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Councilmember Pedersen outlines his vision as the new Transportation Committee Chair, offers an olive branch to safe streets advocates

Official photo of Alex Pedersen.Alex Pedersen won District 4 by 1,386 votes, narrowly defeating Seattle Bike Blog’s endorsed candidate Shaun Scott in one of Seattle’s closest races in the 2019 City Council election. In addition to this site, Scott was also endorsed by Washington Bikes, Seattle Subway, The Urbanist and the Transit Riders Union. That’s a pretty wide coalition of groups working to support more and safer transit, walking and biking.

But the election is over, and Pedersen has since been named Chair of the newly reformatted Transportation and Utilities Committee. Combined, Transportation and Utilities are responsible for more than half the city budget.

I sat down with Pedersen at Irwin’s Cafe in District 4 to talk about his vision for the committee and how he plans to build bridges to folks like Seattle Bike Blog readers and transportation advocates who may have supported his opponent during the 2019 campaign.

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“I am really excited now as Councilmember to let my actions speak for themselves,” he said. “I will be doing a lot of things in favor of transit and environmental policies.”

An early win he hopes will bring people together is an environmentally-focused idea Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Founder and 2019 District 4 primary candidate Cathy Tuttle has proposed: Require all proposed city legislation to include a memo about it’s impact on the environment.

“Not only how would it impact emissions, but would it allow us to adapt?” he said, describing the intent of the proposed rule. And no, we’re not talking about “environmental impact” the way Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (“SEPA”) does, which considers things like slowing car movement as an environmental negative. This memo would focus on the actual environment, meaning “carbon and climate resiliency,” he said.

Currently, all Council and Mayoral resolutions and ordinances are required to include a “fiscal note” outlining what impact if any the legislation would have on the city budget. The environmental note would do the same. Both notes are merely informative. They shouldn’t be something that delays projects or adds red tape, and they aren’t considered part of the legislation itself. They are just memos to Council to help inform their decisions. The idea is that every decision the city makes should have the environment in mind.

And perhaps safe streets advocates can also look at Pedersen’s decision to prioritize one of Tuttle’s ideas and “enact her vision” as something of an olive branch. We’ll see soon enough when the exact language comes out whether it gathers support from transportation and environmental advocates or not. Pedersen said he hopes to have it ready to go by Valentine’s Day “because we love our planet,” he said, laughing at how cheesy that sounds.

His biggest transportation challenge this year is almost certainly going to be the need to renew Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District (“TBD”), which mostly funds transit service and pothole repairs. Voters need to approve a replacement for the current measure, which relies heavily on vehicle license fees. But we don’t know yet how the courts will decide I-976, the voter-approved statewide initiative that would reduce car tabs to a maximum of $30. And we likely will not know the court’s decision by the time ballot language is due in order to make it onto the August primary or November general election ballots. In fact, we may not even know the courts’ decisions until after people vote. That makes Pedersen’s job pretty difficult.

“Getting it before voters to renew it is a priority for me this year,” he said.

So what will the renewal look like? In 2014, King County proposed a Transportation Benefit District to fund Metro service during a spring special election, but it failed. Seattle then put together a TBD to at least save and expand Seattle’s bus service while service elsewhere in the county faced cuts. Seattle’s measure passed by a very wide margin and included a $60 per year vehicle license fee. That measure expires at the end of this year, so the county and the city need to figure out first whether they are going to team up on a replacement.

“Seattle only might make sense for this renewal,” said Pedersen. Though little is certain about this measure yet.

Pedersen is hopeful that the case against I-976 will be successful.

“I think we have a really good case,” he said, though he lamented that the decision likely won’t come soon enough. “It’s unfortunate that the courts will probably not decide until after November.” He said he is working with the city’s legal team to figure out what kind of working is possible. For example, could they put forward a measure that says A will happen if I-976 is struck down, and B will happen if I-976 is upheld? It’s not yet clear whether that would pass legal muster or if voters would even approve something so potentially confusing.

I asked whether he would consider going even bigger on the TBD this year.

“It depends on the funding source,” he said. “I favor the car tab source. I think with sales tax we have to be careful. That’s regressive on things people need for their daily lives.”

And he knows he is going to need wide support for the measure to be successful again.

“I look forward to working with different organizations in Seattle that support transit,” he said.

If the city or county aim to have the measure on the August primary ballot, the language will need to be finalized by early spring. If it goes to the general election ballot, they have until summer.

Pedersen also thinks he can bring along people who might otherwise be skeptical of a large ballot measure. After all, one of the biggest sources of opposition to his candidacy — and a major reason so many transit, walking and biking groups supported his opponent — was his previous opposition to the 2015 Move Seattle Levy and the 2016 Sound Transit 3 ballot measures. He wrote against these votes in his since-deleted blog “4 to Explore,” which also gives you an idea of how long Pedersen was working to plan his Council run.

