Category: Transportation

Unpaid Tickets from West Seattle Bridge Violations Add Up to Millions

West Seattle and Spokane Street Bridges
Unauthorized drivers who used the lower Spokane Street Bridge (right) when the West Seattle Bridge was closed for repairs racked up more than 130,000 traffic citations in 2021 and 2022. Photo by Lizz Giordano.

By Lizz Giordano

A windfall from traffic tickets during the closure of the West Seattle Bridge could soon reach the Seattle Department of Transportation, as more than 74,000 citations from traffic cameras on the Spokane Street bridge, also known as the “lower” West Seattle Bridge, head to collections next year. 

When the West Seattle Bridge closed for repairs in 2020, the city banned most drivers from using the lower bridge except between late night and early morning to give buses and emergency vehicles a clear path between West Seattle and downtown. The city first relied on police officers to catch scofflaws, then installed automated cameras to issue citations in early 2021. 

As of the end of this October, more than half of those citations remain unpaid. At $75 per citation, that adds up to more than $5.5 million in potential revenue, half of which goes to the city.

Most people used the First Avenue Bridge, located two and half miles south of the high bridge, as their detour route.

City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, noted that most commuters didn’t break the rules during the bridge closure.

However, she added, “It’s sad that over 500 drivers … had such a large number of tickets, [disobeying] policies that were created for everyone’s safety. While an occasional violation is perhaps understandable, this quantity suggests disregard for the need to keep the bridge use at a level that allowed for unimpeded emergency vehicle access.”

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

In 2021, photo enforcement cameras along the Spokane Street Bridge issued 89,041 citations to unauthorized drivers on the low bridge. This accounted for nearly half—46 percent—of the 192,432 camera citations issued citywide that year. In 2022, before the West Seattle Bridge reopened in September, drivers using the lower bridge racked up another 41,535 citations, for a total of more than 130,000 tickets on the bridge.

According to Seattle Municipal Court data, drivers have paid just 32 percent of these tickets. The court suspended late fees and stopped sending outstanding tickets to collections at the beginning of the pandemic. But starting at the end of January, drivers who have failed to pay their fines will be subject to late fees.

The court also plans to start sending unpaid fines to a collections agency, which tacks on a 15 percent fee on each ticket, as soon as the end of April.

“People with unpaid tickets from 2020-2022 should plan to respond to their tickets by January 30, 2023,” said Laura Bet, a spokeswoman for the court. “People can respond to their tickets by setting up a payment plan, setting up a community service plan if they are low-income, or scheduling a hearing.”

A handful of drivers could face some particularly hefty invoices. Two vehicles racked up more than 300 citations for crossing the Spokane Street Bridge without authorization in 2021 alone, according to the data. Another 35 drivers amassed more than 100 tickets each and more than 500 accumulated more than 20 citations that year. 

The city was able to deploy the cameras on the low bridge as part of a pilot program after the state legislature expanded the city’s authority to use automated cameras to enforce traffic laws. The new law also allows camera enforcement when drivers ”block the box” by stopping in intersections at red lights.

State law dictates that half of the revenue for the pilot goes to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to fund bicycle, pedestrian and non-motorized safety projects. SDOT is using its half of the money to add accessible signals that vibrate and chirp to some pedestrian crossings.

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

Before the pandemic, drivers paid 74 percent of citations from photo enforcement cameras issued in 2018 and 2019, according to data from the court.

A spokesperson for SDOT declined to comment on the large number of tickets drivers racked up on the Spokane St. Bridge.

Parking Officers Lose Labor Complaint But Will Return to SPD; Utility Managers’ Union Files Complaint Over Wages

1. On Monday, the state Public Employee Relations Commission rejected an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint by the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG) over changes that took place when the parking officers moved from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation in 2021, ruling that the issues the union raised in its complaint were not mandatory subjects of bargaining.

As PubliCola previously reported, the parking officers argued that they needed access to a database called the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS). The officers can scan a vehicle’s license plate and determine whether it’s on a “hot sheet”—a list of license plates that have law enforcement information attached to them, including stolen vehicles and those whose owners are in a criminal database—and report back to SPD, which can then investigate Without CJIS access, however, they can’t know exactly what issue is associated with a particular vehicle.

In its decision, PERC said the parking enforcement officers could still find out whether a vehicle was stolen or associated with a crime or outstanding warrant; the only information they no longer have access to is detailed information about the issue with a particular vehicle. “SDOT does not require or expect PEOs to issue a citation or remain in the area after dispatch informs them that SPD has an interest in or is responding to a vehicle,” the commission wrote.

The move reverses a change the council made in 2021, at the urging of then-mayor Jenny Durkan, to shift parking enforcement out of SPD in order to “reduce” spending on police; this on-paper reduction, which advocates for more police funding have characterized as “defunding the police” ever since the city made it, was little more than a budgetary sleight of hand

PERC has not yet ruled on a counter-claim that the city filed against the parking officers’ union in July.

Parking enforcement officers who wanted to move back to SPD got their wish on Monday, when the city council voted to return the officers to SPD and use the budget savings to pay for a number of items that would have otherwise been cut. The council decided to move the officers back to SPD in a 6-3 vote as part of the overall 2023-2024 city budget, which we’ll cover in more detail in a separate post.

