Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata says in his May 13 newsletter Urban Politics that Seattle’s financial troubles mean it is time for a hard look at the city’s construction budget to look for ways to save, particularly on the Mercer West project. Here is an edited version of his comments.
By Nick Licata
By now just about everyone should be aware that the city will have to cut over $50 million from our budget next year. The mayor is currently providing city departments with guidelines on what percentage of their budget will have to be cut. A number of departments could see cuts as high as 14-15 percent, if Human Services and Public Safety (Police and Fire) remain relatively whole; they account for 49 percent of the city’s general fund. Around 13 percent of the general fund pays for fixed costs such as debt, pensions, etc., leaving 38 percent of the general fund likely targeted for larger cuts. This is the portion that includes parks and libraries, for example. In addition, the council and the mayor must still make mid-year 2010 cuts, which will likely be in the $12 million range.
The mayor will send a mid-year reduction proposal to the council, likely by mid-June. For the 2011 proposal, due in September, the only options are to cut spending or find new revenue. Even with new revenues, cuts will still need to be made.
I believe we must re-examine our current construction budget to see what savings we can realize. In a March presentation the City Council’s central staff laid out a sobering assessment of future city construction projects and current financial resources.
Upcoming needs include replacing maintenance facilities, the North Police Precinct, Magnolia Bridge, Harbor Patrol and downtown waterfront fire stations, and of course, the seawall and viaduct-related work. This totals around $1 billion.
We also have a Seattle Center Master Plan, estimated at $625 million over 20 years, a Bicycle Master Plan at $240 million over 10 years that we’re behind on funding, and a Pedestrian Master Plan with an open-ended commitment of around $1 billion.
Although separately funded, there are several major utility projects in the pipeline: combined sewer overflow, Duwamish clean-up, South Lake Union Substation, Smartgrid, all at $100 million or so-each. That doesn’t include the $250-plus million for Viaduct-related utility work.
These projects do not address the mayor’s possible proposals for light rail and broadband.
And lastly there is the South Park Bridge, owned by King County, which is scheduled to be closed June 30.
The city will receive bids for the Mercer Project on May 19, and the Council’s Transportation Committee could vote to lift a ban on construction spending as soon as May 25. I expect the bids to come in below projections, perhaps by as much as 15 to 20 percent. That is the good news. However, close to $100 million is required for the second part, called Mercer West, much of which may have to be funded by bonds, which would add principal and debt costs. It is critical that we evaluate the design on Mercer West to determine if any savings can be achieved.
The current Mercer West design would convert Mercer to 2-way traffic east of Dexter, and expand the underpass under Aurora from four to six lanes for the two blocks from Dexter to Fifth. It also includes bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Most of the cost is for the underpass. Given the current budget situation, the underpass is worth reconsidering.
SDOT has emphasized that the goal of the Mercer project is to improve area-wide travel, not just to redo Mercer. It has long included, for example, narrowing Valley adjacent to Lake Union Park. It may be possible to attain project goals without the underpass, since the state is funding three new crossings over Aurora at John, Thomas and Harrison between Mercer and Denny as part of the Viaduct replacement project. This adds six lanes of crossings over Aurora, three in each direction, and counterbalances the four lanes of Broad Street likely to be removed.
Bicycle and pedestrian crossings could be incorporated into the three crossings. Dexter Avenue on the east side of Aurora already has bicycle lanes.
There hasn’t yet been any travel time analysis I’ve seen that incorporates the three Aurora crossings. SDOT’s earlier travel time analyses didn’t include the crossings, as they weren’t funded yet. I believe this should be done. Expanding the Mercer underpass would give us eight new lanes to cross Aurora, instead of six. Do we really need all eight new lanes in a time of sharp budget cuts, especially if project goals can be realized at a lower cost?
Eliminating the expanded Mercer underpass, if it doesn’t create a safety hazard, would help in two ways. First it would reduce the need for any bond financing and secondly it would allow funds to go towards completing our pedestrian and bicycle master plans, or perhaps allow the City to direct some funding to King County’s South Park Bridge replacement project, an indisputably pressing need.