MAKING IT WORK
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SR 520: STATE PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE ANNOUNCED
On Thursday, April 29, Governor Gregoire announced a new preferred alternative for the replacement of SR 520 Bridge. The alternative selected by the state significantly improves transit operations and connectivity, strengthens protection of residential neighborhoods and the Arboretum, and improves pedestrian and bicycle connections. Many of the recommendations included in this alternative reflect the proposals made by the City Council in our comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
These comments, in turn, were informed by the Council's consultant as well as our ongoing consultation with community members, representatives of local institutions and elected officials. The Council has worked hard to listen to, represent and balance the needs of our neighborhoods and the needs of the region. This has paid offand is evident in the new design.
The Council's comments, which were submitted to the Governor and Washington Department of Transportation on April 15, focused on improving pedestrian and bicycle connections, protecting the Arboretum and neighborhoods, improving transit operations, and changing the Montlake Interchange design while maintaining the ability to meet future transit needs on the bridge.
Meeting many of the community and Council goals, the new SR 520 design:
- Lowers the floating bridge to approximately 20 feet above water in the middle of the lake,
- Removes the existing ramps in and out of the Arboretum and raise the profile of SR 520 through Foster Island to improve north-south pedestrian connections;
- Creates a traffic management plan for the Arboretum and the neighborhoods south of the bridge;
- Provides additional green space and lids east of the Montlake interchange and provides recreational access to the water at East Montlake Park;
- Improves pedestrian and bicycle access and safety by designing all bicycle and pedestrian paths to meet Seattle standards;
- Reduces traffic noise by creating a six-lane urban boulevard over Portage Bay that limits traffic speeds to 45 mph;
- Creates transit/HOV direct-access priority ramps at key 520 intersections;
- Proposes transit/HOV lanes through the Montlake interchange area in order to support north-south transit through Seattle;
- Proposes a lid over Montlake Boulevard to the Rainier Vista area to provide safe pedestrian and bicycle access from the Sound Transit station to the University; and
- Maintains flexibility for light rail by creating a gap between the east and west bound lanes across Foster Island, should the decision be made to include light rail on the SR 520 corridor in the future.
The changes in the plan create a Montlake interchange design that will function and feel more like an urban intersection than the freeway interchange that was previously proposed by the state.In addition to the improved transit operations, the design changes to the Montlake interchange will benefit the neighborhoodand the many bicyclists and pedestrians who cross the SR 520 corridor.
The new design includes a possible new crossing for the Montlake cut, a second drawbridge to the east of the current bridge. While the state explored several alternative possibilities, including a high bridge coming from an intersection located around Marsh Island, a second drawbridge at the east end of the cut, and a tunnel underneath the cut, all of these options posed significant risks and problems with environmental impacts, costs, and community impacts. The state concluded that the second drawbridge was the best alternative in the light of these issues.
The Council recommended that the State phase the decision on a second Montlake bridge and continue evaluating the second bridge to determine if it is, in fact, necessary in order to move traffic efficiently through the corridor. This evaluation will be part of the next stage of work with the State. If a second drawbridge is built, the Council recommended (and the State agreed) that only pedestrian, bicycle, and transit/HOV capacity would be added to the current corridor.
While the City's consultant concluded that future conversion to light rail would be possible even with a drawbridge as the crossing of the Ship Canal, the Council has also asked that the State initiate a new project to study other possible crossings, specifically a high transit-only bridge east of the Montlake cut that would not have to open and close.
The next step in the SR 520 project will be to convene several workgroups mandated by the legislature to refine the design of the project, including the Montlake Triangle area and the surrounding transit connections. Another workgroup will focus on financing transit operations on the new bridge. Work will also begin on a traffic management plan for the neighborhoods in proximity to the Arboretum and Montlake Boulevard. Once these groups have finished their work, the State will complete the Final Environmental Impact Statement and make a final decision on the design. The final design is likely to be based on the Preferred Alternative, but a final decision cannot be made until the completion of the environmental review.
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SR 520: FAST BUS SERVICE NOW
Light rail is a great way to provide transit service connecting dense urban communities. That's why the region has built it from Seattle to the airport, and is building more lines to Bellevue and Redmond over I-90 and north from downtown to UW and Northgate. I've worked for more than a decade to bring this to reality, and will continue to do so.
At some point light rail might be a good addition to SR520. But it is a corridor with many challenges for a light rail system. Rapid bus transit service may provide a more flexible and effective form of high capacity transit for this project area. Buses have the ability to collect riders from and deliver them to multiple points, and the routes can be modified as conditions change. We can put bus connections to work in dedicated lanes as soon as the bridge is open for operation. That will reduce automobile use -- and greenhouse gas emissions.
Or we can delay replacing SR 520 and leave transit commuters stuck in traffic – probably for the next one to two decades.
