MAKING IT WORK
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COUNCIL APPROVES VIADUCT TUNNEL AGREEMENT
On Monday, October 19, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a Memorandum of Agreement between the Washington Department of Transportation and the City of Seattle, authorizing both parties to move forward with their respective parts of the Alaskan Way Viaduct deep bored tunnel and seawall replacement project.
Moving forward now will allow the project to benefit from the current favorable environment for bidding construction contracts. It is also a critical step in finally addressing the most serious safety concern with our transportation infrastructure since damage caused by the Nisqually earthquake in February, 2001.
In September, the Council approved three contracts with the state that authorized more than $480 million in state funds to be used for reconfiguring the south portion of the Viaduct. The city has already begun utility relocation for the south half of the Viaduct, which will be reconstructed largely as a ground level highway. Completion of this project will remove about half of the vulnerable elevated highway that poses significant risks of failure in the event of a major earthquake.
SR 99 is a state highway, and the legal authority for determining the replacement is a state decision. The new agreement implements the policy approach authorized by the legislature in April of 2009, which in turn was based on an agreement reached among the three Executives (Gregoire, Nickels, and Sims) earlier this year. The legislation approved by the Council more clearly defines which parties have responsibility for construction of specific components of the project, and delineates the responsibilities for funding or securing funding for these respective elements.
Under the agreement, the state has the responsibility for construction of the tunnel and for the south end projects. The City will have responsibility for completing the Spokane Street Viaduct and Mercer Street improvements, replacing the Seawall, relocating the utilities, and constructing a new park on the waterfront. All of these projects would be Seattle’s responsibility regardless of which alternative was chosen for the Central Waterfront.
Seattle will be responsible for developing a specific funding plan to raise approximately $800 million for each of these projects. The utility relocations are likely to be funded through a 1 to 2% increase in utility rates over 25 years. Both the street projects and the seawall replacement are eligible for partial funding through federal and state grants, but the majority of those costs will have to be funded through the City budget. Mayor Nickels has suggested increasing the parking tax and authorizing a $20 per vehicle license fee to fund the remaining costs, and the Council will have to consider whether these new taxes are needed and appropriate or whether other alternatives are available. The new waterfront park could be funded through a Local Improvement District that uses contributions from nearby property owners based on the increased value of their property when the park is constructed.
There has been much discussion about the total cost of the project and possible cost overruns. It should be clear that the total viaduct/seawall project cost, estimated at $4.2 billion includes $2.8 billion of state funding, $1.9 billion for the actual tunnel and approximately $900 million for other state projects. $2.4 billion is fully funded by state gas tax revenue, which can legally only be spent on highway projects. The remaining $400 million is currently projected to be raised through tolling, but no decision has been made by the State as to how that will be done.
The City projects, as noted above, are projected to cost another $800 million, plus a possible $140 million if a First Avenue Streetcar is constructed, with possible funding sources as noted above. The agreement also contemplates a projected $300 million contribution from the Port of Seattle for the freight mobility components of the project, and $160 million from King County for additional transit. The Port has the financial capability to cover its share, but it is likely that King County will require additional funding options to fund the transit elements, particularly in the light of the current Metro transit funding problems.
While cost overruns are always possible on projects, WSDOT has benefitted from analyzing the poor track record of other megaprojects, and implemented a revised Cost Estimating Validation Process several years ago. That procedure makes cost overruns less likely by including substantial additional resources in the cost projections to account for possible uncertainties and risks. In this project, about 35% of the projected budget is reserved for unallocated risk, increasing the probability that the project can be brought in on budget. Since implementing this new process, WSDOT has completed 90% of its projects within budget. Study of the infamous ‘Big Dig’ project in Boston determined that much of the cost escalation for that project resulted from efforts to design and construct additional ways to divert and manage traffic during construction. By allowing the Viaduct to be in service during most of the tunnel construction, that risk is greatly diminished.
Delay is the other major cost escalator, and if the project can be kept on schedule, that risk is also greatly diminished. There is a very favorable current bidding environment, which can contribute further to controlling costs if the project moves forward on schedule – the Sound Transit tunnel bid from Capitol Hill to the University came in some 20% below the engineering projection, even though that requires an undercrossing of the Montlake Cut.
While the risk of cost overruns are relatively modest for this project, the legislature did attach a provision requiring that ‘Seattle area property owners’ would have to bear the cost of any such overruns. This provision does not place any requirement on the City of Seattle, and it is unlikely that it is enforceable, since there is no legal mechanism for the state to impose such costs. If there were ever an attempt to enforce it, other local governments would join Seattle in alarm, and likely a lawsuit, over the precedent that this would set.
