SPENDING YOUR MONEY: In ‘issues’ phase, City Council budget sessions raise questions about remote bridge openings & more

(WSB file photo by Christopher Boffoli)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Tomorrow (Tuesday) the City Council continues the next phase of discussion how, and whether, to change the budget officially presented by Mayor Tim Burgess three weeks ago.

Tomorrow’s sessions, at 9:30 am and 2 pm, will be highlighted by the Seattle Police Department budget (afternoon) and the city’s spending plan to respond to homelessness (morning).

Today, the council also met in morning and afternoon sessions. This is the stage of the budget where City Council staffers “identify issues” – such as, new proposed spending – and also mention the first round of council proposals for additions/changes.

The centerpiece was the Department of Transportation budget. Here’s the document in which the issues and possible changes are outlined:

(If the embedded version doesn’t work for you, see it here in PDF.)

When we first browsed the proposed city budget after it went public three weeks ago, one of the items that caught our eye was a proposal for a pilot program to enable remote openings/closings of one of the city’s five drawbridges. The proposal said they hadn’t yet determined which one – whether it would be the Spokane Street Swing Bridge (aka West Seattle “low bridge”) or somewhere else – but said the pilot project would cost an estimated $3 million.

During today’s briefing, the bridge proposal was first on the list of “issues,” 13 minutes into the meeting:

From the budget meeting briefing paper:

Remote Bridge Operations Pilot

The Proposed Budget includes $3M of Commercial Parking Tax revenue to implement remote operations for one of Seattle’s moveable bridges (to be determined). This project will allow SDOT to open and close the bridge from a central operating location. SDOT currently operates 5 moveable bridges with on-site operations; collectively, these bridges open approximately 15,400 times a year. The funding will provide for additional cameras, sensors, communication equipment, a remote operations center, and bridge modifications. The project will require approval from the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates SDOT’s bridge operations.

Remote operations will not change the job requirements for Bridge Operators, and the pilot project is not anticipated to reduce operating costs as a stand-alone project. SDOT anticipates that if all 5 bridges were remotely operated, SDOT could save $1M per year through centralized staffing resulting in reduced labor costs. Full implementation to fully achieve these savings would require significant future funding, which is not currently identified.

Councilmember Rob Johnson was the first to call this into question, saying that theoretically spending $15 million over the next few years to convert all bridges to remote operation, and therefore saving $1 million a year, would be “spending a lot of money to save a little money” and “inconsistent” with budgeting philosophy.

Among the other SDOT issues, council staffers raised some concerns about the scheduling and funding for upcoming RapidRide lines including H for Delridge. From the briefing document:

The Move Seattle levy anticipates leveraging significant grant and partnership contributions for congestion relief projects, including seven bus rapid transit (BRT Corridor) projects identified in the levy. The Proposed Budget advances design on the Madison BRT, Roosevelt RapidRide, Delridge RapidRide, Rainier RapidRide, and Market/45th RapidRide projects. The total assumed grant and partnership contributions for these projects is $209M which is about 80 percent of the overall project costs.

Given the uncertainty with federal transportation funding under the current administration, Council may wish to consider a SLI asking SDOT to report on federal funding opportunities and present options for delivering the seven BRT Corridor projects in time for 2019-2020 Budget deliberations. Options could include revising project delivery schedules, reducing scope across projects, or prioritizing corridors for available funding.

Other SDOT issues include revenue from red-light and school-zone cameras. No new ones were installed this year but SDOT is reported to be reviewing 10 locations (not identified in the budget documents) for possible installation next year.

In the section of the briefing addressing changes proposed by councilmembers, one proposal of note was from Councilmember Mike O’Brien – who chairs the council committee dealing with transportation – would spend $200,000 to study what might happen when the future Highway 99 tunnel opens, with tolls, leading to “diversion” (some drivers not using it because they don’t want to pay):

This funding would support consultant studies to understand the implications of SR-99 diversion and explore options, such as congestion pricing, to help manage impacts to local streets and transit travel times.

Also proposed for addition to the budget, $500,000 for pedestrian improvements in South Park, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Herbold and Lorena González. Several speakers in the public-comment period of the morning meeting also asked for spending to safely connect South Park and Georgetown.

In today’s afternoon meeting, councilmembers were briefed on issues/proposals for the Seattle Public Utilities budget (see the document here) and for the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (see the document here). Here’s the video – no public commenters, so the discussion started off the top:

Key issues included money earmarked for the Seattle Police North Precinct and the new proposal by Councilmembers O’Brien and Kirsten Harris-Talley for a “head tax” that they say would only affect the top 10 percent (in gross revenue) Seattle businesses, raising more money for efforts to reduce homelessness.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: Herbold described the process in her weekly e-mail/online update last Friday. That includes this calendar with the full budget-process schedule. The next phase starts next Monday: “Proposals for the next set of meetings, from October 23 to 25, will need to be have specific funding amounts; they will also need three Council sponsors, by a 2 p.m. deadline on October 19.” So if there’s something you want to see in next year’s budget but haven’t seen so far, contact the council – council@seattle.gov. And in the meantime, each of the budget committee meetings has a public-comment period, so if any of the departments interests you and you can make it to City Hall for that meeting, you can sign up to speak. There’s also one more nighttime public hearing about the budget in general, set for 5:30 pm November 1st.

6 Replies to "SPENDING YOUR MONEY: In 'issues' phase, City Council budget sessions raise questions about remote bridge openings & more"

  • M October 17, 2017 (4:16 am)

    I’m most concerned by Mike O’Brien and Sawant’s budget proposal to defund the city’s ability to conduct homeless encampments and connect them with services. 

    We have now had TWO violent knife attacks in the last two months in West Seattle from mentally ill homeless living in our parks. We’ve also had dangerous situations in the North End of Lincoln Park plus countless other emcampments in West Seattle. 

    Sometimes I honestly think we are living in the twilight zone. 

  • WS Citizen October 17, 2017 (4:20 am)

    The city does not have five swing bridges. Last time I checked there is only one. 

    • WSB October 17, 2017 (7:07 am)

      Sorry, five bridges that open. Will fix.

  • WGA October 17, 2017 (11:24 am)

    What could possibly go wrong if there wasn’t a bridge operator on site? Maybe a network disconnect to HQ during an emergency? Or the camera’s go down? Really thick fog?

    • Joe Grande October 17, 2017 (7:15 pm)

      Would the remote operation be hard wired? If not could any 14 year old with a computer also remotely operate the bridge?  Has the Coast Guard that controls all bridges given the go ahead to even try this?  As far as I know there are NO remotely operated bridges that carry vehicles and pedestrians and bicyclists in the U. S.

  • flimflam October 17, 2017 (4:32 pm)

    good lord, no more big ideas from o’brien. so bad…

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