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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