As-it-happened coverage: City, county, state reps answer West Seattle Transportation Coalition questionsJanuary 14, 2014 at 6:36 pm | In Transportation, West Seattle news | 42 Comments
6:35 PM: We’re live at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center as the West Seattle Transportation Coalition starts its long-awaited event, putting key questions to reps from all levels of government involved in transportation, and seeking answers. We’ll be chronicling as this goes – stay tuned. Panelists are Ron Judd from WSDOT, Chris Arkills from County Executive Dow Constantine‘s staff, Andrew Glass Hastings representing Mayor Ed Murray, and Councilmember Tom Rasmussen. WSTC board member Amanda Key Helmick points out that it’s Rasmussen’s birthday; applause ensues. Moderators are WSTC board members Michael Taylor-Judd, Mat McBride, and Joe Szilagyi. Zumba music is drifting over from the adjacent room.
6:43 PM: Judd spoke first with some generalities – he was a last-minute substitute for a representative from Gov. Inslee’s office who had to stay in Olympia. Now, Arkills, one of two West Seattleites among the four panelists, is speaking in his introductory remarks about the Metro/roads funding proposal announced just hours ago. He says that the state has until March 7th to step up and “give us better tools” because the decision to put it on the April 22nd ballot doesn’t have to be made until then. He says Metro has tightened its budget, raised fares, done “everything we can” to “keep (its) service on the street.”
Glass Hastings says “the nerd in me” has him excited to be part of this forum: “The more dialogue we can have, the more opportunities to find solutions to some of the pressing challenges we have going forward,” but also cautions the new mayor doesn’t have “all the answers” yet, after just two weeks in office. “He’s excited about the opportunity to look (again) at some of these age-old problems.” He says the mayor’s expectation is “bold experimentation” and that he wants to hear from citizens. He points out Jim Curtin from SDOT, a West Seattleite who specializes in neighborhood traffic issues, is at the event.
6:50 PM: Now, introductory remarks from Councilmember Rasmussen, who is in the fifth year of chairing the council’s Transportation Committee. He points out other governments factor into the transportation equation – the port and the feds. “We’re way behind other regions in terms of having a great regional rail system … we’re about 40 years behind where we need to be … so we’re playing catchup,” he observes, after noting some past transportation proposals that have fallen through in one way or another, including the Monorail.
First question goes to Judd – about what the state is looking for in terms of transportation $. He warns “there’s going to be pain” if a package isn’t eventually hammered out. “There’s nobody in the state that doesn’t use our system in one way or another, so there’s a lot at stake.” He says informed citizens will be key to a solution. Second, Arkills, who is Constantine’s transportation-policy adviser, is asked how do we get out of a rut and find sustainable funding to move forward. He talks about the vision looking ahead to 2040, and how the county thinks a motor-vehicle excise tax is a better funding source, but years of lobbying haven’t made it happen yet – it’s been like “Groundhog Day,” he says. He mentions the loss of sales-tax revenue since the “Great Recession” – that had been a major source of Metro funding. He notes that Snohomish and Pierce counties already have gone through dramatic transit cuts.
Rasmussen now mentions projects on which he’s been working – the million-plus dollars he got the council to approve to finish design of the Fauntleroy Green Boulevard project and describes it as primarily pedestrian-safety improvements.
He then mentions the 47th/Admiral signal funding. “It’s great to have a mayor who’ll be working with us solidly, cooperatively on these issues – it wasn’t that way with the previous mayor.”
Taylor-Judd now brings up the West Seattle Bridge problems of recent weeks (most recently, a week ago) and warns Glass Hastings “we’re going to haze you” with tough questions like these.
“We’d like to know what you can tell us – does Mayor Murray have a plan to address these seemingly endless issues on the West Seattle Bridge.” Glass Hastings begins, “Great question … you’re right, it’s a challenging question. I won’t go into topography issues of how Seattle’s laid out but … the mayor does understand and he heard loud and clear when he was going to every corner of the city during his campaign … just how challenging the connectivity can be between West Seattle and downtown, West Seattle and the region.” He reiterates that the mayor is interested in re-examining such problems. “The system’s incredibly fragile as you know, on a day to day basis … we need to make sure in working with the state, our incident response within the city, the way the roads are managed at SDOT, that those types of things are minimized in the future.” No specifics.
7:05 PM: Arkills is asked what cost savings the county has engaged in that “don’t involve service reductions.” He lists some of what was mentioned already, saying that every year, Constantine asks departments “to identify three-percent efficiencies .. It’s a complicated thing running a major transit system.” Asked on followup if the efficiency details are available to the public, Arkills says they don’t know yet what will be involved this year, but he says he’ll send WSTC some information they can post online.
