A late push is on for elected officials in Seattle to move $31 million more toward Safe Routes to School, in a $930 million fall levy.
Most of the proposed $930 million Move Seattle property-tax levy is earmarked for paving, transit, bicycling, or safety improvements, reflecting a government that keeps its ear close to the neighborhoods.
Walking advocates aren’t quite satisfied.
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, a citizen coalition for slower, safer streets, wants more, urging the City Council to quintuple the levy’s share for Safe Routes to School, from $7 million in Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal to a total of $38.4 million.
“Everybody supports it, in theory,” said Cathy Tuttle, executive director for the greenways organization. After all, who could vote against children, she said.
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As council members prepare to send the biggest-ever city transportation levy to voters this fall, the most ambitious ideas — such as replacing the old Magnolia or Ballard bridges, or even a First Avenue streetcar line — will be postponed. Microprojects are in vogue.
One rationale by city leaders is that Seattle needs outside aid, or some future revenue package anyhow, to fund megaprojects. And the political pressure, such as it is, almost entirely favors hyperlocal improvements, such as sidewalks.
Popular medium-term ideas, like Madison Street bus-rapid transit, a Graham Street light-rail station in mid-Rainier Valley, or a Lander Street freight overpass, would get partial funding by Move Seattle, forcing the city to rely on money from other governments, even if voters agree in November to double their transportation property taxes.
The city anticipates a Federal Transit Administration grant would cover most of the $120 million Madison Street cost. Seattle can point to at least 14,000 riders in a dense corridor to justify federal aid.
Murray gave another clue about why certain projects come up short in the levy, in a May 15 letter first reported by PubliCola. The letter rebuffs Councilmember Nick Licata’s call to lessen the property-tax bite, by tossing parking or employer taxes in the mix: Murray might want a parking tax later, to support bonds for a Ballard Bridge or downtown streetcar.
If approved, the nine-year Move Seattle levy would cost an estimated $275 in property taxes on a $450,000 house, compared to $130 for the 2006 Bridging the Gap levy that expires this year.
The city’s philosophy, shared by most people at a hearing last week, is that Seattle’s narrow geography has run out of space to cram automobiles, so it’s critical to improve mobility for other modes.
For the 8 percent of the population who attend public schools, a commute entails walking, biking or driving.
Greenways backers aren’t just eyeing the 300 feet next to the building, but entire walk zones of up to a mile around low-income schools.
Tuttle notes that students living within a mile of school have been losing school-bus service.
“If the school district is requiring children to walk, we have a duty to make the area walkable,” she said.
Currently, more than half the district’s parents drive children to school, not much different from Mercer Island.
A safer route to school
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways says $21.4 million is needed to provide safe walking routes within a mile of 10 elementary schools, where more than three-fourths of children qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches. A sample idea from group:
Olympic Hills Elementary
(Lake City neighborhood)
Flashing crosswalk beacons on arterial streets (3), $450,000.
Stop signs (30), $30,000
Roadway bicycle icons (40 sharrows), $40,000
Speed bumps (30), $60,000
Sidewalks (3 blocks), $1.05 million
Money for other community ideas, $100,000
Total: $1.83 million
Source: Seattle Neighborhood Greenways
Suzi Zook, a teacher and mom living near Haller Lake, said the eight blocks to Northgate Elementary are unsafe. Among other problems, cars park on the sidewalks, she told the council.
“Their four buses last year were reduced to one bus this year. And instead of having them walk, which they could do because the kids live just a few blocks away, their families insist on driving them because it’s not safe,” she testified.
So far, neither Murray nor the council has boosted the $7 million levy share for safe school routes.
However, the school-routes program overall would get $47 million in the next nine years, his staff said Friday. This includes $33 million from drivers caught on camera speeding in school zones, as well as $7 million in grants.
Murray’s office notes that $183 million of the $930 million would go to all manner of pedestrian and bicycle projects. “We believe we are making the right investments that will help every child get to and from school safely,” spokesman Jason Kelly said.
The Greenways proposal calls for spending $21.4 million from the levy for improved walking routes near the 10 elementary schools where parents have the lowest incomes, plus $17 million for the next 17 lower-income schools, for a total 11,100 children. The school-camera income would then be available for safety measures in other parts of the city, Tuttle said.
Backers include Doug MacDonald, a Greenwood resident and former state transportation secretary, as well as the nonprofit Feet First, which further seeks funds for educational programs. A position paper by MacDonald calls $7 million merely “token progress.” He goes on to point out the benefits of reducing childhood obesity, and safer conditions for everybody else.
In another late lobbying push, Cascade Bicycle Club calls on the city to widen the narrow walk-bike lanes on the 1917 Ballard Bridge from their current 3 ½ feet to 6 feet.
The proposal, in a five-minute video by Peddler Brewing Company owner Haley Woods, would narrow the outer traffic lanes by 1 foot and replace bridge railings with thinner rails to glean another 1½ feet.
The city hasn’t published any cost estimates, but it could be much cheaper and faster than cantilevering more concrete on to the bridge, a potential $48 million job, or raising a few hundred million for a new bridge. Woods also suggests removing or narrowing traffic ramps, and adding a traffic light at the bridge’s south end.
“As Ballard grows in population, it’s really important that people who live here can access the rest of the city,” Woods, a club-board member, said Friday.
Even if the city punts on this plan, Cascade will support the levy because of greater bike investments overall, said Brock Howell, government-affairs director.
One marquee project is the $26 million I-5 bike-ped bridge from the 2021 Northgate light-rail station to North Seattle College. Sound Transit has offered $5 million, and the city applied for a $15 million federal grant. The levy would supply up to $15 million, as needed.
Levy allocations include $250 million for street paving; $140 million for bridge strengthening and repair, including replacement of the lower Fairview Avenue timber bridge; $362 million for safety projects, such as 50 miles of protected bike lanes and 60 miles of greenways; $131 million for buses and light-rail station access; $61 million for new sidewalks or residential road safety; and $39 million for freight routes.
Human-powered transportation improvements do have their opportunity cost, in heavier work being postponed.
The West Seattle Transportation Coalition criticized the mayor’s plan for failing to reduce delays for 103,000 vehicles and more than 25,000 bus riders that cross the high and low Duwamish River bridges. Members called for a transit throughway, possibly something convertible to light rail.
“As our peninsula population increases, traffic also increases,” member Michael Taylor-Judd testified at the council hearing.
Belltown resident Gary Kunis, an engineer and entrepreneur, testified the proposal is outdated for today, much less 10 to 15 years from now.
“Bus service is inadequate, and they haven’t designed enough high-speed lanes,” he said Friday.
“The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is not a world-class organization, and the proposal is basically a bunch of City Council people trying to make certain groups very happy,” he said Friday.
“It’s not going to change the fact that 10 years from now Seattle is going to become even more congested and their hands will become even more tied, and they won’t be able to do anything.
SDOT says it’s addressing congestion through $67 million in levy funds to cover signal re-timing, signal maintenance and traffic-information systems, as well as reducing collisions in road-safety redesigns. Some $135 million is pledged for transit mobility, including seven bus corridors rebuilt to “RapidRide service levels or better.”
Besides this measure, city voters in 2014 passed a small sales-tax increase and a $60 car-tab fee to increase bus frequency, and would take part in a possible regional Sound Transit 3 tax vote in 2016, to finance $11 billion to $15 billion of mostly rail projects.