By Doug Trumm
On Wednesday, the Seattle City Council’s transportation committee will vote on Chair Alex Pedersen’s amendment altering spending priorities for the $20 vehicle license fee (VLF). Passed by the Council in November, the fee is expected to pull in $7.2 million per year.
While Pedersen’s amendment appears to have five votes via the five sponsors backing it — Pedersen, Andrew Lewis, Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda, and Debora Juarez — a committee recommendation isn’t assured. Only Pedersen and Herbold are members of the transportation committee, while Juarez is an alternate. Plus, some sponsors could change their mind and oppose the plan. Six Council votes and the Mayor’s signature are needed to ultimately approve bonding, and it’s not clear he has them.
Pedersen’s plan asks the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to come up with a plan to invest $100 million in bonds, with at least 75% earmarked for bridge maintenance. After engaging with various stakeholder groups as directed by City Council, SDOT has proposed investing 24% of the new VLF revenue on bridge maintenance and 73% on multimodal priorities (3% was held in reserve). SDOT’s plan was calibrated to focus investment in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, whereas most of the bridges Pedersen has namechecked seem to be in wealthier and Whiter areas.
SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe was critical of Councilmember Pedersen’s approach while testifying the at transportation committee on April 21 and followed that up with an email to stakeholders on Tuesday.
“We remain committed to the spend plan we developed with your feedback. Your time is valuable, your contributions are meaningful, and the needs of the communities you represent are important,” Director Zimbabwe said. “While we appreciate and share Council’s concerns about bridge maintenance, we are concerned that the proposed funding approach would not allow for sustainable investment in the many other needs you prioritized during the outreach process. We will continue to raise these concerns with Council and keep you updated as we learn more about the proposed amendment.”
Pedersen’s bonding plan would absorb the VLF revenues for 20 years to pay back bonds, which would get more money upfront but deprive SDOT of a funding source should new funding needs emerge later. It also locks in his spending priorities until the bonds are repaid. And while revenue at VLF’s scale could be a big deal to sidewalk and street safety projects, it’s a drop in the ocean of the city’s multi-billion-dollar bridge maintenance backlog, as I wrote about last week.
Zimbabwe also highlighted that bonding has some significant limitations in how it can be used. Banks and investors typically want collateral (such as a bridge they can toll) to guarantee the bonds, and sidewalk and safety work doesn’t really fit the bill. “Bonds are an important part of how we invest in our infrastructure but are not traditionally used for many of the things we included in our spend plan after consulting with you—like planning for the future, crosswalk repainting, sidewalk repair, bike lane maintenance, and even many of the investments we need to make in our bridges,” Zimbabwe said in his email.
Those compounding issues has pushed the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition, which includes The Urbanist and other like-minded groups like 350 Seattle, Transit Riders Union, Seattle Greenways, Disability Mobility Initiative, and Cascade Bicycle Club to oppose Pedersen’s amendment in public testimony and a recent press release. One issue the groups highlighted was climate delay and lack of equity and environmental justice lens.
“We find it deeply troubling that on the eve of Earth Day, Council is proposing cutting $80 million in multimodal funding. These are the transportation dollars that we need to reduce climate-destroying transportation emissions,” said Ingrid Elliott, from 350 Seattle, a climate justice organization. “Transportation accounts for 45% of our climate pollution in Washington State; infrastructure for low or no-carbon mobility like biking and walking is crucial to a healthy climate future, and makes our city a better place to live now. This is particularly true for the 1 in 4 residents who don’t drive. We support the original SDOT proposal that invests 75% in walking, biking, and transit projects and 25% in bridge repair. Councilmember Pedersen’s proposal to invert these investments is the opposite of what we need.”
Gordon Padelford of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways stressed the bridge funding was also being scrapped together at the expense of safe streets funding seeking to meet the City’s Vision Zero goal.
