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Response to the Transportation Impacts of the Convention Center

This coming Monday, May 7th, the Council will vote on the street vacation approval for the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center.  The scope and scale of this street vacation and project are larger than any we have seen in downtown Seattle.  And the impacts will be significant.

To get to this stage of the project, significant commitments have been made to invest in local public benefits in exchange for the vacation.  I am grateful for the Community Package Coalition, who thoughtfully negotiated significant investments for affordable housing ($30 million), bike infrastructure, and open space improvements.  Our labor brothers and sisters have worked to ensure quality construction jobs, and union representation for the service workers in the future addition.  And, we have pushed the WSCC to strengthen their commitments to priority hire and contracting with WMBE businesses.

It is now the responsibility of the Council to ensure no additional harm is done to the approximately 262,000 people who commute daily to downtown Seattle.  To accommodate future light rail expansion, the existing transit tunnel will be closed for buses in September of 2019 so that Sound Transit can work on light rail expansion to Northgate in 2021.  These two years are being referred to as the “period of maximum constraint,” when our downtown city streets will be beyond capacity, with 40 additional buses rerouting to surface streets during peak commuter hours.  Relief will come when light rail expansion is opened.  Years of planning have gone into trying to mitigate the impacts on commuters and downtown residents, but we know that this time will be an incredible challenge.

The WSCC wants to remove buses from the tunnel six months earlier, in March 2019.  As part of their land purchase from King County, they negotiated this option, assuming they receive their permits by July 1st.  I am deeply concerned that the impacts of an additional six months of constraint will be a huge burden to everyone who rides transit to and from downtown from across the region.

In the legislation that I brought to Committee for approval of the vacation, I included a condition that would not allow the WSCC to remove the buses from the bus tunnel before the September 2019 deadline needed by Sound Transit. To be clear, this does not stop construction.  The WSCC construction plans already involve working around the buses for some months, and it is not clear that there would be a significant construction delay.

For more context, removing the buses in March 2019 will coincide with the Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition and the SR-99 tunnel opening.  Washington DOT will implement tolling on 99, and while we are not clear on the exact implications, it is estimated that 25% of the traffic will be diverted to downtown streets.  Given the concern, I requested our Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) respond to my questions:  What mitigation can they ensure will be in place by March 2019?  September 2019?  Can they ensure we mitigate the impacts of removing the buses early?

SDOT’s response could not have been clearer. They laid out exactly what mitigation they can confidently expect to accomplish by March 2019, the improvements that are dependent on state and county collaboration, as well as engineering challenges that they need to address. They concluded that they cannot ensure the mitigations will be completed by March 2019. I value SDOTs expertise, thoughtfulness, and honesty in articulating to us what is possible, and what is unlikely to be accomplished.

I believe the Council has the responsibility to ensure that we prioritize the needs of our transit riders, downtown residents, and workers over the convenience of the Convention Center’s construction schedule.

While some of my colleagues have said the outcomes of both scenarios are uncertain, I can guarantee you, there is no uncertainty that an additional six months of increased congestion, slower commutes, and overcapacity streets will be a decision we regret next March.  The consequences will be felt across the city and the region.

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