MAKING IT WORK
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide information, inspire involvement, and make things work in this great city.
SR 520 REPLACEMENT PROJECT
On Monday, April 23, the City Council unanimously approved Resolution 30974, a resolution I sponsored as Chair of the Committee of the Whole on the SR 520 Replacement Project. The resolution outlines the design alternatives and mitigation measures for the State Route 520 Bridge Replacement and High Occupancy Vehicle Project that should be the prerequisites for identifying a preferred alternative.
The Council did not endorse a specific alternative in this resolution. The SR 520 project is a state responsibility, and the decision on the number of lanes and the specific design will be made by state government. Governor Gregoire has endorsed a six-lane profile, and the Legislature adopted concurring language in Senate Bill 6099: The state must take the necessary steps to move forward with a state route number 520 bridge replacement project design that provides six total lanes, with four general purpose lanes and two lanes that are for high-occupancy vehicle travel that could also accommodate high capacity transportation, and the bridge shall also be designed to accommodate light rail in the future.
The six-lane (four plus two) alternative does not increase Single Occupancy Vehicle traffic. By dramatically increasing transit reliability and decreasing travel time between the Eastside and the University area and downtown Seattle, projections are that a significantly larger number of people will cross the bridge in the future with virtually no increase in the number of vehicles. By 2030, 54% of trips are projected to be by transit or HOV, up from 29% today. Rush hour travel time for transit between the eastside and downtown is projected to decrease from more than an hour to about 18 minutes. Combined with tolling the bridge, this provides an excellent incentive for greatly increased transit usage.
Transit stuck in traffic is not a green alternative. Nor does it reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Council stated the critical importance of transit priority, reliability, and connectivity as the most important organizing principle for decisions on the SR 520 corridor, and acknowledged that the State has chosen the four plus two design, the best way to provide that transit opportunity.
In addition to designing for transit, the Council Resolution also recommends a series of project design elements and mitigation strategies, including:
- Minimizing and/or mitigating impacts on the Arboretum and the University of Washington;
- Reducing the footprint of the design by reducing lane widths, limiting shoulder sizes, narrowing the gaps between ramps if this can provide environmental benefits, and limiting the size of the structure over Portage Bay;
- Reducing noise by using quiet pavement and accepting neighborhood preferences for sound walls;
- Protecting open space and the Arboretum by ensuring no net loss of park land or wetlands, extending lids to the maximum extent possible, and implementing a series of steps to reduce traffic through the Arboretum;
- Promoting bicycle and pedestrian access;
- Incorporating excellence in design by adopting recommendations of the Seattle Design Commission and other measures;
- Mitigating construction impacts and promoting freight mobility;
- Prohibiting the conversion of HOV/rapid transit lanes to general purpose lanes;
- Implementing a comprehensive neighborhood transportation plan and mitigation measures to improve north-south access over the Montlake Bridge, and to improve traffic circulation and transit connections;
- Employing congestion pricing to manage Single Occupancy Vehicle demand;
- Developing a finance plan that fully funds the Project and associated mitigation.
This resolution resulted from an extensive public process that began in March, 2005. The public process included two citizen panels (the Local Improvement Committee and the Stakeholder Advisory Committee), that reviewed and recommended mitigation measures. These became the basis for the resolution. There were also seven Committee of the Whole meetings with extensive public comment, and a public comment meeting held in the neighborhood attended by more than 150 people. The Council spent more time over the last two years reviewing this project than any other issue except the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
In addition, there were dozens of emails and letters reviewed by the Council, and more public comment opportunities at the April 16 and April 23 meetings. The Council was also informed by the record number of some 1500 members of the public who commented on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Over the last few months, I have also personally attended more than a dozen meetings of community councils and other neighborhood groups to discuss SR 520 alternatives.
Of the two alternatives currently under consideration by the State for implementing the four plus two design, I believe that the Pacific Interchange best matches the requirements outlined in the Council resolution. Replacing the interchange at its current Montlake location requires a smaller lid and up to nine lanes over Portage Bay, while doing little or nothing to improve transit connections and traffic congestion in the Montlake area. While it is possible that a workable alternative design might emerge, after eight years of examining alternatives and two years of intensive engineering study, all other approaches have been shown to be infeasible, more expensive, and worse for the environment.