Glass Hastings is now asked how the mayor will prioritize the West Seattle peninsula. “Prioritization … in the recent past has been done in a little bit of a black box. It’s hard for (citizens) to figure out how prioritization is done. That’s gotta change.” He says the mayor wants to figure out a more “transparent” process, and how priorities are “going to turn into projects on the ground.” He says the city has some great individual plans, mentioning pedestrian, bicycle, transit, freight master plans. “Problem is, transportation doesn’t work in little modal buckets – it works as an integrated system.” He tells a story of using multiple modes today alone, and says that’s a typical day for many people. He doesn’t get specific regarding West Seattle and its challenges. On followup, regarding the expiration of money to mitigate the Highway 99 project effects, he mentions that Mayor Murray wasn’t at this afternoon’s Metro-funding event because he was in Olympia, lobbying. He says that even a transportation package won’t hold off some of the cuts rolling this way – so he urges support for the newly proposed measure, saying it CAN help prevent the Metro cuts, and help West Seattle and other neighborhoods.
7:16 PM: Asked how he’s been advocating for West Seattle, Rasmussen mentions his past attempts to get the Coast Guard to approve NOT opening the low bridge during rush hour. “We tried and tried, but did not have any success.” He also says he stays “in close touch” with SPD regarding making sure they’re enforcing the rules and, for example, keeping people from blocking the bus-only lanes.
(July 2013 photo courtesy Joe)
He tracks back to the prioritization question that Murray’s rep was asked, saying that if he’s asking about a traffic signal, for example, and told it’s not high on the priority list, he asks to have the list shown – and says it would be great if the new mayor finds a way to show how things are prioritized and why. Next question for him, the looming 27 percent Metro cuts in this area – what would the City Council be able to spend to make up for that if it becomes necessary? He says that Bridging the Gap money might still be available to buy some transit hours, “but it’s very hard for the city to go it alone … we should not get to the point where the state fails and (local government has to pick up the slack).” He talks about state legislators who live outside the metro area – “Do you think they care about Seattle? .. You should hear what they say about Seattle.” He says that the city and county are working together closely now, more than ever before: “We are neighbors, partners in solving this. … If push comes to shove and Seattle has to do it, we’ll scrape the bottom of the barrel …” If the city had to propose another vehicle-license fee, “would you the voters (support it)?” he asks, saying the city also has the authority to pursue one. “We could even do tolling on roads … but it would require approval by (the citizens).”
Back to the state – Judd is asked if the state would honor its commitment to help mitigate the effects of the Highway 99 work. “Yes, but …” he begins. That “but” involves a revenue package, and if there’s not one, “we’ll have to pull the money away from something else … we don’t have extra cash laying around for these moments in time… but we will be committed, to the commitment that was signed by the parties in 2009.”
Would the county support a new audit of Metro? Arkills is asked. He says it might not be “the wisest use” of money, and invites people to take another look at the one done a few years back. Also, he says, “we are audited regularly by the state, audited by the federal government for our use of federal dollars … Audits R Us.” It’s noted at this point that County Councilmember Joe McDermott has now arrived – he’s not on the panel, though.
7:26 PM: Now a big question – with transit funding in jeopardy, would the mayor be willing to ask the council for a moratorium on waiving parking requirements for some developments until the issues are resolved? “Great question,” Glass Hastings begins (as he started other replies), saying this too is something “the mayor wants to approach with fresh eyes” – and that’s about all he says, aside from asking citizens to share their ideas. The same question is next posed to Councilmember Rasmussen – would he be willing to support a temporary moratorium. “Well, I had an experience with that last spring,” he begins. He mentions the microhousing boom, “with no parking,” and that he held a public forum, talked to council colleagues, and asked them if they would support a microhousing moratorium – and, he says, they said “no,” because there is a “vocal group of people who support density, and this is consistent with what their vision is” – and, he said, if you don’t support that vision, you’re accused of “being a NIMBY,” and worse, as he says he was. He believes any such moratorium would be unlikely because of “backlash” so “if you want one, we’re going to have to hear from you – because the folks who love microhousing are organized, they have a newspaper who strongly supports microhousing, and that newspaper uses its bully pulpit” … He says he supports affordable housing, “of course I do,” but we have to be “mindful of the quality of life of people who live in the neighborhood.” He says citizen support would be vital; someone in the audience says, “We’ll support ya,” eliciting some applause.
Glass Hastings says the mayor has committed to a “neighborhood summit” within his three months and says that a moratorium won’t be necessary if the new Metro-funding proposal goes through, because cuts won’t happen.
A related question now – regarding developers’ disincentive to include parking. “Underground parking IS incredibly costly,” Glass Hastings says, claiming some buildings wind up with parking “overbuilt,” and that in turn leads to a lack of unaffordable housing. But he also acknowledges there’s a “savings to the developer” when parking isn’t included, “and that winds up as more affordable housing.” So then he wonders aloud about channeling some of the parkinglessness savings into surrounding transportation infrastructure. “This is a perfect example of how the city might not be doing it the optimal way.” He says another look might be taken at this issue, but there is concern about affecting the supply of affordable housing.