Almost 80% of Seattle voters supported Sound Transit 2 in 2008. That plan puts light rail over I-90 and Bus Rapid Transit on 520 for very good reasons.
The 520 corridor between I-5 and I-405 has no dense urban communities to serve, and little prospect of creating any. We're not going to rezone Montlake for high rises. Running rail on freeways is generally a bad idea unless you have no other choice. That's why the region runs Airport Link through downtown and the Rainier Valley instead of along I-5 – because its purpose is to connect Seattle residents to their homes and jobs, not just to get people to and from the airport.
The study done for Mayor McGinn ran a light rail line from Haller Lake to Sammamish. There is no plan or engineering for that corridor. There are difficult technical decisions about routes, tunnels, and crossing the Montlake cut, as well as a very large, uncertain, and unfunded cost. And this route has not been studied sufficiently to know whether it serves enough riders to be justified and would be a priority in comparison to other regional needs. This route may also end up creating an incentive for sprawl and breaking the Growth Management Boundary by running a major transportation line to Sammamish. And the possible options to connect to the UW Light Rail station or downtown may have additional impacts on our neighborhoods and the Arboretum. Lines on paper may look appealing -- until we fully understand the actual impacts.
Dedicated bus lanes, on the other hand, work beautifully on 520 because the buses can fan out to serve riders AND make quick crossings of the Lake where there are no passengers to pick up. More than 600 buses currently cross 520 every day, and there is funding to increase that number. The regional plan for SR520 is ready for implementation as soon as the final decisions are made and can begin operation in 2014. It will provide a separate lane in each direction for buses and high occupancy vehicles, and is projected to dramatically increase transit/HOV use on the corridor, moving people rather than cars.
The state's proposed plan for transit on SR 520 needs some improvement. That's why the City Council has focused on making the Montlake interchange work for transit, making good connections to the University light rail station and getting transit through the traffic congestion in that area, as well as ensuring that the HOV/transit lane will be managed to ensure that buses will move rapidly . The State has incorporated most of the Council's recommendations into the new design, and the Council will be fully engaged in the next steps towards implementation.
The Council reviewed Mayor's McGinn's concerns as to whether the corridor can support light rail, and concluded that minor refinements to the current design will make it possible for the region to decide that in the future. The design, engineering, and funding issues will take time to consider. Seattle's priority should be to find ways to provide better transit service to Ballard and West Seattle – heavily populated areas in the City that need better connectivity – while we get great bus service going on SR520 as fast as possible.
In the thoughtful words of Seattle Transit Blog: "Light rail would only go over 520 out of supposed convenience – but I think we can lay to rest now any notion that it would be convenient, and furthermore, it would probably represent a huge investment on Seattle's part to build a new tunnel where we'll already have one. For costs like that, both financial and political, why not do it right? First, let's focus our attention on building transit from the city center to Ballard and West Seattle."
It took years of work to stop proposed additional lanes for cars and get a 520 plan that dedicates lanes for bus and HOV and does not increase car lanes. This was a hard-won victory for Seattle, for the environment, and for the region. The Council cares about making transportation work in this region, and cares about reducing carbon emissions by getting more people on transit as fast as possible while connecting the region's urban centers east and west of Lake Washington. We are working aggressively to improve transit operations in the SR 520 project area and to maximize opportunities for people to make riding transit their first choice.
We've been through the distraction before of a well-intentioned plan for rail transit. It was called the Monorail, and it failed because the hard on-the-ground work of actually planning a cost-effective system wasn't done before we wasted millions of dollars trying to turn a line on a map into a real system. Ultimately the voters had to pull the plug. Let's not delude ourselves again that drawing a line on the map replaces serious and thoughtful planning for real transit connections.
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CARBON NEUTRAL SEATTLE CAMPAIGN BEGINS
On Monday, February 22, the Seattle City Council announced that a Carbon Neutral Seattle was one of our 2010 priorities. We knew this was about as ambitious a goal as you could imagine. But we also knew that reality demands no less.
It's exciting and challenging – and on the cutting edge for a City government. And we are committed to work on this while continuing to both deliver core services – public safety, parks, libraries, water, sewer, garbage, and electricity – and continuously improve the efficiency and affordability of those services.
Our carbon neutrality goal calls on city departments and elected leaders to develop a new framework of sustainability that will foster the growth of our green sector economy and integrate and enhance economic opportunity with a climate neutral city.
Climate change is the preeminent moral challenge of our times. We are already experiencing the first impacts on our water, electricity, and drainage systems. Strong action on the national level continues to be stymied by the challenges of our political environment. Local elected officials must rise to the occasion and respond to this threat. Even if Congress were to take some steps this session, carbon (climate) neutrality must be our ultimate target – and there are enormous economic, social, and environmental consequences that we face if we do not attain that.
