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Council seeks project list to determine if a $100 million bond is necessary

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

A majority of the City Council, led by Councilmember Dan Strauss, voted Wednesday to defer their decision on issuing a large bond until they have more details on what it would fund and when the money would be needed.

As we reported last week, the City Council is considering a 20-year, $100 million bond on a $20 vehicle license fee that would put 75% of funds into bridge work rather than the focus on safe streets that SDOT’s community outreach process recommended. Over the course of 20 years, this could result in an $80 million reduction in funding for safe streets projects according to an action alert from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.

Of course most of the city’s bridges are vital infrastructure, and the city will be hit with a significant bill for the West Seattle Bridge soon. So it may be that bonding against some of the vehicle license fee will be needed at some point. But Seattle does not have a list of shovel-ready projects that need the immediate funding a bonding measure would generate. That’s why Transportation and Utilities Committee Vice-Chair Strauss proposed a successful amendment that would hold off on issuing bonds until projects and their schedules are identified.

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“We must dedicate city funding to the work of investing in our bridges that is matched by state and federal dollars,” said Councilmember Strauss during the meeting. “We need to have a more accurate and detailed understanding of our maintenance and investments needs, and we need to use this information to raise the correct amount of bonds at the right time to invest in our infrastructure rather than taking on unneeded debt until we’re ready to use it.

The initial version of the bill, as proposed by Committee Chair Alex Pedersen, would have called for issuing the bond without knowing the scope or schedule of the work it would fund.

“If this non-binding language was enacted on today, we would raise bonds without shovel-ready projects,” said Strauss. “This means we would be paying bankers interest on dollars we would not be ready to spend today.”

Strauss also rejected the argument that the bond money could pay for the planning studies to get projects shovel-ready, saying, “This would be akin to taking out a home loan to pay for our groceries.”

CM Pedersen withdrew his version and instead supported the Strauss amendment. It passed 5–0 (Pedersen, Strauss, González, Herbold, Morales), which means it has enough votes to pass at the next full Council meeting.

This is a partial win for safe streets advocates and for prudent budgeting practices in general. The bill still requests SDOT to produce a list of “transportation projects that could be funded by $100 million of bond financing in 2022” that includes “a minimum of $75 million of bridge maintenance, bridge repair, and bridge replacement projects” by September 30. All decisions about bonding will be made later during the budget process, but the bill’s request sets them up to receive a list of bridge projects seemingly regardless of priority and need. It just says, Give us a list of what you could spend $75 million on. It just feels backwards to start with the funding and then find projects to fit in it.

Meanwhile, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s SDOT has slashed the walking, biking and transit promises made to voters who approved the 2015 Move Seattle Levy. SDOT also cut some seismic upgrade projects for bridges that were promised in the levy. So we do have a known list of safety projects that were ready to go before their budgets got cut. Bonding to quickly catch up on this work is intriguing.

Vision Zero projects are vital, too. They save lives and make progress on the Council’s climate and equitable mobility goals. CM Morales pointed out this concern in her comments.

“My hope is that we don’t see these two things as mutually exclusive,” she said. “We need bridge maintenance and we definitely need to be moving toward our Vision Zero goals for pedestrian safety.”

The question, of course, is how to balance the funding we have. The vehicle license fee is one of the few funding sources the city has that can be spent on safe streets and transit. So much state and Federal money is earmarked for roads and bridges, but safe streets projects must rely almost entirely on local dollars. At the same time, replacing or significantly repairing a major bridge is going to cost many times the amount the city can raise from bonding against the $20 vehicle license fee. A bond might be a useful way to match a state or federal grant, but it would be a drop in the bucket of the total bridge costs facing the city.

Concept map for a freeway-style interchange south of the Ballard Bridge.
SDOT is studying whether to expand the freeway-style interchange at the south end of the Ballard Bridge.

The Council should also maintain oversight over the projects that get this funding because some early proposals would move the city backwards by expanding the freeway-style infrastructure in our city, especially around the Magnolia and Ballard Bridges. The Council should not write any blank checks for this work and should stand up for its higher-level goals when funding any of that work.

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5 responses to “Council seeks project list to determine if a $100 million bond is necessary”

  1. Jort

    This feels like the council pulling out all the stops to provide funding for the stupid Magnolia Bridge replacement. I do not understand how any elected official will be able to look anybody in the eye and truthfully say they are committed to safe streets while allowing that completely useless, absolute travesty of a project to move forward. How about an amendment that prevents ANY revenue from this new source to go to the Magnolia Bridge replacement?

    1. Jort

      I should add that it *appears* that they are trying to bundle the Magnolia Bridge Replacement with many other layers of bureaucratic bullshit so that none of them have to actually face constituents who are going to (rightfully) grill them about why they’re giving a luxury transportation handout to a bunch of rich assholes who hate the rest of the city. It feels *extremely* Seattle Processian.

  2. ballardite

    Why are you so against Magnolia Bridge Replacement? There are only two ways off Magnolia – Dravus Street and Emerson. If there was an emergency, like say a fire or an earthquake and emergency vehicles needed to get there fast – Magnolia Bridge could save valuable minutes that could save peoples lives. Magnolia Bridge also makes it easier to get to the north side of Magnolia and meet up with the bike path thru Myrtle Edwards Park. It’s a necessary transportation corridor for transit, bikes, cars and pedestrians! How is this so bad?

  3. ballardite

    I don’t see why anybody would be against funding bridge maintenance. Maintenance, by its very definition, is shovel ready. There should be a maintenance manual or log for every one of these bridges that SDOT keeps track of and they should have dedicated funding to perform the maintenance when it is due. In the case of West Seattle Bridge – this did not happen. We all heard that a bridge bearing went unmaintained for years and even though it was never stated – I wouldn’t be surprised if it contributed to the cracks in the bridge. We need our bridges so that bikes, transit, pedestrians and cars can travel to all parts of the city. They should be maintained properly so no parts of the city have to be cutoff – like West Seattle – for years and years. All taxpayers should be outraged that the City Council refused to set aside money for a City Function we all paid for and – as West Seattle Bridge Fiasco PROVES – is not being done! Stand Up Taxpayers and DEMAND your Council performs the basic maintenance that we have paid for to keep our infrastructure in good useable condition.

  4. eddiew

    First, please keep the scale of the alternative projects in mind; bridge replacements would take hundreds of millions; bridge maintenance might be millions. Why does this debate lead to the Ballard and Magnolia bridges; they have a different scale. Second, the pie is too small. The Supreme Court ruled Eyman’s I-976 unconstitutional. We should ask the STBD to ask the voters to approve a larger VLF to fund more projects.

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