A Tale of Mid-Year Budget Cuts

The saga begins in spring of 2011, a time when the budgets of businesses and organizations were being cut. In the Emerald City of Seattle, the story was no different…

Last May, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) toiled over a series of mid-year budget cuts throughout the department, including programs that have an impact on cyclists and pedestrians. Though it was a tough decision to make, these cuts were officially proposed and then sent to the seventh floor of City Hall, home of the Mayor’s Office, for review and approval in mid-June.

The proposed cuts sent from SDOT were hard to swallow. They would have wiped out almost all the money used to install on-street bike racks this year and shelved a neighborhood greenway parallel to Rainier Ave South – an area in desperate need of safer connections on quieter streets. Also concerning was a large cut to fixing the dangerous spots on bike lanes and trails – including the popular Burke-Gilman Trail – that are used by thousands of cyclists per day.

When the dust settled, all SDOT programs were to be cut by $3 million, with ten percent coming from the bicycle programs – less than what was proposed by SDOT. Some essential safety improvements were funded, money for planning (but not actually building) the neighborhood greenway in southeast Seattle was restored, and there will still be a few more bike racks installed this year. The funding cuts were not as bad as before, but the cyclists of Seattle still hoped for more (as did all users of the city’s aging and needy transportation system).

And then on July 11 the City of Seattle sold the “Rubble Yard” – a desolate land of debris storage – to the Washington State Department of Transportation for almost $20 million. The City rejoiced! Mayor McGinn and several City Councilmembers publicly stated that $3 million of this new revenue would be put towards street repair, a 33 percent increase in the 2011 maintenance budget. But that’s not all: the funding also prevented the elimination of 21 positions within SDOT, and some was slated to provide a “small increase” for bike improvements.

The proposed increase for bike improvements was small, but not insignificant. Estimated at $150,000, this increase could have restored funding for actually building the greenway in southeast Seattle, or re-fund (and then some) the cuts made to the bikeway safety improvement program or the bike rack installation program.

In the end, the Seattle City Council decided not to put bicycle funding into their proposal for what to do with the revenue from the Rubble Yard sale. On July 25, Council Bill 117207 was passed, which did indeed authorize SDOT to spend the money on road repairs and protect SDOT jobs. But it did not authorize any spending on bicycle improvements, safety or otherwise.

That’s the short version of the story. But let’s step back a minute.

Road improvements are crucial for the safety of everyone using our streets. And preserving jobs is important to the vitality of our region.

Are bicycle improvements sometimes overlooked for things that are deemed by many as more important? Yes. Should they be? This is debatable, but for many – including our elected officials – it is clear that this decision depends on the amount of funding available.

What this story tells us is that every dollar the city acquires that can legally be spent on transportation improvements will be. And it will be fought over. There’s a reason that the Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee’s (CTAC III) outreach literature stated, “It’s no secret that there are more transportation needs than funding [available].” Because it’s true.

With an aging, deteriorating transportation system, Seattle needs roadway repairs, new sidewalks, safe bicycle connections and all kinds of transit improvements now more than ever. Luckily, there’s a way we can fund many of our transportation needs not too far off in the horizon. Transit riders, pedestrians, cyclists and drivers would ALL benefit from the vehicle license fee recently proposed by CTAC III – if it makes it to the ballot this November.

For that to happen, we need to tell Seattle City Council that we want the option to vote on it, while making sure cyclists and pedestrians get a fair slice of the pie this time around. Let’s learn from this tale of mid-year budget cuts in Seattle and help provide our city with a transportation system that works for everyone.