Urban Politics #292: The Budget and Rethinking Mercer West


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By Seattle 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:

  • 2010/2011 Budgets
  • City Construction Budget Projections
  • Rethinking Mercer West

 

2010/2011 Budgets

By now just about everyone should be aware that the City will have to cut over $50 million from our budget next year. The Mayor is currently providing city departments with guidelines on what percentage of their budget will have to be cut. A number of departments could see cuts as high as 14-15%, if Human Services and Public Safety (Police and Fire) remain relatively whole; they account for 49% of the city’s general fund. Around 13% of the general fund pays for fixed costs such as debt, pensions, etc., leaving 38% of the general fund likely targeted for larger cuts. This is the portion that includes parks and libraries, for example. In addition, the Council and the Mayor must still make mid-year 2010 cuts, which will likely be in the $12 million range.

The Council, along with the Mayor, held budget hearings in north and south Seattle at Northgate and New Holly. I recorded the comments I heard from over 130 people and groups (often representing at least 10 others present) who spoke at both events. Without a doubt there was support for maintaining our parks and community centers (37%) and sustaining our human services (23%). Support for keeping our pools open came in next at 14%. Clearly 70% of those addressing the Council did not want the city budget to reduce services in these areas. That will be a difficult goal to achieve unless we take a long hard look at how we are spending our money and consider additional revenue sources, because tax revenues are down sharply. An April 19 Finance Department presentation noted sales tax revenues were down 18% from 2008 to 2009, while real estate excise tax revenues are down 68% from their 2007 peak.

The Mayor will send a mid-year reduction proposal to the Council, likely by mid-June. For the 2011 proposal, due in September, the only options are to cut spending or find new revenue. Even with new revenues, cuts will still need to be made. City worker furloughs have helped; the Rainy Day Fund the Council created to lessen the impact of down years is another option, although as it has been used in recent years, it now has a balance of only $10 million. Possible revenue sources include the commercial parking tax, increases in user fees, or money from the proposed King County sales tax increase of 0.2%. Business groups are already lobbying against any new taxes.

City Construction Budget Projections

In light of these constraints I believe we must re-examine our current construction budget to see what savings we can realize. In a March presentation the City Council’s central staff laid out a sobering assessment of future City construction projects and current financial resources, which highlights the need for prioritization, or perhaps accepting delays.

Upcoming needs include replacing maintenance facilities, the North Police Precinct, Magnolia Bridge, Harbor Patrol and downtown waterfront Fire Stations, and of course, the seawall and Viaduct-related work. This totals around $1 billion.

We also have a Seattle Center Master Plan, estimated at $625 million over 20 years, a Bicycle Master Plan at $240 million over 10 years that we’re behind on funding, and a Pedestrian Master Plan with an open-ended commitment of around $1 billion.

Although separately funded, there are several major utility projects in the pipeline: combined sewer overflow, Duwamish clean-up, South Lake Union Substation, Smartgrid, all at $100 million or so-each. That doesn’t include the $250-plus million for Viaduct-related utility work.

These projects do not address the Mayor’s possible proposals for light rail and broadband. Needless to say, meeting all of these needs will be challenging, at best.

And lastly there is the South Park Bridge, owned by King County, which is scheduled to be closed June 30. About 20,000 cars and trucks cross the 78-year-old bridge each day, and when it closes, many of those vehicles will be diverted which could add 20 minutes to the commutes of South Park Bridge users, and longer response times for Georgetown and South Park residents for some fire and medic calls.

Rethinking Mercer West

The City will receive bids for the Mercer Project on May 19, and the Council’s Transportation Committee could vote to lift a ban on construction spending as soon as May 25. I expect the bids to come in below projections, perhaps by as much as 15 to 20%. That is the good news. However, close to $100 million is required for the second part, called Mercer West, much of which may have to be funded by bonds, which would add principal and debt costs. For this reason it is critical that we evaluate the design of Mercer West to determine if any savings can be achieved.

The current Mercer West design would convert Mercer to 2-way traffic east of Dexter, and expand the underpass under Aurora from four to six lanes for the two blocks from Dexter to 5th. It also includes bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Most of the cost is for the underpass; re-striping Mercer west of 5th isn’t that complicated or expensive. Given the current budget situation, the underpass is worth reconsidering.

SDOT has emphasized that the goal of the Mercer project is to improve area-wide travel, not just to redo Mercer. It has long included, for example, narrowing Valley adjacent to Lake Union Park. It may be possible to attain project goals without the underpass, since the state is funding three new crossings over Aurora at John, Thomas and Harrison between Mercer and Denny as part of the Viaduct replacement project. This adds six lanes of crossings over Aurora, three in each direction, and counterbalances the four lanes of Broad Street likely to be removed.

Bicycle and pedestrian crossings could be incorporated into the three crossings. Dexter Avenue on the east side of Aurora already has bicycle lanes.

There hasn’t yet been any travel time analysis I’ve seen that incorporates the three Aurora crossings. SDOT’s earlier travel time analyses didn’t include the crossings, as they weren’t funded yet. I believe this should be done. Expanding the Mercer underpass would give us eight new lanes to cross Aurora, instead of six. Do we really need all eight new lanes in a time of sharp budget cuts, especially if project goals can be realized at a lower cost?

Eliminating the expanded Mercer underpass, if it doesn’t create a safety hazard, would help in two ways. First it would reduce the need for any bond financing and secondly it would allow funds to go towards completing our pedestrian and bicycle master plans, or perhaps allow the City to direct some funding to King County’s South Park Bridge replacement project-an indisputably pressing need.

COUNCIL MEMBERS & MAYOR’S EMAIL ADDRESSES

Sally.Bagshaw@seattle.gov

Tim.Burgess@seattle.gov

Sally.Clark@seattle.gov

Richard.Conlin@seattle.gov

Jean.Godden@seattle.gov

Bruce.Harrell@seattle.gov

Nick.Licata@seattle.gov

Mike.OBrien@seattle.gov

Tom.Rasmussen@seattle.gov

Citizens are directed to the following website to complete a form to send an email to the Mayor’s Office. http://www.cityofseattle.net/mayor/citizen_response.htm

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