The Three Reasons Move Seattle is on the Ropes

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 powerthey 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.

But the 2nd Avenue bike lane, a small project, had unusually high-cost overruns, the kind that are far beyond the benefit of the doubt. The project cost 1395% more than it was supposed to.
Bike advocates point out that the $12 million sum was offset partially by federal funding. About $7 million came from the levy. Some of the $12 million figure had to be spent to improve traffic barriers and signals for the section of the 2nd Avenue bike lane that had already been installed.


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.

Republicans, meanwhile, are uniformly anti-transit. Republicans aggressively defund urban transportation, housing, and equity programs whenever they control the presidency.

Donald Trump is no exception, even though he lived his whole life, pre-presidency, New York City, and spoke fondly of riding the subway early in his life.

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?.

3 thoughts on “The Three Reasons Move Seattle is on the Ropes”

  1. The DOT and the City Hall has not been kind to SE Seattle

    About 15 years ago the city screwed up Beacon Avenue. It went from a 4 lanes, 2 north and 2 south to 2 lanes. You also blocked left turns from some intersections. I cannot turn left into my office parking lot. I have to go down the block and take a left turn into an alley. This is much more dangerous.

    Next the city decided to plant trees. It will be like Paris driving through the tunnel of trees. 15 years later. We could not open the front door to our dental office. The sidewalks are buckled up to 18 inches at the base of the trees. Two elderly people fell due to the broken concrete of the sidewalk in front of my office one broke an arm. The other hit her head and died 2 days later. You cannot walk the sidewalks on Beacon Avenue. Kids cannot ride they bikes, skates or skateboard. Every 15 feet the concrete is broken sticking up to 12 to 18 inches. It is dangerous to walk down Beacon Ave. Look around we have more trees than ticks on a hound dog. We have many trees. Look at the mountains. We did not need to destroy our sidewalks. Trees are good but a good think can be over done. We have more trees than 95% of the country.

    The trees look like giant “Y”s the city had carved out the middle of the trees to clear power lines. These trees are seriously weakened and you will find them all over the South end. The next time we have a heavy snow, cars and homes will be damaged if not destroyed as they split down the “Y”.

    Next you put the train down the middle MLK. This is the only part of Sound Transit that goes down the middle of a busy street for miles. You cannot cross the tracks. I have sat several times for 15 minutes to get a left turn light to allow me to cross the tracks. One time it was 17 minutes. Just as it is our turn, here comes another train. But of course this is the low income area; it does not need to be in a tunnel like the rest of the system. Certainly Bellevue would never have put up with this.

    Next we came to a meeting about the road diet for Rainier Avenue. 105 people were at the meeting. 2 people spoke for the road diet everyone else was strongly against it. This was a Friday evening. As the meeting ended, we were told Rainier Ave. would be restriped Monday morning. No one listened to the concerns of the citizens.

    You have made Columbia City a parking lot from as early as 6 am to as late as 10 pm. You cannot use Rainier Ave. to go north and south. You destroyed half the north south streets in southeast Seattle. You have loaded up Seward Park Ave. and Lake Washington Boulevard with cars.
    Seward Park Ave. has taken a lot of that traffic. I have a photo on my phone that shows 72 cars lined up bumper-to-bumper trying to get past the stop signs at Othello. This will extend back 3 blocks. This happens every afternoon about 3 pm and lasts to 7 or 8 pm. By screwing up Rainier Ave you have made Seward Park Ave. almost unusable every afternoon to say nothing of the mornings. You made Rainier Avenue S. of Rainier Beach 2 lanes. Line up and wait. Every afternoon it is a mess until you get to Renton city limits where it goes to 4 lanes traffic moves again. How smart is Renton?

    It will be wonderful for bikers we were told. The bikers have no license to ride to show they know traffic rules. They ignore stop signs and lights. They pay no licenses fees, they pay no fuel taxes and yet you have given them half the NS streets in SE Seattle. They make up less than 1% of the vehicles on the streets. but you gave them half the streets. Last Friday on a trip from Capital Hill to SE Seattle I counted 300 autos and 2 bikes another day in SE Seattle I counted 400 cars and one bike.

    Of course it is easy to count cars because they are all intraffic jams. You have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars striping bike lines up McClellan, Spokane, Morgan streets. I have never seen a biker going up or down any of these streets. If most of us rode a bike up these streets you had better have a medic unit at the top to restart our hearts. If we rode a bike down, our breaks would be on fire or you would have to install arrest nets like on an aircraft carriers when we got to the bottom.
    23rd Ave. use to be a reasonable route to the U of W. Well you fixed that. It is now a 2 lane stop and go street, with cars sitting idling waiting to be able to move.