Fortunately, the Pacific Interchange has a number of critical advantages:
- Significantly increasing the efficiency of transit. Express buses over SR 520 could transfer passengers from a stop next to the Sound Transit light rail station at Husky Stadium.
- Clearing up the Montlake mess and improving traffic flow for the 70% of Montlake interchange users who enter and exit to and from North East Seattle. Bridge travel will become much more predictable, and travel north and south within Seattle across the Montlake Bridge will become much easier.
- Making pedestrian and bicycle crossings of the busy intersection of Pacific Avenue and Montlake Avenue safer and quicker by putting paths on a lid.
The Pacific Interchange does not have significant additional adverse effects on the Arboretum, and actually improves the Arboretum environment in many ways. It is the only option that allows the restoration of a continuous greenbelt with trails from Portage Bay to the Arboretum, including a complete lid over SR 520 in Montlake. Some commenters focus on the larger visual presence (common to all alternatives, but largest in the Pacific Interchange). However, this is more than balanced by the positive ecological impacts of reduced numbers of columns in the water, a higher profile that will allow more light and rainfall under the highway, and enhanced water quality through capturing and treating the runoff from the highway (which is now discharged into Lake Washington).
All of the wetlands adjacent to the Arboretum are artificial wetlands, having been created (along with Marsh Island) when the level of Lake Washington was lowered by nine feet when the Ship Canal was opened. Only 1/5 of an acre of these wetlands are actually lost under all alternatives, although there will be significant shading and the loss of almost 4 acres of park space. The Council resolution calls for full replacement of the wetlands and parks spaces, and requiring any losses to the Arboretum to be replaced in the same area. The Council also calls for traffic calming, considering a separate toll on Lake Washington Blvd, and other measures that will reduce the attractiveness of travel through the Arboretum.
The Six-Lane Pacific Interchange Alternative was supported by more than four times as many commenters on the DEIS as any other alternative, with some two-thirds of those referencing the Pacific Interchange supporting it. In addition to determining that the project will have six (four plus two) lanes, Senate Bill 6099 requires a mediation process to review designs and mitigation for the SR 520 Project. If there are ways to improve the Pacific Interchange design or workable alternatives, these can be developed during this process. This process should proceed as expeditiously as possible, as the SR 520 Bridge, which is vulnerable to earthquakes and windstorms, must be replaced with a new structure designed to improve both safety and transportation for the region.
The next steps are to develop a realistic financial plan for the project, to begin work on the new pontoons and on projects to help manage traffic impacts during construction, and to select a design for the Seattle side that will most effectively promote the health of our neighborhoods and environment. The Council will continue to be engaged in this work as we move towards final decision points over the next two years.
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FIRE STATION 20
On Monday, April 9, the Council unanimously approved Resolution 30978, a resolution I sponsored that sets out a time line and process for selecting a replacement site for Fire Station 20 on the western side of Queen Anne. With the agreement of the Mayor's office, the resolution provides for hiring a consultant who will be jointly funded by both the legislative and executive branches. The consultant will study alternative site locations in the context of an extensive public process that will ensure that the community is fully informed and involved in developing recommendations. The goal is to have a new site selected by the end of 2007.
Fire Station 20 was the poster child for the Fire Facilities Levy campaign. It is a small, cramped station that badly needs replacement with a larger, more appropriate facility. In 2006, the Mayor proposed rebuilding the station at the same location, expanding it by acquiring three adjoining houses. Community members vigorously opposed this, both because they did not want to lose the three houses to a larger fire station, and because replacing it at the same site would do nothing to improve the response time in Station 20's service area, which is one of the worst in the City.
