusionary zoning, and reducing homelessness through tackling root causes. He said expanding basic needs programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was one of his proudest accomplishments in Olympia. Systemic change was an objective for him both in legislative output and how the legislative body itself operated.

“When you’re inside of a system that wasn’t built for you — oftentimes the members of color in our first-year caucus talk will talk about this — the legislature clearly wasn’t built for people like us,” Nguyen said. “Whether it was women, whether it was people of color, whether it was young people or renters. It wasn’t built for us, and there’s all these unwritten rules.”

In past sessions, Nguyen wasn’t afraid to say which of his Democrat colleagues had held up major legislation, such as progressive tax reform or climate bills, breaking an unwritten rule of the legislature.

“When I came in, I didn’t know what the rules were. And if you saw a problem, you fixed it. If there was a problem, you called it out, and apparently people didn’t like it when you called problems out,” Nguyen added. “We got past it.”

Nguyen ran to the left of Constantine’s deputy chief of staff Shannon Braddock in the 2018 election and defeated her with a comfortable 16-point margin to win the District 34 senate seat. He has continued to be a progressive stalwart in the legislature. Rich Smith dubbed Nguyen “The AOC of the Washington state senate” in a glowing feature in The Stranger, which had also endorsed his 2018 campaign.

“Nguyen says he doesn’t care if he gets reelected. He wants to run the most progressive office in the Senate, and he wants to run it loudly, no matter the potential political consequences,” Smith wrote. “White Center should be proud.”

“Majorities are supposed to be used,” Nguyen told Smith. “I’m tired of a system that oppressed black and brown bodies and poor people. We need shit right now. People are dying right now. People are being pushed out of their homes right now. Fuck four years from now.”

Nguyen grew up in public housing in White Center with his three siblings, parents, and grandma. His parents were refugees from the Vietnam War. His childhood was altered when his dad was paralyzed in a car crash, which added even more financial strain on the family and new caregiving responsibilities. They survived thanks to TANF, the local food bank, and hustle.

“When I was 15, my second job was at the IMAX on the waterfront. Getting there would have taken me 15 minutes by car, but since my family couldn’t afford one for me, I spent an hour and a half commuting by bus,” Nguyen wrote in his transportation issues page. “Two decades later, there are still too many people who don’t have access to reliable public transit options in King County.”

State transportation package

Nguyen serves on the transportation committee and is optimistic a new transportation package could pass — even later this year in a special session — even though he’s critical of how Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs ran the process.

“It’s a little bit frustrating how we handle transportation in Washington state. I will just call that out,” Nguyen said. “I think it needs to be more inclusive, more forward-thinking, and less transactional. However, because it’s based off the climate package that we passed, I do think there is a path to pass a transportation package this year. Meaning it is a big enough deal that maybe in the next couple of months as things get hammered out, we potentially could go back to pass something.”

Slowly, transportation leaders in the state legislature are shifting their paradigm, Nguyen said. But right now, the transportation package needs to pass before the Climate Commitment Act can start investing carbon cap and trade proceeds. Hobbs’ preference to save as much gas tax revenue for highway expansion means Cap and Invest revenues may be spent on court-mandated fish culverts on existing highways rather than further boosting investment in transit and walkability.

What Seattle’s Permanent Stay Healthy Streets Could Look Like

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Last May, Seattle made national headlines with an announcement that the Durkan administration would be building on the success of its pandemic-focused Stay Healthy Streets program and making permanent improvements to 20 miles of streets. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) rolled out Stay Healthy Streets shortly after stay-at-home restrictions were implemented last spring and were expanded across the city, almost entirely on existing Neighborhood Greenways.

Signage on Stay Healthy Street discourages through-traffic and allows people to legally walk in the roadway to more easily distance from others. Stay Healthy Streets are similar to, but not exactly like, Keep Moving Streets that have been created near Seattle’s most popular parks. Branding aside, both are pedestrianized open streets with some accommodations for cars.

One year later, there’s a still a lot we don’t know about what the permanent Stay Healthy Street program will actually look like. One big question is where the funding for these changes will come from. The commitment from the Mayor was made without a funding source identified. Late last year, SDOT proposed to divert funds that had been devoted to the city’s Bicycle Master Plan program, arguing the projects likely won’t have enough funding to be completed by the end of the current transportation levy.