The economic reasons to tackle this problem are evident. Water and food supplies are threatened by changes in weather patterns and our oceans. The potential damage and loss of life and property that would accompany rising ocean levels and extreme weather patterns have already led even the largest insurance companies in the world to prepare for the effects of climate change. The debate over whether or not to act is over.
Long ago we should have discarded the antiquated paradigm that pits economic prosperity against environmental quality and public health. Recent years have provided greater clarity about our ability to innovate the measures that are both possible and required for us to bring environmental stewardship and economic opportunities together, and that is critical to making real progress on climate change.
Right now the Council is beginning the work on a multi-year implementation strategy for achieving carbon neutrality. This requires defining what carbon neutrality actually is (do we count embedded carbon from a toy made in China purchased in Seattle?); developing a community involvement strategy (won't get anywhere without public support and commitment!); integrating carbon neutrality into economic recovery (can we create a 'climate economy'?); and developing short and long term plans for getting there.
Many City policies support the drive for a carbon neutral city. My Zero Waste Strategy, the Local Food Action Initiative, and the City's work on clean energy and green buildings are some examples. To move beyond this will require wide scale systemic change, honing in on key elements of each emission source, developing ways to reduce or offset them, and creating a work plan to implement these efforts.
Seattle has long been a leader in addressing climate change and mobilizing political will. Our successful actions have made a significant difference, but the size and scope of the challenge requires more. As a national and global leader, Seattle has both the opportunity and responsibility to create the example for what to do next. We have the political will, the courage to lead, and an innovative and capable private sector to help implement the needed changes.
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FUNDING LIBRARIES FOR THE FUTURE
I am a strong supporter of Seattle Public Library, and a frequent user of library services. The Council has consistently added funds to the City budget to support additional hours and fund collections for the library. In the 2010 budget process, Mayor Nickels proposed cutting some $1.3 million in funding for library hours, but the Council worked closely with the library to identify priorities for restoring hours, and ultimately added $860,000 in funding to bring back about two-thirds of the branch library hours proposed to be cut under the Mayor's budget. Because of the revenue decline resulting from the economic recession, every City Department faced budget cuts for 2010. I and the Council made sure that the Library did not suffer disproportionately from these cuts.
The City will face significant budget challenges in 2010 and in preparing the 2011-2012 budgets. Because of the duration of the current economic recession, revenue for 2010 is falling several million dollars short of the budgeted amount, and the projections for 2011-2012 suggest that the City will need to cut up to $50 million (about 5%) out of the preliminary planned budgets for those years. This will be a major challenge, and I expect that there will be impacts on Seattle Public Libraries. I will do my best to keep those impacts to the minimum possible.
Unfortunately, because public safety and human services take up much of the budget and are seen as priorities, especially in a negative economic climate, the library is likely to see its budget recovery lag behind. Even though the City does not have a true structural budget problem (like the County and State), which makes it impossible to match revenues to mandated expenditures, the library is only one of a number of competing priorities for general fund revenue.
For that reason, I have chosen to take oversight of the library in my Regional Development and Sustainability Committee, and hope to find a new and independent source of funding for Seattle Public Libraries, one which will take library funding out of the competition for general fund revenues. Such a funding source might involve creating a Library District (as King County as done), seeking a separate library services levy, or some other mechanism. We have already begun the research on options, and I hope to be able to bring a proposal to the voters in 2011 or 2012, depending on whether we need the State Legislature to modify the statutes governing libraries before we can proceed.
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AGGRESSIVE SOLICITATION ORDINANCE VETOED BY MAYOR
Mayor McGinn has vetoed the proposed Aggressive Solicitation Ordinance, which passed the Council by a 5 to 4 vote on Monday, April 19 (Bagshaw, Burgess, Clark, Conlin, and Godden voting yes). Because 6 affirmative votes are needed for a veto override, the legislation will not be approved.
The proposed ordinance was a modest approach to addressing a modest problem. There were reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue, as to how significant the problem is, whether the ordinance would be effective, whether there was a better way, if the ordinance gave too much discretion to police, and whether the poor and homeless would be adversely affected.
While begging per se may be annoying to many, this ordinance would not have prohibited it. Aggressive solicitation was defined as "engaging in intimidating conduct towards another person in a public place when such conduct is accompanied by an act of solicitation", with specific examples cited such as intentionally blocking or interfering with the person being solicited, using threatening or aggressive physical gestures or profane or abusive language, repeatedly soliciting a person who has given a negative response, providing unwanted services, or soliciting a person actually using an automated teller machine or parking pay station. The ordinance specifically stated that "The mere act of solicitation without engaging in intimidating conduct is not aggressive solicitation".