7:36 PM: Could funding for transit be obtained from developers, if they aren’t including parking? Rasmussen is asked. He says the Law Department would have to be consulted, but it’s an “interesting idea.” He then mentions how downtown employers are encouraged to contribute to bus passes and other alternatives to driving – “maybe there are programs like that, that could work with residential developers.” The city DOES have the “ability to charge impact fees,” he said, in some cases.
Judd is asked again about the state’s commitment to mitigation funding. He says, again, “we’re committed to figuring out the mitigation piece,” and again says it needs to be part of the funding package worked out in Olympia. Regarding the original agreement, “Have we met that intent in its entirety? No. Are we committed to (meeting it in the future)?” – depends on the revenue package.
Arkills says the mitigation money and transit it’s funded are vital because keeping things moving around here depend on reducing vehicles on 99 (and other roads). He mentions the increase in transit usage here. And he mentions that Metro cuts would bring many more cars back onto the road – “90 percent of our riders have cars.” If deep cuts do happen, shuttles might be one way to at least help the most-affected riders who don’t have options, like seniors. The next question is a followup on how fare increases affect those with income challenges – so would an “employee payroll tax” be considered to spread the pain around? Arkills says the Transportation Benefit legislation does not include that kind of authority, though it was in the RTID legislation from a few years ago. He mentions that some funding would only be usable for bus purchases, but that’s not what Metro needs most – it needs operating $ the most. “We would absolutely love a more progressive, robust funding source that would grow over time,” and the county believes the motor-vehicle excise tax is that source.
At this point, the new low-income $1.50 fare that was also part of today’s proposal was mentioned. Glass Hastings interjects that it’s an innovative proposal, and Arkills acknowledges that only a few other jurisdictions have something similar.
Glass Hastings is next asked if Mayor Murray might consider bringing back the “head tax.” “The mayor’s interested in looking at all potential revenue sources,” he replies.
Rasmussen is asked a version of the same question. He thinks the council might be more supportive of an “employee head tax” now, since the climate has changed since it was repealed during the recession. Now that the business community is lobbying for transit, “perhaps the climate has changed” and using such a tax to support transit might be feasible – if its purpose is made very clear.
Judd says on behalf of the state, “we have to fight like hell to get as many cars off the road as possible. … if we think our roadways are a mess now, just wait. So there’s a lot at stake here.” He draws some applause. Here by the way is a crowd shot the WSTC tweeted a few minutes ago:
7:53 PM: Judd, saying now that he’s speaking for himself and NOT as a rep of state government, notes again the divisions and tensions between east and west. “Those in Olympia right now who essentially are not working as hard as they could be and should be and need to be for a revenue package … their constituents (would also) be losers. … Logic and common sense is not being applied. We’re faced with a set of political circumstances that are trumping common sense …and it’s a problem.” He goes on to vividly describe more of the political reality, and gets applauded for it.
Next question – Would the state support moving Vashon ferry traffic to Colman Dock downtown? (This is often asked as a way of taking some traffic off the West Seattle Bridge, among other potential effects/benefits.) Judd said he recalled some exploration of that not too long ago “and … some harsh feedback.” He says state leadership is open “but would have to go through very public process to get some input … (it’s) not something we would wade into without thoughtful process.” But with some other design processes coming up, he allowed, maybe it’s a good time to re-examine.
Staying on the water, Arkills is asked about the Water Taxi, and whether a circulator route around the peninsula might be considered, to increase usage. He mentions the two existing shuttle routes, including one that serves the “major (Metro) transfer point” at 35th/Avalon. “Part of the struggle with the shuttles is that they are timed to meet the boat,” he explains. “So it’s a little bit of a challenge to get to the farther reaches of West Seattle.” He said having the shuttles serve the park-and-ride under the bridge was studied once, but there was a turning-radius problem. Now, he says, there’s a new study about possible shuttle options, with outreach happening later this year, and he says North Delridge is one area where he would like to see shuttle service. And he pitches for riding a bike to the Water Taxi, with “a commitment to bike lockers at Seacrest Park” as well as downtown.
Now the issue of individual transportation-mode plans has come back again. Glass Hastings says, for example, the Bicycle Master Plan update will help Seattle reclaim its leadership as a top bicycling city. But the mayor, he says, is committed to “re-integrating” the transportation plans so they work together – and “prioritizing” them so that it’s clear what needs to be done first, and figure out where the money’s coming from to deal with the priorities. “A 20-year vision is great, but the mayor wants to break that down into more manageable and near-term chunks,” and to articulate now what that means, and how a difference can be made over a span such as four years.
