The revelation that the biggest tax levy in Seattle history is already short of funds after less than three years ought to prompt a reckoning at City Hall about how they do business. It probably won’t.
The news that voter-approved bike lanes in downtown Seattle are costing more than 10 times the estimates is said to have nearly sent our new mayor to the ER.
“I thought the mayor was going to have a heart attack when I showed her,” said the interim director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). Bike lanes that voters were told would cost about $860,000 per mile were actually clocking in at an eye-watering $12 million per mile.
This was part of the news that the $930 million Move Seattle package — passed in 2015 and by far the largest tax levy ever in this city — is nevertheless already short of funds to accomplish anywhere near what the voters were promised.
Why? Costs are said to be up. Federal help is said to be down (though Congress just boosted federal transportation spending by 10 percent, so I don’t see how that part can be true).
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Most revealing was when an SDOT head allowed this:
“Some of those dollar amounts estimated for what projects would cost were clearly insufficient, even at the time.”
I added the italics to focus you on all you really need to know about this same old story. Which is: They bamboozled us. They exaggerated the benefits while lowballing the costs — knowingly so. To the point that the problem now with the biggest levy in city history is that it’s too small.
As a result, due to be cut back will be everything from miles of bike lanes to bus rapid-transit projects to repaving of arterials.
If the mayor is having a metaphorical heart attack over this, the people who are actually most heartbroken are the bike advocates and safe-streets activists who campaigned most enthusiastically for the levy.
They hailed it at the time as ushering Seattle into an era of green urbanism — of transit-only lanes, road diets and bike corridors. That voters endorsed this vision was seen as a tipping point toward mass transit and away from the car-centric policies of the past.
Now some see the city’s malpractice as blunting all that momentum.
“The past few years of SDOT management have been a disaster,” says Andres Salomon, an activist who has worked with Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “I would describe people in my movement as burned out and frustrated. You work really hard to get your neighbors to support something, to take a leap with you, and then SDOT blows it up. The worry now is that we’ll lose all support for these causes.”
That is a worry, though it should be pointed out that SDOT didn’t fulfill a bunch of its major promises on the previous “Bridging the Gap” roads levy, either. Example: They pledged to voters they would repave 360 miles of arterials, then lowered that to 300 miles after the vote, then cut it to 200 miles before finally actually paving 225 miles. They then awarded themselves an ‘A’ for besting the drastically reduced goal.
“Résumé inflation is usually covering for something,” I wrote about this at the time.
This pattern of overpromising or outright deception — hello, Seattle streetcar — never seems to get the city in too much hot water with voters. Maybe because we’re so desperate for transit and infrastructure improvements.
“I do think this performance will be terrible for future transportation levies — if we don’t fix this,” Salomon said.
Maybe. Something is in the air out there. This past week in Kent, for instance, voters handily defeated two tax levies, one for fire service and the other for police. When voters start saying no to firefighters and cops, it might be a sign they need a bit of a break.
But mostly, Seattle desperately needs to get its act together. Twelve million bucks per mile for a bike lane is insane, even by our normal expectation that all projects will be bloated. At that rate, there would only be enough money in the levy for 5 miles of bike lanes, when voters were promised 50 miles.
This ought to trigger some heart attacks down at City Hall. If it did it would be the healthiest thing that’s happened in city politics in some time.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the photo accompanying it was shot in 2014.