Urban Politics #185: The $200 Million Mercer Street Solution?


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Issue #185

By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my L.A. Lisa Herbold.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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The $200 Million Mercer Street Solution?

The traffic congestion on Mercer Street and on Valley Street just south of Lake Union has been a problem that the City has been wrestling with for over 40 years. This week the Council approved the Mayor’s proposed solution as the main focus of an Environmental Impact Study (EIS), thereby almost assuring that the City will be plunging headlong into a major transportation project that our own Council staff has found to be fatally flawed.

This action is reminiscent of what the City Council did back in November 1970, when it approved the Bay Freeway, which was designed to connect Interstate-5 with the Seattle Center. It would have intersected the Cascade neighborhood located on the south (downtown) end of Lake Union. Fifteen months later, Seattle voters squelched the project 55% to 45% through a referendum.

Now, three decades later the City Council is approving another major transportation “fix” for this corridor by converting Mercer Street from a one way to two-way avenue. Interestingly, some citizens may respond once again by going to the voters to save the taxpayers the cost of the proposed $200 million plus project. There is talk of a poll being taken to measure the public’s response to this proposal.

In 1999 the City Council approved the South Lake Union (SLU) Neighborhood Plan which proposed a modest solution to the Mercer Street traffic congestion, by realigning the Fairview-Valley intersection to reduce the westbound left turn angle and improving Valley Street’s lane definition and signage for westbound traffic. The total transportation plan for SLU, including pedestrian and bike improvements, would be far less than a tenth of the cost projected for the Executive’s plan.

When Greg Nickels replaced Paul Schell as Mayor, he proposed a new approach by converting Mercer to a two-way street and reducing Valley Street’s five lanes to three lanes. The Executive (i.e. the Mayor and his Transportation Department) requested $1.8 million for conducting an Environmental Impact Statement on his Mercer Corridor Project.

Last year as part of the 2004 budget process the Council adopted a budget proviso that limited spending on the Mercer Corridor Project to $163,000. The Council tied the money to a requirement that before authorizing spending additional funds, the Council and the Executive would “work together to agree on standards for inclusion of alternatives in an EIS and the information necessary to support those standards.”

The Executive has proposed legislation for funding the EIS, although the Council had not passed legislation identifying alternatives for the Mercer Corridor Project. In response Councilmember Conlin proposed Ordinance 115063 that identified 4 options to pursue in an EIS. Those options include the Mayor’s preferred 2-way Mercer proposal, a modified version of the Mayor’s preferred 2-way Mercer proposal, the neighborhood plan recommended improvement realigning Fairview/Valley/Roy, as well as a number of pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

Councilmember Steinbrueck introduced Resolution 30714 supporting the Mayor’s proposal for a 2-way Mercer. Previously our Council Central Staff had concluded, “based on the Executive’s traffic analysis, that the two-way Mercer improvements will do little or nothing to keep the already severe congestion in SLU from getting significantly worse in the future, i.e., it will not improve mobility for either the neighborhood or people passing through.”

Council staff also concluded that it is highly questionable that the two-way Mercer improvements will support the desired growth in SLU, foster greater transit use, or effectively reconnect SLU with nearby neighborhoods and that the projected increase in congestion in SLU will detract from pedestrians’ and bicyclists’ enjoyment of new paths, street crossings and other amenities included in the Two-way Mercer improvements as well as hinder transit movements, thereby discouraging use.

I cannot justify a $200 million investment in the Mercer corridor that will allow congestion to continue to get worse at a time when the City is unable to make a sufficient investment in its roads and bridges to keep them from seriously deteriorating.

The Citizen’s Transportation Advisory Committee II completed a report this past May. Go to the following website for a summary of its findings: http://www.seattle.gov/news/detail.asp?ID=4351&Dept=28

They found that the backlog of deferred maintenance for Seattle streets, arterials, bridges and sidewalks is currently about $500 million. The maintenance costs alone to reduce the backlog requires about $40-$50 million in additional funding each year over the next 20 years. Specifically, the Citizen’s Transportation Advisory Committee II report shows that the Seattle Department of Transportation should be replacing one bridge every year, but current funding only allows replacement of one bridge every 3 or 4 years.

For this reason I introduced Ordinance 115065 that reallocated the funding for the Mercer project EIS to two bridge projects in the City’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that are either unfunded or over budget. The 12th Avenue South – Jose Rizal Bridge Deck Repair is one of many unfunded major projects from SDOT’s 2005-10 CIP. Airport Way over Argo Bridge Rehabilitation is another similar project.

Since 1990, the City has actually lost transportation revenue sources because the 1995 Supreme Court ruling that the Street Utility Fee as unconstitutional, in 2002 voter approved Initiative 776 eliminating the Vehicle License Fee from City revenues, and fuel tax revenues have declined more than 35 percent since 1996. The City’s options for transportation revenues are limited at this time, while the need for transportation infrastructure maintenance and improvement is growing.

As the condition of the transportation infrastructure deteriorates, it becomes significantly more expensive to repair or replace – effectively doubling every 10 to 15 years. Using precious transportation dollars for a project that does not result in a transportation improvement will make it further difficult to convince state and federal funders to fund Seattle projects.

At the Council’s Transportation Committee meeting this past Tuesday voted on all three pieces of legislation. Steinbrueck’s Resolution 30714 passed 6 to 1 (Steinbrueck, Rasmussen, Della, Godden, Drago, Conlin vs. Licata); Conlin’s Ordinance also passed 6 to 1 with the same vote alignment; my Ordinance 115065 failed by the same margin and vote alignment (1 to 6).

All three bills are scheduled to come before the Full Council on Monday, October 25th.

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