Fix the bridges or fix the sidewalks? Council, advocates split on how to spent new car-tab revenues

Last fall, in the short window of time between when the state Supreme Court overturned Initiative 976 and when the City Council finished the 2021 city budget, the Council increased the city’s vehicle license fee (VLF) by $20, as it is allowed to do under state law. Councilmember Pedersen, the chair of the transportation committee, along with Councilmember Herbold originally proposed that the revenues — $7.2 million per year starting in 2022, half of that this year because it takes effect July 1 — should be dedicated to bridge maintenance. But a majority of his colleagues decided that they would rather let the “Seattle Process” run its course and sent SDOT off to confer with stakeholders and come back with a proposed spending plan.

SDOT did just that, and their plan calls for peanut-buttering the funds across sidewalk maintenance, improving unsafe streets and intersections, accessibility improvements, bridge maintenance, and planning for a future, more integrated multimodal transportation network in Seattle. In response, Pedersen, Herbold and two of their colleagues have counter-proposed using the revenues to pay debt service on $100 million in bonds, with $75 million dedicated to bridge maintenance and $25 million for other investments such as the ones in the SDOT proposal.

In a committee meeting this morning, it became clear that this debate has split both the Council and the usual cohort of community advocates that have its ear.

It’s important to acknowledge that this is really an argument over picking from a long list of decidedly unsexy projects. State and federal funding tends to go to new infrastructure and to one-time expenditures such as capital projects. Ongoing maintenance of infrastructure, both old and new, is much harder to obtain funding for. A recent audit by the City Auditor concluded that the city should be spending anywhere from $34 million to $102 million annually on maintenance for its $6.5 billion of bridges; in the 2021 budget it will spend $14 million, and that is about double what it budgeted annually up through 2020. In addition, because of decades of flagrant under-investment, SDOT has hundreds of millions of dollars in backlog of bridge maintenance, several bridges rated in “poor” condition under the federal rating system, and 16 bridges in dire need of seismic retrofit.

At the same time, large portions of Seattle’s street system have no sidewalks, and this is particularly true in lower-income areas of the city that have seen decades of chronic under-investment in infrastructure. There are also unsafe and poorly-maintained sidewalks spread throughout the city, as well as dangerous intersections and arterials that see a disproportionate number of vehicle collisions and pedestrian injuries — once again, concentrated in underserved communities such as along Rainier Avenue S. Plus, as the city has slowly built out its bicycle network, funding to maintain bike lanes has not materialized leaving some parts of the network in poor condition, unswept, and dangerous to navigate.

There are several dimensions to the debate over how to spend the money.  One regards the appropriate use of car-tab revenues: should vehicles license fees support infrastructure for vehicles, or should it support mitigating the negative impacts of vehicles?

There is also the “now or later” debate: do we want $7.2 million per year over the next 20 years, or do we want $100 million now that we pay off for 20 years? The arguments for issuing $100 million of bonds now are multiple:

  • we have an urgent backlog that should be tackled with a larger effort now;
  • $100 million of construction projects now will be a big boost for local employment at a pivotal moment for the unsteady economic recovery;
  • have all that cash now will make it easier for the city to meet local matching requirements for potential state and federal transportation grants that come available in the next year (though SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe countered that the department has never had trouble finding matching funds for state and federal grants when required to do so).

Earlier this week, Councilmember Pedersen had a rare “say the quiet part out loud” moment where he mentioned one more reason to use the money to issue: it will protect the vehicle license fee from future Tim Eyman efforts to roll back car-tabs, since court rulings make it clear that voter initiatives cannot impair contracts (such as bonds) that commit revenues sources (such as car-tabs) to debt service.

But this morning Director Zimbabwe made his best case for the “money later” option: that regardless of whether there is a big push now to address the maintenance backlog, there will still be a need for more maintenance next year, and the year after that, and so on. Knowing that he has dedicated funding for maintenance of sidewalks and bike lanes, as well as for improving dangerous intersections, allows his department to make long-term plans for ongoing maintenance work, rather than just one-offs. Though Pedersen countered that even if the full $7.2 million was dedicated to those kinds of maintenance projects, it’s still a drop in the bucket for SDOT’s annual budget of over $636 million; he argued that the department should be able to prioritize $7.2 million of funding over other uses.

True to form, the stakeholder input process that SDOT ran — as well as the public comments in this morning’s committee meeting — proved that the results of the “Seattle Process” are entirely dependent upon which stakeholders the city reaches out to. Labor, construction and some transportation advocates come down on the side of the proposal to issue bonds and dedicate 75% of the funds toward bridges; equity, bike, pedestrian and other transportation advocates prefer to have the money invested as SDOT recommended.

The Council didn’t vote this morning on which way to go, though it did have a lengthy and substantive debate on the merits of both proposals. And to be clear, the formal proposal from the four Councilmembers (Pedersen, Mosqueda, Herbold and Lewis) doesn’t commit the city to issuing bonds now and spending the proceeds mostly on bridges; it simply would request the SDOT provide by September 30th a list of what it would do with $100 million of bond proceeds, 75% of which was dedicated to bridge maintenance projects. The intent would be to take that information into the 2022 budget process, which kicks off at the end of September, and make the decision then. As for the $3.6 million of revenues in 2021, the bond/bridges proposal wouldn’t change it: SDOT could move ahead immediately with using those funds on sidewalks, bike lanes, and safer intersections (though it will be spread very thin).

But for the moment, the majority seems to be leaning toward the bond/bridges option, with Councilmember Juarez voicing her support as well this morning. Five months is a long time and much could change in the city’s finances between now and then, especially with Seattle’s post-COVID recovery currently lagging the rest of the nation, so it’s probably not a safe bet to predict how this will all end. The good news, however, is that at least for the moment it hasn’t become one more nasty political fight in City Hall, and the Councilmembers are having a sound policy debate over which unsexy projects should get more attention and dollars.

The Council will take up the spending plan again at the next Transportation and Utilities committee meeting on May 5.

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