Urban Politics #262: Should the City Spend $43 Million on Citywide Transportation Improvements or on a Two-Way Mercer Boulevard?


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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:

 

  • SHOULD THE CITY SPEND $43 MILLION ON CITYWIDE TRANSPORTATION IMPROVEMENTS or ON A TWO-WAY MERCER BOULEVARD?
    • Presentation by Council Member Nick Licata
    • Reply to Licata’s Presentation by SDOT
  • RANKING THE CITY’S CAPITAL NEEDS
    • Sidewalks – $20 Million
    • Pedestrian Improvements – $10 Million
    • Bicycle Improvements – $10 Million
    • Freight Mobility – $3 Million
  • UNDERSTANDING THE MERCER CORRIDOR PROJECT
    • Bridging the Gap
    • Costs Have Soared
    • Mercer Is Not a Transportation Project
    • There Is a Transportation Solution
  • SUMMARY

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SHOULD THE CITY SPEND $43 MILLION ON CITYWIDE TRANSPORTATION IMPROVEMENTS or ON A TWO-WAY MERCER BOULEVARD?

This UP announces an October 6 forum on the Mercer Project, and my proposal to redirect $43 million. A longer background explanation of the project follows, for those who are interested.

What: A Forum about the Mercer Street Project

When: Monday, October 6
Doors open at 6 with refreshments, program from 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Where: Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Avenue, Bertha Knight Landes Room, First Floor

Who: Councilmember Nick Licata, representatives invited from the Seattle Department of Transportation, transit and bicycle advocates, South Lake Union residents, business owners, and employee groups.

Presentation by Council Member Nick Licata

Councilmember Licata proposes redirecting a $43 million bond allocated to the Mercer Project to building new sidewalks in Seattle, funding the recommendations of the Bicycle Master Plan, Pedestrian Master Plan, and providing a long-term capital program for meeting our freight mobility needs.

Reply to Licata’s Presentation by SDOT

The Seattle Dept of Transportation (SDOT) has been invited to explain why the Mercer Corridor Project is needed and the $43 million should be spent on creating a two-way Mercer Street and a narrowed Valley Street.

An array of residential communities, business and employee groups, and transit advocate groups has been invited to make short statements in response to the presentations. Elected officials are also invited to comment and address the public.

Audience members will be polled on which approach achieves more transportation choices, lowers carbon emissions, encourages greater transit ridership, and promotes economic development.

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RANKING THE CITY’S CAPITAL NEEDS

We are in uncertain financial times. Multiple levels of government are facing major budget cuts for next year: King County $90 million, Washington State $3.5 billion; the Federal Government has a $500 billion deficit, perhaps more if a bailout is passed. Seattle’s own capital budget is absorbing a $20 million reduction from an already reduced projection.

These shrinking budgets mean less money flowing to the city to fund our capital projects. The Mayor’s just released budget for next year cut back some major pedestrian improvement projects. The North Aurora Project was cut by 80% and the Linden Street Project by over 60%. As the City Council evaluates his budget we must prioritize which capital projects to pursue and which to delay, alter or cease.

I propose the City move forward to fund projects that serve residents in neighborhoods throughout Seattle by altering a major controversial one, the Mercer Project, to make it more cost effective and immediately free up $43 million. Below is a summary of the proposed projects to be funded instead of the current Mercer Plan.

Sidewalks – $20 million

According to SDOT, there are 12,262 block equivalents in Seattle that lack sidewalks (block equivalents or ‘faces’ equal one side of a block without sidewalks). Put another way 30% of Seattle’s blocks do not have a sidewalk on either side of the street. Not everyone wants a sidewalk but they are needed to safely walk to the nearest bus stop so one can take transit rather than drive to their destination. They are also needed to access local businesses and public services, like schools.

Before 2007, the City had taken only halting minimal steps to build new sidewalks. However, due to passage of the Bridging the Gap Levy in that year 15 new block faces were built and up to 18 more are planned for 2008. While these efforts are welcome, they amount to $2.8 million per year for the next two years; sustaining that level beyond 2015 depends on the public voting to renew the Bridging the Gap Levy.