The issue put the Council and Mayor at loggerheads, as the Mayor refused to offer any additional sites for the Council to consider as alternatives, and Councilmembers were reluctant to endorse a site that was opposed by the community and did nothing to improve response time. The Mayor's office argued that all other alternatives considered were either in liquefaction zones or had other critical deficiencies, but the current site is in a slide-prone area, so it is not clear that it is any more secure from seismic problems. In the end, a 5 to 4 majority of Councilmembers rejected the proposed site. Replacing Fire Station 20 was placed on hold in the light of this conflict.
Early this year, Councilmember Licata and Mayor Nickels began looking at ideas for resolving the situation, and developed the proposal for a joint consultant review of alternative sites. Community members wanted to ensure that this review would not take place behind closed doors, and asked me to develop a resolution that would include a formal public process to guarantee that the process would be transparent, objective, and informed by the community. I agreed, and was able to negotiate an agreement with the Mayor and other Councilmembers that the community found acceptable.
Everyone agrees that we are all seeking the best solution for Fire Station 20 for the 50 to 100 year life of the new station. Bringing all affected parties to the table to work together is the best way to ensure that a solution will be found that comes as close as possible to meeting the goals of everyone, and a solution that can be moved forward without further delay or conflict.
As we should have learned from so many flawed processes, Seattle residents want to be involved in the issues affecting their lives. They want a decision that has been developed through a public, transparent process. They also want a decision that can be implemented without being forced back to the drawing boards by a failure to consider all the relevant factors and issues. The best way to move things forward is to do the public process right from the beginning. This resolution is intended to help us recover from the problems already experienced, and to create a process that works.
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HAMM CREEK/JOINT TRAINING FACILITY
On Monday, March 5, the Council voted 8 to 1 (McIver) in favor of my Resolution 30967, expressing the Council's intent to enhance habitat mitigation at the Joint Training Facility (JTF) site, located around the headwaters of Hamm Creek. While the Mayor initially resisted implementing this resolution, I am pleased to report that we have now negotiated an agreement to have Executive staff meet with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC) to find ways to fully mitigate on-site wetlands that were destroyed during the construction of this facility. The Council has committed to replace the 1.33 acres of wetlands destroyed with at least 2 acres of habitat creation/restoration.
The Joint Training Facility is a complex of buildings and other facilities designed to provide hands-on operational training experiences for the Fire Department, Seattle Public Utilities, and other City staff in managing difficult emergency situations. It is a large site that includes examples of difficult buildings and sites that personnel can practice on to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Unfortunately, during the construction of the site, the City filled almost an acre of wetlands without getting permits from the Corps of Engineers. When community members found out about this, they complained, and the Corps issued a stop-work order requiring the City to negotiate a mitigation plan for the wetlands damaged and for an additional third of an acre planned to be filled during construction.
City staff negotiated a settlement agreement with the Corps of Engineers that provides for some mitigation on-site, and other mitigation on a site on the Duwamish River. The DRCC was not engaged in discussions about this, and objected that the agreement did not restore enough habitat on the JTF site to ensure the continued health of Hamm Creek. For twenty years, community members, led by the late John Beal, have been working to restore Hamm Creek, and the DRCC was concerned that the failure to mitigate on-site would compromise those efforts to restore the Creek.
The Council agreed that it would be appropriate to try to find ways to add additional on-site mitigation to the mitigation required under the settlement agreement. We believe that this can be done for less than one per cent of the cost of the JTF, and that doing so honors Seattle's commitment to truly respect the environment, not just meet the minimum legal standards laid down by the federal government.
DRCC staff and their engineering consultant have now toured the site and met with City staff to try to work out a proposal for the restoration. I expect this proposal to be presented to the City in the near future, and hope to be able to move towards an agreed-upon implementation plan over the next several weeks.
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As an environmentalist and former Docent at the Zoo, I am very supportive of the conservation and environmental education missions of the Zoo. Unfortunately, a proposed parking garage has become the current focus of attention there. Updated information indicates that this garage will annually cost the City and the Woodland Park Zoo Society (WPZS), which administers the Zoo under a contract with the City, at least two to three times as much as was originally estimated. It also appears that the garage will likely not solve the parking problem it was intended to address.
