The city council's transportation committee met yesterday to discuss how SDOT plans to make about $6.5 million in budget cuts. They haven't made any firm decisions yet---that won't happen until closer to Thanksgiving, when the council traditionally adopts its budget---but here's a look at some of what could be on the chopping block and what will get new funding.

Overall, general-fund support for SDOT's budget has declined from $42 million in 2009 to $38 million in 2011.

Street maintenance"[pullquote]It certainly is not a happy situation," central staffer Dan Eder told the council laconically.[/pullquote]

Although criticism of the proposed $60 car-tab fee has centered on the fact that it pays for a lot of transit improvements, rather than focusing on basic street maintenance, the city is considering further cuts to basic maintenance and upkeep. Overall, the mayor's proposed budget would reduce SDOT's preservation and maintenance budget (everything from repaving streets to maintaining traffic lights) by 10.5 percent, with the biggest hit going to street maintenance, which would be cut 27.6 percent.

There are two major reasons for the dramatic decrease. First, the city has been unable to keep up with the commitments it made in 2006's Bridging the Gap property tax levy because property values have stagnated since then. Additionally, a lot of capital projects have been happening ahead of schedule, forcing SDOT to shift operations and maintenance money to capital needs.  "It certainly is not a happy situation," central staffer Dan Eder told the council laconically.

However, Eder noted that the council could decide to reallocate a portion of the $20 vehicle license fee that's already in effect to pay for street maintenance. Currently, the 2012 budget includes $900,000 in money to implement the transit master plan, including planning money for a downtown streetcar connection between the First Hill and South Lake Union and $1.2 million for "bike facility maintenance and improvements."

Budget Sustainability [pullquote]Budget director Beth Goldberg responded, "You are absolutely correct that this is a one-time revenue source. Is that sustainable? No." [/pullquote]


City council president Richard Conlin asked why SDOT's budget for 2012 relies so heavily---to the tune of $7 million---on money from the sale of the "Rubble Yard" property that will run out in a year or two. "We're relying on one-time funding of $7 million ... to balance the budget here, and that's pretty challenging if we're thinking about how we're going to have a sustainable budget in the future," Conlin said.

Additionally, Conlin noted, the mayor's budget calls for pulling around $676 million out of SDOT's existing fund balance, whereas last year, the budget added $400,000 to the balance---a shift of a million dollars out of SDOT's limited reserves.

Budget director Beth Goldberg responded, "You are absolutely correct that this is a one-time revenue source. Some of it is being used for one-time investments; some of it is being used to help us avoid additional reductions in SDOT's budget. Is that sustainable? No."

Goldberg noted that SDOT still faces "the same basic challenge" of lower gas tax revenues, on which the department relies for much of its budget. As people continue to drive less, SDOT expects declining revenues to be an ongoing problem.

Streetcars/ "High Capacity Transit"

In addition to the planning money for a streetcar downtown, Mayor Mike McGinn included $1.5 million in his budget to study  "high capacity transit" from downtown to Ballard through Fremont. Although council members were generally open to the idea spending the money, they split on what, exactly, that high-capacity transit should look like, and whether Ballard to downtown was the right place to focus.

Nick Licata, a longtime streetcar and rail skeptic, suggested that it might consist of buses, which are cheaper than rail because they don't require much capital investment. "My question is, how do we deal with the transit system [buses] that accommodates 80 to 90 percent of the riders out there?" Licata said. "I feel like we're not giving enough attention to that."

However, Mike O'Brien noted that many bus corridors---such as NE 45th St., where Metro's workhorse 44 route runs---are already so congested it would be useless to add more buses, because they'd just get stuck in traffic.

Budget director Beth Goldberg argued that it made sense to focus on Ballard-to-downtown routes because Sound Transit has expressed interest in specifically funding high-capacity in that corridor---going so far as to put that project in line ahead of other projects in other parts of the Sound Transit region.

"Sound Transit has received a request from all of the subareas to [fund] various projects," Goldberg said. "What distinguishes the city of Seattle is that we have designated the source of funding to leverage their dollars, so that's the important nuance that has our request sort of standing above the rest at a time when they're getting many other requests."

Mercer West

The Mercer West project, which would reconnect the street grid over and under Aurora in South Lake Union, is scheduled to start construction next year. The council could decide to spend as little as $2 million, or as much as $10 million, of Rubble Yard proceeds on the project next year. Typically, the discussion this week came down to whether it's fair to cut core transportation services ($6.3 million over two years) in other areas of the city to pay for a single big capital project in South Lake Union.

"Mercer West is a real conundrum, because it connects to to other projects," O'Brien said. "At the same time, it's really hard for me to go out to the rest of the city and say we're going to further reduce maintenance funding for existing roadways. I have serious concerns about [the $10 million Mercer option] without understanding how we could backfill some other programs."

Proposition 1, the $60 vehicle license fee

McGinn's proposed budget doesn't include any funding from the proposed $60 vehicle license fee, on the ballot in November; the city will decide how to spend that money if the measure passes November 8. If the $60 fee passes, the city will get an estimated $10.2 million for transportation in 2012 and $20.4 million a year starting in 2013.

Although council staffers advised the council not to spend time deciding how to spend that money until after finishing this year's budget, Goldberg warned that if the measure passes and the city hasn't decided how to spend it, 18 SDOT employees will lose their jobs at the beginning of next year.

Emergency Response

The city has historically allocated less than it has actually needed for emergency response---responding to things like landslides and snowstorms.

McGinn's budget would add $800,000 (again, from the Rubble Yard sale) to SDOT's emergency response funding, bringing the total up to about $2 million. Weather forecasts for this winter predict heavy rain and snowfall; if they're wrong and this winter is more typical, the money could be spent elsewhere.