The move reverses a change the council made in 2021, at the urging of then-mayor Jenny Durkan, to shift parking enforcement out of SPD in order to “reduce” spending on police; this on-paper reduction, which advocates for more police funding have characterized as “defunding the police” ever since the city made it, was little more than a budgetary sleight of hand by Durkan and the council. Nonetheless, because taking on nearly 100 new staff added significantly to SDOT’s overhead, removing the parking enforcement officers freed up millions to spend on other purposes.

Harrell has said he plans to establish a “third department” to oversee public safety, which could be the parking enforcement officers’ ultimate destination if they don’t stay at SPD; last year, the council wanted to move the officers to the newly created Community Safety and Communications Center, which took 911 call response off SPD’s hands, but Durkan and SDOT lobbied hard to put them at SDOT.

2. In other city labor news, the union representing strategic advisors and managers at Seattle Public Utilities has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the city for, according to the union, withholding wage increases it should have provided and imposing a new return-to-office policy in the middle of contract negotiations. The group of 175 SPU managers and strategic advisors was just certified for representation (by the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, Council 2, AFSCME) last year; this is the group’s first contract negotiation.

The primary issue at play in negotiations between the union and the city is the way SPU allocates raises to this group of about 175 workers. Bill Keenan, the organizing director for Council 2, said SPU has “an archaic process” for deciding how much its managers and strategic advisors make, which results in persistent pay disparities between people doing the exact same work.

The result of SPU’s wage increase process, according to the union, is that women in these positions earn $1.20 less per hour than men, and people of color earn 99 cents an hour less than their white counterparts. One 26-year veteran of the department, a woman of color, makes $10 less per hour than a man who has been at SPU for five years, the union’s organizing director said.

Typically, a new city employee starts at the bottom of the “pay band” for their position and proceeds through a series of “steps,” or pay increases, over a set period of time. If the city hires someone as a Strategic Advisor 1, for example, they’re supposed to start at the bottom of the pay range for that position and receive pay bumps according to a set schedule.

At SPU, Keenan said, there’s no such process for managers and strategic advisors; instead, their pay is set by the person who hires them, and “once you get placed on the pay scale where they decide you should be placed, they have another broken process where [future raises] are again up to an individual. … It’s totally subjective.” The result, Keenan said, is that women in these positions earn, on average, $1.20 less per hour than men, and people of color earn 99 cents an hour less than their white counterparts. One 26-year veteran of the department, a woman of color, makes $10 less per hour than a man who has been at SPU for five years, Keenan said.

The city has said the salaries and pay increases the union is seeking would cost as much as $40 million, a number the ULP calls “greatly exaggerated.”

The unfair labor practice complaint doesn’t deal directly with the labor issues Keenan that are at play in the negotiations; instead it accuses SPU of halting the existing annual wage increase process for most of the union’s members and imposing a return-to-office policy that the union had no role in negotiating. “Until we reach a contract, they have to retain the status quo on wages and conditions of employment unless we agree to bargain otherwise,” Keenan said.

Currently, the union and city are in mediation over the underlying contract. A survey of all SPU employees found that a majority of workers enjoyed working with their immediate teams and felt valued, but felt that higher-level management doesn’t care about SPU workers or understand what they do. In an email to employees, SPU general manager Andrew Lee—a Harrell appointee who just started in June—called the results “very humbling” and expressed his “strong commitment to improvement.

SPU’s call center employees—a group of about 85 workers who are among the city’s lowest-paid employees— fought Harrell’s return-to-office mandate earlier this year and won. 

Keenan said he expects the union and city will return to mediation after the holidays.

SDOT Decries Tactical Urbanism While Allowing Eco-Blocks All Over the City

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Department of Transportation forgot the first rule of holes when its social media rep posted a testy defense of SDOT’s decision to swiftly eliminate an unauthorized crosswalk at a dangerous Capitol Hill intersection.

Responding to a person who posted a photo of an SDOT crew power-washing the guerrilla crosswalk away, SDOT wrote, “We are always interested in working with residents and businesses on ways to make walking safer and more comfortable and will evaluate the intersection to see how we might replace the unauthorized crosswalk. In the meantime, it will have to be removed. Improperly painted crosswalks give a false sense of safety which puts pedestrians in danger. There are better ways for people to work w/ us to indicate crossing improvement needs & to make sure changes achieve what is intended—get people to their destinations safely.”

In response, hundreds of Seattle residents piled on with stories about their own often-futile attempts to get SDOT to improve pedestrian safety in their neighborhoods, mocked (and interrogated) the idea that “unofficial” paint makes crosswalks less safe, and questioned why the department leaped into action to remove the guerrilla crosswalk while telling Seattle residents that their requests for safety improvements would need to go through the years-long Seattle Process.

Then, amid the furor, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s new SDOT director jumped in the thread, lashing out at one poster (among many) who suggested that SDOT’s primary mission is to make the city safe for cars (a pretty common charge against city transportation departments nationwide.) “There is not a single person at SDOT who comes to work hoping fewer people cross the street. This is a propagandistic comment that is pure disinformation,” Spotts wrote.