“That was me blogging about something, and now I have an extra responsibility of being a Councilmember chairing a committee that has half the city budget in it,” he said. “I think it will help the voting public to hear from somebody like me that this is a good idea.” When I asked him what he meant by “somebody like me,” he said somebody who has a “fiscally responsible approach to ballot measures.”

He said he supports transit and even lived car-free for a while. But his opposition to those measures was due to how they were funded, including sales taxes. He mentioned the need for more corporate taxes in addition to supporting car tabs.

OK, so what about bike lanes? Pedersen said he supports a connected bike network, though he is less supportive of bike lanes on arterial streets when a neighborhood greenway might work instead. So I asked him the dreaded bike lane question in his District: What does he think now about the way 35th Ave NE turned out.

“I think it was better than what was originally proposed,” he said of the city’s plans that included bike lanes. “I supported the mayor’s decision.”

Going forward, he said his priority is “making sure there is genuine, authentic community engagement” around projects. “And sometimes a greenway might work better than putting it on the arterial.”

But he’s not against all bike lanes in his district. For example, he recently went along 15th Ave NE doorbelling people’s houses to inform them about SDOT’s plans to add bike lanes for the street during an upcoming paving project.

“I want to avoid and learn from the debacle that was 35th Ave,” he said. “So far, the 15th Ave project seems like a very prudent investment … It helps with Safe Routes to School and the first/last mile because it connects to Roosevelt Station.” Perhaps bike advocates could take this support as another olive branch.

But the biggest upcoming bike lane project in District 4 is Eastlake Ave, one of the most-desired bike connections in the whole city. Connecting the University Bridge to South Lake Union, Eastlake Ave is the only viable bike route option along the east side of Lake Union. It will also someday connect to the 520 Trail once the state completes the new bridge across Portage Bay between I-5 and Montlake. The city’s designs for an Eastlake Ave redesign are part of the larger Rapidride J project connecting Roosevelt to downtown (stay tuned for an update on this project).

“I’m still listening to those who would be impacted by the changes,” he said of Eastlake. “How do we balance everything? The desire to have that additional safety for people trying bike through there and to there, how do we balance that with the impacts to small businesses and residents who live there?”

He suggested that “greenways could work for part of it.” I asked him if he had seen SDOT’s extensive bike route analysis for Eastlake, which included nine different options many of which included greenways. He said he had seen it, but that it “seemed very subjective.”

So no, Pedersen is probably not going to be the dreamy, wide-smiling, bike-commuting safe streets champion that former Councilmember and Transportation Committee Chair Mike O’Brien was. Advocates are going to need to adjust their strategies since they can no longer assume the Transportation Chair is already on their side (or, in some cases, a few steps ahead of them).

But Pedersen won, and the 2019 campaign is over. On top of that, the rest of the Council selected him as Chair of Transportation. As Councilmember, he says he wants to prove through his actions that he supports transit and environmental policy. So my advice to advocates who opposed him during the campaign is to give him space to at least support your issues if not be a champion. He’ll be in office at least four years, and could very well be Transportation Chair that long. Eight out of the nine City Councilmembers were endorsed by transportation advocacy groups, so votes should hopefully be in favor of transit and safe streets whenever they come up.

Pedersen, like any elected official, only has so much bandwidth. Even if he disagrees with a bike advocacy priority, like complete Eastlake bike lanes, that’s largely irrelevant if he chooses not to spend his resources on such a fight. Because Eastlake has such strong support from so many people who bike, trying to stop that project would be an enormous fight. And he would be fighting the very same people he will need to staff phone banks and knock on doors to support the Transportation Benefit District measure that he has made a priority in his first year.

So if you are skeptical of him, I say take him at his word and let him show you where he stands now that he’s elected. I’m not saying to give him a bunch of free passes. Stay engaged and active, but give him the chance to support your issues. Look for chances to be useful to each other so that maybe he chooses to spend his resources on causes other than fighting bike lanes. The worst case here for both Councilmember Pedersen and safe streets and transit advocates would be to become enemies and spend the next four years fighting over every little thing. There’s too much important work to get done.

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17 responses to “Councilmember Pedersen outlines his vision as the new Transportation Committee Chair, offers an olive branch to safe streets advocates”

  1. ronp

    I am willing to have an open mind about the guy but I am still royally pissed off about 35th. All evidence shows bike lanes support local business more than general purpose car lanes, see https://medium.com/sidewalk-talk/the-latest-evidence-that-bike-lanes-are-good-for-business-f3a99cda9b80 etc, etc. This will be the case on Eastlake — businesses will benefit from the protected bike lanes there.