A $20 million infusion will address the need for new sidewalks that otherwise would not be addressed for another decade or more. Our residents should not have to see their children walk in the streets like those in the Othello and Broadview neighborhoods. We can address their safety needs-now.

Pedestrian Improvements – $10 Million

The City created a Pedestrian Master Plan Advisory Group (PMPAG) to help create a long range plan to implement comprehensive pedestrian improvements to encourage people to walk, safely, in their community. Over 400 pedestrians are hit by vehicles a year; we should not tolerate that rate. New signals, crosswalks and crossing flags can significantly lower that rate. The PMPAG will be making their recommendations for such improvements by the end of 2009.

A $10 million allocation to implement those PMPAG recommendations validates their work to make Seattle a safer city for those depending on our bus and transit system, of which walking is critical to their use.

Bicycle Improvements – $10 million

The Council adopted Seattle’s Bicycle Master Plan at the beginning of 2008 to guide us in achieving their $176 million program for improving bicycle use and safety in the city.

The Mayor proposes spending about $4 million annually for the next two years to implement the Bicycle Master Plan. At this rate it will take many years to implement it.

A $10 million allocation to implement the Bicycle Master Plan can dramatically move Seattle toward becoming a city that encourages families, young children and elderly alike, to enjoy bike riding and to make bike commuting a practical and safe experience.

Freight Mobility – $3 million

In 2002 the City released a Freight Mobility Strategic Action Plan that set up general goals for helping our industries move goods in and out of the city in an efficient manner. According to the report this sector of the economy, primarily located in the Duwamish and Ballard/Interbay/Northend areas, is expected to provide at least 10% of Seattle’s new employment, nearly 15,000 jobs over 20 years.

The 2005 Freight Mobility Plan listed the Lander South Grade Separation Project as one of four high priority projects for City funding; the Mercer Project was not listed. In 2008 the City dropped the Lander project in favor of funding the Mercer Project.

A $3 million allocation could fund an update to this strategic plan and actually lay out a capital investment program similar to what has been done for pedestrians and bicyclists.

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UNDERSTANDING THE MERCER CORRIDOR PROJECT

Bridging the Gap

The public voted in favor of a nine-year property tax levy in 2006 as part of the Bridging The Gap transportation plan to repair our roads and bridges, improve traffic flow through arterial improvements and make capital investments that benefits pedestrians and bicyclists. A few of the arterial improvements were mega-projects, such as the Spokane Street Viaduct interchange, the Lander Street Overpass and the Mercer Corridor Project. These three projects were not included in the property tax levy and thus were never directly voted on by the public. Instead the City Council directed two new taxes, the commercial parking tax and the employee tax, to fund them. These taxes remain in force until the Council removes them, unlike the property levy which ends in 2015.

The new commercial parking tax and employee tax fund items included in the property levy plus these mega projects. The city included significant funds to build these big projects in the 2006 Regional Transportation District ballot measure. When this measure failed the City did not have enough funds to go forward with all of them. SDOT recommended dropping the Lander Street Overpass, although it was an important project to better facilitate Metro’s buses and freight mobility, and continue with just the Mercer and the Spokane Projects.

Consequently funding for the Mercer Project includes a revenue stream that is not at risk of a public vote, unlike the bulk of the improvements funded by a property levy that must be renewed to complete all the Bridging the Gap plan. Since less than 15% of the Mercer Project is funded at this time, once construction begins on it, scheduled for the second quarter of next year (2009), this one project will begin to consume more and more Bridging the Gap funds, impacting the City’s ability to provide adequate long-term funding for street, pedestrian and bicyclist improvements throughout Seattle.

