The Seattle Department of Transportation has released the updated, $64.1 million Seattle Bike Master Plan Implementation Plan (PDF) — the agency’s most recent annual blueprint for rolling out bike infrastructure projects over the following five years. But to the frustration of local bike advocates, many infrastructure projects (like protected bike lanes and greenways) have been delayed or dropped altogether from SDOT’s game plan. And Capitol Hill wasn’t spared.
In Capitol Hill and broader Central Seattle, key protected bike lane projects and a number of greenways were either slashed entirely or postponed in the updated BMP implementation. To name a few, the protected bike lanes linking downtown to Capitol Hill on either Pike or Pine has disappeared from the updated BMP entirely (this project was slated to be completed by the end of 2016), along with the protected bike lane on South Jackson street (scheduled for 2019), the East Pine street greenway and the East Denny Way greenway linking the new Capitol Hill light rail station to the eastern residential heart of the neighborhood (both projects were supposed to be completed in 2019). Then there’s the protected bike lane extension on Broadway, which got bumped to 2017 after originally planned to be finished in 2016.
Capitol Hill did, however, gain a planned greenway on E Republican, linking the north end of Broadway to the Central Area Neighborhood Greenway that runs the length of 23rd avenue on parallel streets. But the win isn’t enough to offset the losses for local bike advocates.
“Like everyone else we’re frustrated,” said Brie Gyncild, co-leader of Central Seattle Greenways. “These sorts of [changes] make you wonder, how accurate is any of this?” said Gyncild. “We’re always just about get our next project.”
The updated BMP implementation plan — with a new timeframe of 2016 to 2020 — slashes the total miles of protected bike lanes slated to be finished by 2019 from 36 miles to 24 by 2020, along with the total miles of neighborhood greenways from 52 by 2019 to 31 by 2020, projects that were primarily located in downtown and southeast Seattle. The reason for the missing downtown projects is SDOT’s decision to set aside implementing the Center City Bike Network while the city completes its recently launched Center City Mobility Plan, another downtown-centric plan that is supposed to identify how best to integrate the various modes of transit that serve the city’s urban core.
“Cascade is disappointed with the current bike master plan implementation plan,” said Kelli Refer of the Cascade Bicycle Club. “A lot of the projects that were previously identified in the 2015 plan that were supposed to be built in 2016 have either been delayed or dropped off entirely.”
Gyncild of Central Seattle Greenways says the loss of the E Denny Greenway particularly stung. “We were incredibly frustrated that Denny was left off. The Denny Greenway is very important to us because it leads to the light rail station.”
Refer said the lack of a plan for a Pike/Pine to downtown bike lane connection is a major setback. “[We need] safe connections from Capitol Hill to downtown. It is such a growing neighborhood and it’s very close to downtown. It’s something that should be built in the next five years, especially because of the growing density.”
The missing downtown core projects also irk Refer and Cascade. “That delay is really dangerous,” Refer said of postponed downtown projects. “We don’t want to have to have anyone injured or killed biking downtown and the way to do that is to build safe infrastructure sooner rather than later.”
While fatalities and serious injuries resulting from traffic collisions have been going down citywide over the years, downtown is still a hub for such incidents. Bike advocates point to the lack of a comprehensive bike network throughout downtown and connecting to nearby neighborhoods.
Adding insult to injury, Seattle voters enthusiastically passed Mayor Ed Murray’s pro-bike, pro-transit Move Seattle levy last year, which many local bike advocates saw as a public mandate for SDOT to go all-in on developing a comprehensive bike infrastructure network in the city. Move Seattle also set aside money specifically for bike infrastructure, to the tune of $110 million for greenways and bike lanes. With this most recent BMP implementation plan update scaling back, advocates see the city as walking back on their commitment to the Bicycle Master Plan and the Move Seattle voter mandate.
“They talk a good game, they got us excited, and then they dropped the ball, and we need them to pick it back up,” said Gyncild.
These sentiments were visible last week at a meeting of the Bicycle Advisory Board—a body of bike advocates that advises the city council, the mayor, and city departments and agencies on all bike-related policy— with bike-friendly City Council member Mike O’Brien and representatives from SDOT. City reps got an earful about the updated plan from board members and other attending bike advocates.
“It’s just not clear to me how these decisions are being made. It feels very opaque to me,” said Merlin Rainwater, bike advisory council board member, and co-leader of Central Seattle Greenways with Gyncild. “We’d like to see the Greenway on Denny that connects to the light rail station prioritized and that has just disappeared from the plan. That leads us to the question of how we’re defining ‘connectivity’?”
SDOT says the reason for the changes is their new assessment of both available funding and realistically achievable projects within the five year timeline.
“These are the deliverables,” said Kyle Rowe, associate transportation planner at SDOT. “There are capital projects that when you get into the flow of it, there’s changes in the schedule that are beyond our control,” Rowe added.
Rowe also noted that the 2015 BMP implementation plan operated on a cost overrun of over $41 million due to the expiration of the former Bridging The Gap transportation levy and the uncertain future of Move Seattle. Now with Move Seattle passed and a tangible funding source locked in, SDOT says they want to make sure the current BMP implementation plan is “in the black.”
As for the missing downtown projects in updated BMP plan, they’re not in the trash bin yet, said Dawn Schellenberg, SDOT Community Engagement Liaison of Project Development. Schellenberg said the Center City Bike Network will be incorporated into the new plan. “I don’t know that the Center City Mobility Plan would cause anything to be dropped, but rather what to prioritize.”
The Center City Mobility Plan is slated to be finished and made public in June, after which public input will solicited in the fall.
SDOT’s justifications are unlikely to placate bike advocates who see the rollout in terms in life and death for cyclists on Seattle’s streets.
At last week’s Bicycle Advisory Board meeting, the atmosphere got particularly tense when public commenter Antoine McNamara, a member of Beacon Hill Safe Streets, recalled the death of cyclist Sher Kung, who was killed downtown on 2nd Ave ten days before protected bike lane upgrades were made on the street.
“In 2015 we heard that we were going to have this bold plan for a Center City Bike Network and implement it in 2016. And [the city needed money, so we all advocated for the levy and despite opposition it passed overwhelmingly. And now it’s ‘oh, we need to do more planning’,” McNamara said. “Ten days made the difference, and that was life or death for her. And now we’re talking about pushing it off?”
Nicole Friedman, one of the SDOT representatives at the meeting, defended her agency by saying everyone should keep in mind the progress that has already been made on Seattle bike infrastructure.
“No one would build half a mile of a highway and say ‘oh in five years we’re going to come back to it.'”
“I think we need to recognize some of the good things that are happening,” said Freedman. “We have an entire transit division that is completely on board with bikes, from the director down to staff.”
“This is one of the best cities in the country for bikes and yes we have a lot of work to do and a way to go and maybe we made some bad decisions but we’re doing a great thing,” she said.
Both Central Seattle Greenways and Cascade Bicycle Club say they are working with SDOT and city council members to address the grievances of the bike community, especially to ensure that the mobility plan includes the protected bike lane projects from the center city plan.
“No one would build half a mile of a highway and say ‘oh in five years we’re going to come back to it.’ We’re basically asking the City to not do that to bike infrastructure,” said Refer with Cascade.
Next Tuesday, on May 17th, the City Council’s transportation committee — chaired by Council member O’Brien — will take a look at the updated BMP implementation plan, and could direct SDOT to make changes and restore cuts.