Seattle this week announced it is lowering expectations for what it can do under a massive voter-approved roads and transit levy. When it comes to the seemingly basic work of street repaving, it marks the fourth such major downward revision in 12 years.
The following reads like a joke. Out in West Seattle anyway, it’s definitely a laugh riot.
Q: How many tax levies does it take to fix a stretch of broken Seattle road?
A: As many as you’re willing to keep voting for.
The news this past week was that the city now has “relaunched” its road-fixing and transportation plan, approved by voters in 2015 as the largest tax levy in Seattle history.
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The $930 million, nine-year plan, called Move Seattle, is complex and involves everything from bus-rapid transit to sidewalk repair. But long story short: “Relaunch” means they will do less than they promised.
That we’re getting only half the number of bike lanes has been getting much of the attention, in part because bike activists pushed so hard for the levy and now feel somewhat betrayed. But I want to focus instead on what is supposed to be among the most basic functions of any city government: just paving the roads.
It’s an enduring mystery why Seattle’s roads are so bad, and more so why they never get fixed. Yet this “relaunch” is the fourth such lowering of expectations for the simple act of road repaving going back two tax levies to 2006’s “Bridging the Gap” program.
That first vote promised “over 360 miles” of road repaving, according to the voters’ guide. Campaign signs that said “Fix This Street, Vote Yes!” lined pothole-pocked arterials such as 35th Avenue Southwest in West Seattle. This perhaps suggested to gullible motorists that if they voted yes, the street would get fixed.
It didn’t get fixed. City Hall lowered the road-repaving goal to 300 lane-miles before the work began, and then paved just under 240 miles.
In 2015, a review of the quality of city roads judged 35th Avenue Southwest, a major arterial, to be among the worst roads in the city, rating long stretches as in either “serious” or “failed” condition.
“The seams of the road seem to be coming apart … It looks like terrain for a jeep obstacle course,” one driver wrote to City Councilmember Lisa Herbold of West Seattle in 2017, who forwarded it to the transportation department in a letter imploring them to fix the street.
Repaving both 35th Avenue and 20 blocks of nearby Southwest Roxbury Street were included in the Move Seattle levy plan. But both got the ax this week when the new, trimmer plan came out. Overall, the city hopes now to pave only about 160 lane-miles of arterials over the life of the current levy, down from the original planned 180 miles.
Notice how we went from 360 promised miles to 300 to 240 in the first $365 million roads levy. And now 180 miles to 160, so far, in the second $930 million roads levy. All told, we’re 12 years in and still haven’t paved the 360 lane-miles that were first promised back in 2006 (Seattle has 1,500 total lane-miles of arterials).
If this decision holds — Herbold said she intends to fight it — it would mean West Seattle drivers have twice been enticed into believing these roads would be fixed, dating over an astonishing 18 years, plus a total of $1.3 billion in special property tax funding. (The city has filled potholes and done spot repaving, though some of these small fixes have started to buckle.)
Herbold forwarded me notes from the transportation department that said “it has been clear since 2013 that 35th Ave SW is breaking down structurally” and will “have to be completely reconstructed.” Well, 2013 was five years ago. Yet now they don’t plan to do anything about it until at least seven years from now, when … wait for it … we’ll be onto our third special roads levy.
The city says costs went up and they had to triage, in this case in favor of a bus-rapid transit line serving West Seattle. That’s fine, but this track record of wildly inaccurate cost estimates and gauzy promises is getting kind of ridiculous.
I know, I know, road paving is really dull. But that’s the point — it’s supposed to be the nuts and bolts part of government.
As it is, the culture here has adapted such that everyone accepts that our roads are crappy, and we all just glaze over about it until we have out-of-state visitors, who are shocked. Having streets no better than the Oregon Trail is part of our old Seattle charm.
Or so we tell them. In West Seattle you’ll have to keep telling them that, because there’s no better story on the horizon.