Scott Kubly’s last stand?

SDOT Director Scott Kubly was ushered into office with city officials hailing him as a “transportation visionary.” But in the last year his repeated missteps have eroded his support. If the 2-week closing of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, starting next weekend, goes badly it may be the final straw that causes the Mayor to usher him back out.

SDOT Director Scott Kubly
SDOT Director Scott Kubly

From day one, people had high expectations for Kubly — perhaps too high.  The Seattle bicycle community in particular has seen him as their guy to spearhead a dramatic expansion of bike infrastructure around the city.

But the last six months have seen a series of operational failures at SDOT and self-inflicted wounds by Kubly himself.  First and foremost, there’s Pronto, the Seattle bike-share program: during last year’s City Council budget deliberations Kubly and his department failed to mention that Pronto was insolvent, and that they had quietly been making payments from other funds to keep it afloat in direct contradiction to the City Council’s stated desire to withhold additional funding until a new business plan had been developed. Most recently, it became known that Kubly also misrepresented Pronto’s subscriber count by over 50%.

Then there was the grossly mishandled street repair project along 23rd Avenue in the Central District, which has resulted in the city paying $650,000 to try to keep local businesses afloat.

And the cutting of 153 trees on Parks Department and SDOT greenbelt property in West Seattle, which SDOT was informed of and did nothing about for six weeks.

And the ethics probe into Kubly’s failure to properly disclose his relationship with Alta, renamed to Motivate, the prime contractor for Pronto.

And Kubly’s attempt to push through a “Ride the Ducks” inspired regulation prohibiting driver narration on all tour buses that was seen as a massive overreach. The Council is set to approve tomorrow  a more modestly-scoped bill.

And now: KIRO7 reports that Kubly is looking to make more money for SDOT by dropping more metered parking around town, saying “we could make a mint on weekends” in Shilshole alone. He quickly backpedaled, saying that metered parking is really about ensuring access to local businesses.

About a month ago, right after the revelations on Pronto’s insolvency become public, I asked Council members Mike O’Brien (chair of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee and avid bicyclist) and Rob Johnson (vice-chair of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, Sound Transit board member, and all-around transit wonk) their thoughts on Kubly.  O’Brien told me that he still wanted to give Kubly a chance to prove himself.  Johnson was far more supportive, reiterating his belief that Kubly is a “transportation visionary.”

Perhaps Kubly’s biggest test to-date is coming up at the end of the week: the Alaskan Way Viaduct will be closing for two weeks while Bertha tunnels underneath. SDOT has had several weeks to plan how they will handle traffic reroutes during this time. If it goes reasonably well, Kubly may live to fight another day. But if it goes badly, that may very mark the end of his tenure as head of SDOT.

No doubt running SDOT is an incredibly difficult job; things are going to go wrong on the streets of Seattle regardless of who is at the helm. Some things have gone right as well, including SDOT’s widely-praised response to the horrific “Ride the Ducks” accident on the Aurora Bridge earlier this year. And our mild winter, with no snow events, was a nice reprieve for SDOT (and a bullet dodged for Kubly).

But there is a clear pattern to Kubly’s failures: they are nearly all failures of communication. He failed to disclose his conflict of interest. He hid Pronto’s financial state, SDOT’s payments, and SDOT’s subscriber numbers.  SDOT didn’t tell the community (or really anyone) when the 23rd Avenue project changed plans, and they dropped the ball on the illegal tree cutting in West Seattle when they were notified. And Kubly is inconsistent on his stated reasons for wanting more metered parking.

Despite recent calls for his ouster, Mayor Murray is doing the right thing by leaving him in place for now: firing the head of SDOT just before the Viaduct shuts for two weeks would be potentially crippling to the agency at precisely the time when they need to be at the top of their game. But what happens to Kubly in mid-May, when the Viaduct re-opens, is anyone’s guess if SDOT handles the Viaduct closing well; he may yet buy himself more time. Though if it goes badly, prepare to say goodbye to Seattle’s traffic visionary.