Costs Have Soared

Cost estimates of the two-way Mercer Project have increased in the last year, from $119 million in mid-2007 to $200 million now, and construction has not even started, although the Mayor is planning to begin construction in the second quarter of next year. Nevertheless revenue for over 80% of the project has not been secured. This strategy violates the City Auditor’s recommendation to identify secured funding sources before the City begins a project.

This $200 million project has never had a public hearing before the City Council. Instead the Council had a five minute hearing in November of 2004 advertised as a $2 million proposed Environmental Impact Statement of the project. In the meantime, SDOT has held dozens of open houses and other ‘soft’ design oriented public discussions on the positive attributes of a two-way Mercer, and how to implement it.

The current funding proposal assumes levels of federal and state financial grants that are unrealistic given the budget constraints that both the federal and state governments are facing.

Furthermore, the proposal depends on taking most if not all of the extra $40 million generated from the parking tax beyond the original estimates through 2023. These funds that could go for sidewalks, bike trails, bridge repairs, and neighborhood traffic projects are proposed to be diverted to just one 6 block project.

Citizens still have an opportunity to alter the project and free up millions of dollars for other neighborhood projects. I will be proposing to use $43 million of these local funds that have been earmarked for the Two-Way Mercer Project and direct them instead for sidewalks,

Mercer Is Not a Transportation Project

The Mercer Corridor Project spends $200 million in South Lake Union with no reduction in congestion or improvement in overall traffic times over the current configuration. According to SDOT it will take 7 minutes to get from 4th and Mercer to I-5 during evening rush hour in 2010 as is. With a two-way Mercer SDOT’s figures show that it would take 18 minutes in 2010.

This month SDOT released a 2008 Mercer Project update which I suspect was brought out due to the issues that I have publicly raised since SDOT addresses them for the first time in a public document. Some of their statements are flat out wrong. For example, when comparing the two-way Mercer project to retaining Mercer as a one-way street it says: ‘The Mercer Corridor Project improves travel times for most directions with the exception of slightly poorer eastbound times.’

This statement is not true according to SDOT’s Environmental Assessment Transportation Report analyzing 2010 travel times. With the exception of a few minor improvements, overall travel times are slower for the 6-lane project SDOT plans to build. The specific time measurements show that the average westbound trip will indeed be 3 minutes shorter in the a.m. peak, but will take the same amount of time in p.m. peak period. And the average eastbound trip in the peak periods is longer both in the morning and in the afternoon: taking 1 minute longer in the a.m. and 8 minutes longer p.m. North and south travel times are about the same.

That same report concluded that the South Lake Union Mercer Project area will see increased idling of traffic at more intersections than the current configuration, resulting in higher percentages of auto polluting emissions than what we experience now. And it also concluded that the total traffic volume through South Lake Union will only increase by 2% by the year 2030, not the 25% that is claimed by our Transportation Department.

The Mayor has argued that a two-way Mercer is needed as a way to mitigate traffic congestion once construction begins on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. City Council’s Central Staff reviewed data from the Transportation Department and concluded that a two-way Mercer provided no discernable mitigation. All eight Viaduct options list a two-way Mercer because it is in SDOT’s plans, not because it is a required element of replacing the current viaduct.

The two-way Mercer Plan is also described as just phase one of a multi-phase project. SDOT staff says that they are currently studying an extension of a two-way Mercer all the way to Elliot Avenue. The City Council has not seen studies, reports, cost figures or transit times for this second phase.

As these findings have become recently public, since SDOT had not released them for over a year and half, the project’s urban renewal contributions to South Lake Union have taken on paramount importance.

There Is a Transportation Solution

A previous 1999 Mercer Plan, now referred by SDOT as the ‘Alternative Plan’, was adopted by then Mayor Paul Schell, the Neighborhood Council, and by the City Council. Its cost estimates varied but the last one issued in 2001 was still only 20% of the current Mercer Corridor proposal.  This earlier plan was rejected by Greg Nickels after he was elected Mayor and was not included in the Environmental Assessment of the Mercer Project by SDOT.

