Permits are required whenever a public right of way is needed for development on private or public property. That right of way can include a sidewalk, planting strip or part or all of a street.
Marguerite Roza expects lane closures to come with the rapid development in Seattle’s urban core.
The closures allow workers to move construction materials between trucks and job sites, erect cranes, and keep debris and other objects away from traffic.
But how does the city decide when and where to grant developers street-use permits for construction projects, she wondered, particularly when the building is along main thoroughfares?
Roza wrote to Traffic Lab asking specifically about the orange traffic cones blocking the right-hand lane of eastbound Mercer Street before the Fairview Avenue North intersection. Construction crews operated there between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays.
“Why wouldn’t the city require the construction project to use the lane only during nights or weekends when there is little traffic? Or maybe require that the project be completed faster so we can have our lane back?” Roza asked.
The project, a nine-story hotel, is in its final phase of construction and expected to be completed by June.
Today’s column looks at how Seattle officials grant permits that allow contractors to temporarily block travel lanes.
How are permits obtained?
Permits are required whenever a public right of way is needed for development on private or public property, according to the city’s website. That right of way could include a sidewalk, planting strip or part or all of a street.
To obtain a permit, developers must submit an application that describes the work, a work zone site plan and, for more complex projects, a checklist explaining how pedestrians will be able to navigate around the work area.
Developers may also be required to submit a traffic-control plan for work along arterials or work that closes a sidewalk or traffic lane.
“We consider a number of factors” in reviewing street or sidewalk closures, Norm Mah, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), said in an email. That could include public safety, the impact of any proposed street closures, whether sidewalks can remain open on the same block, and the ability to build while minimizing disruption, he said.
In particular, SDOT considers the effect of construction during peak commute times, he said. The agency does not allow sidewalks on both sides of a street to be closed.
Why not limit lane closures to nights and weekends?
“It’s more complex than that,” said Kevin DeVries, manager and CEO of Exxel Pacific, a construction company that works on projects in South Lake Union. “It’s not one shoe fits all.”
Usually, he said, projects are completed during daylight hours on weekdays because it costs more for weekend street-use permits and to pay workers for weekend labor.
City ordinances also often necessitate daylight work because of noise concerns.
“We would prefer that permittees don’t break out concrete at night time — it is very loud and will disturb neighbors,” Mah said.
Developers would also have a harder time attracting workers to operate only at night, DeVries said, and night and weekend-only work would likely extend the length of construction projects.
The time of day when a street or travel lane can be closed is based on typical traffic conditions in the area, location, the type of work, potential noise levels and other construction projects nearby, Mah said.
For the Fairview/Mercer project, a lane is blocked by 7 a.m. for morning commuters but is cleared by 3 p.m. for the afternoon rush.
SDOT, Mah said, would not allow a bus lane to be closed during peak commute periods.
The number of days a lane is closed depends on the project. For example, Mah said, installing a sewer connection may take up to 20 days, while building a curb ramp may take only three.
Staging construction for a building in the right of way, he said, “could be much longer.”
Can projects be completed faster?
Permit-renewal fees are designed to encourage developers to move as quickly as possible during construction.
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“The longer a contractor takes the space, the more it costs,” Mah said.
The initial permit-issuance fee is also higher for using space on arterials.
Mah also said the agency is considering a revised fee structure that would make it more expensive to close a right of way depending on the density of the area.
Beginning April 1, the cost to obtain and renew permits will go up.
According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, the fees are changing “to better reflect the size and complexity of projects” and to more fully cover administrative costs and time spent inspecting the area.
The developer also pays use fees and hourly rates.
Use fees are used as an incentive “to keep the overall time and footprint of a project to a minimum,” Mah said. They are based on the square footage of a work site, the amount of time a project will take and whether the project is on an arterial. These fees escalate over time.
Hourly rates refer to the cost for inspection and review time, and Mah said they can vary significantly depending on the scope and complexity of the project.
The project at the Fairview Avenue and Mercer Street intersection required several different types of permits. Mah said that as the project progresses, additional permits may be needed.
Because the project is ongoing, Mah did not have a total cost to the contractors for closing the lane. He said the permit fees alone have cost about $300,000 to date.
Previous projects, however, indicate the total cost is likely steep. An SDOT construction coordinator told The Seattle Times in 2015 that developers for two full-block Amazon projects paid more than $1 million in fees.
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