8:07 PM: Would the city look again at replacing the removed 4th Avenue ramp on the Spokane Street Viaduct? It was looked at but wasn’t safe, Rasmussen said.
What about the long-suggested flyover bridge at Lander in SODO to get traffic over the train tracks? Glass Hastings is asked, with the note that funding OK’d by voters was diverted to the Mercer Project. “It’s a longstanding priority for the city and the port,” he begins, noting in an aside that he worked for the county before joining the city, and had to examine how to reliably get buses through that area. “Whether it’s transit, freight, commuters, trying to get across those tracks can be a 20-minute unanticipated delay.” Solving the problem “needs to happen,” he said, calling it a “Magnolia Bridge situation .. the mayor’s not interested in having these projects languish,” either prioritize them or shelve them. He says there might be other funding mechanisms – renewal of Bridging the Gap, or … ? – “to get this (project) done.”
Now, the issue of grade-separated rail – past monorail support, and word that the recent Sound Transit survey included strong light-rail support from West Seattle. So, Rasmussen is asked, how to make this happen? “The best opportunity for funding …is through the next Sound Transit ballot measure,” he begins, mentioning that some planning is being done for the West Seattle route, “and the next step is to take the measure to the public for funding that plan.” But, he says, the challenge is that “many communities” will want to be included in the ballot measure. “We will put in a very strong effort to get key routes in Seattle included,” he said, saying he believes that West Seattle/Burien does need rail because of the numerous challenges. “With parking!” someone in the audience says loudly.
Staying on the rail topic, Judd is asked whether the state is changing its culture of road support over “urban transportation.” He notes that Gov. Inslee hired WSDOT director Lynn Peterson, who is “re-looking at WSDOT” and priorities. The state legislators all have a say, he notes, and the money and how it’s spent goes through them. But he also notes that the state has constraints about how it can spend money such as gas tax – “and we need to change that … but that is a huge lift … I can’t find enough words in (the dictionary) to explain how difficult of a policy lift” that would be.
8:20 PM: Audience question now, read by the moderators (they are posing all the questions – people are offered cards if they want to write questions, but are not asked to speak to a microphone): What about more water taxis, if you “literally cannot get out of West Seattle without planning a day in advance?” Arkills mentions the West Seattle Water Taxi’s history as a “demonstration route” – 9 years! – and how the county picked up the Vashon route after the state dropped it. “We’d love to continue to expand it – every year we have seen growth in ridership – and we are committed to waterborne solutions.” He says the county’s been talking with the state in hopes of building more slips downtown to support more foot-ferry service.
Rasmussen says he too would like to see more waterborne transportation service “and if we could work with the county to make that work successfully, I’d be delighted.” Glass Hastings chimes in that the mayor “is excited to see the forthcoming transformation of Colman Dock” and wants to be sure the passenger-ferry facilities work well, seeing a “really reliable” fleet of boats to be part of the local transportation system.
Judd points out that some of the biggest Washington State Ferries have so much passenger usage, they feel like big foot ferries at times, “so it’s got to be an integral part of how we grow our system.” Glass Hastings brings up the olden-days Mosquito Fleet (foot ferries), and says “it’s the kind of innovative thinking that the mayor would like to bring to transportation solutions.” But sometimes somebody else gets in the way of “bold ideas,” he notes. Arkills mentions Lake Washington has potential, travel to Husky Stadium, for example. “There is no bigger advocate for the Water Taxi than Councilmember Joe McDermott,” he mentions, and says McDermott is going to be leading an effort to get “more stable funding” for the Water Taxis.
Now a round of one-sentence answers:
What can be done to shorten travel times from West Seattle?
Everyone except Judd replied, transit; he said “build the tunnel” (ostensibly, Highway 99).
WSTC’s Helmick is now delivering closing remarks and says the group is going to start working on a plan for West Seattle. She also says that WSTC will continue to have forums, and some of the questions not asked tonight will be asked at future forums.
Glass Hastings says he’d welcome a chance to come to a more informal future forum with more of a “back and forth,” because he feels this just “scratched the surface.”
Rasmussen says he thinks organizing this meeting “will have a positive impact for West Seattle” and says he’s sure that his fellow panelists will bring back concerns and talk with the decisionmakers. He also urges people to contact legislators, not just the local reps, because of the power they hold over matters that make a difference for our area.
Helmick says WSTC’s next meeting is February 11th and invites people to attend, and to consider joining the group’s three active committees. The forum ends at 8:33 pm.
9:49 PM: Adding links and images relevant to what was discussed. The WSTC is online at westseattletc.org and on Facebook here – where it’s noted that Seattle Channel recorded the forum for later playback; we’ll publish the link when it’s available..
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