“Political participation is not the same as altering the public right of way yourself. Folks are invited to participate in all sorts of ways and we are listening.”—SDOT director Greg Spotts, responding to tweets supporting a guerrilla crosswalk on Capitol Hill

Down that thread, Spotts responded to a tweet about SDOT’s utter indifference to the illegal placement of “eco blocks” to prevent homeless people from parking in public rights-of-way around the city. “Placing of ecoblocks is not acceptable And “I’m unwilling to pull SDOT crews off important safety projects to remove ecoblocks,” Spotts wrote. (In other words—as SDOT has told this publication before—it is actually acceptable, in the sense that SDOT will continue to accept it.) Even further downthread, Spotts mentioned another issue with unauthorized crosswalks, one not directly related to safety: “Liability.”

In all, Spotts responded to dozens of tweets, defending SDOT’s decision and suggesting that people go through official participation channels rather than engaging in tactical urbanism. “Political participation is not the same as altering the public right of way yourself. Folks are invited to participate in all sorts of ways and we are listening,” Spotts wrote.

In the past, when citizens have altered crosswalks to represent their neighborhood—including a Pride flag on Broadway and a Pan-African black, red, and green crosswalk in the Central District—previous SDOT directors responded much differently, working with communities to paint the crosswalks in ways that make them more durable and visible to drivers. (Until 2017, there was even an official Department of Neighborhoods website for neighbors to apply for non-traditional crosswalks.) This administration, in contrast, seems intent on digging in its heels.

In response to the backlash, SDOT issued a statement that continued in the same chiding tone. “We have heard the message loudly and clearly that the public wants more crossing and safety improvements.  We appreciate the passion which has driven someone to paint their own crosswalk, however this is not the right way to voice your desire for change,” the statement reads. “There are standards which we are legally required to follow when painting a crosswalk. The unauthorized markings at E Olive Way and Harvard Ave E have been removed because they do not comply with city standards.”

Eco-blocks, which also do not comply with city law (and which residents use explicitly to deprive people of places to live), apparently do not rise to the level of urgency created by unauthorized lines on the ground.

New SDOT Director Talks Scooters, Streetcar, and Sweeps; A Closer Look at City Grant to Social Club Harrell Headed

New SDOT director Greg Spotts
New SDOT director Greg Spotts

1. Greg Spotts, the newly confirmed director of Seattle’s transportation department, spoke with reporters Wednesday on a wide range of topics, including scooters, the proposed downtown streetcar connector, and his plan to do a “top to bottom review” of the city’s Vision Zero effort to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, which is currently far off track.

Spotts, who previously headed up StreetsLA, a division of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Street Services, said he was currently agnostic on both the appropriate number of scooters the city should permit and the debate over whether to revive work on the downtown streetcar, which former mayor Jenny Durkan paused during her term. As Spotts noted, scooter sharing proliferated in LA after the city decided to allow any qualified company to operate in the city, but didn’t really serve low-income areas or communities of color.

“What it produced was an overabundance of scooters in the obvious places where there’s a lot of density and a lot of money, and … very few scooters in communities of color,” Spotts said. Even with incentives for placing scooters in underserved areas, they continued to cluster in wealthy, tourist-heavy neighborhoods like Santa Monica, Hollywood, and downtown LA. “So it’s not obvious how to make this public private partnership to produce all the public goods that you want, but maybe we’re in the very, very early stages of figuring that out.”

Similarly, Spotts said he might support expanding the streetcar if there’s evidence it will improve the economic climate in the areas it serves. The new downtown section of streetcar would create a loop connecting two separate streetcar lines, connecting South Lake Union to Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. All three areas are already connected by frequent transit, which—along with low ridership on the existing streetcar—raises questions about whether a new streetcar segment would justify its cost, currently estimated at almost $300 million.

“There’s operational benefits, right? Instead of running two segments, running one big one,” Spotts said. “But what would push it over the top, I think, is it analysis that it could be an important catalyst for our small businesses in downtown, for our tourist economy, for our cultural institutions.”

One issue Spotts declined to address is SDOT’s role in removing homeless encampments from sidewalks; SDOT staffers (including some currently vacant positions) make up more than half the members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 70 staffers who removes encampment. (The UCT also includes six members of the city’s HOPE team, which does outreach and makes shelter offers prior to sweeps).

“At this early stage, I’m really deferring to the mayor’s office to utilize the departments as they want to for the larger policies that they’re pursuing,” Spotts said. “And I’m not looking to introduce some personal opinions into that. I’m just here to here to assist in whatever way they want us to assist.”

2. After we reported on the fact that the city awarded nearly $800,000 to a private men’s social club that Mayor Bruce Harrell chaired until late last year, we took another look at the record to see if there was any precedent for the city awarding Equitable Development Initiative dollars to any similar institution.

Over the five years the city has been making EDI awards, about three dozen organizations have received significant grants from the fund. Many of the groups that have received multiple grants are engaged in low-income housing development, create community spaces that are open to the public, or provide social or health services to particular communities.

For example, the Friends of Little Saigon, Africatown, the Rainier Valley Midwives, Chief Seattle Club, and the Ethiopian Community in Seattle have all received multiple EDI awards over the past five years. Other grant recipients in past years include Cham Refugees Community, the Somali Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and the Filipino Community of Seattle.