“As the Seattle Times reported in January ‘The latest numbers show once again Seattle is not making significant progress toward reaching Vision Zero, its stated goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.’ This is not acceptable,” Padelford said. “We must make it safe to walk, bike, and roll to bus stops, business districts, schools, parks, homes, work, and other community destinations. The best way to make meaningful progress towards keeping people safe is to increase funding for the data driven and evidence based Vision Zero program.”
Even with traffic volumes down due to the pandemic, 24 people died in collisions on Seattle streets in 2020, suggesting no downward traffic fatality trend was emerging.
"We are failing on our Vision Zero goals, and we saw this real life impact with three tragic recent deaths in Georgetown, Lake City, and Seward Park. It is not safe to bike and walk in many Seattle neighborhoods, and that’s not right," said Tamar Shuhendler of Cascade Bicycle Club. "We cannot afford to backtrack on investments that advance racial equity, Vision Zero goals, and help us solve the climate crisis. Investing in active transportation, community identified projects, and meaningful neighborhood improvements must be prioritized in our funding and development plan."
Some people who donated their time to engage with SDOT on their spending plan also felt the rug had been pulled out from under them seeing a new plan that sidestepped the outreach process, as demonstrated by the statement from Ellany Kayce, who serves on SDOT’s Transportation Equity Workgroup.
“We voted on multiple aspects of the transportation spending plan while centering ‘equity’ on all the financial decisions because of historical racism, displacement of BIPOC folx. For City Council members to agree with their amendment to utilize 75% for bridges, prior to the public hearing, undercuts all of our ‘equity’ work, time, and effort,” said Kayce, who is an enrolled Tribal member of Tlingit Nation/Raven Clan.
"If the City of Seattle is going to ask people to donate their time to a stakeholder process, they should intend to follow through with that feedback rather than discard it almost immediately," the MASS Coalition wrote in its statement. "If the City means to do right by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities and the equity stakeholders it engaged, the days of checking a box during outreach and proceeding with whatever the councilmembers wanted to do beforehand has to be over."
Disability rights advocates stressed that the lack of curb ramps and accessible sidewalks is a significant crisis in its own right -- not something easily sacrificed to throw a few more million to bridges.
“We have such a tremendous backlog of streets without curb ramps, with cracked and inaccessible sidewalks, or without sidewalks at all, especially in historically redlined parts of Seattle," said Anna Zivarts, executive director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington. "This leaves old people who can no longer drive, youth, disabled people and people who can’t afford cars/rely on transit without the critical connections we need to get around our neighborhoods or to the nearest bus stop. Just last week we were in Delridge filming Tanisha Sepulveda, who cannot get to the nearest bus stop on 16th and Holden without rolling down Holden Street, in traffic, because of missing curb ramps and inaccessible sidewalks. She used to live downtown, but needed to move somewhere more affordable. And unfortunately, the more affordable areas of our city often lack accessible pedestrian infrastructure.”
While Pedersen pointed toward job creation, the MASS Coalition argued job creation would be stronger under the multimodal plan.
“Active transportation projects like bike lanes create more jobs per project dollar than roads and bridges. As we emerge from the pandemic, we can create good union jobs and reduce carbon emissions by investing in infrastructure that makes it easier for people to walk, roll, bike and ride transit,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union.
The West Seattle Bridge is a 37-year-old bridge. Its failure was a result of a bad design and a likely construction defect, not a lack of maintenance funding. If councilmembers want to address the billion-dollar-plus bridge maintenance backlog, it’s going to take a lot more than $75 million. Seattle policymakers come forward with a real funding proposal not a bonding scheme swiping safe streets funding. The $80 million cut from safe streets and sidewalk projects could make a huge difference, more equitably distribute benefits, and create more jobs in the process.
Take action: Seattle Greenways also created a letter-writing tool as a quick option to contact your Councilmembers. Even better, testify Wednesday at the City Council’s 9:30am transportation committee hearing.