Mayor Durkan’s decision to move forward also came after political advisors pointed out the popularity of the project among key constituents.
In announcing yesterday that she planned to re-start the process of building the stalled Center City Connector on First Avenue, Mayor Jenny Durkan was responding to a new report from the Parsons engineering firm showing that the project is feasible if the city can come up with an additional $88 million—the gap between the 2017 cost estimate for the streetcar and an updated estimate of $286 million.
But she was also responding to the political reality (reportedly communicated to her by her political advisors) that the streetcar enjoys strong support not just from the lefty urbanists and transit advocates who voted for her opponent Cary Moon in 2017 but from business leaders, developers, and other constituents who she needs to have on board if she wants to get reelected in 2021.
The mayor’s decision to meet with those advocates came shortly after a nudge from one of her deputies with a direct interest in the project’s outcome. Although Durkan was initially reluctant to meet with a group of business leaders and downtown stakeholders who supported the streetcar, she eventually did so—after an email, last June, from her deputy mayor David Moseley, urging her to take the meeting. Moseley is married to the consultant Durkan hired to do an analysis of the streetcar in July. Previously, Moseley had urged top city officials to accelerate streetcar-related construction that began in 2017, noting that as a property owner along the streetcar route (he and his wife, Anne Fennessy, own a condo in Pioneer Square), he was among those directly impacted by the construction.
Last June, 100 downtown stakeholders, organized as the Seattle Streetcar Coalition, wrote a letter to Durkan urging her to move the streetcar forward, arguing that the 17-block project, which would connect the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars, was “an essential component of our transportation infrastructure, and is currently the only high-capacity transit project planned for the center city before 2035.” At that point, streetcar work had been on hold for several months.
The streetcar advocates, frustrated by what they viewed as a lack of responsiveness from the mayor’s office, asked for a meeting with Durkan herself on June 19, in an email signed by six members of the “Streetcar Steering Committee,” representing the Alliance for Pioneer Square Alliance, Vulcan, and the Downtown Seattle Association, among others. (I obtained this and other emails referenced in this post through a public disclosure request).”We’ve been unsuccessful in obtaining a meeting with you to discuss the future of the Center City Connector Project,” the email said. “Many of the Streetcar coalition members would be willing to help the City revisit a host of cost saving solutions.”
A correspondence assistant from the mayor’s office reached out to the mayor’s staff and the three deputy mayors to ask how to respond. Eight days later, one person did—deputy mayor David Moseley, whose wife, consultant Anne Fennessy, was about to sign a $30,000 contract to “coordinat[e] and integrat[e] the City’s streetcar review.” (Fennessy’s first billing period for this contract began on July 27.) Moseley, who lives with Fennessy in a building located directly on the potential streetcar route, wrote, “Not my area but seems to me the Mayor should meet with proponents of the streetcar. I think it’s worth 30 minutes of her time. Just a thought.”
The email went to members of the mayor’s staff and the two other deputy mayors. A few weeks later, on July 24, the streetcar advocates got a meeting with deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan. One month after that, on August 23, they sat down with the mayor directly—in a meeting that was staffed by the mayor’s then-transportation advisor Ahmed Darrat, and Fennessy.
Moseley, who lives with [his wife, city streetcar consultant] Fennessy in a building located directly on the potential streetcar route, wrote, “Not my area but seems to me the Mayor should meet with proponents of the streetcar. I think it’s worth 30 minutes of her time. Just a thought.” OnJuly 24, the streetcar advocates got a meeting with deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan. One month after that, on August 23, they sat down with the mayor directly—in a meeting that was staffed by the mayor’s then-transportation advisor Ahmed Darrat, and Fennessy.
Moseley has an agreement with the city to recuse himself from “any current or reasonably foreseeable action that to a reasonable person appears to primarily benefit his wife or her firm” and to refrain “from participating in any decisions that pertain to specific matters in which Anne Fennessy or her firm have a financial interest until those matters are concluded; thereby terminating the financial interest.”
