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What does federal inquiry mean for Madison RapidRide project?

As part of a criminal inquiry into local transportation projects that use federal dollars, several Seattle projects are coming under further scrutiny including the planned Madison Bus Rapid Transit line set to break ground this summer.

Seattle Department of Transportation officials were ordered via subpoena to produce records related to the projects earlier this month, according to Crosscut. The transportation projects include the RapidRide bus route on Madison and the Center City Connector streetcar.

In late November, Mary Kay Langan-Feirson, an assistant inspector general at the U.S. Department of Transportation, announced the audit into SDOT’s federal grants.

“Recently, the Office of Inspector General received several complaints concerning federally funded projects for the City of Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) that are subject to DOT’s oversight,” she wrote in the Nov. 25 announcement. “Given the significant amount of departmental funds allocated to State and local governments for transportation-related projects and that we have not conducted an audit of the flow of DOT funds to SDOT or WSDOT, we are initiating this review.”

The criminal inquiry has come as a surprise.

SDOT receives federal funding in two ways, according to Langan-Feirson. SDOT can either receive direct financial assistance awards from a federal operating administrator or an operating administrator can grant funds to the state transportation department, which then sends the money to the city.

But in the meantime, what does this mean for the major projects under the inquiry?

According to SDOT’s Ethan Bergerson, the city’s plans remain on track.

“We have no reason to believe that the audit being conducted by US DOT Office of Inspector General (OIG) will have any impact on current or planned transportation projects,” Bergerson said in a statement.

Bergerson called the audit routine and said that SDOT “believes in full transparency on our budget.”

“We have continually worked to ensure accountability in all of our major capital projects including developing public oversight committees and publishing transparent reports for our capital projects online,” he said.

SDOT recently updated the website for the Madison Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, which anticipates construction to begin as early as this summer and the project being completed by Fall 2022.

A contractor is set to be selected this spring.

The BRT project will provide faster transportation between downtown’s 1st Ave and MLK Jr. Way, passing through First Hill, Capitol Hill, and the Central District. It will connect to “dozens of bus routes, the First Hill Streetcar, and ferry service at the Colman Dock Ferry Terminal,” planners say.

CHS reported on the project last summer as it moved into the “90%” design phase and decisions were being finalized on features and changes along the $120 million, 2.3 mile, 10-station route including what planners hope are improved crossings for pedestrians and the decision to focus on a new diesel-hybrid bus fleet for the line.

Half of the project’s budget is expected to come from the Federal Transit Authority. In an update to its nationwide Current Capital Investment Grant Projects, the FTA listed the Madison BRT project in the first phase of the Small Starts Project Development grant process. In November 2018, the FTA gave the project a “high” value rating.

King County Metro will operate service on the line.

Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer says that “the status of the project is that we continue to prepare and plan for implementation of RapidRide G Line.”

“The audit is underway with the city of Seattle Department of Transportation and we aren’t in a position at this time to say what the results or outcomes will be,” Switzer added.

It’s not clear what impact findings from the inquiry could have on the city’s projects. An investigation of a Honolulu rail project found the project had “botched its program to relocate homes and businesses along the route.” As a result of the finding, the project had to revisit the relocation decisions and was barred from using federal funds for relocation and staff.

Federal investment is hugely important to SDOT projects past and present as it has also been utilized to develop sections of the Seattle’s streetcar system but it is far from the only source of money that the department is tapping for these projects.

State and federal grants are just a part of SDOT’s annual budget, which is also fueled by fees for services, general funds from the city, bonds, and voter-approved taxes like those from the Move Seattle Levy.


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14 thoughts on “What does federal inquiry mean for Madison RapidRide project?

  1. That bus stop on Madison/Union is going to seriously mess up Pony’s business with the reconstruction and layout changes they have to do to accommodate the bus stop. The, already tiny, patio, is being shrunk in half, and the inside is being rearranged.

    Hopefully this doesn’t hurt Pony’s business too bad…

  2. Good. I’d love to see some proverbial heads on pikes for all the bamboozling that SDOT has dropped on the taxpayers of Seattle the past several years.

    The $1.5 million Pronto bike bailout? Move Seattle’s wildly out of whack cost estimates? The streetcar that’s slower than walking? And now this project, which of course needs custom designed and built buses and massive reconfiguration of the road for the low, low cost of just $52 million per mile. God forbid we just get some red paint and bus lanes.

    Crossing my finders we get to see the hammer dropped on these clowns.

    • Adam, I hope you realize that if anything happens to SDOT’s federal funding then the tax payers will be the ones that’ll suffer. Maybe a couple people get fired but that’ll be nothing compared to the massive setback our transportation and funding will get.

      This audit is only focused on these specific projects:

      • The final design of the Center City Connector streetcar, which would connect the city’s two existing streetcar lines.

      • The final design of the Elliott Bay seawall.

      • Design services for the central waterfront.

      • The western phase of the Mercer corridor project.

      • The RapidRide bus route on Madison Street.

      • Management of the RapidRide project.

      So everything you listed isn’t involved….

      • The taxpayers are currently suffering under SDOTs incompetence. It’s not wrong to hope this investigation can be a catalyst for change. SDOT badly needs an enema.

        And I wasn’t listing things I thought the feds should investigate, I’m listing blatant examples of how SDOT has been screwing us for years.

  3. Leave it to Seattle to take a simple concept (express busses) that can be accomplished with a *sign* and screw it up to the point of needing federal help and *then* screwing that up to the point of engendering a federal investigation.

  4. The real problem with this project now is that the promise was that it would be all electric and that is what was presented to the public during community meetings. However, SDOT never really checked to see if electric buses needed for the center opening in the size planned were actual possible to order. It turns out that they are not; plus there is a cost of stringing wire. So now if Metro goes along with the project, the county would have to substitute the electric trolley buses with very expensive diesel hybrid center loading buses that could only be used on this route. And this after King County has said, ” King County has long been a leader in working to reduce carbon emissions. Our Strategic Climate Action Plan guides our work. We are on a path to reducing emissions from County operations to a net zero. We are leading the nation in converting our bus system to a zero emissions fleet.”

    The projects below were taken off the list to be investigated:
    • The final design of the Elliott Bay seawall.

    • Design services for the central waterfront.

    • This is problematic beyond climate issues, as the trolleys also perform best on the steep hills, especially the steep downtown Madison street. Perhaps money for the BRT could be better spent on all-electric improvements elsewhere for now.

  5. let’s just talk about this project for several years instead of actually doing anything. Come to the Seattle transportation circle jerk. I hope the Feds hold SDOT accountable.

  6. Totally off-topic and old man yelling at clouds, but I’m sick and tired of Metro Drivers not using their 4-Way Flashers when coming to a stop (blocking a lane of travel) OR using turn signals when turning or entering back into traffic. These signals are an important form of communication with other drivers and bikers. Show some respect.

  7. I think it’s pretty obvious that this investigation with no evidence and unspecified complaints is just part of Trump’s campaign of attacking liberal cities to throw his base a bone.

    Especially the way they call it a “criminal” inquiry, when no crimes have been identified, and make vague references to “complaints”. Sounds similar to Trump claiming that San Francisco was violating environmental laws.

    I suspect there will be some more press releases, and then it will quietly disappear. It’s all about generating headlines for fox news…

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