by Peter Johnson
Move Seattle, the big transportation program approved by Seattle voters in 2015, is not going well. The program was supposed to:
- Maintain existing infrastructure, especially aging bridges
- Improve safety on roadways
- Expand transit service
- Build bike and pedestrian infrastructure
Some of the first point, maintenance, has gone as planned. Badly needed seismic retrofits, like rebuilding Yesler Bridge over 4th Avenue, have been completed on schedule.
But the more exciting parts of the project haven’t gotten underway, and might never happen. When she came into office, Mayor Jenny Durkan directed Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) to audit the project.
The report isn’t promising. SDOT hasn’t met the following goals:
- Street maintenance, including repaving
- Construction of bike lanes
- Rebuilding busted sidewalks
- Rebuilding or installing curb ramps and modern crosswalks
- Building new sidewalks
- Improving safety and mobility on 45th, Aurora, and Rainier, and other major corridors
- More frequent bus service
- Designing and launching seven new RapidRide bus lines
The Rainier project, the project that would most affect Emerald readers, would make the city’s most dangerous street to travel safer. It would also enhance traffic flow, improve bus stops, and upgrade the #7 bus to a RapidRide line.
But it might be the first to go: South Seattle is always shortchanged in times of austerity. North end homeowners exercise a disproportionate amount of political power—they can effectively mobilize to protect programs they benefit from.
There are three main reasons why Move Seattle is in trouble.
1. Bad leadership
Ed Murray created a toxic work environment at City Hall, and the last year of his administration was a chaotic mess. That toxicity flowed down to the agencies: in 2018, dozens of City employees have gone public with stories of workplace harassment and abusive management. Agency leaders left Murray’s administration or retired at record rates well before Murray was accused of sexual assault and child molestation.
Mayoral leadership is critical in a project as expansive and potentially controversial as Move Seattle. As the administration disintegrated, there was no public advocate for transit and biking projects, which are always controversial with homeowner and driver-heavy neighborhood groups. And the mayor also needs to play referee with agency staff when there’s competition for resources, or clashing priorities.
The political leadership’s dysfunction could have been debilitating for Move Seattle on its own; transportation projects require coordination with the Department of Neighborhoods and other agencies. But SDOT’s leader, Scott Kubly, had problems of his own.
Kubly botched the Pronto bikeshare program, and that ruined his tenure at SDOT. Kubly oversaw Pronto’s entire ill-fated existence. The city-owned bikeshare service never met ridership goals, and failed.
To make matters worse, Kubly awarded the company he used to lead the contract to run Pronto. Kubly didn’t report it to city ethics officials, allegedly by accident. Regardless of his intent, Kubly was investigated and fined $10,000 for related ethics violations. The scandal, and the damage to his reputation made Kubly ineffective for the remaining two years of his tenure.
Pronto is just one example of Kubly’s history of ineffective program rollouts. Before Seattle’s streetcar program foundered, the Washington, D.C. streetcar project that made Kubly’s name was delayed for years. The Move Seattle plan required Kubly to manage the design, build, and implementation of dozens of streetcar-scale projects all at once.
2. Bad budgeting
SDOT’s Move Seattle proposal was full of rosy, best case scenario accounting. The Second Avenue bike lane is a good example. The project was supposed to cost about $860,000 per mile, but wound up opening at a cost of $12 million per mile.
Of course, some of the cost overruns were unforeseeable. The prolonged construction boom has made contracting ever more expensive. Sound Transit has also run afoul of this problem. So have Seattle developers. Any construction project, public or private, can (and usually does) go over budget.
3. Vanishing federal funding
Move Seattle was a levy of local taxes, but it took for granted the idea that the Obama administration’s transit policies would continue. As a lifelong resident of big cities, Barack Obama was more pro-transit, biking, and walking than even most Democratic presidents. His Department of Transportation spent accordingly.
Move Seattle is full of projects that depended on federal funding. Counting on that funding was a gamble. Many Move Seattle projects were exercises in speculation: SDOT promised projects in Move Seattle that would have depended on not-yet-approved federal funding for as much as 86 percent of their budget, even though voters were made to believe that the package was self-funding.
What happens next?
With Durkan’s audit, Move Seattle is in flux. It’s hard to say what projects will go forward.
The updated Move Seattle plan will inevitably be less ambitious. Federal funding will probably not be available, construction estimates will need to reflect the rising cost of contracting, and hopefully, SDOT will not indulge in more magical thinking.
Durkan has already proven a better manager and administrator than Murray. But Durkan does not seem as committed to transit and biking as Murray was. She’s already halted the downtown streetcar project. Transit and biking advocates suspect that Durkan may prioritize cars.
The Move Seattle episode is just the latest of several local controversies around transit funding. Sound Transit resolved its car tab scandal, but the agency’s reputation took a hit. Sound Transit also faces cost overruns and budget shortfalls on the Everett light rail extension.
If transit agencies can’t reverse the trend and manage their budgets more effectively and transparently, the region could see a voter backlash the next time transit is on the ballot.
This post also appeared on How’s Your Morale?.