A few of the grant recipients provide cultural space and put on events that are open to the ticket-buying public, including Black and Tan Hall and the Wing Luke Museum. None is a private social club—except the Royal Esquire Club.

It’s unclear whether the Royal Esquire Club has sought public funding from the city in the past; we’ve requested a list of all previous EDI grant applicants through a public records request. The club, which was at the center of another controversy involving Harrell while he was City Council president, has never received an EDI award in the program’s history; the $782,000 the club will receive is more than twice its annual revenues for 2019, according to the group’s most recent tax filing.

Mayor Reshuffles Office Chairs, Council Considers Fixes for Pedestrian-Hostile Third Avenue

Third Avenue downtown (image via Downtown Seattle Association)

1. Learn to trust the Fizz: As PubliCola reported last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell has just reorganized his office, including the reassignment of former Director of Public Safety Andrew Myerberg to the newly created position of special projects director, answering to Harrell’s favored public safety advisor Tim Burgess (whose own title is, confusingly, Director of Strategic Initiatives). The public safety shuffle reportedly reflects a division in the mayor’s office between Burgess (a former city council member who favored law-and-order strategies like a ban on “aggressive panhandling”), Myerberg (the former Office of Police Accountability Director) and Harrell’s niece and senior deputy mayor, Monisha Harrell, who was previously Myerberg’s boss.

The divide between all these players isn’t just about policy, but perception—Myerberg, whose experience is more in the realm of policy than politics, is reportedly getting stuck with the blame for the negative public response to an ill-conceived plan to crack down on people gathering at Third and Pine downtown by using rarely deployed laws governing behavior on buses and bus stops.

The reorganization of the mayor’s office doesn’t stop there. Jeremy Racca, Harrell’s former council aide-turned-general counsel, has taken on additional duties under the new secondary title of “chief administrative officer,” while policy director Dan Eder, a former council central staffer, now reports not to the mayor but to Racca.

Jamie Housen, the mayor’s campaign consultant-turned-communications director, has been bumped up to report directly to Harrell, while deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, the former homelessness director for the Human Services Department, gained two new direct reports, including Lisa Gustaveson, a former homelessness staffer at HSD who worked briefly for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority before returning to the city earlier this year.

So what does it all mean? As Harrell told PubliCola during a press conference last week, “moving people around” early in a mayoral term isn’t uncommon—but it does speak to who’s in and out on the seventh floor (and the mayor’s good graces). Out: Myerberg (who is, interestingly, the only person Burgess oversees), Eder… and possibly another top staffer whose responsibilities are officially the same, but who we’ve heard been relieved of some duties. In: Washington, Burgess, and Housen—whose former boss, Harrell’s political consultant Christian Sinderman, reportedly has his own office space at the city. In addition, top-level staffer Adiam Emery, the mayor’s former chief equity officer, has a heightened public presence and new title, executive general manager.

Closed-for-business vibes: Pre-pandemic snapshots of Third Avenue from the DSA report.

2. The city council’s homelessness and public assets committee considered a resolution yesterday to endorse a plan created by the Downtown Seattle Association to revitalize the Third Avenue transit corridor—currently a wide, bus-clogged expanse of pavement flanked by narrow sidewalks and many boarded-up businesses.

The DSA’s “Third Avenue Vision” has actually been around for several years, but got sidelined by the pandemic, which exacerbated some of the issues the DSA raises in its report while reducing the number of people riding buses on the street—which, as of 2019, was the busiest bus-only corridor in the nation.

DSA director Jon Scholes said the business group’s pre-pandemic surveys found “a strong consensus that Third Avenue is the street that most people don’t want to be on. … It really hasn’t recovered as a street since the … original transit tunnel was dug through and along Third Avenue in the early ’90s.” That tunnel has served light rail exclusively since buses were kicked onto surface streets, including Third Ave., in 2019. Since then, many businesses shut their doors because of the pandemic, and Third Avenue continues to be the focus of periodic crackdowns on drug sales, retail theft, and people hanging out without an obvious destination (what’s often lumped the general category of “disorder.”)

The proposal aims to reduce bus traffic volumes, provide more exposure for street-level businesses, and give pedestrians more space through four potential strategies: A “compact transitway” that would create new sidewalk space by reducing Third Avenue from four lanes to two; a “median transitway” option that would move bus stops to a new median and convert the street into a two-way transit street, using shuttles to move riders through downtown; a “transit shuttle and hub” model that would also rely on shuttles through downtown, but eliminate the median in favor of a two-lane roadway; and a “transit couplet” framework that would turn a three-lane Third Avenue into a lower-volume one-way “couplet,” with buses traveling north on Third and southbound on a parallel street such as Second Ave.

Although the DSA’s report does not explicitly mention crime or homelessness, focusing instead on ways to improve the pedestrian environment broadly, council president Debora Juarez brought it up on Wednesday, saying, “We should be honest about it how Third and other streets have changed and have become not safe. We want it to be safe for everybody, and also for addressing homelessness and getting the right people down there to handle it, but also alleviating some of what pressure from a major corridor like Third. So I think we have to be honest about that.”

