Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #186: Why Are Our Bridges And Roads Being Neglected?

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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.


Why Are Our Bridges And Roads Being Neglected?

The short answer to the above question is probably because neglect is easier to handle than rejection: i.e. it is easier to ignore the bland maintenance of our transportation infrastructure than reject a sexy new mega-transportation project.

I would argue that the Council vote on Monday to authorize spending over a million dollars to set the wheels in motion to convert Mercer Street in South Lake Union from a one-way street to a two-way street at a potential cost of a $100 million, exemplifies our fear of rejecting those who have lobbied for this physically attractive yet costly project, while we ignore the plain Jane transportation repairs that go unattended and out of the public limelight.

For example, our bridges should be painted about every 8 years in order to avoid corrosion and later more costly repairs. Unfortunately, over the past 20 years they are being painted once every 19 years. Likewise, 600 spot repairs on bridges have been identified for this year but only 330 will be dealt with. The difference will add to our existing backlog of 1,300. Deferred repairs translate into higher maintenance costs.

In my last Urban Politics #185, ( I detailed how the Mercer Street Conversion (usually referred to as the Mercer Corridor Project) is a transportation failure since it does not reduce either the travel time or the number of vehicles traveling between Seattle Center and I-5 compared to an option costing less than 10% of the project. And in some ways, it would be worse since the number of congested intersections would be dramatically increased. In my UP # 185 I also made reference to our City Council Central Staff report that detailed this conclusion.

Aside from misspending of millions dollars on this one project, the greater disappointment is the number of transportation improvements throughout the city that we are ignoring at the same time. In 2003 the Mayor and City Council formed a Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee II, (CTAC-II) to evaluate and make recommendations on transportation needs and funding sources.

They concluded that the $500 million backlog of deferred maintenance for streets and bridges is increasing and could double in 10 to 15 years. That does not include the $500 million in transportation improvements that have been identified in the 38 neighborhood plans, of which only a small portion have received funding as of today.

This week the City Council held a one-day budget retreat, and our transportation needs was one of our primary concerns. The thrust of the findings reinforced the CTAC-II’s concerns. Our staff reviewed the Seattle Transportation Department’s (SDOT) Capital Improvement Project (CIP) Budget and identified the following “stresses” that make if difficult for our City to maintain our transportation infrastructure.

1. Many projects have been repeatedly postponed over the last 5 years, often due to lack of funding. Absent new funding, many planned projects will never get implemented. Expenditures will dramatically increase in 2007 and 2008 but primarily due to the Mercer Street conversion ($89 million) and the South Lake Union streetcar ($34 million).

2. Preventive maintenance on the many smaller projects is being treated as an unaffordable luxury.

3. The stable revenue part of SDOT’s CIP funding has fallen from 55% of expenditures in 2000 to less than 25% today. For example, historically almost all of SDOT’s revenue from the State Gas Tax has gone to the CIP. In 2005 for the first time, more than half is proposed to go toward operations and not construction.

4. As SDOT relies on more one-time revenue sources they will increasingly turn to borrowing to provide local match funds for Federal grants.

5. A number of grant awards are at risk of being lost if the City cannot match them with local funds. About $7 million in grants are at high risk (SR 519, Ship Canal Trail, Arterial repaving would be funded) and most of these are one to two years late in starting. An additional $21 million are at medium risk.

6. SDOT in a departure from the past is now listing funding for some projects that are underway as “to be determined”, whereas in the past this designation was only used for those projects where there was no commitment or funding was imminent from a third party. Planning for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the Fremont Bridge Project and the Spokane Street Viaduct, all have this designation now.

7. Virtually no new CIP projects are being proposed in the 2005-2010 SDOT CIP (this is the main planning document by which future projects are identified) beyond a few for which grants were recently awarded, despite the fact that SDOT has identified many needed projects to address deferred maintenance.

8. LASTLY (and most importantly) — Funding for maintenance of basic transportation infrastructure – e.g. street surfaces, bridges and structures, and traffic signals – continues to decline even as proposed expenditures for discretionary mega-projects such as the SLU streetcar and the Mercer Street Conversion increase. There has been a 52% decline in money for proposed construction projects for basic transportation infrastructure from the 2003-2008 CIP.

This Monday at the Full Council Meeting, the City Council will probably vote to recommend pursuing the mega-project Mercer Street Conversion, despite achieving any significant transit benefits. I recognize that this project will improve the physical environment in South Lake Union, by adding more sidewalk space, trees, and a bicycle path. And those are good things, but in light of the preponderance of evidence that the City’s overall transportation infrastructure is in need of some serious investments, this is not the project that should be bumped to the head of the line.

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