UP#255 Mercer Mess
By City Councilmember Nick Licata with assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich.
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.
Tomorrow at the 9:00 a.m. meeting of the City Council Transportation Committee Councilmembers will vote on releasing $25 million for two of the most expensive non-utility capital projects the City has ever pursued: the Mercer Corridor Project and the Spokane Street Viaduct Project.
The Spokane Street Viaduct project would 1) widen the Spokane Street Viaduct east of Highway 99 from two lanes to three in each direction, 2) build a new eastbound exit to 4th Avenue, and 3) build new on and off ramps to 1st Avenue towards Downtown.
The Mercer Corridor Project would convert Mercer into a two-way boulevard west of Dexter one block west of Aurora, and convert Valley into a smaller two-lane road with a turn lane, adjacent to the new Lake Union Park.
I believe the City must proceed with the Spokane Viaduct project, but should not proceed with the Mercer Corridor Project. I am offering an amendment in the Transportation Committee to strip away all 2008 funding for any further development of the Mercer Corridor Project because the city faces more important transportation improvements.
PURPOSE OF PROJECTS/VIADUCT CONNECTION
Without any doubt the Spokane Street Viaduct Project is needed and should be funded and built as soon as possible. Once completed it would allow easier access to and from West Seattle to I-5, and allow bus service between West Seattle and Downtown to function if and when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is closed. Bus services from West Seattle and areas to the south such as White Center use the Alaskan Way Viaduct to access Downtown. If the Viaduct is shut down-currently projected for 2012-this project would serve to replace service on the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
The Mercer Corridor Project is another story and a very long one at that. The Mercer corridor between I-5 and Highway 99 (Aurora Ave) has been congested for more than fifty years. Numerous proposals have come and gone for solving or alleviating the problem of traffic backups occurring there. In 1970 Mayor Wes Uhlman proposed and the Council approved a ‘Bay Freeway’ viaduct linking I-5 and Highway 99, a plan which had been in the works for ten years. The citizens revolted and proposed an initiative that won a vote in 1972 stopping it because of its environmental impact. It would have displaced hundreds of residents and businesses by creating an elevated structure between Lake Union and the rest of the city.
Since then other proposals have been made. At one time a ditch was proposed for this corridor. Mayor Paul Schell had approved straightening out the Mercer ‘weave’ where traffic comes off I-5 and proceeds west down Valley Street. The cost was less than $20 million. Mayor Greg Nickels, after being elected and working with owners and developers in South Lake Union, proposed converting both Mercer and Valley into two way streets for a cost that is now approaching $200 million.
The Mayor and South Lake Union businesses and residents saw this approach providing better access to Lake Union Park because of Valley being narrowed to two lanes. The design would also allow for a bike trail along the north side of the street. Wide sidewalks would also grace Valley and conceivably Mercer. Overall it would be more pedestrian friendly than the current desolate terrain.
While I believe all of these statements are true and would encourage greater return on investments in South Lake Union, the project does not pencil out as a needed transportation improvement. In fact, the Mayor’s own consultant’s report showed clearly that overall there would be an increase in travel time and traffic congestion after spending these millions of dollars. In other words, if no improvements were made, the traffic would be about the same as with them.
This begs the question, ‘Why is the City then making this huge investment?’ Some point out that the Vulcan development company, which owns over fifty acres of developable land in South Lake Union, and which would financially benefit from the project, has influenced this decision.
I think another reason comes into play: fixing the ‘Mercer Mess’ has become the Holy Grail for a successive string of Mayors. Whoever can solve it will be remembered as a doer and politician worthy of note for future generations. To some extent, the current project, even if it does not solve the traffic congestion, will make the landscape look much better. As an investment tool it will help South Lake Union develop, although considerable development has already occurred there and might continue even without spending close to $200 million in public funds to promote it.
Making Mercer two way is now being promoted as a way of facilitating traffic flow during Alaskan Way Viaduct construction work. Although it might, other solutions are likely available at a far lower cost. It seems to me that this argument has been added almost as an after-thought, particularly since the Mercer project solutions predate the need to replace the Viaduct.
So it may still seem to some, why not spend this money on the project? It will, in the words of one supporter, ‘pay off in attracting business to the area and creating public benefits.’ Here is why: it violates two of my principles for being in office. First, it is not a cost effective use of public funds. Second, it does not allocate our limited public resources according to need.
I’ve already addressed the first principle. As to the second one, this project siphons off tens of millions of public dollars from more worthy projects that would serve residents and businesses that live and work throughout the city and not just in South Lake Union.
The Mercer Corridor Project is estimated at $192 million, with $8 million secured. The Bridging the Gap property tax levy passed in 2006 was originally scheduled to provide $80 for three major projects, Mercer being one of them. The Regional Roads and Transit ballot measure was to provide an additional $323 million. After that was defeated at the polls, all three projects were put on hold for further study.
The result was a decision to drop the Lander Street project, which would facilitate bus movement and freight mobility south of the sport stadiums, but to proceed with the Spokane and Mercer projects. While the $168 million Spokane project is not fully funded, we have the funds to help close the gap-especially if we don’t proceed with Mercer. With the Mercer project, there is a much bigger gap to close. More importantly, the Mercer project only converts Mercer Street west of Dexter. The additional cost needed to complete the plan by converting it all the way to Elliott Way has not been estimated. And the proposed effort to reconnect the grid over or under Aurora Avenue in South Lake Union has been estimated to cost well over another $100 million, none of which is in hand.
There was a time when these type of huge projects received matching federal grants up to 50% of the cost, as in the proposed 1970 Bay Freeway. Nowadays, that well is just about empty. The Federal match for the Mercer project is at best around 16%, of which they now have only $500,000. As a result these huge projects use local taxes which should fund a wide variety of projects throughout the city not a few large downtown ones.
The Mercer Project is not needed, if pursued it will hinder the ability of the City to finish other transportation projects and as a result residents and businesses outside of South Lake Union will be denied a level of service that they are entitled to and that they are paying for.
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