That idea sunk like a lead weight at the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Boards and the Levy to Move Seattle Oversight Committee never took a vote on it. The funds for the initial Stay Healthy Streets rollout, later sign upgrades, and overall program maintenance had come from the Federal CARES Act funds that were not expected to last very far into 2021; it’s possible that the newest allocation of Federal relief funds from the American Rescue Plan could also be used for the program, but the City Council has not hashed that out yet.

A current temporary barrier along a Stay Healthy Street in Seattle. (Ryan Packer)

We also don’t entirely know what Stay Healthy Streets have been selected to be made permanent. There are over a dozen temporary Stay Healthy Streets still in place, and SDOT has been doing outreach on which have community support to be made permanent. But we do know that the 1st Ave NW Stay Healthy Street in Greenwood has been picked as the first permanent Stay Healthy Street in Northwest Seattle, and we can look to what’s being proposed there to see what’s in store for the Stay Healthy Street program as a whole.

Call to Action: Support 133 Homes in Magnolia at May 26th Design Review

The latest rendering for the Magnolia Safeway project. (Credit: Bumgardner Architecture)

On May 26 at 5pm, the all-volunteer West Design Review Board will hear about a project at 2550 32nd Ave W that would house new neighbors and bring an updated grocery store to the heart of Magnolia. Plus, it’s a deep green building that is good for planet earth. Please join us in registering for the City of Seattle public meeting

What happens in Magnolia does not just impact Magnolia residents. Every green building is a step towards a better future for our whole city. We must do all we can, as soon as we can, for our climate. In our design review advocacy we prioritize green buildings. There are some adjacent neighbors concerned about an extra floor that is allowed under Seattle rules for the wonderful Living Building Challenge which incentivizes deep green construction practices, like rooftop solar panels and high energy efficiency standards. We wish that deep green buildings would receive expedited design review, since they are inherently a community benefit.

We have a dual housing and climate crisis. Meanwhile, Seattle’s design review delays add significant additional design costs, not to mention additional financing risks, that uncertainty injects into a project. Unnecessary design review delays aren’t just happening in Seattle. All those delays and extra costs are causing problems across the country. Henry Grabar recently wrote about this challenge in a Slate article titledGood Design Is Making Bad Cities, but It Doesn’t Have To” highlighting the work of the Sightline Institute and quoting their housing researcher Dan Bertolet.

“Similar standards in the city’s historic districts, Bertolet calculated, had cost Seattle more than 1,000 new homes over a period of a few years—and, because time is money, driven up the cost of the ones that did get built,” Grabar wrote.

One way to take action for more housing, is to speak up in favor of projects at design review meetings. Unfortunately future residents’ voices are often left out or ignored in land use processes, even though they are the ones most likely to be calling this building home. Please take action with us!

Seattle For Everyone, Share The Cities Action Fund and The Urbanist will be posting specific talking points for this project on our social media. In general, your comment should champion the green bonus of an additional floor. The bonus allows the building to contribute 133 new homes, and at least that many new neighbors, able to live in the exclusive community of Magnolia. Highlight that living above a grocery store means new neighbors will live less car-dependent and more ecofriendly lives. The builder has been very responsive to the community. They’ve prioritized a sunny plaza, as well as addressing shadow concerns with extra setbacks.

The new building will pull back from the southwest corner of the block to create a public plaza. (Credit: Bumgardner)

While not in the purview of the design board, our advocacy won’t stop at housing as we support bus frequency improvements near this project. We know that when housing and transit planning don’t sync up, there can be growing pains. Those temporary growing pains are worth it for a more climate-friendly city. 

There is room to be optimistic the project will be greenlit; several Magnolia’s local businesses appear to be supportive of this project based on Queen Anne Magnolia News’ coverage of a previous meeting in October.

Share The Cities Action Fund has created a guideline for public comment at design review and is mobilizing around this effort in areas of low displacement risk. Please consider sharing our Facebook event for the May 26 meeting, especially if you are a resident, or have a community connection to Magnolia. Our petition on Change.org has received over 100 signatures in support of this project. Please email info@sharethecities.org with questions. 

