Ed Murray's transportation plan: Is everybody happy?

By David Kroman
Crosscut archive image.

The South Lake Union streetcar

By David Kroman

Using the backdrop of a noisy Market Street in Ballard, Mayor Ed Murray launched Seattle's new transportation vision, Move Seattle.

The Seattle Department of Transportation program is designed to provide a guiding philosophy for developing corridors collaboratively — without, as the mayor put it, “modal wars” between the lobbies of each form of transportation.

Carrying out the vision of a well-coordinated transportation future will take money and public support. Murray says he is weeks away from bringing forward the financing for implementing Move Seattle reasonably quickly, through a new Bridging the Gap levy for city transportation projects. But, at least initially, he won some important endorsements for his vision of how to deal with the city's transportation challenges.

To understand the difficulties of transportation in Seattle, one only needs to look around, Murray said. “Because of topography,” said the mayor, “we have major challenges.” Portland, many Seattleites' favorite model for what transportation should look like, is blessed with a relatively flat landscape and a river that flows almost perfectly from south to north.

Seattle on the other hand has the inconvenience of beauty. “Everything that makes Seattle physically beautiful is also what makes it difficult [for transportation],” said Dave Gering, executive director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council. Queen Anne, Lake Washington, Lake Union, the subtle curve of Elliot Bay, not to mention a street layout developed in the early 1900s, make a perfect grid nearly impossible.

The Move Seattle plan recognizes this issue. “Seattle is a built out city with no room for new streets,” it reads.

“We’re not going to build our way out of this,” said the mayor.

According to Gering, that restriction makes Seattle streets a competition for right of way. Jeff Aken of the Cascade Bicycle Club agreed. “We are all competing for the same space,” said Aken. “Right of way is very limited.”

That street-level competition has spilled into competition for funding and for sympathetic political ears. “We felt we were always the losers to transit and bikes,” said Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association. However, Aken, too, felt bicyclists weren’t getting what they wanted. “In that constrained right of way,” said Aken, “everybody has concerns that it’s a zero sum game, that bikes will lose this corridor to freight, etc.”

Although hesitant to throw former Mayor Mike McGinn under the bus, so to speak, Gering couldn’t help but point to his mayoral days as a time when that traditional vs. alternative transportation fight was at its worst. “He was very ideological,” said Gering, “but not as pragmatic.”

Gering is not the only one. In the fall of 2010, seattlepi.com reporter Joel Connelly ripped McGinn: “McGinn is not seeking balance, as he claims, but governing to the benefit of a pedal-driven core constituency.”

While Murray's new plan does include steps to make Seattle more bikeable, the mayor framed Move Seattle first and foremost as a guideline for how to think about transportation. “We spent too much time in modal wars,” he said. “We need to step away from pitting modes against each other.”

Move Seattle begins with a list of core values: a safe city, an interconnected city, a vibrant, an affordable city and an innovative city. When, as the report reads, it’s time to go “from plan to project,” Move Seattle’s pledge is that SDOT will “overlay the modal plans,” meaning for every project, every time, every mode will be considered. The ultimate goal is to identify a corridor’s best use, be it integrated, like Broadway and Second Avenue, or more specific, like, perhaps, Airport Way for trucks and cars.

As far as specifics, the mayor has already rolled out his “Vision Zero” program, which aims to eliminate serious and fatal crashes. Move Seattle says $835 million in investments will be needed to finish that project for repairing sidewalks, bridges and roads; evaluating crash locations; implementing safety programs along corridors with high levels of crashes; building up bike lanes; and providing more education.

The report also looks to spending $855 million over the next 10 years for improved connectivity, providing 72 percent of Seattle residents with “10-minute all-day transit service within a 10 minute walk of their homes.” It also promises improved traffic management, an extra 1,500 bike parking spaces and an increased RapidRide presence.

Move Seattle will also foresees $370 million to finish the mayor’s Freight Master Plan “to address the unique characteristics, needs, and impacts of freight mobility.” Another $830 million would be need for maintenance. Finally, the report pledges to experiment with new technology. The final piece, which will test 15 technology and data driven projects a year, did not come with a price tag.

Two big questions are: Will talk turn to action? How are we going to pay for it?

Both Aken and Gering expressed trust that the mayor will make good on his word to create a more integrated approach to transportation. “I think Ed is a practical guy,” said Gering. “He has already put together a heavy haul corridor plan for marine [related] traffic in SoDo and is conducting his freight mobility strategic plan. Other mayors have said they were going to do these, but haven’t. I think people are putting faith in him.”

Wasserman said, for him, it all depends on the implementation. But he said, “I’m optimistic that the concerns of the freight community will be at the table and that we’ll be a part of the decision making process.”

“So far he’s been a great champion for bikes,” said Aken. “I like how he accelerated the Second Avenue bike lane and got Pronto going.”

For Aken, the most important thing is that, given the limited space, the plan identifies best uses for each corridor. “I like that the mayor said we can’t build our way out. It’s good to comprehensively think about corridors. I’m optimistic that it will change how we prioritize different uses, what should be where.”

Because Move Seattle is really a philosophy, its usefulness is not entirely dependent on funding. However, the report identified over 20 potential projects, including a Burke Gilman extension, improvement to 23rd avenue, and a Northgate bicycle-pedestrian bridge.

Those projects will be dependent on an extension of the Bridging the Gap levy passed in 2006. The mayor would not reveal details of the new levy, but said they would announce it in a few weeks. If a levy fails, Move Seattle would not necessarily go away, but it would move much more slowly.

Broadway on Capitol Hill and the Second Avenue bike lane are perhaps the two most concrete examples of the sorts of streets potentially created by Move Seattle. By way of separated bike lanes, streetcar tracks and new traffic signals, the streets aim to clarify right of way as best as they can.

However, both streets have received some criticism. Some found the Second Avenue bike lane confusing and others saw the elimination of one car lane as a war on cars. When asked about limited parking on Second, the mayor said that the problem will be lessened as people don’t need to drive cars as often. He added, however, that parking is not the way to improving transportation.

On Broadway, there is a sense that the city tried to put too much on one street. Murray himself said “I’m not sure I would have put [a bike lane and light rail] on the same street.” Both Gering and Aken said they would not support trying to make every corridor accommodating to every mode.

How quickly the mayor really can move Seattle will depend on the new levy. But, if nothing else, Murray has shown in the last two weeks — first with the announcement of a comprehensive Privacy Initiative and now Move Seattle — that turning multiple discussions into broader, more integrated conversations is a challenge he is willing to tackle.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.