To boost jobs as Seattle emerges from the COVID pandemic’s economic recession, Councilmembers Alex Pedersen, Lisa Herbold, Andrew J. Lewis, and Teresa Mosqueda are proposing $100 million in bonds to fix our aging multimodal bridges and modernize transportation infrastructure in 2022, after implementing the Seattle Department of Transportation’s spending plan for the additional $20 Vehicle License Fees for 2021.
The Councilmembers issued this joint statement: “We appreciate the Seattle Department of Transportation convening community partners to offer ways to invest the expected funds from the $20 vehicle license fee authorized by the City Council. They have crafted a thoughtful 2021 spending plan that we should implement immediately. At this critical juncture, when we seek to build back better after the Covid-19 crisis, we must also think bigger and bolder with this opportunity. We should supercharge the VLF dollars by financing $100 million in bonds in 2022 and take on the too-long-delayed task of fixing our city’s aging multimodal bridges and modernizing Seattle’s transportation infrastructure while creating good, living wage jobs. Our bridge audit showed so many bridges in poor condition and illustrated the economic benefits of frontloading government resources. By leveraging these dollars we can finally commit to a strategy of significant timely investments rather than piecemeal fixes. In a city carved by waterways and ravines, we rely on bridges to support all modes of transportation that connect us and keep our economy moving. We have a duty to stop kicking the can down the road, and now we have an opportunity to go bigger and bolder to build back better.”
The Councilmembers are introducing a substantial amendment to SDOT’s bill (Council Bill 120042) to fund the stakeholder plan for 2021 and then generate $100 million in 2022, with at least 75% of the bonds going to fix multimodal bridges. The rest of the funds can be used to leverage other federal or state dollars for other transportation infrastructure such as those proposed in SDOT’s spending plan.
A coalition of construction labor unions support the amendment.
Billy Hetherington, Political Director for Laborers Local 242, added, “We know that in this world of COVID-19, the movement of goods and services have been essential to our daily lives as we try our best to work from home and social distance from our fellow citizens. We have seen the impacts a shutdown of a major bridge can have on the lives of Seattle’s residents. The West Seattle bridge is nowhere near the oldest in the city nor was it considered in “Poor” condition at the time of its shutdown. The Auditor’s reports calls for $34 million to $100 million to adequately fund the preservation of SDOT’s bridge infrastructure, so this amendment is needed to address the backlog faster. Fixing our roads and bridges, throughout the region, has been overlooked for decades so I am happy to see Councilmembers making a stand to show this is a priority now.”
Pedro Espinoza of Pacific NW Regional Council of Carpenters said, “May 23, 2013, was a perfect example of how bridge closures can impact our lives: a span of the bridge carrying Interstate 5 over the Skagit River collapsed, severely impacting the movement of Washington State goods and services. We need more funding to fix our bridges in order to avoid events like this in the future.”
Heather Kurtenbach, Political Director for Ironworkers Local 86, said, “Seattle’s bridges are in need of extra care and attention. Leveraging the funds from Vehicle Licensing Fees will allow the city to make a bigger and bolder investment in our bridges without delay.”
Local business leaders also support the amendment. Executive Director Erin Goodman of the SODO Business Improvement Area said, “SODO is the industrial heart of Seattle, and during COVID-19 we have seen how many essential businesses are located here including food and supply distribution, PPE manufacturing, and more vital activities. Increased funding to fix our bridges now is necessary to support these essential businesses and their operations throughout our region.”
Most drivers were previously paying $80 for their annual VLF, but that decreased briefly to $20 until City Council adopted this new $20 for a total of $40. The additional $20 (which drivers will start paying this July) is expected to generate $3.6 million in 2021 and $7.2 million in 2022 and each year thereafter. A City Council spending plan was delayed until after more stakeholder engagement. Bonding has several advantages over SDOT’s current plan. Rather than allocating the funds in several small pieces each year over several years, bonding will provide a large sum upfront to obtain more of what we need for our city’s infrastructure when we need it – now. Bonding should also protect the VLF from future attempts to cancel the fee, because those future dollars will be encumbered upfront.
In addition to the dollars needed to restore the West Seattle High Bridge, Seattle’s aging bridges have the following immediate needs:
- $20 million to $88 million more annually for bridge maintenance. (Annual maintenance needed is $34 million to $102 million, per the City Auditor’s report on bridges. Mayor Durkan’s proposed budget for 2021 provided only $10 million among four line items and Council increased it to $14 million.) Bridges ranked poor by the audit include the 2nd Avenue South extension bridge.
- $8 million for our City’s older bridges that have aging moveable parts (such as the University, Ballard, Fremont, and Spokane bridges). When draw bridges / bascule bridges / swing bridges get stuck, they prevent all modes of transportation — including buses and bikes — which could impede Seattle’s fragile economic recovery.
- Millions to start the seismic retrofits of 16 Seattle bridges, including $32 million for Ballard, $29 million for Fremont, and millions to seismically upgrade the 100-year old University Bridge.
- Millions to replace the 90-year-old Magnolia Bridge, which is part of the Ballard-Interbay Regional Transportation (BIRT) corridor.
The Seattle City Council approved the $20 vehicle license fee as part of its fall budget process. At the time, Councilmembers Pedersen, Herbold and Lewis proposed legislation (supported by Councilmember Juarez) to use Vehicle Licensing Fees to boost maintenance of multimodal bridges throughout Seattle. An amendment narrowly adopted by other Councilmembers in November 2020 directed SDOT to establish a stakeholder process to recommend ideas for spending the funds. Since that time, there have additional reports of immediate needs for bridges and confirmation that issuing bonds would be possible to create jobs.
Assuming an interest rate of 3.5% fully amortized over 20 years, the approximately $7 million in VLF annually will support the issuance of bonds totaling at least $100 million.
The Seattle City Council will consider and ultimately pass a spending plan over the coming weeks, with legislation going through its Transportation and Utilities Committee. The first briefing on the spending plan is planned for April 21, 2021.