The Seattle Department of Transportation acknowledged problems with the levy in April, but they'd festered internally for about a year before that, a citizen oversight panel found, not becoming public until Mayor Jenny Durkan took office and ordered a review.
Four months after the Seattle Department of Transportation revealed major problems with its transportation levy — the largest in city history — the scale of the funding shortfall is clearer but the agency’s plan for what projects will get built and what promises will fall by the wayside remains unsettled.
SDOT bit off more than it could chew with 2015’s nine-year $930 million Move Seattle property tax levy, underestimating the cost of some projects and wildly overestimating the amount of state and federal money it could bring in to help.
The agency acknowledged those problems in April, but they’d festered internally for about a year before that, a citizen oversight panel found, not becoming public until Mayor Jenny Durkan took office and ordered a review.
“SDOT was not transparent about this reality,” the oversight committee wrote in its findings, “and failed to take immediate action to adjust expectations by truing up costs and available funding.”
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After a summer spent reviewing the levy’s finances, some recalibrated expectations have emerged: We won’t get all the new bus upgrades the levy promised. Planned bike lanes look very iffy, too. Some street paving projects will be put off, as money is shifted toward shoring up streets with major bus routes. And design work for future bridge replacements — including the Magnolia Bridge and the Ballard Bridge — will be scaled down, as the program only has half the money it anticipated.
The levy’s commitment to build 250 blocks of new sidewalks is in better financial shape than SDOT had thought, boosted by higher-than- anticipated revenue from people caught speeding in school zones.
But even as SDOT staff has continued to diagnose problems and sketch out possible remedies, presenting increasingly detailed analyses throughout the summer, there’s still no decision from the agency’s leadership or the mayor’s office about what will get built.
“We will not be presenting a ‘formal draft workplan’ for final comment as anticipated,” SDOT wrote in a presentation to the levy’s citizen oversight committee last week.
And it’s not clear who will be in charge of the agency when a decision is made. Goran Sparrman, who has run SDOT on an interim basis since December, will leave this week. Sparrman said a decision on his interim successor is “pending.”
Durkan’s office announced a national search for a permanent director in May, but declined on Friday to share details on that search or on who will be running the agency next week.
In the meantime, Durkan has brought in an outside consultant — an old colleague — to help out.
In March, SDOT hired Cocker Fennessy, a Seattle public affairs firm, to assist “in the assessment of the agency.”
Cocker Fennessy will be paid about $34,000 for work that runs through September, including a rate of $245 an hour for the firm’s two partners, Anne Fennessy and Rick Cocker.
Fennessy and Durkan have known each other for years, going back to the 1990s when both worked in the administration of then-Gov. Mike Lowry.
Cocker Fennessy’s duties for SDOT include biweekly meetings with the agency’s top brass — Sparrman, Chief of Staff Genesee Adkins and Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan. The firm has also sat in on regular meetings with Durkan and Ranganathan, according to its contract.
In July, Durkan again turned to Cocker Fennessy, hiring the firm to coordinate the review being done by the city and another consultant on the halted downtown streetcar expansion. Cocker Fennessy will be paid an additional $30,000 through the end of the year to “coordinate the city’s next steps” on the streetcar project.
Federal grants overestimated
Some of the issues plaguing the levy, while perhaps foreseeable, are not the agency’s fault. Congress has authorized billions of dollars for local transit funding, but the Trump administration, which sought to eliminate such grants, has been loathe to disburse the funds.
And the gangbusters local economy has led to an overheated construction market, with contractors charging higher prices than anticipated, while also taking longer to get to projects.
“We have run into holds that I’ve never seen in my time with the city, getting our contractors started,” said Lorelei Williams, the agency’s interim deputy director for capital projects. “They’re dragging their feet because they’ve taken on so much.”
But on other issues, the blame lies firmly with the agency and with those who designed the levy — former Mayor Ed Murray and former SDOT Director Scott Kubly.
Trump administration or not, the levy designers’ assumptions for federal funding were wildly optimistic and off-base.
The original levy plan assumed that the $930 million in local property tax funding would draw in $564 million in outside, “leveraged” money, largely from the federal government.
“The amount of leverage assumed was far too optimistic and would have been unlikely no matter the federal administration in place,” the levy’s citizen oversight committee wrote.
The oversight committee also knocked SDOT for doing a poor job estimating how much projects would cost — “it remains unclear whether staff behind these estimates knew this at the outset,” the committee wrote — and for ignoring the future costs of a federal lawsuit against the city.
Just before voters approved Move Seattle in 2015, three men sued the city, alleging it was failing to build enough sidewalk curb ramps, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city settled that lawsuit last year, agreeing to significantly increase its curb ramp construction, and Kubly said at the time that those costs were factored into the levy’s projects.
They were not.
The cost of building more curb ramps, each of which can cost more than $10,000, “was not accounted for in levy estimates even though the city was aware of the potential liability at the time the levy was developed,” the oversight committee wrote.
RapidRide bus routes
The levy promised upgrades to all sorts of city infrastructure — roads, bridges, sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, traffic lights, trees — but it lacked marquee projects, like a new Ballard or Magnolia bridge.
What it had instead was RapidRide bus routes — promises to improve speed and reliability on seven routes throughout the city.
Most of those aren’t going to happen. More than 60 percent of the $312 million needed for the seven projects is unsecured.
The projects most likely to happen, and the furthest along in the planning process, are routes on Madison Street and along Eastlake and Roosevelt Way (replacing Metro Route 70). Both were highly rated by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and in line for federal grants. Those grants haven’t yet materialized.
In May, the U.S. Government Accountability Office faulted the FTA for dragging its feet on disbursing Congress-approved grants, noting that the Trump administration had wanted to end the grant program and the FTA “runs the risk of violating federal law” if it doesn’t make changes.
SDOT has set a deadline of spring 2019; if there’s no federal money by then, the agency will have to consider scaling back the projects.
The agency still has hopes that the route along Delridge Way Southwest (Route 120) can be upgraded to RapidRide standards, but $27 million of the project’s $47 million budget remains unsecured.
But planned bus upgrades through Fremont (Route 40), along Rainier Avenue South (Route 7), 23rd Avenue (Route 48) and NW Market Street (Route 44) won’t be upgraded to full RapidRide status, with extended bus lanes, all-door boarding and streetside fare readers. Instead they’ll get more limited improvements as funding allows — bus lanes in select locations, bus-prioritized traffic lights and pedestrian improvements.
“The department and the city are at an inflection point,” the oversight committee wrote. “What happens from here is likely to be significant in restoring trust that the department can deliver on levy promises and whether voters will be willing to make such a substantial commitment of resources in the future.”