    I have a solution for Seattle’s traffic problems. Lets first look at what has been done and how well it works. I am most familiar with S.E Seattle. We have road diets and are about to have a new road diet on Rainier Ave. S and one on Wilson S. In a road diet they take a perfectly good 4 lane avenue and make it a 2 lane avenue. When a bus stops to pick up riders, cars are stopped behind it. They place islands in the middle lane so you cannot go past the stopped bus. They also eliminate many left turns. In doing so, SDOT tells us they will be able to move more cars. They did this on Beacon Ave. we now have traffic jams each morning and afternoon. The volume of traffic is much lower than it once was and many drivers had to shift to Rainier Ave and now to Seward Park Ave.

    A road diet is about like telling the firemen to put away their 5” hoses and use ¾” garden hoses. By using smaller hoses you will get more water for your fire. If we place some further obstructions in the hoses, this will further increase water flow. We all know that if the Fire Department did this our homes and businesses would all be at great risk should a fire get started. Our road diets are a bit like using the garden hose for water to put out a fire. If you think you can eliminate half the north south lanes in Seattle and get more traffic moved you are drinking some very strong liquor.

    Lets start with prevention. Place roadblocks on all the streets leading into the city. Do not allow any motor vehicles to enter the city. Put one-way spikes allowing motor vehicles to leave but not to come back.
    Housing prices will plummet. Those who remain in the city will be able to live anywhere at no cost as most houses will be vacant. Only bicycles will be allowed on the streets. Those houses on steep hills will be abandoned and the hills will revert to blackberries and ivy.

    Boeing employees will leave Seattle as will Boeing. Amazon employees and Amazon will leave. The U of W will have much smaller classes because students will not be able to get there from the eastside. Microsoft employees will not live in Seattle. Stores will close, schools will close and businesses will leave.

    In the end, Seattle will become, the much discussed Urban Village, of about 20,000 inhabitants who will live in the flat areas where bikes work. Medic One will be a tandem bike with a defibrillator. If they get your heart restarted, you may live. You will have to ride your bike to the hospital. They will have no way to transport you; nor will we will have hospitals. The sick and old will simply die and add to the smell of rotting garbage. Remember there will be no garbage trucks. Seattle will become a small town of unemployed, no income, bike-riders. The citizens will be fit and young because no one else will be able to mount Seattle’s many hills on their bikes.

    You think bikers are aggressive and abusive now. Just think how it will be when you have 30 bikers at the same time running stoplights and stop signs all from a different direction knocking each other over. There will be no services, no big box stores, no mail delivery, no fire engines, no ambulances and very little in the way of jobs. This will be known Era of Under Development of the once great city, Seattle.

    You have taken 4 streets with 16 lanes north south to 8 lanes. Traffic comes to a total standstill every day thanks to your brilliance. Now you want to screw up Wilson Ave. What is it you drink and smoke downtown to come up with such stupid ideas. What have we done to you to cause you to be so negative and vindictive to those of us who live in SE. Seattle.

  2. A huge part missing from this Move Seattle, is there are no provisions for Transits Park-N-Rides in South Seattle, yet, there are black topped & fenced off vacant lots all down Martin Luther King Jr Way. And to add to the frustration of that is the irony of extending hour limited parking on the residential streets. Also consider the inconvenience to the neighbors that have endure commuters parking in front of their homes for the entire day!

    Where’s the Race & Social Justice & Service Equity in that?

  3. A few corrections:

    1. The 2nd Ave Protected Bike Lane Extension wasn’t supposed to cost $860,000 — that was the projected average cost of protected bike lanes according to the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan. Some PBLs would be less, some would be more. The 2nd Ave PBL Extension Project was also much more than a bike project, and also included several enhancements along the existing 2nd Ave PBL. As such, it’s not accurate to attribute the $12 million to only the bike improvements along the 1 mile extension. Traffic signals were significantly improved through drivers throughout the corridor (one of the biggest costs of the project), and several new & much needed pedestrian crosswalks & signals were added in Belltown. Along the old PBL, enhanced barriers were added. Finally, of the $12 million, $5 million came from a federal grant, at least one block was paid for by a new development, and the rest was from the levy (so, less than $7 million).

    2. It’s not clear that SDOT has lost any funding opportunities because of the Trump Administration — yet. The fears of not getting funding are prospective in nature. Congress actually significantly increased the pot of federal funding that local transit, bike, and ped projects typically get in its last budget.

    Still, I agree, there’s plenty to worry about, including whether we can get a safer Rainier Avenue for people walking & biking.