$50M experiment aims to make Aurora Avenue more welcoming for bicyclists, pedestrians

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1 of 3 This several-block stretch of Aurora Avenue North is the target of $50 million for new sidewalks, bike lanes, street trees and other renovations. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
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2 of 3 A tree-disrupted sidewalk on the east side of Aurora Avenue at North 102nd Street. More pedestrian-friendly areas are in store for the busy highway. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
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3 of 3 The manager of the Burgermaster drive-in at 9820 Aurora Ave. N. isn’t excited about planned improvements to the stretch of road where Burgermaster sits. He says there’s been plenty of traffic disruptions already. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

By the late 2020s, Seattle residents may finally enjoy space to walk and bike on a busy stretch of Aurora Avenue North where state lawmakers just agreed to fund a $50 million rebuild.

Supporters consider it a down payment on their dream of a slower, urban-village boulevard, instead of maintaining Aurora’s thunderous heritage as state Route 99.

“Maybe it’ll take a little bit more time and effort, to make the Champs-Élysées. But it doesn’t have to be this scar, ripping through the center of our city,” outgoing Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, shouted to supporters over rainy-day traffic this winter.

For decades, rundown buildings, strip malls, parking lots and driveways have dominated the Aurora corridor, a transportation workhorse but not much else. The seven-mile Seattle segment is constantly studied but scarcely changed, except for reduced speed limits that drivers flout. A $50 million infusion might motivate the city, state, safe-streets groups and businesses to finally answer the question: Can the seven-lane roadway, which carries 32,000 vehicles a day, serve both motor and foot traffic?

The initial state money would be concentrated within less than a mile, serving the Licton Springs neighborhood between North 90th and North 105th streets. A tighter project is better than spreading money like peanut butter over several miles, said Carlyle. He’s hoping near-term success will inspire citizens and leaders to invest throughout Aurora.

Democratic lawmakers scrounged the money this month from the seat cushions of their 16-year, $17 billion Move Ahead Washington package, expected to be signed Friday by Gov. Jay Inslee. Aurora won the biggest share among 43 sidewalk, trail, bridge and crosswalk projects statewide receiving $314 million. The package allocates $1.3 billion in carbon fees for “active transportation,” a sum unprecedented in Washington state.

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The Aurora makeover, which might reduce lanes, is sure to create friction with some of the merchants whose auto-repair shops, fast-food joints, marijuana businesses and construction supply companies line the roadside.

“I kind of resent this project. They’re trying to chase us out of our vehicles,” said Dayrl McMullin, general manager of Burgermaster drive-in. He wore a sweatshirt displaying “Cruzin’ 99” and a blue Mercury sedan while carrying coffee and burgers to parked customers. Aurora was just torn up for repaving and corner curb cuts, so he opposes yet another round of construction.

Whenever a crash blocks I-5, a tighter Aurora won’t be able to handle overflow traffic, said Warren Aakervik, former president of Ballard Oil and a member of city freight-advisory committees. Bike lanes would be in the blind spot of truck drivers, who need 34 feet of width to turn, he said.

“No matter where you go, it’s getting bad and we keep compromising freight mobility. There’s only one reason to have freight corridors, and that is to serve the public,” Aakervik said.

With safety the top goal, the Seattle Department of Transportation intends to negotiate lower speeds with the Washington State Department of Transportation and build wider sidewalks where cracked walkways or none exist. Better sidewalks would also benefit 17,000 daily E Line bus riders who use stops up and down the whole of Aurora.

In the past five years, 48 people were seriously injured and 18 killed on Aurora Avenue between the Highway 99 tunnel and North 145th Street. Of those, eight were injured and two killed in the project area between North 90th and North 105th streets. Most were pedestrians.

“There are one-quarter of us who don’t drive, and our facilities need to take care of everybody,” said WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar. “I’m excited about the direction the Legislature took.”

While acknowledging that lower speed could add minutes to a truck delivery, Millar said that medical, property, and lost-productivity costs of crashes are astronomical — some $14 billion per year statewide, compared to a $2 billion time cost of congestion, according to WSDOT calculations. “People die there, and that’s not acceptable,” he said of Aurora.