Did Moseley’s brief note change the mayor’s mind about meeting with streetcar advocates? Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, says no. “The note from the Deputy Mayor in June did not impact the decision for the Mayor to meet months later with the Streetcar Coalition in late August ahead of the initial release of the independent review of capital and operating costs of the project,” Formas said Thursday. “Deputy Mayor Raganathan has been overseeing the review and been the lead on any meetings with transit advocates, community members, businesses, stakeholders and SDOT. She had recommended the Mayor meet with the coalition.” Even if Moseley’s nudge (or subsequent verbal conversations) did influence the mayor’s decision to meet with the group, it was likely just one of many factors that helped turn the tide back in the streetcar’s favor, along with the new, less-terrible-than-anticipated cost estimates and the mayor’s desire not to alienate a key set of constituents who were urging her to move the streetcar forward.
But in a sense, whether Moseley’s attempt to influence the mayor by urging her to meet with a group of cranky constituents ultimately did influence the mayor’s thinking on the streetcar issue is almost beside the point. The existence of such an email highlights, not for the first time, the tricky dance that becomes necessary when the mayor’s preferred consultant (and longtime friend) keeps getting contracts to work on city issues, including the streetcar and, more recently, coordination between the city and Sound Transit.
And this was hardly the first such email from Moseley. Back in January, before he signed his recusal agreement, the deputy mayor sent a note to city staffers, including several at the mayor’s office, complaining about streetcar-related construction in Pioneer Square. “Just to bring some urgency to this issue, I live in Pioneer Square and the work is very impactful to the neighborhood,” Moseley wrote. “I know the work is necessary but I hope we are doing all we can to have the work completed as quickly as possible and with as little impact as feasible.”
It’s probable that neither of these emails cross any kind of formal ethical line. But they do raise questions about what “recusal” means, and whether Moseley should be weighing in with city staffers or the mayor about issues Fennessy works on at all. (Whether Moseley’s boss should be granting his wife six-figure, no-bid contracts is another question altogether.)
The ultimate fate of the streetcar remains a somewhat open question. The total funding gap identified in the report is $88 million—$23 million for utility work that would likely have to be done anyway, and a $65 million hole in SDOT’s budget for the project that resulted from factors the mayor’s office says the department failed to consider, including the need for a new maintenance barn to accommodate longer trains, funding to strengthen bridges in Pioneer Square, and modifications to the train platforms and tracks.
In her letter transmitting the new cost estimates to the city council, Durkan placed the blame for these cost increases squarely on former mayor Ed Murray’s administration and the previous management at SDOT, writing, “It is clear now that the previous SDOT management in the last administration had failed to do the proper due diligence to account for all the costs. As a result, this project was not set up for future long term financial success, including with the Federal Transit Administration (which does its own separate review of the project).” The city is counting on a $75 million Small Starts grant from the FTA to complete the project. The additional review, Durkan’s office says, will push the streetcar’s opening date out to 2025—five years later than the original 2020 projection.
Beyond that, SDOT faces an ongoing operating deficit—or, if you prefer, it requires an ongoing operating subsidy. During last year’s budget discussions, Durkan announced she was ending the practice of backfilling revenue shortfalls for the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars after the fact, and would instead include the subsidy in the budget at the beginning of the year. According to the Parsons report, that ongoing subsidy will grow from $4.17 million next year to $6.14 million in 2020, when a $1 million annual subsidy from King County Metro runs out, and grow steadily until it jumps again, to $12.8 million, in 2024, when a similar $5 million annual subsidy from Sound Transit runs its course. The renewal of either of these two subsidies would reduce the cost to the city.
As for the Seattle Streetcar Coalition: They were, in the words of one coalition member, “thrilled” by today’s announcement. In a press release, the coalition “commend[ed] Mayor Jenny Durkan for her leadership on transportation and her commitment to delivering the critical next piece of Seattle’s streetcar system.”