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Action Alert: Tell City Council to protect $80M in walking, biking and transit funds

Pie charts comparing the SDOT proposal to the Council proposal.
The SDOT funding breakdown (left) vs the City Council’s proposed funding breakdown.

A City Council proposal would redirect $80 million over 20 years away from walking, biking and transit projects to finance a $100 million bond for roads and bridges.

With the West Seattle Bridge still closed and other bridges around the city in need to repair, replacement or removal, it is understandable that Council is seeking major funding for bridge work. However, the Vehicle License Fee is the wrong source because it is among the few transportation funding sources the city can invest in walking, biking and transit projects.

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways put out an action alert so people can contact City Council leaders and ask them to protect these funds:

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Please support SDOT’s proposal for VLF funding.

Seattle is not making progress on Vision Zero, the city’s goal to reduce the number of road-traffic deaths and serious injuries to zero by 2030, which has been brought into sharp relief by three tragedies in the last month in Georgetown, Lake City, and Seward Park.

The proposal from SDOT for VLF funding doubles the level of progress on Vision Zero, fixes hundreds of inaccessible sidewalks, repairs bike routes, and plans for a bright transit future.

Unfortunately, Councilmember Pedersen is proposing a dramatic re-allocation of these funds: redirecting a full 75% of the available VLF funding for bridge repair and leaving a mere 25% for “other transportation infrastructure.”While we are all supportive of increased funding for bridge repair, we should seek state and federal funding for those projects and allocate local dollars to walk/bike/transit projects.

Please support SDOT’s proposal for VLF funding. SDOT’s plan would move Seattle towards our climate goals, our equity goals, and keep Seattleites safe as we get where we need to go.

The Council amendment currently appears to have enough support to pass with Alex Pedersen, Lisa Herbold and Debora Juarez listed as sponsors, and Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda listed as authors. I’m hoping at least some of them are open to changing their minds.

The vast majority of transportation funds in our state and country go to roads, and there are more sources of funding for such projects than there are for walking, biking and transit. For example, Washington State law requires that gas tax revenue be spent only on “highway purposes,” which is often interpreted to exclude transit service. But vehicle license fees do not have this limitation, providing an ongoing source of revenue for the walking, biking and transit investments Seattle residents consistently and overwhelmingly support.

Despite voters approving the Move Seattle Levy by a landslide in 2015, the walking, biking and transit promises of the levy plan have fallen far short. The city prioritized an overbuilt and very expensive Lander Street bridge in Sodo, and then ran out of money to complete the walking, biking and transit promises. As Seattle Neighborhood Greenways notes, we are falling behind on our Vision Zero goals.

As you may have heard, Seattle is not making progress on Vision Zero, the city’s goal to reduce the number of road-traffic deaths and serious injuries to zero by 2030, which has been brought into sharp relief by three tragedies in the last month in Georgetown, Lake City, and Seward Park. SDOT just released data finding that the burden of traffic fatalities falls disproportionately on Black Seattle residents, and over the last five years SE Seattle’s District 2 has had double the number of fatalities as any other council district. The Vision Zero team at SDOT knows what/where the main issues are, but they have been chronically underfunded to achieve their mandate. This funding would double the Vision Zero budget, allowing SDOT to redesign more of our dangerous streets like Rainier Ave S, MLK Jr Way, Aurora Ave, Lake City Way, and others.

None of the projects listed in the Council’s news release (West Seattle High Bridge, Spokane Street Bridge, Magnolia Bridge, Ballard Bridge, Fremont Bridge and University Bridge) are in Southeast Seattle.

The City Council’s news release promoting the bond includes support from labor organizations, and the bond is being proposed as an economic stimulus effort. But walking, biking and transit projects also require a lot of labor to build or operate. In fact, projects with walking and biking elements create as many or more jobs per $1 million invested than roads-only projects. Where is the major stimulus proposal that invests in work to reduce traffic deaths and injuries?

A bond needs to be used carefully and intentionally because it will accrue tens of millions of dollars in interest. Sometimes it is necessary to issue bonds to get funds quickly. For example, a bond could make sense if the city needed a sudden large sum to match a state or Federal grant to fix the West Seattle Bridge. But the city’s need to maintain bridges in general as described by this proposal isn’t going anywhere. Does Seattle even have $100 million of shovel-ready bridge work? As we know, it takes years to go through planning for big projects like these. The Council should have a sure and worthy project in hand before issuing a bond to pay for it.

It’s also not clear whether bonding against 20 years of vehicle license fees is wise considering our state’s history of slashing these car tabs through statewide initiatives. If car tabs are cut again at some point in the next 20 years, where will the city get the money to make the bond payments? There is a legal argument that voters can’t cut a revenue source that is encumbered by debt (Sound Transit has won in court using this argument in the past), but that feels like shaky territory.

