SDOT says it can’t deliver on promises made by its massive 2015 construction levy, called Move Seattle. The department also is dealing with an over-budget and on-hold streetcar project.
Alex Krieg sensed about a year ago that something was amiss with the biggest tax levy in Seattle history, a $930 million effort to repave roads, create bus routes and build sidewalks and bike paths throughout the city.
Krieg, who co-chairs the levy’s citizen oversight committee, kept hearing the same thing from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) at his committee’s monthly meetings: Projects were in the works. They were coming. The city might be doing less than budgeted, but it would just take a little time for things to get going.
“SDOT just kept saying ramp up, ramp up, we’re ramping up,” Krieg said. “If I had a dollar for every time they said that — it just never seemed to ramp up.”
The 2015 Move Seattle levy is now ramping down, so to speak, as SDOT officials grapple with a package that promised more projects than the agency says it can now deliver.
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At the same time, the agency’s marquee construction project — a new streetcar line along First Avenue — is on hold while an independent consultant investigates the project’s finances and whether SDOT has been forthright about them.
Another voter-approved tax increase has added frequent bus service citywide, but King County Metro can no longer keep up with city requests for even more trips.
Taken together, the stumbles point to an agency laboring to keep up with major promises made by the previous administration, some of which were unrealistic when they were made and all of which have been made more challenging by a booming and ever-costlier local construction market.
The missteps have led SDOT to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside help to try to get its projects on track.
“I do think the agency has been struggling with a lot of challenges,” said Goran Sparrman, SDOT’s interim director. “Does that mean that the department is a little bit unsettled right now? Of course. And my job is to, while I’m here, to try to make sure the department is really pointed in the right direction.”
SDOT is paying an independent consultant, CDM Smith, about $150,000 for ongoing oversight of the Move Seattle levy’s management.
CDM Smith’s recommendations led SDOT to spend $125,000 last year on a leadership coach to work with its executives to “build more trust and improve morale.” SDOT has spent $275,000 on leadership coaching since 2016.
And the city is paying $400,000 for a consultant, KPMG, to review the troubled streetcar project independently of SDOT.
Sparrman’s been running SDOT just since mid-December, when Mayor Jenny Durkan chose him to take over for Scott Kubly, who left in a “mutual decision.”
But Sparrman’s not new to the department. He was the interim director in 2014, prior to Kubly’s appointment, and was deputy director for several years before that.
Kubly declined to comment for this article.
“We need to understand what has happened and where we are going forward,” City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the transportation committee, said at a committee hearing Tuesday with SDOT officials. “So that you all rebuild trust with us, but more broadly the city rebuilds trust with the public.”
O’Brien did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Neither did City Councilmembers Rob Johnson and Kshama Sawant, who also sit on the transportation committee that oversees SDOT.
Calls for “more”
Back in 2015, when then-Mayor Ed Murray was selling the City Council and the public on the property-tax levy, he said the response he kept getting was clear: More stuff.
More repaving. More new traffic signals. More bridge renovation. More bus-only lanes. More sidewalks. More crosswalks.
“We’ve heard again and again and again from people that we needed to do more,” Murray said at the time. “Which is why this grew larger.”
The levy was more than double the size of its predecessor — known as Bridging the Gap — even after accounting for inflation.
“This one is so big,” said Betty Spieth-Croll, co-chair of the levy oversight committee, who also did oversight on Bridging the Gap. “It just sort of overtook them. I think it’s a whole series of things that are not going the way they wanted them to.”
Specific promises made in the levy were not firm. It required only that certain blocks of money go toward three categories: safety, maintenance and congestion relief.
But lists of promises were heavily touted by supporters, even if they weren’t written in stone.
The Move Seattle levy promised seven new RapidRide bus routes, with bus-only lanes, streetside fare readers and frequent service throughout the day. SDOT now says that plan is $130 million short.
The levy promised 110 miles of new bike lanes and facilities, at an average cost of $860,000 a mile. SDOT now says that cost estimate was reverse-engineered from the mileage goal, and costs are significantly higher.
The levy promised to repair up to 225 blocks of sidewalk and build 150 new blocks. SDOT now says those aren’t the right metrics to use, but that it should be able to meet the “intent of the levy.”
“Was SDOT really equipped to be able to deliver this, given just how dramatically different a scale it was?” Krieg asked. “Their spending plans just assumed they would sort of hit the ground running and I think that was sort of a naive assumption.”
By far the biggest funding shortfall now is for the seven RapidRide bus lines.
SDOT still thinks it can make some upgrades to the seven lines. But most of the bus-only lanes and prioritized traffic signals now look out of reach.
Instead of speeding each bus trip by 16 to 20 percent, the agency thinks it can speed trips by 4 to 10 percent. And it expects half the increase in ridership as previously predicted.
Back in 2015, the levy estimated costs for upgrading the seven lines at around $325 million.
What’s more, the plan never called for more than $150 million of levy money to be spent on the bus lines.
The remainder would come from other sources — primarily the federal government.
SDOT thought it would get federal funding for all seven new bus lines. Now officials think they’ll get funding for Madison Street and maybe Eastlake, but no others.
But just because the money is there doesn’t mean Seattle is going to get it, and SDOT now thinks the money is not coming.
“Why they were counted with such confidence in the first place, I can’t say,” SDOT spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said. “Neither Goran nor I have a full understanding. Most of the staff and leadership who were part of the levy campaign are gone.”
Seattle currently has three projects that have applied for FTA grants.
Four more projects in the Puget Sound region and one in Spokane have also applied for or just received funding.
More than 10 percent of all the transit projects across the country seeking federal money are in Washington state.
“The FTA regional office has expressed some concerns about the large number of regional projects that are in the pipeline,” Sparrman said. “They’ve urged us to be very cautious about not putting projects into that.”
Streetcar under review
One of the projects already in the pipeline is the First Avenue streetcar, which would connect the city’s two existing streetcar lines, mostly in its own lanes of traffic.
SDOT predicts that the new streetcar, which had been slated for a 2020 opening, would cause an exponential growth in ridership, even though ridership on the current lines has lagged.
Construction began last year, but Durkan halted the project in April after a Seattle Times report found that SDOT may have undersold the costs of operating the new streetcar system by as much as 50 percent.
A preliminary review of the streetcar finances found that construction costs had risen by $23 million, and now total a little over $200 million. The city is hoping for $75 million in federal funding for the project, and $50 million of that was basically assured — before the pause in construction.
“There is no signed construction grant agreement between FTA and Seattle DOT for the [streetcar] project,” an FTA spokesman wrote, after the pause was announced. “Congress has appropriated $50 million, but that is contingent on the project sponsor meeting the appropriate statutory and readiness requirements.”
Durkan has said she expects the full review of the streetcar to be done by mid-June; then she will decide whether to resume construction or scrap the project.
Former City Councilmember Nick Licata, who retired in 2015, was both a longtime foe of the streetcar and pushed (unsuccessfully) for the Move Seattle levy to be smaller, worrying that its size could be unwieldy and voters could get tax fatigue.
“The questions are: One, has the SDOT administration been as forthright as they should be with the public and; Two, are they as well managed as they should be to tackle major projects,” Licata said.
“It would be wise for the council to consider having some in-depth briefings, not the usual fancy pictures and promises, but actually asking hard questions and demanding real answers,” he said.