The 2015 transportation levy is twice as large as its predecessor, but a new city report now says that funding isn't keeping up with rising construction costs. The city also blames insufficient cost estimates and "uncertainty" on anticipated federal funding.
Move Seattle, the $930 million transportation levy approved by Seattle voters in 2015, is falling behind on a number of its promised street and sidewalk improvements, and funding shortfalls will likely force some projects to be downsized or abandoned, according to a new review by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
SDOT, which is tasked with completing the levy’s projects, blamed higher costs from the booming local-construction market as well as new priorities since the levy was passed and uncertain federal funding.
The agency also undersold the costs of the projects it was promising during the push for public approval in 2015, SDOT officials said.
“We do not have enough funding right now to do everything that was promised, we just don’t,” SDOT interim Director Goran Sparrman said Tuesday at a Move Seattle levy oversight committee meeting. “Some of those dollar amounts estimated for what projects would cost were clearly insufficient, even at the time.”
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He said that the agency was not prepared, in 2015, to execute projects on the scale that the levy and the city promised. The 10-year, property-tax levy is twice the size of its predecessor, the Bridging the Gap levy, which expired in 2015.
SDOT gave no actual numbers or estimates of the size of the funding shortfall.
“I’m not surprised by the findings, but I still don’t really know the scale,” said Alex Krieg, co-chair of the levy’s oversight committee. “This is dollars and cents but we don’t have dollars and cents on this assessment.”
The new review, ordered by Mayor Jenny Durkan earlier this year, says the levy is achieving many of its goals, but points to eight program areas that need “further review and adjustment” because the cost of the promised projects is now greater than the available funding.
The areas short on money include: building new protected bike lanes, repairing damaged sidewalks and building new ones, building curb ramps at intersections, repaving arterial streets and creating seven new RapidRide bus routes.
“Costs have increased due to rising local construction costs,” SDOT writes in the review. “Additionally, in several levy sub-programs, cost estimates included in the original budget were insufficient to meet the levy commitment.”
For instance, the levy originally estimated that bike lanes would cost about $860,000 to build, per mile. While costs vary significantly by project, a nearly complete four-block extension of the Seventh Avenue protected bike lane through downtown has cost about $3.8 million to build, or nearly $13 million per mile.
The recently completed Second Avenue protected bike lane cost $12 million a mile, Sparrman said.
“I thought the mayor was going to have a heart attack when I showed her,” he said.
The levy committed to transforming seven bus corridors into RapidRide lines, with bus-only lanes, priority for buses at traffic lights, roadside fare-card readers and electric arrival signs.
The new review says SDOT can do things like add card readers and arrival boards, but with current estimated funding can’t complete bus lanes and prioritized traffic lights on all the lines.
Last year, the city agreed to build 1,250 curb ramps a year, to settle a lawsuit brought by three men who said missing curb ramps left the city out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That represents a massive increase in the number of curb ramps being built, but city officials said they’d factored the lawsuit and the settlement into levy spending.
“We are confident that we’ll be able to deliver all of that obligation without affecting the other elements of the levy,” then-SDOT Director Scott Kubly said last year.
Now, though, the SDOT review cites the lawsuit and settlement as a factor that presents “constraints to delivering the original levy.”
The agency also says anticipated federal funding for levy projects is now “uncertain” with the Trump administration. While Trump’s budget proposals have included drastic cuts to transit spending that would have affected Seattle projects, those cuts were not included in the budget agreement passed by Congress. That budget increases spending on major transit grants and maintains funding for other grants available to local transportation agencies.
SDOT officials said it’s not that funding has been cut, but that grant money isn’t being distributed as quickly by agencies like the Federal Transit Administration. SDOT originally estimated about $450 million in matching levy funds, but now says they’re estimating about half that.
“This is a guessing game and we don’t know for sure,” Sparrman said. “If we don’t have FTA processing grant applications and doing all the very complicated stuff they have to do before we can actually have the money in hand and spend it, it gets very complicated.”