Scholes did not respond to Juarez’s comments directly; however, the vision the DSA has proposed for Third Avenue appears to offer little room for poor or homeless people. Notably, two sites of frequent crackdowns on homelessness and crime—the area around the McDonald’s at Third and Pine and City Hall Park in Pioneer Square—have been reimagined in the DSA’s renderings: The park, which was closed and fenced after the removal of a large encampment, appears as the front door to a fanciful “osteria” on the south side of the King County Courthouse, and the McDonald’s has been replaced by a sidewalk cafe.

Ban on Narcan Continues Amid Overdoses at Libraries; Harrell’s Pick for SDOT Director Answers Council Questions

1. Last month, we reported on the Seattle Public Library’s directive telling staff not to carry or use Narcan, or naloxone—a nasal spray that can restore breathing in people overdosing on opioids—because of potential liability issues.

The state’s Good Samaritan law exempts people who provide emergency care from civil liability, but a library spokeswoman said City Attorney Ann Davison’s office advised the library that library staffers were “likely” not covered by the law. King County Public Libraries, which operates outside Seattle, also bars staff from using Narcan.

Public libraries are among the only indoor places where people experiencing homelessness can go during the day without being expected to make a purchase or explain why they’re there. They’ve also been the location for dozens of fatal and nonfatal overdoses in recent years. According to data provided by the King County Department of Public Health, there have been at least 42 likely overdoses in or outside public libraries in King County since 2019, including 16 inside library branches. Since 2017, at least eight people have died of drug-related causes at libraries in King County, half of them in Seattle, including at least four involving opiates like heroin and fentanyl.

Bans on using Narcan force library staffers to call 911 and wait for emergency responders to arrive, adding several potentially fatal minutes to the time an overdosing person is unconscious and not receiving oxygen to their brain.

A review of recent fire department reports for overdoses at Seattle Public Library branches shows that it takes emergency responders between three and five minutes to arrive on the scene of an overdose and start administering aid. These reports also show that on at least one occasion, back in April, someone at the downtown Seattle library revived a patron with Narcan, the drug library staffers were formally barred from using just three months later.

The ban on using Narcan is based on the belief that library staffers, unlike other Washington state residents, are not protected under the state’s Good Samaritan laws when they administer aid. By that standard, library staffers shouldn’t be able to offer first aid to patrons experiencing minor medical emergencies, or attempt to assist people experiencing heat stroke when they come to the library to cool off in the summer. And yet they manage to do both. Why are overdoses categorically different?

2. Greg Spotts, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s nominee to lead the Seattle Department of Transportation, submitted detailed answers this week to a list of questions from the city council’s transportation committee about his goals for his first year, plan to get Vision Zero back on track, and ideas about how to create a more equitable transportation system. Spotts’ responses t check off a lot of boxes for people who support urbanism and alternatives to driving alone.

For example, in response to a question about creating “connected safe spaces for people to move throughout the city” without a car, Spotts noted that in many cases, “pressure to preserve just a few curbside parking spaces stands in the way of conveying cyclists safely across a busy intersection. Too many of our bike and pedestrian routes have discontinuities that render the route significantly less safe, useful and attractive than it could have been.” In 2019, former mayor Jenny Durkan killed plans to build a protected bike lane along a dangerous stretch of 35th Ave. NE after neighborhood and business groups argued that removing a few curbside parking spaces would devastate businesses in Wedgwood and Ravenna.

However, Spotts also hedged a bit when talking about commitments to new bike infrastructure, responding to a question about whether he would support creating new protected bike lanes as part of road resurfacing projects with an artful dodge. “I fully intend to support projects and routes as called for in the Council-approved Bicycle Master Plan; and will be engaging with staff, subject matter experts, and community as these projects are developed and constructed,” he wrote. As the Urbanist has reported, the city is currently working to integrate all its transportation related “master plans” into a single mega-plan, a move that some advocates worry could further reduce the city’s commitments to nonmotorized transportation.

He also ducked questions about whether parking enforcement officers belong at SDOT and if he would commit to removing the large concrete “eco-blocks” that business owners place illegally in the public right-of-way to keep people living in oversize vehicles from having a place to park. (Councilmember Sara Nelson, whose own business, Fremont Brewing, continues to flagrantly violate this law, is not on the transportation committee).

 

Previous SDOT directors learned the hard way that specific commitments can be tough to implement if they conflict with what their boss, the mayor, wants—which is probably why, when asked about equity in transportation investments, Spotts said only that Seattle’s most deadly streets for cyclists and pedestrians, Rainier Ave. S and Aurora Ave. N., “can potentially be reenvisioned to meet community needs.” Harrell has made it clear that his top transportation priorities include maintaining and repairing basic infrastructure like streets and bridges, not big-reach projects like protected bike paths connecting every part of the city.

Seattle will hear more from Spotts next month, when the transportation committee considers his nomination again after the council returns from summer recess.

Cascading Construction Errors Add New Delays to Light Rail Expansion

Inspectors found gaps between rails and pre-cast concrete plinths on both sides of the I-90 water crossing. They addressed the problem by installing mortar, which subsequently failed. Image: Sound Transit presentation

By Erica C. Barnett

Shoddy workmanship, the concrete workers’ strike, and the collapse of an embankment in Kent will delay the opening of the regional light rail expansion by a year or more, Sound Transit staff told agency board members on Thursday. The board already knew that a light rail extension linking Seattle to the Eastside across Lake Washington was behind schedule because of issues with concrete plinths, or track supports, installed by contractor Kiewit-Hoffman, but learned more details last week about both that construction snafu and other issues that will contribute to delays throughout the project.