The long argument and discussion over the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct is finally coming to a close. As the final design and engineering work moves forward, the City and the region can look forward to a new, safe transportation system that provides mobility. And the people of Seattle can look forward to an extraordinary waterfront park that will be integrated ecologically with Puget Sound to sustain salmon migrations and will be a much-used treasure for many generations in the future. This legislation takes a major step towards realizing that vision and ensuring the safety of our transportation system.
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FIRE STATION 20 RESOLVED
On Monday, October 19, the City Council voted unanimously to relocate Fire Station 20 to 15th Avenue West and West Armour Street, ending a four-year conflict over the location for a new West Queen Anne fire station. The legislation approved by the Council authorized the purchase of two vacant parcels and two small commercial properties along the east side of 15th Avenue West.
The existing Fire Station 20, constructed 60 years ago at 3205 13th Avenue West, is one of the smallest stations in the city. In its present condition it cannot adequately accommodate modern equipment and recommended staffing levels. The Fire Facilities and Emergency Response Levy passed by voters in 2003 included rebuilding this station as a high priority.
The initial proposal for the new station contemplated rebuilding the station on its existing site, and expanding that site by taking three single family homes. After a difficult debate over this proposal, which was opposed by nearby homeowners, the Council voted 5 to 4 to reject this proposal in 2006. Opponents of the proposal were not only concerned about the taking of houses, but that the existing site did not provide the level of response time that would be optimum for the station’s service area.
That decision led to a period of conflict between the Executive and Council, with Executive staff maintaining that the existing site was the most feasible and cost effective location, while Councilmembers believed that other sites were also feasible and could provide better service. In 2007, the Council and Executive agreed to commission a full review that reported on 42 potential sites. The group evaluated locations by criteria developed for the Levy program that included recommended station dimensions, proximity to a major arterial and projected response times. Ultimately, the Council and Executive were able to agree on the chosen site, which is close to the response area’s geographic center and is large enough to allow for the Fire Department’s preferred drive-through configuration and even a possible third bay for a new aid car. While the costs for property acquisition will be larger than they would have been for the existing site,
the extra cost for an optimum site makes sense, especially given the 50 to 100 year expected life span for the new station.
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FIRST HILL STREETCAR AUTHORIZED TO PROCEED
On Monday, October 5, the Council unanimously adopted Council Bill 116636, authorizing an agreement with Sound Transit for implementation of the First Hill Streetcar Connector Project. The agreement commits Sound Transit to fully fund construction and operation of the streetcar, as approved by the voters as part of the Sound Transit ballot measure in November, 2008, and outlines how the City will proceed with construction of the streetcar with the goal of bringing it into operation as soon as possible.
Sound Transit’s original plan located a stop in First Hill on the light rail route between downtown and Capitol Hill and the University District. However, as Sound Transit developed the engineering for this route, it became clear that siting the First Hill stop would be very challenging from an engineering standpoint, and would cost much more than had originally been thought, both because of the depth of the station and the soil conditions that were found. Ultimately, the City reluctantly agreed to let Sound Transit cancel the proposed station, but with the agreement that Sound Transit would fund a streetcar line that would connect the Capitol Hill station with First Hill and the Chinatown/International District.
This agreement implements that decision. The actual construction of the streetcar line will be performed by the City, because that will provide for uniform management of the project in order to coordinate work in the right-of-way and relocation of utility lines, and because the City has experience in the design, construction and operation of modern streetcar connectors, having recently completed design and construction of the South Lake Union Line. Sound Transit has committed to provide capital funding of up to $120 million (in 2007 dollars) and operating funding of up to $5.2 million annually (in 2007 dollars) to the project.
Under this legislation, the Director of the City's Department of Transportation is required to provide written quarterly progress reports to the Council, and the construction contract for the First Hill Streetcar cannot proceed until authorized by the City Council, which will also make the final decision on the actual route.
The route up Jackson Street to 12th Avenue is fairly clear, but there are different possibilities for serving First Hill on the way to the Capitol Hill light rail station. One option would proceed up Boren and through First Hill, turning at some point to connect to Broadway and the Capitol Hill light rail station. Another alternative would run along 12th Avenue in a northbound direction and connect to Broadway around the Pike/Pine corridor, with the southbound line running down Broadway to Boren. There could be other options in between these two. The goal of the route decision will be to serve the maximum ridership and provide the best and most convenient service to key employment/housing centers.
