Backers of the Move Seattle levy argue the city kept faith with voters, by funding 70 miles of spot paving after 2010. Critics say that should have been done anyway.
In the closing days of the Move Seattle transportation-levy campaign, backers are insisting the city delivered more than 300 miles of new pavement for arterials — coming close to meeting a campaign promise made nine years ago, to build 360 miles.
City reports tell a weaker story, that just 225 miles of arterial streets were largely reconstructed.
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Seattle’s Proposition 1
Seattle’s nine-year, $930 million property-tax measure, also known as Move Seattle, would fund street maintenance, sidewalks, bus stations, bikeways, safety and other work.
The estimated cost is about $279 yearly on a midpriced, $450,000 home, about twice the bill for the expiring Bridging the Gap levy.
Ballots in the all-mail election must be postmarked by Tuesday.
Opponents have seized on those lower figures, and a worsening maintenance backlog, to argue that voters should reject the $930 million Move Seattle property-tax levy, on the ballot as Proposition 1.
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But now the city is touting larger numbers that include some 70 miles of small fixes at 350 sites.
In charts provided this week, the city listed projects ranging from one-hundredth of a mile, where buses broke a concrete panel, to a one-mile blacktopping at Alki Beach.
“What we see as the accurate number is not 225, it’s a little over 300,” said Sandeep Kaushik, spokesman for the Let’s Move Seattle campaign. His number includes 14 more miles on megaprojects such as a new Mercer Street, and the Spokane Street Viaduct, funded mainly outside the $365 million Bridging the Gap levy.
These newfound figures don’t impress Eugene Wasserman, spokesman for the opposition Keep Seattle Affordable campaign.
“People expect lane miles to be a chunk of lanes, not corners and stuff. That’s like minor maintenance,” he said. “The lane miles were supposed to be 360. They didn’t do it. They’re trying to find a new way to measure it.”
Mail-in balloting is under way through Tuesday for the levy, the largest in city history.
Besides pledging $385 million, or 41 percent of the proposed tax, to fix streets, Move Seattle includes money for quicker transit routes, bike lanes, school and pedestrian safety, traffic signals and freight routes. Landowners would pay $62 per $100,000 of assessed property value next year.
Pavement makes an unlikely political flashpoint in a city better known for pursuing a $15 minimum wage, clean electricity or same-sex marriage.
Which perhaps is how the problem happened: City road maintenance declined in the ’00s. Without the Bridging the Gap money, streets may have been left to rot.
Bridging the Gap required that two-thirds of its property-tax revenues be spent on maintenance, defined broadly to include signals and signs. The new money enabled city contractors to rebuild crucial corridors, such as 15th Avenue West, or Stewart Street.
Meanwhile crews roamed the city as ex-Mayor Greg Nickels’ Pothole Rangers, filling and refilling holes.
But basic pavement fixes, on short patches of failed roadway, all but vanished.
One reason is that real-estate excise-tax revenues, which for years had been earmarked for basic street fixes, cratered in the recession, Kaushik said.
Then in 2011, the city shifted gears under Mayor Mike McGinn and directed some money into the routine spot paving, for $650,000 to $1 million a year, still less than 1 percent of the transportation budgets.
Scott Kubly, who became Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) director last year, said the city took advantage of low bids and costs that presented themselves.
“We took that savings and we used that to do spot paving throughout the city — 14th and Union, 15th and Union is a good example of where we did it,” he said.
“We had historic booms and historic busts, and we managed the resources as best we could.”
The gap widens
To a casual voter, the name “Bridgingthe Gap” implied an end to bumpy roads.
Yet, Nickels and the City Council in 2006 specifically promised to cut the maintenance backlog for streets and bridges only by half. The plan started at 20 years, then shrunk to a nine-year levy, which was reduced to a winnable $365 million property-tax total.
Back in 2006, supporters described 360 lane miles in the official voters pamphlet,
Shortly after the levy was approved, the city reduced it to 300 miles, and later 200, and has claimed success after reaching 225.
“Bridging the Gap was never supposed to fill the gap,” said the SDOT Blog in 2011. The city blamed a 34 percent jump in asphalt costs during 2006 alone, and said recession forced a “25 percent cut” (around $8 million a year) in general-fund support for transportation.
And the big arterial projects matter: blacktop over California Avenue Southwest; a concrete rebuilding of 15th Avenue Northeast at the University of Washington; crosstown repaving of North Northgate Way and North 85th Street; concrete panels for Second and Fourth avenues; a fresh Rainier Avenue South surface at Columbia City; and 105 other jobs.
However, the backlog for arterial pavement has gotten worse — at $970 million, compared with $300 million in 2006, city engineers said in response to queries by the free-market Washington Policy Center.
Should the moving goal posts matter today?
The city is on its third mayor and fourth transportation director since the last levy vote.
Proposition 1, under Mayor Ed Murray’s plan, would allocate $385 million for street and bridge maintenance, listing specific sites. It also would require that at least $40 million, plus inflation costs, continue to be transferred from general funds yearly into SDOT — so Move Seattle doesn’t supplant other money.
“There are increased transparency and accountability measures in Move Seattle,” said Kaushik. Levies have become a necessity, he said, for cities to adapt to other tax cuts triggered by past Tim Eyman initiatives.
The League of Women Voters, which recommends a “no” vote, says the levies should be used for capital projects, not maintenance, said local League President Amanda Clark. The group, she said, doesn’t believe the city’s priorities are clear enough.