The biggest potential delay involves the light-rail extension across I-90, where Sound Transit inspectors discovered problems with the concrete plinths that directly support the rails leading up to the water crossing, pre-cast concrete blocks on the bridge deck, and the nylon inserts that hold bolts in place where the rail is attached to the floating bridge itself.

“I want to be clear that as we talk about challenges and risks, we’re speaking to the ability to meet current schedules and not the ability to deliver light rail across the I-90 floating bridge,” Sound Transit’s interim CEO, Brooke Belman, said during last week’s meeting. “We are 100 percent confident in the design and operability of the segment across the floating bridge and [that we will] complete the entire alignment.”

“It was a very strange working situation for absolutely everybody, including folks who would have been on the ground looking at the work and now were required to work from home. So there were a variety of issues that led to this place where we find ourselves.”—Sound Transit deputy director Kimberly Farley

Sound Transit started unearthing problems with its I-90 crossing in 2019, when inspectors discovered that the top surface of some plinths did not connect with the rails they were supposed to be supporting. To close these gaps, Sound Transit’s Kiewit-Hoffman installed mortar between the blocks and the rails, a solution Sound Transit deputy director Kimberly Farley said the agency believed would fix the problem. Subsequently, though, that mortar failed, and Sound Transit discovered another set of problems, “including concrete placements that were too low, too high, constructed to the wrong geometry, or resulting in voids under rail fasteners,” according to a staff report.

During work to fix those construction problems, the team discovered additional issues, “such that the overall scope of the challenges has increased rather than decreased”; for example, many of the blocks had improperly installed or missing rebar, which strengthens concrete and prevents it from cracking. During this time, Sound Transit also discovered that the nylon bolt holders were stripped and decided to replace all of them. They also noticed that some of the pre-cast concrete blocks that support the rails across the bridge were cracking.

Asked why Sound Transit’s inspectors didn’t discover these problems sooner, Farley noted that much of the construction took place at the height of the pandemic, when “it was just a struggle to get everybody on site, keep the work going, and keep the protocols in place.”

“It was a very strange working situation for absolutely everybody, including folks who would have been on the ground looking at the work and now were required to work from home,” Farley continued. “So there were a variety of issues that led to this place where we find ourselves.” Earlier this year, Sound Transit hired a forensic engineer to evaluate Kiewit-Hoffman’s repairs and keep tabs on construction.

Board member Claudia Balducci told PubliCola  she was glad Sound Transit staff revealed the latest issues to the board at this stage, rather than waiting until they had come up with fixes, noting that the agency has historically had issues with transparency. Former director Peter Rogoff could reportedly be tight-fisted with information, preferring to address issues internally rather than bringing them to the board or discussing them in public. “I want that kind of transparency,” Balducci said. “I don’t want staff to be like, ‘We won’t report to the board or to the public until months later, when we have identified a problem and fully engineered a solution.'”

It could be months before the agency identifies a solution to unstable soil conditions along the alignment between Kent and Federal Way, where a 200-foot section of embankment slid nine feet earlier this year, forcing a partial closure of I-5. Originally, Farley said at last week’s meeting, Sound Transit had hoped to use timber pilings to shore up the slope, but after the slide, they went back to the drawing board. “The reason that you didn’t hear the solution [at the meeting] is because, frankly, we don’t have one yet,” Farley told PubliCola. Continue reading “Cascading Construction Errors Add New Delays to Light Rail Expansion”

LA Transportation Veteran Tapped to Lead SDOT Says He’ll Do “Top to Bottom Review” of Vision Zero Efforts

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing in the 85-degree heat at Roberto Maestas Plaza across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station on Wednesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced his appointment of Greg Spotts, the sustainability director for Los Angeles’ street services bureau, as the new head of the Seattle Department of Transportations. A veteran of the LA department, recently rebranded StreetsLA, Spotts advocated for the installation of solar reflective coating on pavement, street trees, and shade structures to combat the urban heat island effect, in which pavement and buildings increase temperatures in urban areas.

Each of the past four elected mayors (not counting Tim Burgess, who served temporarily after Ed Murray’s 2017 ouster) has appointed their own transportation director, although each mayor has had varying levels of interest in the department. The last transportation director, Sam Zimbabwe, oversaw the closure and repair of the West Seattle Bridge as well as the transfer of about 100 parking enforcement officers and supervisors from the Seattle Police Department into SDOT.

As head of SDOT, Spotts will be responsible for crafting the new Seattle Transportation Plan, overseeing the renewal of the Move Seattle Levy, and addressing the city’s failure to achieve the goals of Vision Zero, a plan for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

“I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”—SDOT director nominee Greg Spotts

Since 2015, when the city adopted this goal, more than 175 people have been killed by vehicle collisions and more than 1,200 have been seriously injured, a trend that accelerated in the last several years and is by far the worst in Southeast Seattle, which encompasses many of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods as well as some of its most dangerous arterial streets.