To zoom out for a moment, I want to be clear that the bridge problem is real. There is an aging infrastructure crisis in our nation. Previous generations have saddled us with enormous pieces of car-centric infrastructure that are falling apart, and they didn’t set aside the funding to fix it. Now we have to figure out what we’re going to do about it, and it’s going to be expensive. The vehicle license fee will hardly make a dent. Seattle and Washington need to expand our transportation funding options so that Seattle can help pay for this work without raiding the limited sources for walking, biking and transit investments.

We have a lot of money for infrastructure, we just spend it in the wrong places. We spent billions digging a tunnel for SR 99 downtown that only carried 61,000 vehicles per day in 2019. Luckily, it looks like the state legislature’s freeways-focused spending bills are unlikely to pass this session (though the outcome is not yet certain). State leaders need to reassess how they put together transportation packages and come back with a very different proposal next time. Washington needs to stop building new and expanded freeways and instead invest its gas tax money into maintaining existing roads and bridges or completely reimagining the role this infrastructure plays in our communities.

The Magnolia Bridge was built over water, but the city has long since filled Interbay with land. Maybe it doesn’t need to be a bridge anymore. The West Seattle Bridge was built far too tall because people imagined very large ships that never arrived. Maybe it doesn’t need to be a towering freeway anymore. The Ballard Bridge and 15th Ave W/NE should not become a third north-south freeway.

But so far, planning efforts for these projects are way off base, still focusing on moving cars and trucks at the expense of everyone else. This is not a vision the City Council should fund. It does not line up with the Council’s climate, equity and Vision Zero goals.

While we need to make sure the city infrastructure of the past is secure, we should not take our eyes off our own vision for the future.

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5 responses to “Action Alert: Tell City Council to protect $80M in walking, biking and transit funds”

  1. Don Brubeck

    I don’t know if the proposed use of car tab fees as leverage for bonding of work on bridges is the best option, but you should look before you leap to conclusions.

    Fact checking:

    None of the bridges are in southeast Seattle? The West Seattle highrise bridge and the Spokane Street bridge span the Duwamish River between southeast and southwest Seattle. The east approaches are from Beacon Hill and SODO in southeast Seattle.

    The West Seattle Bridge was built far too tall? The highrise span is high because it leads to a high ridge, in addition to actually being lower clearance than current federal regulations for clearance over a waterway that sees plenty of tall barge and crane traffic. Sound Transit is planning a rail span at least as high. If rebuilt lower, the City would have to demolish and rebuild the much longer elevated approaches and replace the entire highrise span instead of just repairing it, at several times the cost and years more time. Funding for replacing a City-owned bridge at a cost of over $1 billion would be a huge challenge.

    The Spokane Street bridge is essential for bike commuting from West Seattle, South Park and White Center. Funding for this bridge is funding for biking. Those of us in this quadrant of the City rely on the Spokane Street Bridge for biking like people north of the ship canal rely on the Fremont and University bridges. The West Seattle highrise bridge is the City’s most used bridge, carrying people on a dozen bus lines on one of the City’s busiest transit corridors, as well as in cars and trucks. There is no hospital in West Seattle, so the bridges are the lifeline for emergency medical services for this quadrant of the city. Seattle”s bridges must be reliable, durable, able to withstand earthquakes and traffic.

    The analysis of a wide range of options for repair or replacement of the West Seattle Bridge showed that any alternative that increases the time it would take to restore the highrise bridge would have worse impacts on environment, equity, business, workforce, and mobility than the repair option.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      SODO and Beacon Hill have South designations on their street names, not Southeast.

      I got the too tall bit from this: https://www.postalley.org/2020/04/02/a-bridge-too-high-how-warren-magnuson-overbuilt-the-west-seattle-bridge/ Though you’re right that these days it might not be considered too tall, as noted in this story: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/a-new-west-seattle-bridge-could-be-even-higher-than-the-current-140-foot-tall-span/

      And I am NOT arguing against funding West Seattle Bridge repairs. But the scope of this amendment and this bond goes far beyond the West Seattle Bridge. If the city needs a chunk of money up front for WSB repairs, I noted in the post that a bond might make sense. Repairing that bridge (and making sure the Spokane Street Bridge is in good working order) are of course priorities right now. I haven’t suggested otherwise.

      Here’s what would make sense to me: Bids for repairing the bridge come in, and they cost $X. Hopefully the state or feds help assist the city, which needs to put up $Y to match the grant funds. So the city looks for ways to get $Y, and if a bond on the VLF makes the most sense then they do that.

      This Council amendment has a sprawling scope, which includes nearly all the bridges in the city including controversial projects in Magnolia and Ballard. That has nothing to do with West Seattle.

      1. westseattlebikeconnections

        Yes, so true that SODO and Beacon Hill streets have ‘S’ designations. Find me a street in Seattle with ‘SE’ designations, and I’ve got a bridge I can sell you!

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        Yikes. You’re right. That was a brain fart on my part.

  2. eddiew

    The pie is too small. The fiscal needs are immense. The Supreme Court ruled I-976 unconstitutional. Perhaps we should urge the STBD to increase its VLF to $80 from the councilmatic $20.

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