WHY IS MOVE SEATTLE SO SCREWED?

Move Seattle, the big transportation program approved by Seattle voters in 2015, is not going well. The program was supposed to:

  • Maintain existing infrastructure, especially aging bridges
  • Improve safety on roadways
  • Expand transit service
  • Build bike and pedestrian infrastructure

The first point—maintenance—has gone OK. Badly needed seismic retrofits, like rebuilding Yesler Bridge over 4th Avenue, have been completed on schedule, thank goodness.

But the more exciting parts of the project haven’t gone well, and might never happen. Mayor Jenny Durkan directed Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) to audit the project. The report isn’t promising.

The following goals haven’t been met:

  • Street maintenance, including repaving
  • Construction of bike lanes
  • Rebuilding busted sidewalks
  • Rebuilding or installing curb ramps and modern crosswalks
  • Building new sidewalks
  • Improving safety and mobility on 45th, Aurora, and Rainier
  • More frequent bus service
  • Designing and launching seven new RapidRide bus lines

Personally, I’m particularly worried about the RapidRide and Rainier corridor projects, which are the programs that would do me the most personal good. I ride the 7 more than any other bus, and I walk and drive on Rainier just about every day.

Rainier is the most dangerous and inefficient road in the city, and modernizing the street would save (or improve) the lives of plenty of people in South Seattle. Early returns on the project aren’t promising, and I doubt that, in a competition for scarce resources, the Rainier Valley project will win out over any in North Seattle.

The Rainier project alone could have been the centerpiece of a mayor’s transportation agenda. Any of the corridor redesigns could have. The idea of fixing 45th has bedeviled many Seattle mayors.

So Move Seattle is a complicated, ambitious project. That’s the problem. Move Seattle was way too ambitious, and the city just wasn’t up to the task.

I can think of three main reasons why Move Seattle is in trouble.

1. Bad leadership

Ed Murray’s mayorship was a disaster on all sorts of levels. Murray created a toxic work environment at City Hall, and the last year of his administration was a chaotic mess. That toxicity flowed down to the agencies: dozens of City employees are going public with stories of endemic harassment and abusive management. Agency leaders left Murray’s administration or retired at record rates well before Murray was accused of sex abuse.

Mayoral leadership is critical in a project as expansive and potentially controversial as Move Seattle. As the administration disintegrated, there was no public advocate for transit and biking projects, which are always controversial with homeowner and driver-heavy neighborhood groups. And the mayor also needs to play referee with agency staff when there’s competition for resources or clashing priorities.

The political leadership’s dysfunction could have been debilitating for Move Seattle on its own. But SDOT’s leader, Scott Kubly, had problems of his own.

Kubly botched the Pronto bikeshare program, and that ruined his tenure at SDOT. Kubly oversaw Pronto’s ill-fated existence—it failed and never met ridership goals. Also, Kubly awarded the company he used to lead the contract to run the bikeshare. Kubly didn’t report it, allegedly by accident (ed. note: right, sure), and was caught up in a 2016 ethics scandal that made him ineffective for the remaining two years of his tenure.

Pronto is just one example of Kubly’s history of bad rollouts. Before Seattle’s streetcar program was delayed for years, with purchased vehicles yet to be made in the factory in the Czech Republic, the Washington, D.C. streetcar program that made Kubly’s name was delayed for years, with purchased vehicles sitting unused in the factory in the Czech Republic.

Kubly was probably not the right person to shepherd and implement dozens of projects of a similar scale all at once.

2. Bad budgeting

SDOT’s Move Seattle proposal was full of rosy, best case scenario accounting. The most mind-bending example is the Second Avenue bike lane. The project was supposed to cost about $860,000 per mile, but wound up opening at a cost of $12 million per mile.

Of course, some of the cost overruns were unforeseeable. The prolonged construction boom has made contracting ever more expensive. Sound Transit has also run afoul of this problem, which has also hit the private sector. Any construction project is likely to go over budget.

But it seems like budgeting malpractice for a small project—a damn bike lane, not a subway station—to cost 1395% more than it was supposed to.

3. Vanishing federal funding

Move Seattle was a levy of local taxes, but it took for granted the idea that the Obama administration’s transit policies would continue. Obama was more pro-transit, biking, and walking— pro-city, in short—than even most Democratic presidents, and Republicans are almost uniformly anti-transit.

But Move Seattle is full of projects that depended on federal funding. Counting on that funding was a huge gamble, and massive infrastructure projects should not include gambles. Voters assume that initiatives include sure things: pay X dollars, get Y projects. Speculating on the availability of funding years down the road is misleading to voters.

So it was unwise for SDOT to promise projects that would depend on not-yet-approved federal funding for as much as 86 percent of their budget. Those projects should not have been folded into Move Seattle, because any project like that could vanish depending on the whims of Congress or the active administration.

So will we ever get this stuff?

We badly need all the projects in Move Seattle, but we’re not going to get all of them at this point.

The federal funding will not appear. The revised plan will likely be much less ambitious, because its accounting will include A) less magical thinking and B) construction estimates that reflect boom costs.

There’s also the problem of leadership. So far, Jenny Durkan has proven a better manager and administrator than Murray. That’s tremendously beneficial, and could limit the cost cutting damage to Move Seattle’s ambitious goals.

But Durkan does not seem as committed to transit and biking as Murray was. She’s already halted the downtown streetcar project (which we’re ambivalent about, even as Transit Stans.) Transit and biking advocates are worried that Durkan will continue that pattern, and use Move Seattle’s genuine failures and shortcomings to bias Seattle’s transportation planning towards cars.

Move Seattle isn’t dead yet, but it’s going to fall short of what we all hoped it would be. Anyone in Seattle who values transit, multimodal transportation, and 21st century city planning would do well to learn from the Move Seattle fiasco.

Throwing a ton of money at sticky problems will not solve them. We should demand minutely detailed, scrupulously accounted transportation plans going forward. We should also demand competent leadership when any project is under construction.

Yes, transit projects face an unfair burden of proof. Plenty of voters think that transit is a waste of money, period. Even when a transit project is funded and under way, it will face intransigence and concern trolling. Some hardcore drivers will always have their knives out for any kind of transit project they do not understand or approve of, and will ignore all the data and lived experience that proves them wrong.

But when transit projects waste money, as with Move Seattle, or have shady accounting, as with Sound Transit’s car tab fiasco, those voters and opponents are proved right.

Transit advocates can’t keep making excuses for bad planning and half-baked projects. If we continue to do so, we will not get the projects Seattle and Puget Sound desperately need.


Also published on Medium.