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If you don't build it, they won't come.
Some might argue that's been Seattle's philosophy with its frequently not so secret war against cars.
But will voters try to swing back toward a council that might seek a more moderate balance between the car and other modes of transportation?
If so, how will SDOT pivot?
That's one of the questions we'll ask the new director of the Seattle Department of Transportation next on Northwest.
Seattle does have a lot of transportation priorities to juggle.
Everything from traffic to construction to pedestrian safety and bike routes.
Traffic safety has been a problem in Seattle for at least a decade as congestion relief and traffic flow were sacrificed at the altar of a decade long crusade against cars.
As Northwest now contributor Steve Kitchens tells us, all the high minded ideals that brought us everything from rental bikes to the loss of Lane Miles isn't really what's resonating with the people he spoke with.
They're focused on safety.
Back in 2015, Seattle launched its Vision Zero campaign aimed to eliminate all pedestrian and cyclist deaths by the year 2030.
Now, voters also approved the move Seattle Levy, which would pay for, in part, improvements to infrastructure to make travel, would be safe for everyone.
While some believe that starts made a lot of progress, others say not quite so much.
In fact, earlier in February, the 80 year old woman crossing the street here was struck by a hit and run driver.
West Marginal, way southwest along the New Orleans River sees about 15,000 vehicles each day and most are big rigs.
And it's supposed to be 30 miles an hour.
But it's not just heavy industry here.
There's a small neighborhood and multiple parks line.
The River Shaw used to be 40 and people do 50, 60 and then now they cut it down to 30.
And if you slow down to 30, people are flying by Seattle.
says cutting the southbound lanes from two done to one decreases speeds by 12% in some parts and an on street protected bike Lane closes what the agency calls a crucial gap for the city's walking and biking network.
I also want to take a moment to think about why we're talking about these issues about the bike program.
In early February, the move Seattle Oversight Committee discussed starts progress finding.
The agency has finished 60 of the proposed 110 miles of new bike lane projects since Vision Zero's launch.
1200 people navigating Seattle streets without a car were injured in the crash.
At least 175 have died.
City data shows from 2019 to 21, 44% of all fatal and serious pedestrian and cyclist crashes happened in Seattle.
Cell site in Council District two.
One of the latest victims was an 18 year old woman.
The crash happened on the Capitol Hill neighborhood, arterial under construction.
She was hit and killed.
And I want that to be at the top of mind when we talk about these projects, because that's really what we're talking about.
We're talking about safety for everyone.
Most of the trucks lost.
Video calls are like that.
Big trucks, some industrial workers wonder if bikes and big rigs should mix.
I think it's an asinine idea to put a bicycle in where traffic should be mixing bicycles with commercial trucks.
There's again, there's it's better than being on the open road.
But cyclists have a right on roadways.
Riders insist investments in safety is a two way street.
Even just having a dedicated painted lane with room between you and traffic will save lives.
There's no question it was still light outside when this crash happened.
Surrounded by bystanders, they ran to this woman's aid, including after the speedy officer gave her CPR.
She was loaded into an ambulance.
She was transported to the hospital where she let her die.
For Northwest now, I'm Steve.
Meanwhile, bridge safety may be the number one issue DOD faces, even though a proposal to float $100 million worth of bonds failed last year.
The city has 124 bridges, and the Ballard and Fremont bridges were supposed to be fixed when move Seattle passed in 2015, but the bids came back too high and those projects remain undone.
Another problem is the Center City Connector streetcar that's been on and off the drawing board several times.
Into that fray steps.
Greg Spotts, most recently the executive officer for the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services.
Greg, thanks so much for coming in Northwest now.
Great to have a conversation with the kind of new director of transportation for the City of Seattle.
Give us a little bio.
Tell us where you come from and then talk a little bit about what I think is interesting.
You actually make a pretty concerted effort to get out there and use the facilities that you're managing, which makes sense.
Well, thank you.
Just about six months ago, right on Labor Day weekend, I moved from Los Angeles to Seattle.
It's a very it's been a very exciting time for me.
I was the number two executive at the L.A. Bureau of Street Services for the city of Los Angeles.
And I was with that agency for ten years and worked a full four years for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa before that, doing transport station project delivery.
So I'm bringing all of those experiences to this very exciting opportunity to be a direct mayoral appointee for mayor Bruce Harrell, running the Seattle Department of Transportation, which has 1300 employees and more than $700 million budget.
The department is in charge of the road surface, the sidewalks, the street trees, the signals, the striping, the signage and the bridges.
And one of the things that attracted me to the job was having all these elements under one roof because I thought we could do like holistic, multi benefit street design play.
Let's pretend for a minute, and I think Mayor Harrell is an example of this.
Say the political pendulum swings back a little bit and it becomes a little more moderate and we're looking again for a viable business core.
