The Mercer Corridor Project stands to defer long-delayed street maintenance through the entire city, and its real benefit is very much in doubt. Project costs have doubled since 2004, resulting in the use of commercial parking tax funds and property sale revenues that could be used for other priorities.
The City Council should be giving its final vote of support for the $200 million project in the next few weeks. This vote follows on the release of new travel time analysis from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and a new finance plan that estimates the funding gap at $20-$50 million. The council vote would allow construction to proceed.
The revised funding package includes contributions from private property owners, the eventual sale of property purchased for the project, and $70 million in bonds financed by the commercial parking tax. The city hopes to receive $50 million from the federal stimulus package to complete the current Mercer Project, and an additional $30 million to extend the new two-way flow west, through Lower Queen Anne, to Elliott Ave.
The revised travel time analysis shows that the project may modestly improve traffic flow. SDOT began using new "traffic modeling" software after I revealed that their prior traffic report, which they had kept from both the council and the public for over a year, showed significant increases in both traffic congestion and traffic times.
SDOT now says that they had planned on using this new, more sophisticated software all along, and it was just a matter of time before they got around to using it. Oddly, in the multiple community debates I had with SDOT leadership around the city on the Mercer Project's shortcomings, this explanation never surfaced when I repeatedly showed them their own data. They did say they didn't like the data and they were going to fix it. Their latest analysis now shows better travel times than previous estimates during the p.m. peak, where the worst travel times were before (no new data for other times was released).
This is based in part by changing a key assumption. The new "current" travel times are now based on the South Lake Union Streetcar having signal priority at 4 intersections, to meet 15-minute travel times. The new future travel times assume the streetcar would lose this signal priority, and take 18 minutes. This makes for shorter Mercer travel times in the future, and longer "current" travel times, but does not provide an apples-to-apples comparison.
There is no way that any single councilmember can effectively question, let alone challenge, whatever analysis SDOT provides for proceeding with the Mercer Project if the tools for the analysis keep changing. If we take SDOT at face value, this project now has become a winner!
The project has now expanded to include expansion of the Mercer underpass below Aurora from four to six lanes for an estimated additional cost of $66 million, and conversion of Mercer from Dexter to Elliott into a two-way road. No travel time studies have been released. Total additional cost and funding sources are nevertheless just as uncertain as in the past.
The impact the bored tunnel option to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct will have on the Mercer Project isn't yet fully clear. It could result in entrances and/or exits from Aurora onto Mercer (this is considered the state's project); Mercer traffic analysis was finished before the tunnel was announced.
The bored tunnel option includes over $900 million in City spending. While $250 million would be from utilities, it adds up to a lot of major transportation project work paid for by the city.
SDOT's 2009 budget lists $82 million for the Mercer Project, 24 percent of its total $343 million budget, and more than the entire $65 million major maintenance budget for bridges, roads, sidewalks, trails, and bike paths.
In 2009 SDOT plans to pave 24 lane miles of arterials; at that rate, it would take 60 years to re-pave the 1,534 lane miles of arterials in Seattle. Building 30 new sidewalks a year puts us on a 200-year cycle to fill out just half of the blocks without sidewalks. These figures are as high as they are only due to the generous votes of Seattle taxpayers to support the 2006 Bridging the Gap property tax levy.
If the City decides to spend hundreds of millions on additional big projects, it must be very careful not to shortchange basic maintenance.