The Seattle Department of Transportation hasn’t dedicated enough staff or assembled the “technical capability” needed to deliver its promised Madison Street RapidRide bus project, according to a pointed review of the department commissioned by federal authorities.
The Nov. 21 draft assessment, authored by a consulting firm for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), delved into SDOT’s plans for the 2.3-mile, $121 million line for which Seattle hopes to score nearly $60 million in federal money.
Like other RapidRide routes in Seattle, the line from Madison Valley to downtown would use dedicated lanes and signal prioritization for a faster ride. The project suffered a setback in 2018, when Seattle and King County Metro were unable to get the electric buses once promised.
SDOT revealed in January that consultants had recommended adding another $6.2 million to the project and pushing its planned opening from 2022 to 2023
But the draft assessment focused on SDOT’s management makes the broader claim that the department is not yet prepared to manage a major FTA-funded construction project.
PMA Consultants concluded that SDOT “does not yet have the management capacity and capability to implement an FTA-funded major capital program.”
Seattle has received federal transportation dollars for road projects like the Lander Street overpass and Mercer Street rebuild. But the city has in recent years also sought federal funds for several ambitious transit projects.
SDOT hopes to get money from the FTA for the Madison line, the delayed First Avenue streetcar and another RapidRide line along Roosevelt Way Northeast.
FTA uses outside consultants to help with oversight of agencies that receive federal grants. In reviews of “management capacity and capability,” the FTA asks consultants to “pay particular attention” to an agency’s abilities, resources, staff organization and third-party consultants.
While SDOT publicly announced that a consultant had recommended adding more cost and time to the project, it did not publicize the findings about its management for the project; they were obtained by The Seattle Times through a public-records request.
The assessment said SDOT had agreed to take “positive steps to correct the deficiencies. The department is now “in the process of updating our plans to address this feedback,” said spokesman Ethan Bergerson.
SDOT notified Seattle City Council members by email on Jan. 16 about the changes in the project’s cost and timeline while downplaying management concerns.
“The consultant also identified a need for increased construction management staffing,” wrote Shauna Larsen, legislative and government relations manager at SDOT. “As we had previously planned and in line with the identified need, we are hiring consultant services to support construction management and are also updating our construction staffing plans for further consideration.”
A final report from the consultant is expected in mid-2020, Larsen wrote.
The Madison Street route, or RapidRide G, is part of the city’s work under the $930 million Move Seattle property-tax levy voters approved in 2015. The bus line has faced several delays, and was once expected to start service in late 2019.
The levy promised upgrades on seven transit corridors, including bus rapid transit on Madison Street to provide vital crosstown service comparable to light rail. SDOT later had to scale back those promises, but said it was still confident the Madison route could be completed.
Buses will run every six minutes during the day and riders can use the same timesaving techniques in place on other RapidRide routes, like off-board fare payment and all-door boarding. In some places, buses will run in a center lane and riders will board at stops in the center of the street.
Served today by the Route 11 and Route 12 bus lines, Madison is one of Seattle’s busiest thoroughfares and travels through or past four of the city’s densest neighborhoods: downtown, First Hill, Capitol Hill and the Central District.
The line has come under scrutiny on multiple fronts, because SDOT is also responding to a federal subpoena for documents related to the Madison RapidRide route and other projects.
A special agent with U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General delivered the subpoena in December, zeroing in on SDOT consultant contracts. What exactly the investigator is looking for is unclear, but the federal agency received complaints earlier this year about contract solicitation and management, and in November announced it would audit its oversight of SDOT’s federal funding.
The FTA declined to answer any questions about SDOT, citing the federal review.
The PMA Consultants management capacity and capability report calls out several plans the city had not yet produced as well as concerns the department did not have enough staff to manage the project during construction.
Some of SDOT’s documents were in a different format than the FTA typically sees, and the city department plans to clarify its staffing plan and agreements with Metro, which would operate the bus line, Bergerson said. SDOT plans to hire a consultant to help manage the project, Bergerson said.
“Based on our dialogue with FTA and their consultant since this report was issued, we expect these actions and clarifications to fully address the feedback received,” Bergerson said.
During construction, staffing would peak at 10 full-time staff with an average of “less than seven” full-time staff, the consultants wrote, calling that “inadequate.”
While the “core team members” have adequate experience in the right fields, some other staff who would support that core group do not, the consultants said.
Metro staff will also be assigned to the project, but the report notes conflicting information about how many. SDOT has also not “clearly defined Metro roles and responsibilities,” the consultants wrote. Staff assigned to the project would also report to multiple managers, “which blurs leadership,” they wrote.
SDOT should increase staffing on the project, produce missing plans and manuals, clarify responsibilities of different agencies and “explain how disputes will be resolved during construction, startup, and testing,” the review said.
The separate risk and contingency review said SDOT should factor in the extra time and cost and cited risks, including inflation, market conditions and design changes. In a final version of that report, the consultants call the planned March 2020 date for executing a grant agreement with the feds “aggressive.”
SDOT’s latest plans for the project predict construction would start “as early as” this fall and bus service would start in 2023.
After finding in 2018 that the clean electric trolley buses weren’t workable, SDOT said the line would use diesel-hybrid buses instead. That won’t require the expansion of overhead wires once contemplated, but diesel-hybrid buses are louder and emit carbon.
Metro will take the lead on getting the buses and SDOT will manage construction, the city said.