    Seattle is optimal for electric bike growth given the climate and topography and we even have a local successful Ballard ebike startup (Radpower), and many cool bike shops with growing sales. All ages and all abilities bike lanes will be ideal for future Seattle commuters and ongoing maintenance is fraction of the car lanes. Tons of regular non ebike people now already in Seattle (see Fremont bridge counts).

    Pederson needs to get behind better urban design and transportation policy. We should be leading the nation, not using the values of his small minded senior single family voters he keeps attempting to appeal to.

    Shaun or another progressive will beat him in a rematch no problem if he doesn’t pay attention to younger more liberal people moving into NE Seattle.

    Good luck councilmember — I will be watching for sincere support of bike infrastructure, transit oriented zoning, no parking minimums, affordable housing, non showboating climate policy, etc

    1. Ballard Biker

      Seattle is optimal for electric bike growth given the climate and topography and we even have a local successful Ballard ebike startup (Radpower), and many cool bike shops with growing sales. All ages and all abilities bike lanes will be ideal for future Seattle commuters and ongoing maintenance is fraction of the car lanes. Tons of regular non ebike people now already in Seattle (see Fremont bridge counts).

      Yeah, it’s been nothing short of a blessing to experience the “transportation revolution” that is entitled, lazy tech bros on their 30+ mph, fat tire motorcycles using infrastructure that was supposed to be safe and separated from motorized filth.

      I can only hope the Council comes to their senses, declare the e-Bike pilot a failure and maintain the existing ban on motorized vehicles on our trails, paths and sidewalks. Maybe Pedersen can be the advocate that cyclists and pedestrians need, since the Bike Blog seems to now be influenced by e-Bike manufacturers.

      1. CH biker

        What a lazy, entitled and short-sighted take. Failure on what grounds?

        1. e-bikes don’t go 30+. Most of them are limited to 20
        2. they’re hugely expanding the number of people who can choose to bike to get around. Including women and people who don’t work in tech.
        3. when more people bike, it benefits all of us. Yes, infrastructure might have to change. I agree that some people are far too aggressive on e-bikes and view it as some kind of race, and that needs to change. I think it can and will.

        Personally, I bike-commuted capitol hill to bellevue and ballard on my pedal bike for 8 years, and my new e-bike (not a fast fat-tire thing) is still expanding the number of places I want to go on my bike.

      2. Ballard Biker

        Every day I see a bunch of fat tire motorcycles that are easily boming down the Burke-Gilman at 30 mph. I also see many large cargo bikes that are easily going 20 mph.

        I understand that “by law”, e-bikes are supposed to be physically limited to 20 mph, but by law, e-bikes aren’t allowed on Westlake cycle track either. Turns out it’s pretty easy to get around the mandated speed limits on e-bikes and seeing how nearly 100% of e-bikers could care less about laws (see the Westlake cycle track), we’ve ended up in the situation you see today.

        When more people bike, it benefits all of us. Yes, infrastructure might have to change. I agree that some people are far too aggressive on e-bikes and view it as some kind of race, and that needs to change. I think it can and will.

        I do not disagree here, however the aggressiveness and complete idiocracy of e-bikers has not changed nearly 5 years before they started foisting their way onto our trails and I only see it getting worse. The best way to mitigate this, in my opinion, is to cancel the e-bike pilot, keep the e-bike ban on trails, bike lanes and sidewalks in place and come up with a system to encourage e-biking on our roadways, including a licensing system similar to motorcycles. This would go hand in hand with Seattle’s recent 25 mph campaign.

        Cyclists and pedestrians shouldn’t have to suffer because of unsafe behavior by lazy, entitled techies.

      3. Tom Fucoloro

        This has gotten off-topic.

  2. When he calls 35th Ave NE a “debacle” what does he mean? The plan to install a protected bike lane there was studied, advertised, and designed over the course of many years. In the matter of weeks, it was killed by a small group of clueless NIMBYs (who in turn got Pedersen elected). That’s the debacle. But I doubt that’s what Pedersen means when he uses the term.

    Color me skeptical.

    1. eddiew

      the Murray-Kubly plan for 35th Avenue NE had 10-foot (too narrow) lanes south of NE 65th Street, yet was to carry Route 65.

    2. Greg Peterson

      It was a debacle because the whole thing was 100% avoidable. Based on the public comments, SDOT proposed modifying the original design, but was over-ridden by former CM Johnson who famously said “I’ll take the heat.” Then instead of engaging his constituents and selling the project, Johnson went on a bizarre slander campaign against his neighbors. For their part, Save 35th offered up a compromise plan that included protected bike lanes on 35th, but Johnson rejected that too. Then Johnson bailed, and without a local champion for the project on the council the whole thing died.