Carlyle and the Aurora Reimagined Coalition chose this area because of potential for more housing, and therefore more people who walk. Supporters covet the Oak Tree Village strip mall off North 100th Street, a former elementary-school property still owned by Seattle Public Schools. Zoning allows 55- to 75-foot tall “neighborhood commercial” redevelopment with apartments. But its retail buildings and parking lots are under long-term lease to a private firm, “and we are not currently planning any other uses of the site,” said Craig Koeppler, a vice president for the lessee.

Seattle already lowered a 35 mph speed limit to 30 mph in the Licton Springs stretch of Aurora, still exceeding the city’s new standard arterial speed of 25 mph. Immediately north along Evergreen-Washelli cemetery is still 35 mph, but 15% of drivers exceed 47 mph, according to a city study. To the south, drivers may legally go 40 mph through Woodland Park and often reach 50 mph.

Most of Aurora’s casualties happen midblock or at nonsignaled intersections, city data show.

“There are tremendous distances between signals, where people run across,” said Lee Bruch, an Aurora Reimagined member and pedestrian advocate for 30 years. “There can be significantly more traffic signals.”

The coalition published two concepts to encourage public discussion of how to use the 90-foot-wide corridor. SDOT could add sidewalks and a bike lane, yet still keep six through lanes for cars, (four would be only 9 feet wide, like the Aurora Bridge), by removing the center left-turn lane. A bolder concept would plant trees in the median, shrinking traffic to one general lane and one red bus/truck lane each way.

WSDOT’s Millar doesn’t have a preference yet, but said he’s eager to follow the data, including effects on other thoroughfares.

In Kim, owner of Tiger Auto Body nearby, supports more traffic calming, based on his experience witnessing car crashes in the bus lane.

“It’s not a big deal, because the speed limit is slow. 99 better slow down,” he said. “If they need to go fast, go to the [I-5] highway.”

The Sherwin-Williams paint store at 105th relies on drive-up customers, yet sales assistant Evan Pydych was optimistic about a greener Aurora with trees. A nicer streetscape might deter petty crime and prostitution, he hopes, and make Aurora more appealing for customers.

But Matt Shinn, sales manager at New Standard Building Materials, predicts passersby will destroy street trees immediately. He wants the city to replace worn-out sidewalks, reject bikeways and keep all seven traffic lanes.

To accelerate the work, Carlyle’s legislation says SDOT must spend no more than 10% on outreach, planning and design, and finish construction by 2029. “We live in a time when a lot of folks in government play with Monopoly money. These are real dollars. They will accomplish something,” he insisted.

Coalition co-founder Tom Lang compares the Aurora vision to the Rainier Avenue South road diet last decade through Columbia City, or Lake City Way Northeast, whose Gateway Project delivered crosswalks, trees and potato-shaped sculptures to a declining retail district in 1980.

His group reflects activism on a national scale. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has announced $1 billion to reconnect communities scarred by 20th century highways. Buttigieg toured I-81 in Syracuse, N.Y., which cuts through a Black neighborhood, and is now proposed for demolition. Another $6 billion from the feds would assist street makeovers by local governments that protect nondriving users.

Elsewhere in Seattle, the city has published a vision study (in collaboration with a nonprofit organization Lid I-5) about lids, flora and buildings to close downtown’s freeway divide; and a few residents in the South Park area suggest removing one mile of Highway 99. Senate Transportation Chair Marko Liias, D-Everett, told coalition members he’s contemplating how to tame Highway 99 in Snohomish County.

SDOT has made spot improvements in recent years, notably an Aurora crosswalk signal at North 92nd Street aiding public-school students. Walk-bike facilities were added between Bitter Lake and Aurora to complement senior apartments and social housing, at the behest of a neighbor, the late Richard Dyksterhuis.

Seattle will begin a broader Aurora Planning Study this year using $1.5 million other state money and $500,000 city funds, said SDOT program manager Jim Curtin. Any multi-mile makeover could require cash from the city’s next property tax levy, in 2024.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com; . Staff reporter Mike Lindblom covers transportation for The Seattle Times.