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What does Seattle’s new City Council mean for safe streets?

Seattle has a very new City Council, and the changes aren’t even complete yet. Five coucilmembers are new, and a sixth interim councilmember will be appointed soon. For a nine-person governing body, that’s a lot of turnover all at once.

Washington Bikes asked all the candidates for their stances on various bike issues, and none of the councilmembers ran on being anti-bikes. Here’s their scorecard summary:

A table showing councilmember responses to questions about supporting bike lanes and other safe streets priorities. Nearly all boxes say "yes" with a few that say "no response."

WA Bikes also asked candidates about issues specifically affecting their districts. Here are those responses:

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Rob Saka said he supports a protected bike network through SODO, Tammy Morales supports a funding a Beacon Hill bike route, Joy Hollingsworth did not answer about bike lanes on Eastlake, Maritza Rivera supports a safe bike route across I-5, Cathy Moore supports near-term funds to an Aurora complete street, Dan Strauss did not say if he supports fixing Shilshole, Bob Kettle did not say if he supports the Alaskan Way bikeway on the west side of the street.

Councilmember Rob Saka (District 1), will chair the Transportation Committee after the previous chair, Alex Pedersen (District 4) chose not to run for reelection. It will be very interesting to see how Saka chooses to lead this committee, which has seen very different leadership styles throughout the past decade. Pedersen’s time as Transportation Chair was notable largely for its relative inactivity. Former Councilmember Mike O’Brien had been a very active Transportation Chair, packing agendas, calling additional special meetings and regularly going overtime with his patented “I want to respect everyone’s time” warning. Pedersen, in contrast, usually had relatively sparse agendas and rarely used the committee to try to influence SDOT’s operational work such as questioning individual project designs. Before O’Brien, former Councilmember Tom Rasmussen had also been fairly hands-on with SDOT, willing to get in the weeds on project details with SDOT staff.

There are arguments for being hands-off as a Transportation Committee Chair, focusing on larger policies and funding rather than the kinds of day-to-day details that would normally be the mayor’s job. But it all depends on context. For example, O’Brien’s committee picked up a lot of work that then-Mayor Jenny Durkan neglected or dropped. And, of course, the politics between the committee chair and mayor will affect how the chair runs the committee. It takes a lot more work for a committee to counteract a mayor’s desires than it does to rubber stamp them if they are in agreement. It is not yet clear which role Saka will play once work begins. Mayor Bruce Harrell did endorse Saka, but that’s never a guarantee of how things will play out.

It was concerning to read Publicola’s report in November about emails Saka sent to SDOT in 2021-22 about a road divider installed as part of the Rapidride H project. But this does not mean Saka will run the committee in the same way. As the Urbanist noted, Saka was not overly focused on transportation issues during the campaign. He’s got a big responsibility now, and he’ll very likely be looking around for friendly faces to be allies in accomplishing a daunting workload. His committee and a select committee (which in the past has been chaired by the Transportation Committee Chair) will be tasked with playing a vital role in crafting the next transportation funding measure, which needs to be passed by the end of this year in order to replace the expiring Move Seattle Levy. This is a very heavy task to put on a first-year councilmember. In order to pass this measure, he and the mayor are going to need to take a big tent approach and create something that will be exciting enough to pass a Seattle electorate that typically prefers big moves in transportation rather than small incremental changes. If the measure does not win voter approval, it would be a complete disaster for the city’s budget.

The other Transportation Committee members will be Vice-Chair Joy Hollingsworth (D3), Bob Kettle (D7), Dan Strauss (D6) and whoever is appointed to fill Teresa Mosqueda’s now-vacated citywide-elected seat. Tammy Morales will no longer be a Transportation Committee member, a position she had used in recent years to emerge as something of a leader for safe streets efforts. I suppose applications are informally open for whoever wants to stand out as the outspoken safe streets champion on the committee.

There’s no doubt that this Council was not the first choice of safe streets groups. Only Tammy Morales (D2) and Dan Strauss (D6) received the endorsements of Washington Bikes, Transportation For Washington, the Transit Riders Union and the Urbanist. But Seattle also has a history of leaders becoming safe streets champions after being elected. It’s one of those issues that an elected official can actually make tangible progress on, and advocates will never stop working to press leaders to take action to make streets safer and better-connected. So my appeal to anyone feeling discouraged about the results is to keep an open mind, be willing to leave past statements in the past and, most importantly, stay active and engaged. This is the most important year for safe streets in Seattle since 2015. Seattle bike advocates have a long history of turning short-term losses into long-term wins. This perhaps an unstated thesis of my book Biking Uphill in the Rain. Making our streets safer is too important a task to ever quit.

The new councilmembers are still building out their legislative staffs, and the new committees are not yet fully established and ready to hold meetings. The first order of business will be to select a ninth councilmember. Applications to replace Mosqueda’s vacant citywide seat close tomorrow (January 9), and the Council will vote to appoint the replacement likely in late January. The appointed councilmember will hold the seat until a new councilmember can be elected during the November general election.

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One response to “What does Seattle’s new City Council mean for safe streets?”

  1. Gary Yngve

    Typical that spineless Dan is just trying to win votes from the dinosaurs for his Shilshole non-answer.

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