A majority of Seattle City Council members say they’re worried about safety on a controversial and recently redesigned stretch of 35th Avenue Northeast. Now they’re looking for ways to get Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration to change the design.
“We’ll continue to put pressure on [SDOT and the mayor’s office] to fix the alignment to make it safer for all road users,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the council’s transportation committee. “Ultimately, I think the council has the power to change this.”
Among the options O’Brien is considering: a proviso that limits spending on another project until the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) changes 35th. The council could also explore an ordinance directing SDOT to change the design, O’Brien said.
Durkan and SDOT in March abandoned plans for bike lanes along a 2.3-mile stretch of 35th Avenue Northeast that runs through the Wedgwood, Ravenna and Bryant neighborhoods. The decision followed weeks of mediation between supporters and opponents.
But bike and safety advocates have continued to decry the decision, showing video evidence of aggressive driving and citing a fatal motorcycle crash that occurred at the intersection of 35th and Northeast 75th Street.
In the redesign, the street has one vehicle travel lane in each direction, a center turn lane for part of the corridor and parking only on the east side of the street between Northeast 47th and Northeast 85th. No bike lanes were added. The street previously had parking on both sides.
SDOT plans to adjust striping and install vertical posts, where drivers were using the center turn lane as a passing lane to speed around bicycle riders. Ethan Bergerson, an SDOT spokesman, said installation is anticipated to be complete in July.
However, in a recent letter, SDOT denied any assertion that the design, budgeted for $7.9 million, has shortcomings. SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe specifically disputed that the project design had a role in the June 11 motorcycle crash, writing that it “should not be viewed as indicating that the project is not meeting goals or furthering Vision Zero,” the department’s goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.
Durkan’s administration has also defended the design by citing improvements to a greenway, a residential street with lower car use, four blocks away.
With improvements planned on 39th Avenue Northeast, “the final design solution for 35th Ave was able to reflect the neighborhood’s safety and multimodal priorities,” Durkan spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg said in a statement. “At Mayor Durkan’s direction, SDOT has continued to engage with the neighborhood including to monitor safety, speed, and mobility with this new design.”
City officials will “continue listening to feedback from neighborhood members on additional enhancements,” Kellogg said.
In an email sent to residents, SDOT also said staff would monitor changes in aggressive driving and the number of collisions.
Since the majority of construction ended in May, there have been two collisions that resulted in injury, the fatal motorcycle collision, and three instances of property damage.
Of 19,104 vehicles counted on 35th during the first week in June, 166 traveled more than 10 mph above the 30 mph posted speed limit at Northeast 77th Street, SDOT reported.
In addition, staff in June rode up and down the entire corridor by bike twice and reported no drivers passing with less than three-feet of space. Staff also drove the length of the project at 20 mph during the school start and end times and reported no drivers passing in the school zone when flashers were active.
O’Brien sees a changing mood on the council. After seeing videos of drivers speeding past cyclists, he thinks “there are a lot of people who seem to be shifting from ‘let’s prevent this from happening in the future’ to ‘Huh, I’m not sure it’s responsible for us to let this stand as it is.’ “
But he’ll need a majority of the nine-member council to take action. At least six council members have raised concerns about the design, but few are revealing their preferred strategy for getting SDOT to change it.
Councilmember Lorena González said she was unsure a proviso would work — “I guess it depends on which project we pick” — but she’s considering it. The current design is a legal liability, she said.
“The cost to the city is the potential for lawsuits in the millions if we don’t take seriously the safety issues we are now on notice of,” she said.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said during a council briefing last week she saw a “really scary” video from 35th and was going to ask SDOT “what we can do to revisit that.”
“What we have effectively done is, I think, respond to the people that wanted to continue to drive over 30 miles an hour in their cars on 35th Northeast, which really rendered it more unsafe for people riding their bikes,” Bagshaw said. She did not provide further comment.
Councilmember Abel Pacheco, a member of the transportation committee, said the street needs changes but he’s “trying to best find [a] path forward with the mayor’s office to get this resolved.” Councilmember Kshama Sawant, also a member of the committee, would support a proviso, according to her office.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said SDOT should build protected bike lanes on 35th, as previously considered, and she would support a proviso if O’Brien introduced one. “We have an opportunity to treat this as a public-health issue,” Mosqueda said.
Staff for Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Bruce Harrell and Debora Juarez did not respond to requests for comment.
SDOT has been limited in its reaction to a potential proviso.
“You’re asking us to speculate about something. It’s hard to do without knowing what programs or projects they would target,” Bergerson said.
Since 2016, when initial outreach began, to now, the project has turned from discordant to divisive as residents separated themselves into factions supporting and opposing design elements.
Bike-lane supporters pointed to the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, approved by City Council in 2014, that recommended bike lanes on the avenue. Some critics of the bike lanes complained that the city was prioritizing cyclists over drivers, and felt ignored in the planning process.
Mediation didn’t produce a consensus, so on March 26, SDOT announced its decision to remove bike lanes from the project.
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