The City’s goal is to have the First Hill Streetcar in operation by 2013. With this line fully funded and the South Lake Union line in operation, two major steps have been taken towards creating a streetcar network that will provide medium capacity service to key parts of Seattle, an intermediate level of service between high capacity light rail lines and neighborhood bus service. A connection between the South Lake Union line and the First Hill/Chinatown/ID line could be part of the Viaduct replacement project, and other extensions towards Fremont/Ballard and West Seattle are also options envisioned by the City’s adopted Streetcar Network Plan. These possible lines are not yet funded.
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NEW STEPS TOWARDS OPEN GOVERNMENT
On Monday, October 5, the Seattle City Council passed Resolution 31162 outlining a set of Council decisions recommended by the Special Committee on Open Government, which I Chair, that support open and transparent government while also increasing public engagement. The vote was 8 to 1 (Councilmember McIver voting no).
The resolution outlines steps to ensure departmental compliance with new standards for openness and public disclosure as required by Council Bill 116496, approved by the Council on April 27, 2009. It also commits to changing the Council rules to require that committee materials be available online prior to meetings. It responds to community interest in an ombudsman function for public disclosure requests by asking that the Mayor and City departments do more to publicize the services offered by the Customer Service Bureau to help those making public records requests. It also commits the Council to have City lawyers monitor all Executive sessions for compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act. It further commits the Council to providing for a system to record executive sessions as soon as the Legislature coordinates the disclosure regulations of the Public Records Act with those of the Open Public Meetings Act to ensure that such recordings can only be disclosed if the
Executive session is not appropriately exempt from being public.
The next steps for the Open Government Committee will be to hold a public hearing on Monday, December 7 at 5:30 p.m. in Council Chambers focusing on the next work product of the Committee, a proposed public engagement plan (available here). After the public hearing, the Committee will hold its final meeting of the year on Monday, December 14 at 11:30 a.m. in Council Chambers. The Council will determine early next year whether to continue a Special Committee on Open Government, or to assign the next steps in this work to one of the standing committees.
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CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL PROCESS BEGINS
The Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee will begin work on Children’s Hospital’s proposed Major Institution Master Plan on Wednesday, November 18, at 9 AM. This is the first day on which Committee meetings resume after the hiatus during the Council’s budget process. The budget work is scheduled to be completed on Monday, November 16, with formal adoption on Monday, November 23.
The Major Institutions process places the Council in an unusual role, in which Councilmembers act as judges, rather than legislators. The ‘quasi-judicial’ process is part of the state’s land use regulations, and is used when a code change would apply to a single property owner. Most code changes apply citywide to a kind of land use, or to all of the uses of particular kinds in a specific neighborhood. In those cases, the Council acts as a legislative body, takes public testimony, and makes a decision within certain legal parameters but essentially on the Council’s judgment as to what decision will be best for the City.
The quasi-judicial process applies when the code change will benefit a specific property owner, and the Council is required to base its decision solely on the legally-established record. The Council acts as an appeals body from the decisions made by the City’s Hearing Examiner, who conducts a formal process that involves determining the parties of record and taking testimony on the impacts of the proposed change. The Council must follow a set of procedures to determine what parties may present testimony; accept only testimony and arguments that are presented in public session; and base decisions on specific evidence that is in the public record.
The Council has completed the first step of this process, which involves providing notice to all potential parties of record and inviting them to apply to become part of the case. At the November 18 meeting, Councilmembers will be briefed on the Hearing Examiner’s decision, which will include a summary of the proposal, an overview of the site, and an examination of the content of the proposed changes to the Children’s Hospital Major Institution Plan. The Council will also review the process related to the development of this proposal and the process for Council review.
Because this is like a court hearing, no public testimony will be taken. Only the eleven parties who have filed appeals and been accepted as parties to the case can participate. These participants will have an opportunity to provide oral argument regarding their appeals at future committee meetings. The Council will announce the dates of these next meetings in the near future, with a goal of completing the work on this proposal as expeditiously as possible while complying with all of the legal requirements for a full and thorough process.
Click here to view the November 18 agenda, the Hearing Examiner’s recommendation, Seattle Children’s proposed Major Institution Master Plan, and other documents relevant to this review process.
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"To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing."
-- Raymond Williams
"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it."
-- Abraham Lincoln
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