Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #288: Replacing the Seawall

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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.


Replacing our seawall is a given: everyone agrees it is in poor condition and a public safety issue. The questions that loom before us are when, and who will pay?

Mayor McGinn has accelerated the timetable for seawall replacement from 2016 to 2014. This is an administrative decision that could affect what funding source is used to pay the nearly $300 million replacement cost.  To meet the 2014 timetable, only $16 million will be needed in 2011, for design work. Since the funds are for design work only, the 2016 start date could still be used.

Mayor McGinn has proposed that Seattle property owners pay $243 million for a general obligation bond measure. This would entail a public vote; a 60% yes vote would be required to pass the bond. The Mayor had asked for a vote in May but the Council turned him down. The Council may consider a November ballot measure, but there’s been little public discussion so far.

Under the Mayor’s scenario, aside from $30 million in King County Flood Control District funding, Seattle residents and businesses will have to carry 90% of the burden.  A bond measure does seem to be the right ballot mechanism to use if the City pursues a public vote, since it would require a 60% vote for approval.

However, other funding mechanisms have been discussed, including using a Local Improvement District (LID).

Local Improvement District (LID)

A LID assesses property owners an additional tax to pay for an improvement in their neighborhood that they stand to financially gain from. For example the property owners in South Lake Union were assessed $26 million to pay for about half of the SLU streetcar’s capital costs. There was a study on how much a downtown LID could raise to pay for a First Avenue Streetcar, which is no longer on a fast track (so to speak). Estimates varied from $32 to $58 million.

But using a LID to pay for replacing the seawall, or more likely pay for a portion of the costs, would require an identifiable financial gain to those being assessed the property tax; such an exercise may prove difficult the further east you go. Consequently there may not be enough properties affected to make much of a contribution.

Other Funding Options

There are three other possible funding sources, for the seawall and other City obligations as part of the Viaduct replacement project. The first would raise the Commercial Parking tax. If it were raised an additional 10%, essentially doubling the current tax, a $250 million dollar bond could be financed. Of course, there would be an expected push back from businesses that rely on parking to accommodate their customers and employees. The question is: what is the pain threshold before customers go elsewhere to go shopping – assuming that they do not have reliable public transit as an alternative.

A second funding source would be to initiate a Vehicle License Fee (VLF). Currently the City Council has the legal power to levy a $20 fee per vehicle, but that would raise only enough for a $110 million dollar bond. Voters could approve a $30 VLF that would generate $160 million or a $50 VLF to raise $280 million. I’d like to see any VLF fund pedestrian and bicycle improvements to implement the Pedestrian Master Plan and the Bicycle Master Plan.

The last option, and the one that I find has been too quickly dismissed, is for the Army Corps of Engineers to pick up a sizeable portion of the seawall reconstruction costs. I was told, by a number of people in various levels of government, that the Corps is not interested, for two main reasons: first it is stretched too thin from working on other projects and in particular the Hanson Dam; and second, that they lack a programmatic reason to intervene (in other words it’s outside their mission).  That made sense and I accepted the explanation – until I came across a draft report that was released by the Corps on November 30, 2009. It has probably one of the longest names one could imagine:  The Elliott Bay Seawall Feasibility Scoping Meeting Read-Ahead Report Agency Technical Review Draft. This study was established by Council Bill 114965, in July of 2004, as a joint effort of the City and the Corps. Thanks to Senator Patty Murray, the Federal Government has been funding at least half of its cost.

So what does it say? First of all it points out that if the seawall fails, due to reasons other than an earthquake–think heavy tidal actions–the damages in Net Present Dollars would be approximately $415 million. If there are seismic damages then the figure climbs to $561 million. From geo-probe testing by the City in 2002 it’s estimated that 40 to 50% of the timber relieving the platform that supports the seawall and Alaskan Way is already significantly damaged by the effects of storm waves, tidal erosion, marine borers and earthquakes.  The survey also showed that 90% of the structure’s cap beams show some degree of deterioration and only 10% were fully intact, with 30% showing the cap beam was gone. In other words, the seawall is falling apart – even without an earthquake.

This is significant, because it opens the door to arguing that since the seawall is already in a state of near-collapse and hence meets the Corp’s mission of halting erosive damage before a cataclysmic disaster occurs. There has been some argument that the seawall is owned and maintained by the City, therefore the Feds do not have an interest in this project. I did not find that point raised in the Feasibility Study.  I made further inquiries and it appears there are differing levels of support for pursuing the project within the Corps.  Any funding would need to be part of either the upcoming or a future Federal fiscal budget.

I believe that before we, the City Council and Mayor, proceed with the other funding alternatives, we should strenuously pursue getting the Corps leadership and our Federal delegation on board for supporting Corps involvement in replacing the seawall. We don’t know how much they would be able to contribute, but from their involvement in other major projects around the nation, it could be significant.

Thanks to the Mayor’s efforts to speed up the design work on the seawall, we should have a design team hired by October. The information they provide might prove invaluable in persuading the Corps and our Federal delegation that we are ready to move on this project.  What we don’t want is to show them that we are willing to burden our property owners with the costs so that there is no need for Federal assistance. That’s why the timing for making a decision on our funding option is critical to getting the Corps on board.

The City had planned on replacing the seawall in 2016; Mayor McGinn has proposed moving up the date to 2014. If we adopt that schedule we severely limit our opportunity to get the Corps involved in contributing to its replacement cost. We need time to make the strongest argument possible this year and possibly next, to get them involved. It will take political muscle. We need to exercise it. Otherwise, we may end up losing a great opportunity. We cannot afford to lose it by rushing forward with a $243 bond measure or a significant tax increase this fall.


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