Asked Wednesday what he would do to get Seattle’s Vision Zero plan back on track, Stotts said, “I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives or offer the best chance of saving lives, on a go-forward basis, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”

PubliCola also asked Stotts about the proliferation of “eco-blocks”—huge, heavy blocks made out of waste material from concrete production—in areas where the city has swept RVs, vehicles, and tents. As PublICola first reported a year ago, it is illegal to place these blocks in the public right-of-way, but SDOT, which answers to the mayor, has not enforced the law.

Stotts said there’s a similar thing happening in LA, where an estimated 48,000 people are living unsheltered and businesses have been placing boulders in the street to prevent unsheltered people from occupying public spaces. However, he said LA has only removed these obstructions on occasion, and added that he has no plan “yet” to respond to their proliferation here.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell, on removing encampments and RVs during this week’s heat wave

“There are occasions where we remove some of those obstacles from the public right of way, on a case by case basis,” Stotts said, “so I’ll  bring some of those experiences to complex discussions about how to handle it” in Seattle.

As the temperatures rose into the high 80s during the press conference, Harrell was asked about his decision to continue removing encampments and RV sites—impounding at least seven vehicles on Tuesday, according to SDOT—in the middle of a historic heat wave.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing,” Harrell said. “For me, doing nothing is the wrong thing to do. … And so we are aggressively finding housing and housing alternatives and getting people into cooling centers. I take ownership for what we’re doing, and I’m pretty proud of the work we’re doing, and quite frankly, a day doesn’t go by without people saying ‘thank you.'”

According to the mayor’s office, 20 people out of the dozens living at a longstanding RV encampment in SoDo accepted offers of shelter, which is not housing and does not include “treatment,” which itself is not something unsheltered people automatically want or need.

Toll Revenue Projections Plummet for Costly Waterfront Tunnel as Drivers Stay Away

By Erica C. Barnett

Revenues from tolls on the SR 99 tunnel, which replaced the Alaskan Way Viaduct on the downtown Seattle waterfront, are coming in much lower than the state Department of Transportation assumptions, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future, the state treasury department told the Washington State Transportation Commission this week. Deputy state treasurer Jason Richter told the commission that the new projections likely represent a “permanent reduction” in toll revenues, which pay for construction debt, ongoing maintenance, replacement and repair costs, and a loan from the state’s motor vehicle account.

In May of this year, for example, the state collected just under $5.7 million from tunnel tolls, about $3 million less than projected last year. That trend extends into future projections, which show a shortfall ranging from around 16 percent over the latter half of the 2020s to 30 percent or more in the future. In some years, according to the latest projections , toll revenues won’t be enough to cover debt service on the $3.4 billion tunnel and waterfront roadway project. By 2026, the projections show the tunnel project about $2.5 million in the red, and “then the difference starts to climb at a pretty uncomfortable clip,” Richter said, with a cumulative negative balance of more than $200 million projected 25 years out.

The state can make up for some of the shortfall, Richter told the WSTC, “but I’m suspicious that that’s not going to be sufficient to cover the entirety of this issue, given that the shortfall in a lot of years is equal to roughly a third of the revenue coming in.”

The COVID pandemic had unprecedented impacts on traffic into and through downtown Seattle, changing commute patterns and reducing the number of cars on every road. During 2020, the number of people using the tunnel plummeted to less than 40,000 vehicles a day, and that number has not increased much even as other roads, like I-5, have started to approach pre-pandemic traffic levels. Gas prices, which are currently at unprecedented highs, have also caused people to rethink how they get around, combine trips, and avoid unnecessary driving.

But even before the pandemic and $6 gas prices, people weren’t using the tunnel nearly as much as WSDOT predicted they would; in fact, once tolls went into effect in 2019, the number of vehicles using the tunnel dropped by 28 percent to fewer than 60,000. Contacted by email, WSDOT toll division spokesman Christopher Foster noted that “prior to the pandemic, trafficvolumes in the tolled tunnel were exceeding forecasts,” but both the forecasts and “baseline” tunnel usage are moving targets; while the tunnel was originally justified on the grounds that 130,000 cars would use it every day, the state has continually adjusted its forward-looking projections downward in light of actual traffic volumes.

One of the major reasons people aren’t driving in the tunnel is that there’s no real incentive to use it: If you can from point A to point B quickly and conveniently for free, why would you pay for the privilege? If you’ve driven in the tunnel, you’ve probably noticed that it often feels like an empty highway in the middle of the night—people avoid the tunnel in favor of existing surface streets, including the currently two-lane surface Alaskan Way, which WSDOT is currently widening into yet another highway.

Cary Moon, the founder of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, which advocated against the tunnel, is reluctant to say “I told you so.” But she will say that the data WSDOT used to justify building the tunnel—which initially projected 130,000 vehicles would use the tunnel every day—was “a joke” even before COVID came into the picture.

“Driving alone, especially in the tunnel, is dropping significantly and that’s’ a good trend long term,” Moon said. It’s also “what we knew would happen. … If we had invested in the right infrastructure, can you imagine what we could have done?”

But to WSDOT, despite its stated commitment to sustainability, the best outcome is one in which drivers get back in their cars and start using the tunnel again. The state could continue to boost toll rates, which currently range from $1.20 to $2.70 each way, to make up for lost revenues, and undoubtedly will, but higher tolls tend to lead to more diversion and people making different travel decisions. It’s a delicate balance.