For this reason, a number of Councilmembers have asked WPZS to reconsider whether a garage, especially one of this size and at this location, is appropriate. However, the Council is limited in its ability to require any changes, as funding for the garage is part of the City contract with WPZS, and is included in the City's budget. At the most recent opportunity to discuss the issue, the bond sale that included funds for the garage, several Councilmembers expressed concerns, but concluded that voting against the bonds would not change either the budget or the contract.
Access to parking is a question that every major institution wrestles with, and the Zoo is no exception. While it is important to emphasize alternatives to the private automobile, realistically most Zoo visitors will continue to arrive by car. Since Zoo visitors average 3.5 occupants per vehicle, this is actually a pretty efficient mode of transportation.
The Zoo currently has 654 parking spaces. About 55% of visitors use the zoo spaces, many of which are vacant even on busy days as visitors prefer to park for free on the nearby streets. Zoo neighbors, especially on the south side, have complained about this. In response, WPZS in 2004 proposed an underground garage on the south side. Because the underground facility was very costly, Mayor Nickels proposed switching to a 700 stall above ground garage on the west side. This proposal received limited public review prior to being accepted by the Council.
The agreement between WPZS and the City includes a garage costing $16.2 million, financed with City bonds. Parking revenues would cover part of the bond payments, with the remainder covered 75% by the City and 25% by WPZS.
Since the adoption of this proposal, two significant questions have arisen that challenge the viability of this project:
1. Financial projections indicate that the garage will lose 2 to 3 times as much money annually as was originally projected (not counting any construction cost inflation, which may increase this amount when the project is bid).
2. Additional analyses question whether the garage will actually 'solve' the Zoo's parking problem.
The original projection assumed that 96% of zoo visitors would use the garage. That, in turn, assumed that street parking would be effectively prohibited through imposition of a Residential Parking Zone (RPZ). Under City code, RPZ's can only be created with community support, and that seems an increasingly unlikely prospect. If there is no RPZ, and only 75% of visitors (significantly more than the current percentage) use the garage, losses increase from $400,000/year in the 2002 projection to $1.2 million/year. While the City will have to absorb 75% of these increased losses, the WPZS will also have to spend $300,000 annually.
The only way to reduce these losses would be to change City law and impose an RPZ. However, paradoxically, it turns out that this could actually worsen the Zoo's parking problem:
|Current parking spaces:
||Parking spaces with garage and RPZ:
City staff estimate that neighbors use approximately 1200 of the street spaces, but not all of those are occupied at all times, so the practical availability is somewhere in excess of 600, more than the garage will provide. On the other hand, the Zoo will need 600 or more street spaces on peak days even with a garage. While it may be possible to figure out a way to manage the RPZ to provide this, it will be a complex management and neighborhood challenge.
The City and WPZS, therefore, have the choice of proceeding with the garage and no RPZ and losing at least $1.2 million annually, or cutting these losses by imposing an RPZ and thereby reducing the number of parking spaces available to Zoo visitors.
Neither of these choices seem very rational. With what we know today, the most rational step would be to reconsider the garage and renegotiate an alternative strategy for ensuring access for Zoo visitors.
The WPZS, however, has made it clear to the Council that it wants the garage, and cites the contract that requires the City to proceed with this project. If the City does not proceed, the WPZS has the contractual right to return control and management of the Zoo to the City.
WPZS also has this recourse if the City does not take steps to renew the Pro Parks Levy, which includes $2.5 million annually for Zoo operations. Despite this, the Mayor has indicated that he will not propose renewing the Pro Parks Levy, and there has been no indication that WPZS will resign the management agreement in consequence.
After reviewing the numbers, I am convinced that proceeding with the garage does not make sense for either the City or WPZS. I also do not believe that WPZS would choose to turn the Zoo back to the City over this issue. However, WPZS has declined to talk about renegotiations regarding the garage. Clearly, progress on this issue and changes in the contract will require mutual agreement, and I hope that a way will be found to open those discussions.
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As for the future, your task is not to foresee but to enable it.
--Antoine de Saint-Exupery
But what is government but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary."
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