Do you think cars and traffic and cars are kind of that?
We call it the C in Seattle when it comes to transportation?
Will they ever reemerge as a priority in your mind?
Could start pivot if that were to happen.
Or is your feeling, hey, when I look across the landscape and how transportation is going forward in the future, the car is pretty much dead going forward.
We're never we're never going back to that.
It's a brave new world.
How do you view that?
So, you know, I'm passionate about making cities more walkable, bikeable, transit friendly, greener, safer and climate resilient.
And one of the things I've been trying to do is understand what Seattleites think about their transportation system.
So a month before I got here, we launched a web link where Seattleites in small groups could sign up to take me to walk, bike or ride transit around their community.
And my staff kind of wondered if that was a good idea or if anybody would be interested.
And we had 50 applicants and then 100 and then 150, and now we're approaching 200.
And so for pretty much every week of my first six months here, I've started Monday to Thursday in the field and community and learned a lot about what Seattleites think is working and what needs improvement concurrently.
We're also doing systematic outreach on the new version of our Seattle transportation plan.
And interestingly, in this structured outreach, when we offer like three or four levels, do you want stay the course moderate change or massive change towards a more walkable, bikeable, transit friendly city?
Most people are hitting the button for the massive change and also as the planning departments doing similar outreach, sometimes in conjunction with us on housing, most people are clicking on wanting abundant housing in Seattle.
So it's very interesting seeing public opinion both in person with me interacting with community members and from this more structured way.
But I'm very aware that the transportation system has to work for all users, including drivers and including our freight and business community, who moves a whole lot of goods through Seattle and in and out of Seattle via the port.
As I'm sure you've learned, all the people that you've spent time with are all transportation and planning experts.
You realize that of course, right now you've been in Seattle a while.
I learned that in Los Angeles.
And it's also true here in Seattle, and that's totally fine.
There's actually a tremendous amount of civic engagement here.
So does I've been thrilled by that.
So with this idea of this more livable, walkable city, we get into concepts that are kind of in vogue right now with the 15 minute city, which you're you're no more than 15 minutes away from finding an alternative, making the walk, making the bike ride to get on transit.
Is that realistic, do you think, for Seattle?
And I'm wondering, is this maybe if it's going to be a realistic a window of opportunity with downtown traffic down, work from home at an all time high?
No political statement here, but maybe a little reduction in force downtown is the time to do it.
Is the time ripe before the next big wave of automotive crisis hit Seattle?
I think it is the right time for experimentation, for sure.
And I don't think even the most passionate proponents of the 15 minute city or the 15 minute neighborhood are trying to say you should implement it for every neighborhood.
But I think we want to give those communities who want it options to like get to their little urban village on foot or on bike or on a short bus ride.
You know, it's all about options.
I think the way we eventually reduce the carbon emissions of transportation and also spend more time together and, you know, reduce diabetes and move around more, you know, live a more active lifestyle.
It all has to be people opting in to what they want to do.
I don't think anybody intends to come and radically change people's neighborhoods who don't want that.
But to the extent that there's some folks living here now and who want to move here, who want to have a more dense, you know, walkable, bikeable, transit oriented lifestyle, let's try to find a way to provide that.
And yes, you know, Seattle's been under such incredible growth pressure.
You know, we've doubled the size population since 1980.
It's possible the next year or two might be a slight pause in that growth pressure.
And it is a pretty neat time for experimentation.
You know, I will tell you, Tom, I left my car in L.A. and I moved to a neighborhood called South Lake Union.
I'm living in an apartment building.
I'm 1.7 miles from the office building where I'm speaking to you now.
And I walk at least one way and take the bus the other way.
So I've been dependent on walking bus, a little bit of biking and some Lyft and Uber, you know, in my first six months here.
And that's really helped me to understand the options and what it's like for either folks who can't drive or choose not to drive or would like to have a more so dense urban lifestyle.
Flipside of that, there is some thinking that Seattle may not come back.
The downtown core may not ever be what it once was.
There is a push for maybe turning office buildings in a residences.
San Francisco, for instance, is offering tax breaks to try to get people back into the downtown.
I presented it my first question as an opportunity to get stuff done.
But maybe is it also is will will mass transit in the walkable city be too little too late?
Will it all arrive and be awesome just in time for the fact that nobody's coming downtown anymore?
Is that possible?
I actually think that we can have a progressive transportation agenda that supports a vital March 24 seven 365 Downtown and other communities.
When I walked the alignment of the missing streetcar segment, you know, we have a streetcar in South Lake Union.
We have a streetcar that goes from Pioneer Square through the Chinatown International District up into first Hill on Capitol Hill.
And the two currently don't connect.
And when I walk First Avenue, I thought I saw something like a linear entertainment district along all three segments of the streetcar where we would have like a whole of government set of policies to have arts, cultural, retail, restaurant, entertainment uses.
