The New Transportation Director's Dress Rehearsal
New city transportation director nominee Scott Kubly answers the council's questions.
PubliCola obtained a copy of the questions that city council transportation chair Tom Rasmussen asked, along with the answers that pending Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly provided, in a 10-page internal city document.
The Q&A, or a formal reenactment of it—with, we hope, follow-up questions—will go live next Tuesday morning at 9:30, when Kubly goes before the council for his first confirmation hearing.
We heard very good things about Kubly in the runup to his appointment by Mayor Ed Murray. Kubly was the right-hand man to transit guru Gabe Klein—the DOT director in D.C. and Chicago, respectively. And Kubly takes credit for implementing Chicago's bike share program, the second-largest—poor Chicago—in the country.
Before we hone in on Kubly's answers, we have to say, Rasmussen's questions lacked substance on the pressing issue of transportation funding. With the exception of a passing reference to funding [Question #4: "In addition to the perennial lack of abundant financial resources, what other challenges...."], Rasmussen did not drill down on major transportation funding questions facing Seattle right now.
Just off the top of our heads: What if the Seattle-only bus measure fails? What if funding for the west side of 520 isn't forthcoming? And the elephant in the room: What if Bertha remains stuck? These are giant questions for SDOT and the public needs to hear specifics from Kubly about his thinking on them.Beyond sounding sane, Kubly needs to demonstrate that those principles are in his DNA.
The tunnel, in particular, seems like it should be on any new SDOT director's radar: With the potential for cost overruns seeming ever more inevitable, and with state legislators insisting that the state won't be on the hook for any such expenses, what are Kubly's plans for addressing unanticipated tunnel costs?
To Rasmussen's credit, he did ask Kubly [Question #8] to "detail your experience managing extremely large capital projects..." Hopefully, Rasmussen will follow up live. Kubly acknowledged he hadn't "directly managed extremely large capital projects," but said he has "been in leadership positions in organizations responsible for large project delivery" where he adds he has "learned some key lessons about what makes an organization successful with these types of challenges."
And Kubly was pretty firm on the need to address SDOT's historical lack of interest in contracting with women and minority-owned businesses, saying that he plans to "build relationships with community organizations including Tabor 100 (an African American business group) and the Minority Business Advisory Council "to facilitate networking and dialogue with the [women and minority-owned business] community." Increasing involvement among WMBE businesses should be a key goal of Murray's SDOT director.
Kubly's key lessons are good ones—"Clearly communicating with the public and with decision-makers about issues as they emerge ('no surprises')" ... "proactive risk management" ... "schedule and budget estimates early one, and maintain estimates throughout the life of project"— but beyond sounding sane, Kubly needs to demonstrate that those principles are in his DNA. If he learned those lessons previously because he blew it on that front, the council needs to know.
When it comes to funding in general, the council needs to push Kubly on his ideas for generating revenue for SDOT. All Kubly says on this score [Question #4] is: "Acknowledging the resource constraint, I am very interested in pursuing creative ways of funding new projects, entrepreneurial partnerships, and looking at the way we currently do business and places where changes might benefit the transportation system."
OK, but what happens when SDOT runs into financial trouble again during the next recession (last time, funding for SDOT declined by several million dollars) and has to cut again? What are the priorities, and what can we expect to be saved and to be cut?
We'd love to hear some examples of "creative ways of funding new projects" and specifics aobut "entrepreneurial partnerships." Additionally, what is Kubly alluding to when he flags "the way we currently do business ..."? Are there examples from D.C. or Chicago that he has in mind that he suspects may be relevant here?
We're also interested in getting more detail from Kubly about the concerns he expressed (again, pretty obliquely) about SDOT's communication with "the community and other stakeholders"; in saying "we need to revisit our strategies," is he suggesting a new approach to communications (or a new communications staff)?
Kubly's reputation as a 21st century thinker—seeing transportation as a means for sustainable urban planning as opposed to the 20th century car, bus, and parking philosophy —were evident in his speaking points. For example, asked about his goals [Question #1], Kubly came out like an editor for the Atlantic's CityLab website:
Ensuring mobility in a city with 650,000 people – and more on the way - means growing our transportation capacity through more efficient use of our right-of-way ; by making it possible for more people to walk, bike and take transit for both work trips and non-work trips; by making it easier for people to choose between driving a car share vehicle, using a taxi or Transportation Networking Companies (TNC’s) service, bike share, bus or train, we can meet the demand of our growing population. And transportation’s role goes beyond big capital projects. Our role includes great customer service (from permit sales to filling potholes), appropriate regulation to help shape new industries (such as TNC’s and car sharing), management of public spaces(sidewalk cafes and parklets), ...
But he didn't follow through by applying that lens to the rest of his answers, except when he was asked explicitly about Seattle's "Complete Streets" policy [Question #13] and the bike master plan [Question #15].
He was certainly on point in those specific discussions, saying he'd "elevate" "transformative Protected Bike Lane projects through downtown and surrounding connections to the rest of the city," and adding: "At the same time, we want to advance as quickly as possible some of the neighborhood greenway and intersection improvements that provide significant help in closing gaps in connectivity for the 'all ages and ability' network while also addressing geographic equity."
But that is existing stuff—the potential 2nd Avenue bike lane (or 4th Avenue?), which is already funded with a federal grant, for example—and the 23rd Avenue greenway project. What about new initiatives? And how come he failed to talk about his one-stop-shop ORCA card idea, connecting the bus, Uber, Car2Go, light rail, and bikesharing with the Kubly Card. Word is, it's all he talks about behind the scenes.