Roads to Ruin

Sex! Monorail! The spankin' new library!

This column is about none of those things. But I had to get your attention, Seattle, by dangling shiny objects. This column is actually about stuff the city needs that is just plain boring. Yes, we all prefer to fantasize about a city of expensive flubdubs, but please take a minute to think about your city streets.

While the Seattle Monorail Project moves ahead with its $1.6 billion starter line, while the mayor dreams of putting $45 million into an Allentown trolley line, and while some folks go gaga over a possible Elliott Bay suspension bridge to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct— a bridge the state now estimates would cost in excess of $5 billion—the ground beneath us is literally giving way.

Seattle has nearly 4,000 lane miles of paved road, and even eight miles of still-unpaved streets. And they're falling apart, albeit slowly. But according to a report from the city's Transportation Department, "Seattle faces a reckoning" in the not too distant future. Already, 67 percent of city streets have outlived their design life, which is one reason fixing potholes has been a popular, if shortsighted, political platform. More importantly, the lion's share of these streets are paved with hard, durable, and expensive concrete, thanks to our far-thinking city fathers and mothers in the first half of the 20th century, who built roads to last. Replacing these streets is an expensive, long-term process that ought to begin now.

Which might be doable, except we're not even taking care of what we have, let alone replacing the infrastructure for the long term. Due to budget cuts, the city is falling behind on repair and maintenance work on streets. The most recent survey of major arterials concluded that 16 percent were in poor or worse condition, as are more than a third of the city's 138 bridges. And no one really knows about the two-thirds of city streets that aren't arterials: There hasn't been money to survey their condition in a decade.

In May, a Citizen's Transportation Advisory Committee recommended a massive increase in spending on our city streets, nearly $1 billion over the next 20 years. The city wants to spend $14 million per year resurfacing and rehabbing major arterials, and $10 million per year to catch up with between $300 million and $600 million of deferred maintenance. Together, that's three times the current spending. In addition, the city's wish list includes $15 million per year for maintaining and fixing nonarterials—a 15-fold increase over current spending. On top of that, the citizen's committee points out that Seattle's urban village plans have identified nearly $500 million of needed neighborhood transportation improvements, mostly for bikes and pedestrians, most of which are unfunded. In add­ition, there is at least $1 billion in upcoming replacement projects, including seawalls, the Spokane Street viaduct, and some of those creaky bridges.

So on the back of Mossback's envelope, there are projects worth at least $2.5 billion or more that need doing just to keep our street network functional—before building trains, trolleys, monorails, tunnels, or what have you.

To his credit, Mayor Greg Nickels is leading the charge to go to Olympia to get approval for funding mechanisms to raise the dough to attack the problem. One reason we're falling behind on the city streets is that the courts, inflation, and antitax efforts have eroded the funding base. The citizen's committee recommends a short-term fix of lifting the property tax levy lid to generate $25 million per year for roadwork, about half of what the city says it needs. Longer term, there's the possibility of a bond issue, or, more likely, "user" taxes. No tolls yet, but a sales tax on fuel is one idea.

Raising the money is going to be tough, but I think government has to show good faith by spending our tax money wisely and staying focused on the basics. So while the mayor is working to fix the streets, he ought also to consider giving up projects like the trolley line in the South Lake Union neighborhood being developed by Paul Allen. The mayor's people argue that the estimated $45 million for that project would mostly be paid by local businesses and federal and state grants—although, admittedly, no one knows where the money to operate the line will come from, and the capital costs rest on some rosy grant scenarios. Advocates argue that South Lake Union development means that transit improvements of some kind are inevitable, so bus or trolley, it will have to be paid for in any case.

But taxes—even local improvement district taxes—affect the business climate and test the tax tolerance of other folks. Instead of putting millions into a trolley line in front of their South Lake Union businesses, those folks could be contributing significantly to citywide needs, including bus service on better-maintained streets that already run in front of their businesses. We shouldn't balkanize transportation funding any more than it is. In the current situation, a new trolley qualifies as a flubdub.

In any case, keeping Seattle navigable is going to be expensive. It's unglam­orous, sure, but vital to avoid developing a kind of degenerative citywide case of arteriosclerosis.

So while we're considering "rising above it all," we also need to remember to get down and dirty once in a while, to pay more attention to the existing transpor­tation network that laces the city together.

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