Skip Freeway Expansions, Rebuild Stampede Pass

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Stampede Pass in 1890 (Public Domain from Wiki)

In previous coverage, we discussed the possibilities for local rail across the state, but also mentioned the problems with getting Stampede Pass ready for passenger rail. Recently, the state has discussed a minor expansion to I-90 through the mountains and a major, $30.8 million widening of SR-516 in the Covington/Maple Valley area. As discussed before, road widening rarely provides much in the way of congestion relief and is very likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions. Going forward, we should avoid doing additional road expansions like this and instead invest in increasing rail capacity in places such as Stampede Pass. Such rail capacity improvements would provide far greater value than road expansions into the passes and mountain valleys.

The Stampede Pass rail corridor was originally built in 1888 as the Northern Pacific Railway’s route through the Cascade Mountains, making Tacoma the terminus of a transcontinental railroad and briefly a boomtown before Seattle got its own rail line and regained its advantage. In modern times, railroad routes through the rugged Cascade Mountains have become a rare commodity. The two primary routes are the two forks of the Empire Builder. The northern Seattle route connects Everett to Spokane through the Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass. The southern route tracks the Columbia River through the gorge to Portland. As the busiest east-west line in the region with 34 freight runs and two Amtrak passenger runs as of 2016, the Columbia line is already beset with congestion and delay issues. The Washington rated it an “E” just shy of an “F” rating in Level of Service. The northern route is rated a “C” at lighter traffic of 16 freight runs and two passenger runs per day on average. Our freight capacity is running up against constraints that need to be addressed.

Highlighted potential DMU route
Map of East-West Study Area with a cross-valley route that could operate before Stampede improvements are made highlighted in blue.

Opening up the old Northern Pacific route to significant traffic again would take some of the strain off the two Empire Builder forks. The new passenger rail corridor would also pull trips out of cars. The Northern Pacific route offers a superior connection to Seattle for a few key inland population centers. A quarter million people live in Yakima County and another quarter million live in the Tri-Cities (Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland) — that tri-headed metro area grew by more than 20% since 2010. It also goes through the heart of wine country and rich agricultural land that sees tons of seasonal farm workers.

Stampede Pass is now owned by BNSF Railway. As it is mostly single-tracked, has short tunnel clearances, non-signaled, and with steep grades, the corridor is used mainly for transporting empty rail cars in a single direction. All of these conditions along with its average speed of 26 miles per hour make it completely unsuitable for passenger travel and limit its use for freight. However, relatively inexpensive fixes could greatly boost the capacity and lower the steep climbing grades. The state should not just hand over these upgrades to a private company for free though. These upgrades should be viewed as an investment in the Stampede Pass route where either partial ownership (similar to Sound Transit’s arrangement with the Point Defiance Bypass) or permanent capacity easements (similar to the arrangement for Sounder service) should be negotiated for the significant investment incurred in the corridor.

Affordable Investments

Compared to tens of billions the state regularly spends on road projects, studies have repeatedly brought up relatively affordable projects that could greatly increase the usability of Stampede Pass. In a 2006 report, two options were presented:

  • Alternative A – East-West Capacity Expansion Project – Assumes a $350 million investment, shared between the State and the railroads, for selective capacity improvements. This will add capacity for approximately 25 percent more capacity December 2006 Statewide Rail Capacity and System Needs Study Task 10.2 – Washington State Rail Investment Plan 23 (from 100 to 108 trains per day to 124 to 132 trains per day). (Note that these train volumes include the UPRR’s Columbia River route capacity.)
  • Alternative B – East-West High Velocity Rail Corridor Project – Assumes a $1.5 billion to $2.0 billion investment, shared between the State and the railroads, for comprehensive capacity improvements. This will increase the east-west capacity by approximately 60 to 70 trains per day and lower operating costs.

While these are 2006 prices and some of these ideas have already been implemented — specifically added capacity along the Columbia River — it’s important to point out that Stampede Pass improvements have not occurred and the potential to add 60 or more trains per day is a lot of capacity for a relatively low cost that could be put to many uses. In Alternative B, there would be a new four-mile tunnel that would reduce grades from 2.2 to 1.6 for the route. Additionally, the 2020 East-West Passenger Rail study identified roughly $75 million in infrastructure cost to make bi-directional travel possible along the line which is quite a low price for work on such a long corridor. To make the most of this corridor, more expensive upgrades might be needed (full double-tracking, additional straightening and/or smaller tunnels closer to Maple Valley, electrification), but given the price points identified in the past, the costs may be well less than a full new rail line and are worth studying in conjunction with buying permanent access to some percentage of the throughput.

Here’s how this capacity could be put to use to relieve cross mountain traffic needs: