1. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been headed up by an interim director, Goran Sparrman, for nearly seven months, since controversial director Scott Kubly left the position last December, a month after Jenny Durkan was sworn in as mayor. Durkan extended Sparrman’s tenure as interim SDOT chief by two months at the end of May, when the SDOT director publicly announced that he planned to leave at the end of August. At the time, Durkan’s office announced a national search to replace him, and put out a call for input from the public on what they would like to see in the next SDOT director.
Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle.
Sparrman’s departure date is rapidly approaching, and Durkan has not announced his replacement, nor, apparently, does she plan to any time soon. Instead, The C Is for Crank has learned, will announce yet another interim director—reportedly Genessee Adkins, SDOT’s current chief of staff—and put off hiring a permanent director until this winter, possibly as late as January, according to sources close to the department. The ongoing lack of permanent leadership at the embattled agency, which is dealing with fallout from cost overruns on the delayed downtown streetcar as well as a vocal backlash from bike and pedestrian advocates over Durkan and Sparrman’s decision to delay implementation of the long-planned Fourth Avenue protected bike lane until 2021, has reportedly damaged morale at the agency and contributed to a sense of an agency in turmoil. Compounding the lack of leadership at the top is the fact that all four of SDOT’s deputy directors are also serving on an interim basis, as is the current chief of staff (Adkins is currently on leave), creating an org chart headed up almost entirely by people serving on an impermanent or contingent basis. (The org chart itself, unusually for a Seattle city agency, only includes the names of the seven people at the very top, followed by the general functions each of those people oversee.)
Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle. Sparrman reportedly accepted his new private-sector position several months ago. I asked Durkan’s office whether it was a conflict of interest for Sparrman to be negotiating on behalf of SDOT with agencies that could soon be his clients. Her spokeswoman, Stephanie Formas, responded by referring me to the city’s ethics rules regarding former employees, which restrict current employees’ ability to be involved in their future employers’ “dealings with the city,” and restrict former employees’ ability to participate in certain activities, like bidding for contracts, for the first year or two after they leave the city, depending on the activity.
2. Mayor Durkan issued an “update on the Center City Connector” yesterday that confirmed some of what city council member Lisa Herbold was talking about a full five days ago (when I was on vacation; sorry!): The vehicles the city ordered for the indefinitely postponed First Avenue Streetcar are wider and longer than the existing South Lake Union and First Avenue streetcars, suggesting that they may not be compatible with the existing systems the Center City Connector is supposed to connect.
Durkan, to the consternation of some transit advocates, has been lukewarm on the proposed downtown streetcar ever since initial operations cost estimates turned out to be off by as much as 50 percent and the cost to build the system ballooned by tens of millions. A long-awaited independent financial analysis of the project has been delayed because, according to today’s statement from the mayor’s office, the review “was much more complex than initially expected.” One question that could be deal-breaking is whether the new, larger vehicles are even compatible with the gauge of the existing streetcar lines, which run from Pioneer Square to First Hill and from Westlake to South Lake Union.
Formas, the mayor’s spokeswoman, says that it’s possible the lines will still be able to connect—the existing streetcars, for example, are built to slightly different specifications but can still run on each others’ tracks—but the episode brings to mind what happened with the downtown transit tunnel, whose original train tracks, installed almost as an afterthought in 1993, had to be torn out and replaced in the mid-2000s, resulting in additional costs of more than $45 million.
“We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free. We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.”
3. Advocates for completing the long-delayed “missing link” of the Burke-Gilman multi-use trail in Ballard won a small victory last week, when a King County Superior Court judge dismissed a complaint by the Ballard Coalition, a group of businesses that opposes the completion of the trail as proposed by “missing link” advocates, charging that the city hearing examiner who approved the final environmental statement for the project had a conflict of interest. The Coalition argued, essentially, that because then-deputy commissioner Ryan Vancil was up for a promotion when he determined in January that the city’s environmental analysis of the project, which took five years and cost $2.5 million to complete, was adequate. The decision was a significant victory for trail advocates.
In its complaint, the business coalition argued that Vancil violated the appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires public officials to conduct business in a way that appears fair, by applying for and obtaining a promotion from deputy hearing examiner to chief hearing examiner while the city of Seattle had a case in front of him—specifically, the “long-running [Burke-Gilman] dispute.” In his ruling rejecting that argument, Judge Samuel Chung noted that if he were to assume that anyone who applied for a promotion within the hearing examiner’s office was biased in favor of the city, it “would impose a presumption that would taint all virtually all decision making by that body. Every hearing examiner is presumed to be fair and impartial, and an advancement within that office under these facts do not form a basis for an appearance of fairness violation.”
4. Deadlines prevented me from giving my full attention to a resolution the city council passed last week vowing to build out as much of the planned downtown bike network as possible while the Fourth Avenue protected bike lane remains in limbo, but I didn’t want to let one comment from council member Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the resolution, slip by. O’Brien made the remark while we were discussing the “period of maximum constraint” between now and roughly 2021, when construction projects and the closure of the downtown bus tunnel and the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct are expected to jam traffic downtown.
O’Brien, who opposed the Alaskan Way tunnel project, pointed out that everyone who now uses the viaduct to get to points downtown will drive instead on surface streets, and even people going through downtown will use surface streets to avoid the tunnel, contributing to traffic jams during the “period of maximum constraint” from roughly now until 2021, when construction and demolition projects are expected to make downtown traffic worse than at any time in recent history. The day before we talked, O’Brien said, the Washington State Transportation Commission had approved tunnel tolls ranging from $1 to $2.25. “We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free,” O’Brien told me. “We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.” Instead, O’Brien said, Seattle is going to have “anti-congestion pricing—pricing to make congestion worse.”
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4 thoughts on “Morning Crank: Another Interim Head for SDOT, More Streetcar Fallout, A Victory for Burke-Gilman Trail Advocates, and “Tolling to Make Congestion Worse.””
The SDOT situation looks like rats leaving a sinking ship. I don’t blame them — what is a rat supposed to do — go down with the ship? Seattle faces some very difficult transportation decisions in the next few years, and no matter what they decide, it will be a mess. Buses are being kicked out of the tunnel, only so that we can hold a handful of big conventions here (if we are lucky). The viaduct is coming down, and with it, ramps to downtown and Western, along with an extra lane. The bike network — a relatively cheap thing to build — is way behind schedule. Building it now, while laudable, will only make traffic worse in the short run. The 520 bridge is being redone, which means that buses will lose their Montlake bus stop, making things tougher for people trying to get from the East Side to the UW. And, in the middle of it all, you have a streetcar line. An inappropriate and poorly designed tool for Seattle, but one mostly paid for by the feds. It will make traffic worse, do nothing to help the overcrowded buses, cost a fortune, and ultimately lead to a very poor transit route — but cancelling it would have its own issues. Who would want to be SDOT manager? I would rather coach the Knicks. Yes, they are terrible. Yes, the fans will hate you. No, there is nothing you can do to get that team to the playoffs, let alone compete for a championship. But you get to hang out with Spike Lee and rub shoulders with other greats. In Seattle you have to figure out why they decided to build a light rail line to West Seattle before serving Belltown (or Issaquah before First Hill).
No, you are better off letting some poor sap try and muddle along with the mess for a few years. They will eventually fail, or least upset most of the city (there is no easy way to cure this self inflicted would — there will be a lot of pain). Then you come in, and pick up the pieces. Eventually things will get better. Light rail to Northgate will help immensely (with its critical stop at the U-District, 20 years after it should have been built). That relieves some of the pressure on the buses, while the new SR 520 bridge does the same. Folks on the East Side will have an easy bus connection to the UW, which in turn means a lot of buses out of downtown. East Link just becomes a cherry on top. It’s importance is greatly exaggerated, but it will certainly help. People get used to using the new SR 99 tunnel, and the relatively low tolls won’t matter. The dust settles on yet another boom in this boom and bust town, and you calmly point out that while the new trains beyond Northgate (or even to West Seattle and Ballard) will be nice, they won’t be a panacea — buses will still have to do the heavy lifting in this town. That means more transit lanes are in order. Build out the bike lane, cut the ribbon (finally) on the Burke Gilman, and sip your chardonnay (or IPA — I really don’t know what transportation directors drink).
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