“I think the transportation commission is doing their best to set tolls at a level that covers costs but also doesn’t cause excessive diversion,” Richter told PubliCola. The negative balance in WSDOT’s tunnel account is “cumulatively growing to the point where there’s going to have to be a conversation with legislators, as well as the transportation commission, to come up with a viable way to solve this,” Richter said. In other words, the legislature needs to come up with a solution, and funding, because the tunnel’s financial underpinnings are shaky.

“The bills have to be paid, and I have no doubt they will be paid—it’s going to be a question of, how do we do so without causing harm to the corridor and do so in a sustainable manner?”

 

Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route

Fourth Avenue Viaduct
A 4th Avenue route for the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension is the clear favorite in the Chinatown-International District neighborhood, but requires a costly rebuild of the viaduct over existing train lines in the area.

By Lizz Giordano

UPDATE: Citing missing data in the DEIS, which fails to identify the loss of Alki Beach Academy and the childcare spots, Councilmenber Alex Pedersen is proposing the city not make a recommendation in the segment that runs through the Delridge/ Youngstown area.

The amendment also makes its recommendation for a 17th Ave. W. route in Interbay contingent on the preservation of a proposed Seattle Storm practice facility in the area; former Mayor Jenny Durkan fast-tracked the new building, which contradicts the city’s recently adopted industrial land-use policies, before she left office last year.

The committee is set to vote on this amendment and a few others on Tuesday, July 5.

Original story:

As Sound Transit moves toward a decision about path of its new light rail line to Ballard and West Seattle, the city is preparing to adopt legislation urging the transit agency to bury the track underground, in order to minimize residential and maritime displacements. But the city held off on making a recommendation about the line’s routing and station placement in the Chinatown/International District, citing community concerns about displacement.

The new light rail line, known as the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension (WSLBE), will connect downtown with West Seattle and Ballard, running through the North Delridge Neighborhood and into the Alaska Junction to the south and through South Lake Union, Seattle Center and Interbay to the north. Regardless of the final route the Sound Transit board chooses next year, businesses and residents will get displaced, and construction will close streets for months or years. 

Residents and businesses in the Chinatown-International District have raised significant concerns about the new line which could take several blocks of the historic area—displacing residents and businesses—while also bringing noise and dust during construction and when trains begin operating. The resolution, drafted by mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and sponsored by council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen, says Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement for the project lacks details about these displacements and potential strategies to mitigate noise, dust, and road closures during construction. The resolution also calls for more community engagement in the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods.

Sound Transit is considering several different options for each segment of the route as the project moves through the lengthy planning stage. The next big step in the planning phase will come later this summer, when the Sound Transit board will select alternatives to continue studying while also re-identifying a preferred alternative for each segment, which the agency describes as a statement of preference, not a final decision about what to build.

“All of the alternatives are analyzed equally, but design emphasis and refinements, and mitigation strategy refinement, will be focused on the preferred alternatives,” said Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham. 

Chinatown/International District options

Both potential routes in the Chinatown-International District, along Fourth or Fifth Avenue, have significant potential drawbacks. Running light rail under Fifth Ave. would swallow several blocks of the historic community near the Chinatown Gate and expose the heart of the neighborhood to the brunt of the noise and dust that comes with a large construction project. It has drawn fierce opposition from the neighborhood. 

Fourth Avenue would require a rebuild of the bridge, or viaduct, that runs between S Jackson Street and Airport Way S., and would cost about one-third more than any of the Fifth Avenue alternatives Sound Transit is studying. It would also severely impact King County Metro Transit’s bus base in the area. 

Both CID alternatives would take many years to build—in the case of the shallow Fourth Avenue alternative, more than a decade— and temporarily or permanently shut down the Seattle Streetcar system, which runs from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Each alternative also has deep and shallow station options; the city’s recommendations mostly avoid the alternatives with deep-tunnel stations that can only be accessed by elevators.

The city doesn’t plan to pick a preferred alternative in the CID, and is asking Sound Transit to refrain from doing so as well. Instead, the city will recommend that Sound Transit extend the study period for another six to nine months to further engage with the community. Seattle leaders also want to see more details about potential displacement in the area, along with mitigation strategies to help the neighborhood deal with construction as well as long-term changes.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, said Betty Lau, a leader in the CID  and member of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association who is pushing for a Fourth Avenue station.

She’s optimistic about this pause.

“I think with the extra time and talking with more community members, they’ll get a better idea of how these things really impact the people who live there, who do business, who depend on the tourism and on the regional draw of the three neighborhoods—Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon,” Lau said. “They also have more time to work on environmental studies.

“It’s also good for community members,” Lau added, “because we’re still getting the word out, we’re still looking for our allies and people to help. We’re still informing the non-English-speaking members of the community. And that does take time.”

Delridge 

In West Seattle, city staff recommend supporting a tunnel route that would cut into the ground after passing the Nucor Steel facility, then go underground near the northwest edge of the West Seattle Golf Course. This medium tunnel alternative is a less costly option than digging a hole all the way from the middle of West Seattle Golf Course and into the Alaska Junction, another proposed route.  Continue reading “Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route”