Transportation, bike, and pedestrian advocates are worried.
Newly elected Councilmember Alex Pedersen will be in charge of the Transportation and Utilities Committee on Seattle City Council this year. It's quite the "vote of confidence," as Pedersen described it to me in an email, for a first-year council member; Pedersen will oversee $3.8 billion of Seattle's $6 billion dollar budget. While the committee has a wide breadth of responsibilities, the "transportation" part is a sticking point for many people.
Lolly Kunkler, a District 4 resident and member of Safe 35th, the pro-bike lane side of the 35th Ave redesign debate, told The Stranger she is "disturbed" with Pedersen as transportation chair.
"He has been openly hostile to projects which promote shared street uses," Kunkler told me. "He seems to think that the 35th Ave NE redesign turned out A-okay, and couldn't even be bothered to attend the candidate transportation forum during the council campaigns."
During the campaign, Pedersen and I rode 35th Avenue together—also known as the Mayor Jenny Durkan Speedway, as it was dubbed after the redesign made it more perilous for cyclists. He agreed that the street wasn't safe to ride on but not that City Hall should make any more changes to it and that the greenway nearby (which most cyclists consider imperfect and inconvenient) was a better option.
"His history on transportation issues is not great," Keith Kyle, the executive director of Seattle Subway, told me. "He opposed Sound Transit 3 (ST3) and he opposed the Levy to Move Seattle. It seems like he tends to side with the forces who don’t want to make transportation improvements for people on bikes, buses, or pedestrians."
ST3, one of the largest transit projects in U.S. history, was approved by nearly 70 percent of Seattleites and will add 62 miles of light rail by 2041. Move Seattle, a $930 million transportation levy approved in 2015 (which has since fallen woefully behind on its promises), would improve streets and sidewalks for multiple modes of transportation.
In the past, Pedersen has explained that he voted the way he did because he was concerned about regressive funding streams. Most recently, Pedersen defended the votes by saying he wasn't on Seattle City Council when they occurred and that he has already started "bridge-building with transportation advocates," Pedersen said in an email. "There is a lot of common ground."
That has been encouraging for transportation advocates. But the uneasiness going into the new term is persistent. Pedersen will be filling former Councilmember Mike O'Brien's shoes as the lead on transit. O'Brien, otherwise known as Seattle's bike-loving uncle, seemed to passionately care about the issues he was championing, Kyle told me.
"O'Brien tried to always be there as a voice that was trying to make things happen," Kyle said. "He matched our values when it came to transportation choices."
For Kyle, Pedersen's leadership could mean the "watering down" of transportation projects or contributing to "the forces of eternal delay" by questioning each line item on proposed projects. That means making proposed transportation projects lower quality to account for costs and to appease other groups.
During the City Council races last year, Pedersen was perceived to be the "accountability" candidate in District 4, meaning he could end up being the council's fiscally conservative voice. There have been some instances of this pointed out by The C is for Crank in the few months Pedersen has already been on council:
"...Alex Pedersen cast the lone “no” vote against legislation transferring a small piece of land in Wallingford (or, as Pedersen called it, “East Fremont”) from the Finance and Administrative Services department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The land transfer will allow SDOT to extend a bus lane on N. 45th St. and speed travel times on Metro’s Route 44... "
That kind of legislating is not what Seattle, a town hungry for transit, needs right now, according to Kyle. "If you make languishing over budgets a priority rather than getting things done, you end up with bad outcomes," he said.
"Perhaps chairing the commission will also serve as education, and his understanding of the link between transportation, equality, and the environment will evolve," Lolly Kunkler said, "but I am not hopeful.”
Pedersen did introduce new legislation that implements a "carbon note," a concept borrowed from urbanist and former District 4 candidate Cathy Tuttle. It would require all legislation to be viewed through a climate impact lens and "will be a concrete step in fighting climate change locally," Pedersen wrote in the legislation's announcement.
"In 2020," Pedersen said, "I look forward to joining together to overturn Tim Eyman's initiative, renew our Transportation Benefit District, and, for the first time, measure carbon impacts with each new piece of legislation."
Despite his wariness, Kyle is optimistic.
"We’ll take it on good faith that things are going to keep happening as they should," Kyle said. He followed it with a little laugh. "Of course, we’re willing to change positions on that if it doesn’t go that way."