      I think you’re right, this whole thing is why Pedersen got elected despite his weak record on transportation which would have killed any other candidate. His message was “Accountability.” An obvious jab at Johnson. Which makes his election even more improbable, because his opponent was Shaun Scott, not Johnson. I guess the ghost of Johnson frightened enough neighbors to put Pedersen over the top.

  3. Peri Hartman

    Can greenways work as alternatives to bike lanes on arterials ? That depends.

    First, there’s topography. In some cases, any alternative routes would have steep hills, curves, and deviations in order to more-or-less follow the adjacent arterial.

    But topography aside, what else ? I can’t find any sort of requirements from a brief online search, so if someone knows, please fill in :) Here’s my take:

    1. No deviations. The route must be straight without a jog to another block and a jog back, etc. If you have to ride 50% further than you would on an arterial, that’s a disincentive.

    2. No parked cars near intersections (both left and right sides). Sightlines need to be clear to safely ride 15MPH or so.

    3. Residential cross streets must have stop signs. The greenway needs to have priority and be safe.

    4. Speedbumps must have a channel for bikes to ride through.

    In short, to be useful for commuters, a greenway needs to have most of what the arterial has, without the traffic. If not, it’s still useful for leisure, but does not replace the need for bike lanes on aterials.

    The question to Pederson: can he support greenways that meet these conditions ?

      1. Ballard Biker

        Diverters that make sense.

        The northbound 17th Greenway diverter at 57th was the second most moronic decision made on 17th, other than the vastly more moronic backtracking diversion at Dock St.

        The diverter should have been blocking southbound car travel, since even the most basic glance at a map would confirm that cut-throughs are going to be solely in the southbound direction to avoid 15th (northbound cut-throughs use 14th), which is still the case today, aggravated by the viaduct toll. SDOT was told this during outreach and design, but they just didn’t care.

      2. dave

        YES – diverters are key. Otherwise the stop signs on cross streets just make it that much more inviting to cars, making it less safe for those riding bikes.

      3. Peri Hartman

        Agreed. A greenway makes no sense if it effectively becomes an arterial.

  4. asdf2

    My personal opinion is that, absent a quick a final ruling throwing out I-976, the move Seattle replacement levy should just be sales tax. I get the point about sales tax being regressive, but I’m more concerned about having a revenue source that is not at risk of being yanked out from under the rug, depending on how the state supreme Court rules.

    I also don’t believe sales tax here is as regressive as people make it out to be. The statistics commonly cited are based on the assumption that every person, rich or poor, has to own a car, and sales tax on car purchases and car repair can be expensive. On a nationwide level, that may be true, but within Seattle, car ownership is much less necessary than over the country as a whole.

  5. William

    For most of his campaign, Alex Pedersen’s “now hidden” (where did we see that before) page on his transportation plans which was very long, made no mention of bicycles at all except when stating his opposition to bike lanes on 35th Ave NE. He grudgingly eventually incorporated a mention of bicycles as being an option for last mile transportation but that section initially focused on minivans, shuttle buses, shared taxis, walking and anything but bikes. The focus of his transportation page was the need to speed up commercial vehicle and commuter traffic without any plans to do so other than playing to the anti road-diet, bike-lane and walkable communities crowd. His most “innovative” idea was a fatuous proposal to add a Magnusson to Lake Union fast passenger foot ferry. The guy has no coherent ideas and his record is opposing Move Seattle and ST3 – he is not going to be doing the cycling community any favors. I have a lot of respect for what Cathy Tuttle has accomplished but she effectively endorsed Pedersen and quite possibly cost Scott the D4 election. A memo on the environmental impact of legislation is empty gesture because it is just another bit of city bureaucracy that contributes nothing to making our city more livable.

  6. nullbull

    Alex Pedersen is selling last century’s mobility and planning options. He’s from the past. Only a person representing a part of the city that has frozen itself in amber since the 1980s would bring the solutions he brings to the table.

    NE Seattle has boat-anchored its way through every wave of denser development, transit, etc. assuring they were less impacted than any other quadrant of the city. The further you get from I-5 the more things look exactly as they did when I was a kid. EXACTLY. Except, of course, none of us who grew up there can afford to live there anymore. All the cars driving around are more expensive, for sure. Because duh.

    It’s the same tired foot-dragging routine I watched people do the entire time i was growing up. Same process drag, same outcome – no/minimal development, the most pathetically small changes, rich people protected while the rest of the city bears all the impact of growth and change.

    He’s an exact reflection of his district. Backward-looking, insular, zero new ideas – wrapped in a superficially kind exterior. Just 1950s urban planning, privilege, and money.

    It’s depressing.

  7. Michael Francisco

    Pedersen did not win most Eastlake precincts (or Wallingford, or University). I would hope he keeps this in mind going forward – that he needs to represent all of his constituents.

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