And the streetcar could be catalytic for a much more vibrant downtown.
You're talking there about the Center City Connector that's been on and off and on and off several times.
So I hear you come to bat for it.
And what's interesting is the real concept that you're expressing there is building Tacoma.
So don't tell anybody.
Nobody in the south says, I'm following.
I'm cheering along.
And I want to learn more about it and spend more time in Tacoma.
There's so many similarities.
Also, Tacoma is pushing hard on Vision Zero and reduce speed limits, etc..
But yeah, I've rebranded the Center City Connector as the Cultural Connector, and the mayor finds that really compelling.
The idea that Seattle has many different flavors and elements of our culture.
And what if, you know, the whole streetcar alignment could be, you know, $5 all day, hop on, hop off for, you know, the into up until, you know, when it closes late at night.
And you could have maybe an app that has all these attractions that you can visit, you know, on the streetcar.
I find it really exciting.
Or with your work as a transportation person to be part of your campus right down to the waterfront, too.
I mean, if you look at the map, yes, it's it's all you have to do is just hook it together and it's it's there.
We need a more transit connectivity to the waterfront.
We're building all this connectivity from the waterfront up to First Avenue.
Bridges and and this esplanade and all these different ways to get up up the hill.
But then how do we get people from their back into the rest of the city?
It's very exciting.
You know, the the group that's managing the waterfront construction are actually DOT employees.
And I'm very, very proud and happy to be a part of that work as well.
You mentioned bridges, which of course, brings up Ballard and Fremont.
Those were on there was a bond measure.
You know, there's been some funding for those bids.
Came back too high.
Just give us an update on the status of that.
Where are we in terms of maybe getting those done or are we anywhere?
So Seattle is a city of bridges.
And during my confirmation hearings, there were some pretty pointed questions about bridges.
And I said at the time that it's my job to make sure we have the people, systems and technology needed to bring a modern asset management approach to the bridge infrastructure so that we're identifying the repairs that are needed at the times that are needed to get the full service life out of each of these assets, including our four movable bridges.
There was an audit of the way we managed the bridges as a portfolio in 2020, and I've been resourcing adding staff to like completing the eight recommendations in that audit and that will give us a strong foundation to moving towards a more sophisticated asset management approach going.
And I guess the question is, can you get to them?
Will they happen before they get West Seattle bridged?
Oh, I think generally yes.
That was a very unusual situation and I was pretty lucky to join like two weeks before that project ended.
The only contribution I made to the West Seattle Bridge was IMC at the press conference to relook at it.
You know, timing.
Timing is everything.
Greg Yeah, but I have to say, you know, something that impressed me about Seattle and the whole region and the state is there was a total mobilization from city departments to our congressional delegation and our senators, the governor.
I mean, the amount of effort that went into finding the resources, you know, to do a, you know, unprecedented repair of a bridge that was having unforeseen and rapid deterioration.
I have to say, I know it was extremely frustrating for our friends on West Seattle.
I was going to say talk to a few West Seattleites about the next time you're over there about what they thought about the timeline I have, you know, and I do.
But I do think that a a, an effective response was mustered and I have toward the inside of the bridge and seen all the remediation that was done.
You know, it's nothing that applying a few million pounds of pressure and cables can't solve right.
You mentioned the safety initiative, Seattle Times, I'm sure you read this recently, did an analysis, cars crashing into buildings every 3.5 days in Seattle, highest number since 2012.
Also a record number of fatal.
But this isn't just Seattle.
I mean, all of transportation is having this this bad moment in the context of Seattle.
What do you attribute that to?
Are people going crazy if we've forgotten how to drive?
Is the design so awful?
It's leading to some of these things?
What's your theory on what's going on?
Well, I asked that question on my first day on the job on September 7th by commissioning a top to bottom view of our review of our Vision Zero safety program.
And we just published that review in late February and we're now seeking public input on the findings and recommendations in that review so that we can strengthen our program.
Certainly nationally and in most major cities.
We saw this phenomena and the pandemic where there was fewer car trips, meaning less congestion, meaning higher speed driving, higher speed collisions, more fatalities as a result.
But also we know that we design much of our roads for massive throughput of cars.
And in fact, we used to measure the road's effectiveness by level of service, meaning, you know, how freely the cars flowed and how quickly they moved.
We do need to think differently about design to make sure that we're designing for safety rather than for throughput.
So there's a whole lot that we can do.
And, you know, I've been pleased that the department has really mobilized around us as my top priority, and soon I'll be announcing some reforms of lifting up a chief safety officer within the organization so that, you know, that person will report directly to the executive group and will have the authority and the resources to make safety a priority across every activity of our stock.
And just so I'm serving the people who are yelling at their televisions right now about Greg, we want the automotive throughput.
That's what we want.