SDOT’s 2008 project update directly addresses this alternative and says it was ‘eliminated’ because it failed to create a more direct connection from I-5 into and through South Lake Union, and did not improve local access and circulation. Moreover, it left roadway safety issues unresolved, failed to accommodate neighborhood growth and livability, and made no improvements for pedestrians or bicyclists over current conditions.’

This statement is misleading since it does not cover certain facts. SDOT’s decision to eliminate the Alternative Plan did not take into account travel times or cost. They have also not provided any quantitative evidence that the Alternative Plan provided any less safety improvements than a two-way Mercer.

The position that the two-way Mercer plan improves local access and circulation is based on reconnecting up to five streets across Aurora Avenue to lower Queen Anne. SDOT’s Environmental Assessment of this improvement assumes that Aurora Avenue will eventually be lowered, but this feature was dropped this summer since its estimated cost was $200 million and the State made it known that it would not be included as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement plan. The assumption now is that the streets will be reconnecting at the surface level with signals installed on Aurora Avenue.

These reconnections are not dependent on a two-way Mercer configuration and can be accomplished under the Alternative Plan. Ironically ‘re-connecting the grid’ with an increased congested corridor will inevitably lead to a dramatic increase in cut-through traffic through the middle of SLU, a condition that will likely result in more pedestrian-vehicle collisions than if the Mercer corridor were not turned into a traffic bottle neck.

SDOT’s statement that the alternative plan ‘made no improvements for pedestrians or bicyclists over current conditions’ should say ‘not as many improvements’ as their proposal. The alternative plan did provide better connections across both Mercer and Valley, and it did provide for a bike trail next to the park. It did not provide for a bike path on Valley, although the proposed half mile lane could easily be added.

One of the major attractions of the two-way Mercer Plan is narrowing Valley Street to two lanes, one in each direction. This is a reversal of the ’99 plan which was to widen Valley Street. A narrowed Valley Street would certainly provide a calmer boundary to the Lake Union Park. But the alternative plan provided for improved pedestrian crossings and the number of lanes in the wider Valley Street could be reduced. Even the two-way Mercer Plan provides only for 8 foot wide side walks next to the park, while the alternative plan provided for 10 feet plus a landscaped street edge with another 5 feet. The South Lake Union trolley currently serves as a buffer to the Lake Union Park from Valley and it would serve that function as well with the Alternative Plan.

More importantly, the two-way Mercer Plan significantly widens Mercer while narrowing Valley. Consequently South Lake Union residents, all of whom live south of Mercer, would have to cross a greater distance in street right of way than they would have to in the current configuration of roads to reach Lake Union Park.

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SUMMARY

It appears that the most critical advantage of the two-way Mercer Plan over the Alternative, as expressed by SDOT, the Mayor and many on the City Council, is that the former plan promotes neighborhood growth and livability, while the Alternative does not. The question as I see it is how much public resources should the City devote to this one neighborhood in comparison to the needs of other neighborhoods around the city that are also in need of accommodating growth and livability?

City Council designated South Lake Union as an Urban Center, which means we expect it to grow substantially in providing jobs and residences. There has been a significant influx of commercial and residential growth in the last three years. If it continues at this pace, the hope that this neighborhood will eventually be home to 20,000 employees and 10,000 residents may become a reality. This growth is good for the city. It expands our tax base and hopefully it will allow more people to live in the city and not have to commute to work, although it is unlikely that much of the new housing will be affordable to the average downtown worker.

Development in South Lake Union is good, but does its urban renewal necessitate a $200 million investment that results in greater traffic congestion? Since the Alternative Plan provides similar urban design benefits and results in better traffic flow than what we have now and can be implemented at a fraction of the two-way Mercer Plan’s cost, why not pursue it?

Why not give people transportation choices by making it easier to take transit or ride their bike from neighborhoods across the city to reach downtown rather than investing our scarce transportation dollars in one 6 block extra wide boulevard?

You decide.  Come to the 6 pm Public Forum at City Hall (4th and James) on Monday October 6th.

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