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.