There is a segment of that population.
You know it.
I know it.
Once again, what can you what can you tell them to make them stop yelling at their television?
I sure have a big bent to have anybody be yelling at their television during a conversation.
Tom But, you know, we have to operate the road system to move people and goods safely.
And in the past, transportation engineers, traffic engineers were operating it to move the people and goods, but they weren't necessarily focused on the safety.
I want the people and goods to move well and the economy to function well and safely.
And that's, you know, the mission in 2023 for anybody who's running a department like this.
Couple of items in the news.
One of them involves watchdog, and they're right away is in the Seattle area and the homeless encampments.
There are a lot of fires burning.
All kinds of problems have been pretty well documented.
This is point of information.
Does any of that apply to start?
Are you having problems like that?
What is what is starts experience with that?
And is there any interface with wash dots issue?
So, you know, when when encampments are on, you know, the public right of way in the city that our unified care team which is across multiple departments and directed by the mayor's office prioritizes maps and deploys folks to offer housing and do cleanups and those kind of things.
When an encampment is in state property, it's it's handled differently in the state.
Is the lead agency we do interact with washed out on a variety of topics, including graffiti and homelessness.
But you know, these are like very complicated, you know, societal problems.
And our department, you know, does everything we can to support the citywide efforts which are typically centrally managed.
And one of the issues, though, too, is that cross jurisdictional problems.
And, you know, you're the state, they're the city.
And that's why I think that and I think that's from your perspective, from a managerial perspective.
I think that's why I asked that about trying to manage that.
And is there is there too much friction in the system in your perception, to manage that effectively?
Are things too siloed or do you feel like you have effective communications and relationships to make things happen if you have a problem on your right away?
So something that really excites me about what I've been finding in my six months in Seattle is that the Seattle DOT has rich, multifaceted and collaborative relationships with three key partners with Washington State Department of Transportation, with King County Metro, who runs our bus system and with sound transit, who runs the light rail.
These relationships are better and more collaborative than the ones I was part of in Los Angeles, and I have made a lot of personal outreach to my counterparts at these three organizations to say, I want to have the most innovative, collaborative, mutually supportive relationship with shared goals that we've ever had, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes.
So I think a very important part of my role is strengthening these relationships and creating, you know, truly mutually respectful, collaborative spaces.
I want to swing back to safety for a second.
So there's another news item I wanted to address.
A $25 million U.S. dot grant for Safe Streets.
How does are there any projects in mind or is there anything people will be seeing as a result of that?
Can you talk a little bit about what that grant is and how it helps you?
So I'm so excited that we were able to win that grant.
This is a a component of the Biden infrastructure law.
It's the first year that the safe streets for All grant was available.
Some communities won planning grants, but we want an implementation grant.
We put together an application with more than 120 projects in specific places.
95% of them are in underserved communities.
And our original application had $37 million of projects.
And the idea was the feds would give us 30 and we'd put in seven as a local match and they awarded us 25.6 million.
And we're putting in 5.1 as a local match.
And we're going to try to identify that $7 million missing gap to build every one of these projects.
I'm just so excited that there's a road map to like double the size of our annual safety implementation program with this federal money.
And that almost all of it is in underserved communities.
And all these projects were informed by the federal Safe Systems approach, which I really think is state of the art.
In a sense, the projects we identified were validated by the U.S. Department of Transportation in choosing to give us this major implementation and grant.
And I'm also very thankful to our two Senators for passionately advocating for this in our last 30 seconds.
If folks have feedback for you, they want to talk to you.
They want to talk back to us that how do people get involved?
How can people share their input?
How would you guide them to have their voice heard?
I mean, we have a lot of opportunities for public comment.
There's a a bike board, a pedestrian board, a freight board, a levee oversight committee that oversees the spending that we have for our last tax levy for transportation.
And also I'm on Twitter spotty and I k people tweet directly at me.
There's a whole lot of interaction going on.
Tweet at you.
Well, let's hope they tweet with you instead of at you.
All right, Greg, thanks so much for coming in Northwest now.
Seattle is the economic core of western Washington, and we all have an interest in it being easily and safely accessed by people living in the city and people traveling to it.
The bottom line, Seattle has been mired in a horrible gray area for years, making driving a car a nightmare and going without one impossible due to the lack of speedy, well conceived infrastructure.
We wish Greg Spotts the best in doing something transformational.
After all, with Amsterdam and Toronto can do it.
We certainly can too.
I hope this program got you thinking and talking to watch this program again or to share it with others.
Northwest now can be found on the Web at kbtc dot org and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter at Northwest Now, a streamable podcast of this program is available under the Northwest.
Now tab at KBTC dot org and on Apple podcasts by searching Northwest now.
That's going to do it for this edition of Northwest Now until next Time.
I'm Tom Larson.
Thanks for watching.