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Move Seattle's pricetag was raised by $30 million. Was it justified?

By David Kroman
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The Ballard Bridge won't be replaced, but will receive maintenance and updates, as well as a study for full replacement.

By David Kroman

Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle Department of Transportation feel good about the size of the $930 million Move Seattle transportation levy. Their confidence is largely derived  from the results of an online survey conducted by SDOT and the mayor’s office. However, questions have been raised whether this survey could actually elicit genuine reactions regarding the levy's cost.

In March, the mayor announced Move Seattle, the largest levy in Seattle history. The nine-year, $900 million proposal dwarfed the $365 million Bridging the Gap transportation levy that passed in 2006, which expires next year. After introducing Move Seattle, SDOT turned to the community for feedback, the majority of which (65 percent) came through an online survey.

As a result of this outreach, Murray announced in May that the city would add an additional $30 million to the proposal. “What we heard from folks when we were out there is you’re not doing enough,” said the mayor in a May press conference. “It’s a rare situation for an elected official to go out with a large package and to hear ‘you’re not doing enough.’”

Rare, yes. But is it true?

Jacob Vigdor, a professor at the UW's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and the city's main researcher regarding impacts of Seattle's $15 minimum wage, doesn’t believe the poll justifies that confidence.

“This survey basically asks people whether they are in favor of a series of things that no rational person could ever oppose," says Vigdor. "Nobody will ever be in favor of reducing the safety of bridges, or raising the risk of flooded neighborhoods.”

“It is entirely possible that investments exceeding $930 million are warranted and would yield benefits that justify the costs,” Vigdor added. “It's just that this survey provides zero percent of the evidence necessary to make that determination. This sort of survey is a useful tool for politics, but useless for actual policy analysis.”

Through a public records request, Crosscut obtained the survey, as well as its public responses. It asked responders to prioritize safety, affordability, interconnection and vibrancy overall. It also asked their opinion on specific steps to achieve them, such as programs to reduce collisions or to improve connections to light rail. However, respondents were not invited to question the levy’s total pricetag, only individual priorities.

“The main part of the survey — which of the different projects should be high priority — is all asked in the context of the proposed $900 million levy, which assumes that such a levy will be put forward,” says Peter Guttorp, a professor in the UW’s Department of Statistics.

Beyond these votes on overall priorities, the survey also provided an opportunities for people to leave additional, free-form comments to questions, such as “Are there other transportation investments you feel should be a top priority for funding through this levy?” Three thousand people responded to this, says Senior SDOT policy advisor Hannah McIntosh, and SDOT categorized these answers via keywords.

“If the comment dealt with transit and wanted more," says McIntosh, "it got a ‘more transit.’ If it dealt with transit and it wanted less, it got a ‘less transit.’” By that measure, and in combination with what SDOT heard in community meetings, McIntosh and her colleagues documented strong support for certain initiatives.

Reviewing the responses, McIntosh is right: Many people wanted more transit or more bike lanes or more reactive traffic signals. But few commenters ever explicitly said the overall size of the package should be larger.

For Councilmember Nick Licata, gauging voter enthusiasm is important because if the city misinterprets how much voters are willing to spend, the levy could fail. That would leave Seattle without any special funding source for vital transportation initiatives.

“When you look at the history of levies this is a much larger one than we’ve had in the past," says Licata. "As [levy totals] grow, the measure of victory decreases, and I think we need to be judicious with this levy possibly failing.”

His solution is to cover $600 million of the $930 million Move Seattle cost with property taxes and supplement the rest with taxes from commercial parking and a business tax on employee hours plus impact fees on developers. (For details on impact fees, go here.) By lightening the burden on homeowners, says Licata, this approach would increase the chances of the levy passing. The council transportation committee will consider his amendment next week.

In a letter to Licata, Mayor Murray resisted the ideas, arguing that impact fees would be insufficient and that a commercial parking tax should be reserved for future projects like the Ballard Bridge replacement. Most notably – and here's where the survey comes in – the mayor expressed confidence that voters would approve the levy as is: “We have heard from public polling, targeted meetings, community outreach and on-line engagement that there is strong support for a robust transportation package of this scale with this funding.”

Licata backed off, at least somewhat. “I know the mayor has done polling and it says that the levy should pass,” he said in an interview. “That’s comforting.”

Licata's comfort highlights conflicting ideas about the purpose of the outreach. Andrew Glass Hastings, senior policy adviser to the mayor, says the outreach was not intended to be a political poll. “The survey wasn’t designed to point to a certain outcome in November,” he says. “It was meant to tell us if it hit the mark."

Still, the feedback has given Murray confidence. “Certainly the mayor doesn’t want to put something out there that has no chance of support,” says Hastings. “The evidence through the outreach process is that … people are willing to step up if there’s a proposal in front of them that will address the issues.”

The mayor has reminded the public that $930 million is, in fact, less than what the city needs. This claim too has gone mostly undisputed. The city's 10-year master plan puts the need at $2.9 billion. For instance, a full replacement of the Ballard Bridge, which is not a part of Move Seattle, could cost $400 million, or almost half the total amount of the levy. So, the levy proposal contains some money for shorter-term safety fixes on the bridge and planning for further work.

All of this is to say that public opinion could be behind Move Seattle’s priorities and funding structure. Based on the city's experience since Bridging the Gap passed in 2006, Seattle voters are generally okay with raising their property taxes. They've passed nine out of nine property tax levies over the last 10 years, plus last year’s Proposition 1 bus measure. While commenters at the public hearing on Tuesday suggested some adjustments — more money for safe routes to school was one — it's a pretty safe bet the crowd was largely pro-levy.

Support hasn’t been unanimous, however. “I’m concerned that, as this thing was unfolding, we were just finding out in bits and pieces what’s in it,” says Seattle City Council candidate Tony Provine. Longtime seattlepi.com columnist Joel Connelly labels the outreach that justifies the boosted pricetage "an unabashed propaganda exercise."

Hastings, who ran the original Bridging the Gap levy, doesn't seem worried. “There’s always the voter fatigue boogeyman,” he says. “It’s like, ‘This is going to be the one that throws Seattle over the edge and voters are going to say no.’ But it hasn’t happened. They’ve continued to pass.”

Licata still questions the math. Bridging the Gap passed with 53 percent of the vote, far from a landslide. “This is different than levy fatigue,” he says. “This is not fatigue: there’s a pattern.” It all boils down to whether the desire for transportation spending is greater than disdain for property tax. "This argument takes place on two levels: probability and value," says Licata. While he's still skeptical of the current size of the levy, he adds, "Maybe I'm just being a bit too conservative."

Does Move Seattle's pricetag tip the scales toward levy fatigue? Murray says no. The voters? Well, that's hard to know quite yet.

  

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Move Seattle's pricetag was raised by $30 million. Was it justified?