Some aggressive behavior is clearly aimed at intimidating people into giving, and that is what this ordinance is aimed at. Some aggressive solicitation stems from mental health or substance abuse problems, and the court would have been given the authority to offer treatment to those people as an alternative to jail time if such people ultimately wound up in court. No one who is homeless needs to engage in these kinds of activities to get services – or to beg. The homeless themselves are often victims of aggressive and intimidating attempts to take money from them.
The core differences between this legislation and current law:
- Changing the action from a crime to a ticketed infraction. This reduces the penalties, while allowing swifter and more certain enforcement, and avoids giving someone a criminal record if they have mental health or substance problems. Research demonstrates that this is a more effective public safety approach.
- Under current law, the crime is to panhandle with the 'intent to intimidate'. Under this legislation, that becomes a more objective standard: committing a specific act in a way that would intimidate a reasonable person. This is both more enforceable and conforms to the 'reasonable person' standard that is a commonly used benchmark in civil law.
The legislation did not in any way limit civil discourse. It would have created a more standard, clearer definition for what constitutes a violation. And it would provide for civil, rather than criminal, penalties for those who commit violations. I believe that it would have been, in fact, a reasonable way to move toward a more rational system of addressing public safety issues.
Unfortunately, while Councilmembers worked on these issues and wound up disagreeing on the merits of the ordinance, much of the public discourse mischaracterized both the impact and intent of the ordinance. I was deeply disappointed in much of the tone of the public discussion. I especially appreciated one blog commenter, who noted:
"It's sad that this is being made into an ideological (crusade). It's a small disagreement among people who are all progressive and liberal, in a very liberal and progressive city. It's sad that a few have let themselves get carried away and have burnt bridges with people who would be their natural allies on any important issue you can name."
Supporters of the ordinance included not only leaders of Seattle's human service agencies, including the YWCA, the Downtown Emergency Services Center, the Compass Center, and the Plymouth Housing Group, but people like David Meinert, the long-time leader of Seattle's music community, who described a disturbing incident in which one of his employees was verbally assaulted and threatened, and commented:
"Tim Burgess is trying to do something about this very real problem while still protecting the rights of people. I support him. If you don't, ok, give us another solution. But don't pretend this issue is about us not wanting smelly people downtown, or attacking the homeless, or taking away people's rights to free speech, that's just dishonest.
"Protecting downtown residents and patrons of the multitude of cultural businesses downtown is necessary to have a sociable city, and this ordinance will help us develop into a more sociable city. After all, if people can't walk downtown without being scared as Christen was Saturday night, all the closed streets, wider sidewalks, longer drinking hours, more venues, etc., will be for naught, because there won't be any people to use them."
While the Aggressive Solicitation Ordinance will not go into effect, the problem remains a real one, and the City will have to figure out how to address it effectively in the future.
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CHIHULY AND SEATTLE CENTER REDUX
The owners of the Space Needle Corporation have proposed a new Chihuly Museum at the Seattle Center, to be located on part of the space formerly occupied by the Fun Forest. Center staff welcomed it as both a new attraction and a source of significant additional revenue. However, a number of questions have been raised about the concept, and as a result the Seattle Center has decided to go through a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) process. The sponsors of the Chihuly proposal would be able to submit a proposal, which could be evaluated against other possible uses for the area.
The idea of a Glass Art Museum is an interesting one. While there has been some negative reaction to the Chihuly idea, there are also some good reasons to consider it. It would pay $500,000 per year to the Seattle Center, which would help the Center to subsidize its community activities such as Folklife and the ethnic festivals. And there is certainly precedent for both arts and commercial uses in the Seattle Center to coexist with its community activities. Seattle Opera and Ballet, Intiman and Bagley Wright Theaters, the Pacific Science Center, and the Experience Music Project all charge significant admissions, and the Center also leases space to craft and food businesses, not to mention all of the commercial activities at Key Arena.
However, I also share concerns that have been raised as to whether this is consistent with the Century 21 Master Plan, is an appropriate use for the current Fun Forest location, and fits with Seattle Center's mission as a great public space.
If the Center proceeds with this project, these concerns could be addressed by:
- Siting it at a location that does not compromise the open space/green space envisioned for the Fun Forest area. A privately owned space on or near the Seattle Center would be one option.
- Demonstrating that it is consistent with the Century 21 Plan.
- Making it a true venue for glass artists, and not a static show for a single artist.
- Designing admission policies and prices that ensure broad public access.
The Seattle Center has now issued the formal RFP, which was not reviewed in advance by the Council. However, the Council would have to adopt by ordinance the contract for any proposal that the Seattle Center wanted to accept. I am confident that the Council will take this responsibility seriously.
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"The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order."
-- Alfred North Whitehead
"In politics we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or state. When we are ill... we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one."
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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