Image: Wikimedia

As if Seattle citizens weren’t suffering enough from the hibernation of our local economy, now comes the months-long closure for repairs of the West Seattle high bridge. That may seal West Seattle folks into their community for months to come, as there are few good routes off the peninsula aside from the badly congested bridge.

Seattle Department of Transportation

The explanation for the emergency repairs is overuse, delayed spotting of the cracks deep inside the hollow twin girders that support the 590-foot main span, limited city budgets for repair, and the shifting of heavy buses to a single lane. Still, the sudden closure came as a big surprise to the city council. The bridge (built in 1984 after the old low-level route’s drawbridge was hit by a ship in 1978) was supposed to last for 50 years. Here’s some good coverage, with pictures of the cracks, in West Seattle Blog.

The larger context is the city’s chronic underfunding of bridge repairs, road repairs, and basic infrastructure, even as the city’s general budget has soared in recent years. How did we get in such a pickle?

One explanation, according to a former deputy mayor, is that when funding for 1960s Great Society programs like Model Cities was cut off by President Nixon, liberal cities such as Seattle decided to keep these inner city programs and employees in place by funding them locally, or with private partnerships. To do that, the city cut back spending on basic services such as repairing roads to keep the tilt toward social services in place, and so it continues today.

One estimate, from Matt Donohue of the Seattle Department of Transportation, is that the city needs to spend $80 million a year, catching up with maintenance needs for bridges and roads, as opposed to the current $17 million a year.

One might also wonder about West Seattle’s opting in for a Sound Transit rail line, many years from now. Someday they will have light rail. In the meantime, their tax dollars are not going to infrastructure they depend on now, and the double whammy of the current fiscal crisis might severely curtail Metro bus services.

Another explanation comes from Fred Jarrett, a former Mercer Island legislator and policy adviser to King County, who is also a Post Alley writer. Jarrett explains:

“The story of why Seattle spends so little on street-repair goes like this.  The legislature set the local allocation of the gas tax at 11 cents in the early ’80s, back when the federal government was paying 90% of freeway construction.  It remained at 11 cents until 2005 when the legislature increased it to 12 cents, a 9% increase after a quarter century.  Note the State’s gas tax increased from 16 cents to 31 cents — a bit less than a 100% increase.

“As a consequence, cities and counties struggled to find money to maintain local streets and arterials.  Federal dollars allocated through the Puget Sound Regional Council continue to be a portion of local investment, but the feds haven’t been increasingly generous.  So local governments have tapped property and sales tax general revenues to fund streets and arterials.  When the legislature contemplated the last gas tax increase in 2014, I served on the advisory committee to make the case for another increase.  We learned cities had continued to invest in local infrastructure and at the time 75% of the funding for local roads came from general revenues and the rest from state gas tax and federal sources. 

“Except for Seattle, which did not allocate general fund monies to roads.  Instead, their general revenues funded much of the human services for the whole region – in part replacing the federal Model Cities monies.  As a consequence, Seattle’s streets and roads deteriorated to where getting around the city now requires an off-the-road vehicle. (Good suburban roads permit sports cars.) 

“For years, suburban political types pointed out the error of Seattle’s priorities. Ultimately Seattle voters had to pass two large bond issues to begin to make up for years of disinvestment.  The usual narrative puts the blame on Seattle for “diverting” funds, but it’s better described as a choice between roads and human services.  The region, less Seattle, chose roads. And Seattle turned out to be willing, in effect, to subsidize the region by taking up a large portion of the region’s social service needs.  

“This situation is also a byproduct of our region’s political fragmentation: We’re siloed into 135 governments (in King County alone).  So, decisions about funding regional human services vs. other infrastructure needs are made in silos, not according to regional plans.  That’s what County Executive Dow Constantine often calls ‘a la carte government.’ But there is some reason for hope.  The creation of the regional (city-county) homeless authority creates, for the first time, a regional approach to dealing with this regional problem.”

The politics of Seattle’s decision to favor social services over basic services also reflect the lobbying force of social service agencies, led by former Speaker Frank Chopp’s housing agencies. Add to the housing advocates the well-organized (and campaign-helpful) social-service interest groups, now very dependent on city funding, By contrast, those clamoring for fixing the potholes are scattered and not very likely to help reelect local politicians.

Possibly that will change in the post-COVID recovery politics, which may include heavy federal spending on infrastructure. Or the political tides may shift at the state and local level. A good example is the campaign slogan of the new Democratic governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer: “Fix the Damn Roads!”

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for this analysis and for Fred’s assessment. Most of what you say is right on. Add to that the Great Recession years — five or more — when the city had to stay barely solvent using layoffs, unpaid furloughs and accounting changes. All that at a time of increased social needs. The city leaders knew we were way behind on infrastructure maintenance, but how do you tell hungry and homeless individuals that roads are first in line?

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