Save the bridges, save the world.
Save the bridges, save the world. SDOT

Of all the other agencies, Mayor Jenny Durkan's proposed 2021 budget cuts the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) the deepest. Her budget also eliminates more positions from SDOT than from any other department. It's now up to the Seattle City Council to decide which cuts make it into the final budget.

In Tuesday's budget meeting, while every other council member focused on trying to preserve long-promised pedestrian and bike projects currently on the chopping block, Transportation and Utilities Committee Chair Alex Pedersen proposed spending $24 million from an already-strapped budget for bridge maintenance. How? Great question. He didn't say.

SDOT's spending capacity is nearly 18% lower in 2021 than in 2020. While that number does not incorporate around $60 million in funds from the Seattle Transit Benefit District that voters will decide on in November, it does factor in a $15.8 million increase from transferring parking enforcement officers from the Seattle Police Department to SDOT.

In order to balance spending, SDOT identified multiple capital projects it will need to pause. The cuts include roughly $10 million to sidewalk construction, $7 million in bike projects, and $4.5 million for Vision Zero projects, aka projects designed to reduce vehicle-caused deaths on Seattle roads.

"These are huge cuts considering the very modest budgets that these programs had to begin with," Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, told The Stranger.

"We are concerned that the mayor’s proposed budget reduces general fund spending for transportation by 20% in 2021," a letter to the council from the Move All Seattle Sustainably Coalition reads. "Many investments in pedestrian and biking improvement are being delayed to at least 2023, and in addition to these delays funding is being reduced by a staggering $21.5 million over the next four years."

Most council members aren't taking those cuts lying down. Councilmember Andrew Lewis proposed a slew of measures to preserve funding for projects such as the pedestrian connection from the Market to the Museum of History and Industry, the multimodal path between West Marina Place and 32nd Avenue West, and others. Councilmember Tammy Morales is fighting to fund a bike path between Georgetown and South Park, another bike path along East Marginal Way, and sidewalk construction along the delayed Rapid Ride R Line to Rainier Valley. Other council proposals are listed here.

The Seattle Streetcar service across the system (South Lake Union, First Hill) was reduced in the budget by 10% to save costs, a holdover from the reduced service during COVID-19. (The Center City Connector project was paused indefinitely during the 2020 rebalanced budget). Pedersen pondered whether the streetcar system could be cut by an additional 10% to "satisfy other programs identified by my colleagues." Council President Lorena Gonzalez rejected that idea, saying that too deep of a cut could signal "we're abandoning the streetcar altogether."

Pedersen could be looking for more cuts in order to preserve budget money for his proposal: $24 million of unidentified funding to maintain Seattle bridges.

It's the bridges that need help. Look at the West Seattle Bridge, Pedersen said. Its cracks absolutely boned the city. Do the rest of our bridge-dependent neighborhoods want to suffer like West Seattle is suffering? No, Pedersen is sure they do not. Pedersen then acknowledged that insufficient bridge maintenance didn't play a role in the West Seattle Bridge failure. Still, it should be a wake-up call, Pedersen said.

While it's true that Seattle bridges are fucked and that SDOT should be spending more than the annual average of $6.6 million for bridge maintenance, our crumbling bridges is a national problem, and the federal government is supposed to help. Currently, a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package is permanently stalled in the Senate after passing in the House.

Pedersen's proposal is the bare minimum needed to begin to address this problem. It would pay for bridge-load rating, bridge painting, bridge structures engineering, and bridge structures maintenance. But it will come at the expense of vital, citywide transit services and multimodal improvements that the rest of the council is trying to preserve. How many bike lanes must we sacrifice to paint the Fremont Bridge another shade of blue?

Select Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda wondered about "the large price tag" of Pedersen's proposal. Given the cuts to mobility already in the budget, she asked where other reductions for a mostly car-centric proposal would come from.

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Pedersen didn't have a direct answer. He said it "could come from multiple sources," and speculated that vehicle license fees could help now that the Supreme Court has struck down Tim Eyman's car tab initiative. Those fees are typically used to fund bus service.

"I would say buses and bikes use bridges, too," Pedersen said, attempting to defend his proposal as multimodal. "And pedestrians [use] some of them."

While Pedersen is right that multiple modes use bridges, Padelford explained, the state or the federal government can and should help with that work. “To do that from SDOT’s budget means scrapping local projects where we’re only getting funds on a local level,” he added.