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New city transportation head: Can he match the city’s goals with its resources?

Magnolia Bridge supports: not enough for the long term. Credit: Dick Nelson

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 .

One study would focus on the portion of that corridor between Ballard and Downtown, while a separate study would analyze a connection to Downtown via the University District.  A separate HCT study will analyze the portion between Ballard and the University District. The study parameters were made more specific when the Seattle City Council approved and adopted the Transit Master Plan (TMP) in April 2012.

The TMP analyzed existing and potential future high ridership corridors and travel markets in the city, walking and bicycling infrastructure, and enhancement of bus transit performance through roadway investments. It identified a set of corridors for capital investment. 

Of these priority corridors, a seven-mile long Loyal Heights-Ballard-Fremont-South Lake Union-Downtown corridor was designated as a high-capacity transit corridor in north Seattle.

Several alternatives were considered for the corridor, including rail, Bus Rapid Transit and enhancements to the existing bus such, as traffic-signal pre-emption. Based on projected ridership, a rapid streetcar (a 100-foot long single-car vehicle) was selected as the preferred mode. It would operate on existing street rights-of-way, with longer stop spacing and priority over vehicular traffic.The capital cost for streetcar in the Downtown to Ballard corridor was estimated as $335 million (2011 dollars). And the total transit master plan cost (covering four high-capacity transit corridors and 15 priority bus corridors in the city) was $1 billion.

In early 2013 Sound Transit and the city teamed up to do a detailed study of the corridor. A final report for the Ballard to Downtown Seattle Transit Expansion study was issued at the end of May this year.

For purposes of analysis, Ballard was bounded by the Ship Canal, NW 85th Street, Greenwood and Fremont Ave. N, and 32th Ave NW. So the area extended north to Crown Hill and east to Phinney Ridge and Fremont.

The public was invited to comment on the choices and vote for their favorite. By far the most popular corridor was a Queen Anne tunnel alignment (Corridor D in figure below) which received 76 percent approval, 374 of 492 who voted, followed distantly at 9 percent by an elevated corridor along 15th Avenue W. with a new bridge crossing the Ship Canal next to the existing Ballard Bridge. The bridge would be 70 feet and have a movable span. Rather than rapid streetcar, light rail was designated as the potential mode.

The tunnel would extend the entire length of the corridor, from Downtown through Uptown west of the Seattle Center, and under Queen Anne hill to Market Street in Ballard where it would terminate. Presumably the area north of Market Street would continue to be served by bus routes, which would be realigned to feed the rail line.

The most popular corridor scored high in several benefit categories: new riders, reduced travel time, on-time reliability, low visual impacts and station-area development potential. But these benefits would come at a steep price. The Queen Anne corridor has the highest construction cost. Described as “conceptual” (translation: “estimated”), the capital cost would be $3.2 to $3.6 billion (2013 dollars). The cost for the 15th Avenue route would be in the same range.

This is about 10 times the capital cost estimated just a year earlier in the Transit Master Plan for an at-grade route in the same corridor. 

Transportation planning when done for multiple corridors is a methodical process that too often leads to de facto promises to add transit service that, at least in the short term, are unaffordable. And when funding does become available, the transportation environment may have changed significantly enough to require a new study.

The Downtown to Ballard corridor is included in Sound Transit’s current regional long-range transit plan, as is a corridor from Ballard to the University District.  Sound Transit just completed cost estimates for several route and high-capacity vehicle alternatives for the Ballard to U District connection. At the high end, light rail via a tunnel through Wallingford would cost $1.4 – $1.9 billion. But funding requires a new Sound Transit request to voters, and project starts are almost a decade out — sometime after current voter-approved projects are completed in 2023.

An updated ST long-range plan, designed to cover projects through 2040, is currently out for public review. Neither it nor an online survey mentions costs, yet citizens are asked to select up to three priority high-capacity corridors from a myriad list of 21 projects. Choices include three new rail corridors extending from Ballard to points north (Everett, Shoreline Community College, and Bothell), and two with no mode specified that would serve Ballard. One of the latter would start Downtown, pass through Ballard and reach to Shoreline Community College and Edmonds. The second would start in West Seattle and extend to Ballard via the Central District and Queen Anne. 

All of this leads to a few suggestions regarding improvements to the city’s transportation planning process that the new SDOT director might want to consider.

A good starting point would be to embrace the least-cost approach to regional transportation planning as outlined in state law. Largely ignored by Puget Sound planners and policy makers, the methodology suggests that the most cost-effective solution to addressing travel demand may not involve capital construction. All reasonable approaches, such as vanpools and subsidized transit passes, should be considered along with transit corridor improvements.

Any future study should closely examine the travel environment. Missing from the Ballard to Downtown study was any sense of the dynamic changes currently taking place in the city’s transportation marketplace: growth of app-facilitated car rental and ride sharing, growth of bicycle commuting, encouragement of walking and ridership growth on Metro’s RapidRide service.

Biking represents a growing commute mode share in the corridors connecting the city’s Northwest neighborhoods to and through Fremont to South Lake Union and Downtown. Yet the Bicycle Master Plan, estimated to cost $240 million for the entire city, remains largely unfunded.

And walking in several north and south end neighborhoods is a risky venture due to lack of sidewalks. This problem was identified in detail in the Pedestrian Master Plan and the cost to fix it and make other pedestrian improvements was estimated to be $840 million. 

RapidRide buses that serve the greater Ballard area are heavily loaded, as are express buses, so service frequency should be increased — something that of course costs money, but not nearly as much as building new infrastructure.

Also absent from the usual analysis is the possibility that travel time has become less of a factor when folks make their mode choice decisions. It’s a new world where the majority of bus riders at peak periods travel with their eyes glued to a smartphone or tablet. Maybe that travel time isn't as wasted as it used to be.

And in the spirit of transparency, the costs of future planning efforts should be specified in final reports. Thus, citizens could judge whether the $2.5 million paid to consultants for the Ballard study could have been better spent.   

Finally, back to the backlog. There is an obvious need to keep deferred maintenance front and center in the city’s transportation budget deliberations. One way to do that would be to append the backlog accounting to the budget document making it readily accessible to policy makers and citizens. And then it should be posted on SDOT’s website for easy reference. 

That's something the new director could achieve with minimal costs.

(Note: The author lives in the Ballard transit expansion study area and regularly rides the 5 and 44 Metros buses. He has had a long interest in transportation planning which he pursued professionally in a previous life. He attended the study events but did not vote for a popular choice.)

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