In mid-June, the Seattle City Council sent a letter to King County executive Dow Constantine pledging $15 million to replace the South Park bridge—a bridge that connected the South Park neighborhood to Georgetown and provided a vital freight route to south Seattle's industrial area. A bridge so decrepit that its national safety level rating was a four out of 100, the South Park bridge closed permanently on June 30 and the county has been working ever since to secure $130 million to fund its replacement.
Last week, King County received the last of its funding and the people rejoiced.
How is Seattle going to secure the $15 million it promised the county?
Mayor Mike McGinn's 2011 budget proposal suggests raising the commercial parking tax (CPT) five percent to pay for the city's share of the bridge replacement, while also maintaining funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements in the city. The CPT is a tax on private parking garages around Seattle and the approximately $19 million it generates in revenue can only be used for transportation improvements.
But the city council just raised the CPT tax and now they're unwilling to do it again. "I haven't heard a willingness from council members to increase the CPT in the near future," said Tom Rasmussen, chair of the council's Transportation committee when reached by phone yesterday. Rasmussen says funding the South Park bridge can wait: "The way the county is sequencing the project, the county probably won’t need the funds in the short term. We have time to raise the funds." Constantine's office confirms that Seattle's $15 million won't be needed for two-to-three years.
Here's the problem: The City Budget Office predicts that Seattle's General Fund will grow less than 4 percent annually through 2014. "The anticipated revenue trends over the next four years are likely not sufficient to maintain the current mix of City services and address many of the 'looming budget issues'... on the horizon," according to the office's 2011-2014 financial plan. The city council is simply punting its obligation to come up with bridge funding for a few years when research suggests the financial climate won't be much different than it is now.
So how does Rasmussen propose eventually raising the money to fund the SP Bridge replacement? "Maybe a transportation benefit district," he said, which would allow the city to collect $20 vehicle licensing fees to fund street-related improvements. "But first we need to develop an agreement and work to find out when, exactly, they'll need our funds." Here's another problem: The council has committed to other projects that rely on the funding generated from a parking tax increase. "If the council doesn’t support the CPT increase, funding for walking and biking improvements will also be cut by 25 percent," says Aaron Pickus, spokesman for the mayor.
God, aren't you just dying for more on the CPT??? Your wish is granted after the jump!
In 2010, the city spent $20.6 million on walking and biking improvement projects. Without a CPT increase, funding for sidewalks, bike lanes, and other street improvements will drop to $15.6 million in 2011. (Walking and biking advocates say that even $20.6 million is woefully inadequate. For instance, sidewalks in Seattle cost between $1 and $2 million per mile to install. It would cost the city roughly $4.5 billion to add sidewalks to all Seattle streets.)
As mentioned earlier, the council voted in late September to raise the CPT from 10 percent to 12.5 percent, which is designated to pay for Seattle's seawall replacement. At the time, both the mayor and Streets for All Seattle—an advocacy group that aims to raise $30 million annually to fund bike, ped, and transit improvements in the city—argued that replacing the seawall wasn't a transportation-oriented expenditure. Now, instead of raising $30 million for street improvements with help from city council, funding might be reduced to $15 million. "We’ll be going significantly backwards to fund bike and pedestrian improvements," said Craig Benjamin, spokesman for Streets for All Seattle. "The next question is, what improvements will be cut?"
It's a good question. The council can delay funding the South Park bridge for awhile—eventually the city will be forced to pay up. But breaking pledges to Seattle residents is much easier than breaking pledges to King County.
At the Streets for All Seattle launch party in July, City Council President Richard Conlin, among other council members, pledged to find funding for ped, bike, and transit improvements. "These are tough budgetary times," he said, but "they're also times of opportunity. Time to think about when people don't have much money, walking, biking, and transit are the modes the have to use."