Urban Politics #257: Done Deal or Yellow Light?


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

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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CONTENTS:

  • DONE DEAL OR YELLOW LIGHT?
  • COUNCIL GIVES MERCER GREEN LIGHT
  • LAND COSTS DOUBLED
  • DESIGN WORK 90% DONE OR HALF DONE?
  • THE MAYOR DOES NOT SHARE
  • LET’S SOLVE THE MERCER MESS NOW

 

DONE DEAL OR YELLOW LIGHT?

I have received emails from constituents saying that when they have contacted City Hall protesting the high cost and ineffectiveness of the Mercer Project, they have been told that it is a done deal. If so, how did that happen? There has never been a public hearing in the Council Chambers on the $200 million Mercer Project. Why not? The Council did devote 5 minutes for a public hearing on the $2 million EIS for the Mercer project back in 2004, but since then nothing.

When the Council voted (Licata opposed) two weeks ago to increase spending on the Mercer Project, Transportation Committee Chair Jan Drago said we were giving the Spokane Street project a green light and the Mercer Street project a yellow one. I thought that was a fair assessment, although I did not believe the Mercer project deserved even a yellow one.

The Spokane project is clearly an important transportation project needed to link West Seattle to the rest of the city. Unfortunately while the Council is giving it a green light, the Mayor proposed four times the money for the Mercer project in the bond ordinance we voted on today. Ironically the $43 million that he wants to give to Mercer is the same amount that the Spokane project needs from Bridging the Gap funds.

COUNCIL GIVES MERCER GREEN LIGHT

The City Council voted today 5 to 1 (Harrell, Clark, Conlin, McIver and Godden, vs Licata) to appropriate $16 million to the Mayor’s Mercer Project to buy land and do more studies and design work. Council Bill 116209 will also allocate an additional $43.4 million to the project.

LAND COSTS DOUBLED

The land cost has doubled in less than a year, from $27.7 million in June of 2007 to $62.2 million in March of 2008. Why has it doubled? Who will benefit? I suspect that part of the cost increase will now be used by the sellers to receive credits for selling us the land at a slightly lower cost than what we expected to. That credit will then be considered their private monetary contribution towards the Mayor’s project.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) intends to purchase these properties before their Environmental Assessment has been fully completed and reviewed by the public. According to Federal guidelines this early acquisition of property must not ‘influence’ the decision of the environmental review process of the project. This approach may expose the city to a legal risk.

DESIGN WORK 90% DONE OR HALF DONE?

Council Bill 116209 appropriates an additional $5 million to complete design work on the project. However only last month SDOT told the Council that the design work was 90% complete and they had already spent $5 million on it. How could a project be 90% completed but need 50% of the money for the last 10%? Was the higher completion percentage given in an attempt to make the Council and the public believe that this project is well on its way and weaken any argument to not proceed?

THE MAYOR DOES NOT SHARE

Until two weeks ago, SDOT had not released to Council a report analyzing traffic times and flow of the proposed $200 million dollar Mercer Project. Since April SDOT had released just 3 pages from this 200 page report and said they were still working on the final report.

At the May 6th Transportation Committee meeting SDOT finally agreed to provide the Council the rest of the report, with the Director being surprised that the Council did not already have it. She said that they had been releasing information to the Council as it was ready. Turns out the report was completed in November of 2006.

The report shows that after spending $200 million there would be less than a 2% overall improvement in traffic flow or traffic times in the Mercer corridor by the year 2030, well within a margin of error.  And there would be about the same number of congested intersections.

Essentially the Mercer Project is an urban renewal project not a transportation project. Investors in South Lake Union will benefit from this project far more than those driving through this corridor.

LET’S SOLVE THE MERCER MESS NOW

Let me end by noting that under former Mayor Paul Schell there was an alternative design for the Mercer Corridor which was one-tenth the cost but with similar if not better transportation improvements than the one on the table. It provided for better west direction vehicle flow onto Valley, new sidewalks and greenery and could have accommodated a new bike trail. Those plans were abandoned shortly after Greg Nickels became Mayor.

There is no reason not to pursue it, although it would take a slice out of one of the three blocks of property that Paul Allen owns between Valley Street and Mercer Street that the Mercer project brackets.

The Council could have had this option compared to the current proposal but for the fact that SDOT did not require a full NEPA Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for evaluation of the Mercer Corridor project. Consequently the Council did not have an opportunity to review and approve by ordinance a set of alternatives to be included in the EIS.

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Comment from Young Overson
Time August 14, 2012 at 1:58 pm

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