Mayor Ed Murray's pick to lead Seattle Department of Transportation would seem to be a good one. Scott Kubly brings a record of achievement in several areas that Seattle needs to address, including bicycle and pedestrian mobility.
And Kubly, who had his initial confirmation hearing before the City Council on Tuesday, obviously shares the mayor’s belief that Seattle can’t go it alone, that major transportation investments must be made in a regional context, and that the various modes must be effectively integrated.
However, Kubly made several promises that he may find difficult to deliver on. At the press conference where the mayor introduced him, Kubly promised to “invest in a transportation system that will offer choices — more choices.” If he follows through with that pledge, he will have his hands full of options —but not the resources needed to deliver on the many choices already under consideration.
The issue of affording what Seattle wants to achieve will be a major one for the city. And we can see the challenge if we look at some of the costs Seattle faces maintaining its existing transportation systems and the way Seattle is planning to make transportation improvements, including for the north end of town, where I happen to live.
When the council confirms his appointment as early as next month, Kubly will inherit from the previous administration a $1 billion portfolio of proposed enhancements to the city’s transit system plus another $1 billion for pedestrian and bicycle improvements. All were promoted without due regard for cost and funding sources.
And the list of choices continues to grow. Several new high-capacity transportation corridors in the city are under consideration by Sound Transit as it updates its long-range plan. Kubly will also have to address proposals by a very active transit constituency — citizen activists encouraged by former Mayor McGinn’s enthusiasm for all things that roll on steel wheels. Some think we need a region-wide subway system. Others would like to resurrect the monorail.
These many expensive improvements are overshadowed by a large transportation funding backlog: a long list of street and bridge maintenance projects that accumulated over several administrations with a cost totaling about $2 billion. Replacement of the Magnolia Bridge, which was patched up after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, will alone require $350 million.
The backlog has grown substantially since 2006 when city voters passed the nine-year Bridging the Gap property tax levy. City transportation officials admit that the $365 million levy was insufficient to keep up with increasing maintenance and repair needs.
And pothole filling, as Kubly also promised, will not be sufficient to address the pavement repair problem. When maintenance of a transportation asset is deferred past a certain point, it may require major repair or even replacement at a significantly higher cost. SDOT has illustrated this with a graphic for street pavement that indicates there is a “tipping point” beyond which deterioration and costs accelerate rapidly.
The city’s transportation asset accounting system rates roads and bridges' conditions as good, fair, or poor. Good means the asset is essentially “as new” or requires only routine maintenance. If an asset’s condition is considered fair, it requires major rehabilitation. Assets rated as poor are candidates for replacement. As of 2011, about half of the city’s transportation assets were either poor (22 percent) or fair (23 percent).
Major improvements in the transportation planning process are long overdue, and a change of leadership is a good time for a thorough review. At the top of the list is the need to reconsider the incremental, corridor-by-corridor approach that inevitably leads to choices that, when added together, become unaffordable. Even the preferred choice in one corridor may be beyond our means. And it has a way of distracting planners from considering more immediate and cost-effective solutions to mobility and accessibility problems.
Consider the North Seattle to Downtown travel corridor. It was first identified as a candidate for enhancement in November 2008 when regional voters approved Sound Transit 2, which funded extensions of the regional light rail system to Lynnwood, Overlake/Bellevue, and south of Sea-Tac Airport. The ST2 measure also provided monies for a series of high-capacity transit planning studies .
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