By Erica C. Barnett
City Councilmember-elect Rob Saka, a former Meta attorney who will represent West Seattle’s District 1 starting next year, sent a series of increasingly heated emails to Seattle Department of Transportation employees during 2021 and 2022 seeking the removal of a road divider that SDOT installed in front of his kids’ preschool. The divider was part of the RapidRide H project connecting Burien, White Center, and West Seattle to downtown.
The curb-like divider is a variation on a common traffic calming device known as a hardened centerline. The curb, which replaced a double yellow line, physically prevents northbound drivers from making an illegal left turn to access homes and businesses on the west side of the street, including a bilingual preschool called the Refugee and Immigrant Family Center. According to an April 2022 South Seattle Emerald story about the dispute, Saka’s two children attended the preschool as of last year.
In the email thread (reproduced in part here), which PubliCola obtained through a records request, Saka compared the mid-block traffic barrier to Trump’s border wall and said it was “triggering” and “severely traumatizing” to immigrants who “have faced significant trauma during their perilous journeys, including by navigating divisive structures and barriers designed to exclude lives in the US.”
“First, it might be helpful to reset on physical barriers as a social construct and how SDOT’s dangerous barrier here has severely traumatized and upset our community at the Refugee & Immigrant Family Center (RIFC),” Saka wrote. “Historically, barriers have been used to exclude, isolate, divide, discriminate against, project power over, subjugate, render less than status to, punish, segregate, humiliate/embarrass, harass, degrade, and so much more.”
“Historically, barriers have been used to exclude, isolate, divide, discriminate against, project power over, subjugate, render less than status to, punish, segregate, humiliate/embarrass, harass, degrade, and so much more,” Saka told project staff last March. “More recently, the Trump administration sought to build an enormous wall on the southern border with Mexico – presumably, to exclude certain individuals deemed ‘undesirable’ in the name of national security.”
The border wall is a 30-foot-high barrier, spanning hundreds of miles, that has contributed to the deaths of countless migrants, including a growing number of deaths and injuries due to falls. The Delridge barrier is an 8-inch-high road divider that runs for about 100 feet. Although Saka described the divider as “highly unique and bizarre,” SDOT has installed similar road treatments across the city, including along 15th Ave. NW in Ballard and Rainier Ave. South between I-90 and the Rainier Valley.
Even before SDOT installed the divider, left turns were illegal along the length of the RapidRide project, which also includes new bike lanes on both sides of the street. The divider is one of many new road treatments designed to keep people from attempting to pass stopped buses and prevent collisions with pedestrians and cyclists.
Many of the new safety measures along Delridge are much larger and more permanent than the raised centerline outside the RIFC. Just to the north of the preschool, for example, a new RapidRide bus stop in front of Louisa Boren K-8 school features a raised concrete island in the middle of Delridge, along with wide markings between the lanes to indicate that drivers should not turn left or pass buses at the RapidRide stop. Immediately to the north, a broad, landscaped median protects patrons at the Delridge library from cars turning illegally into the bike lanes and parking lot.
Nationwide, about a quarter of all car crashes involving pedestrians are caused by a driver turning left and hitting someone in their path.
The South Seattle Emerald’s story about the preschool’s concerns also notes that the new bike lane took out several parking spaces parents had used to drop off and pick up their kids.
In his emails, Saka suggested that community members, not roadway designers at SDOT, were in the best position to know what keeps their roadways safe.
“For clarity, we don’t need a secretive ‘design team’ to impose their errant decisions on us in the name of ‘public safety’. Nor do we need a benevolent king to do the same,” Saka wrote. (Emphasis in original.) “SDOT must immediately remove the most egregious feature – a concrete barrier that directly targets our RIFC community and was erected without our prior consultation, input, or knowledge.”
In April 2022, an SDOT public engagement manager offered to set up a meeting with Saka to discuss the project. Saka responded that he would only meet the SDOT team if the agency guaranteed in advance that they would remove the barrier. “Like I mentioned earlier, we need this pretty simple confirmation from SDOT in order to ensure any meeting would be an effective and efficient use of time,” Saka wrote. “I strongly urge you to NOT overthink your response.”
SDOT has not yet responded to PubliCola’s inquiries about the project, and Saka did not respond to detailed questions sent on Tuesday. The operator of the RIFC also did not immediately respond to questions sent Thursday. A search of court records did not show any legal action by Saka, either on his own or on behalf of the preschool, and the road divider remains in place.