Today, Mayor Durkan released her 2021 Proposed Budget; while SDOT faces hard choices, commitment to equity remains steadfast and majority of projects and priorities remain on track.

Seattle viewed from above. Photo by Ryan Wilson on Unsplash

Summary

While SDOT faces budget challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and specific declining revenues, SDOT’s commitments to equity and justice remain steadfast and the majority of projects and priorities remain on track. 

Economic Impacts: SDOT is facing significant declines in projected revenues for 2020 and 2021, with a total funding gap of $85 million.

Public Input and Project Pauses: It will be incumbent upon all of us to identify how we allocate fewer resources in ways that meet the demands of these challenging times as we center the needs of BIPOC communities and address our ongoing asset maintenance needs across our portfolio.

Values Framework to Guide SDOT Forward: While feedback from stakeholders and the public will play an important role in shaping our path forward, all of our decisions will also be filtered through a core-values framework that has and will continue to guide SDOT through these choppy waters.

Under Construction and Still Going StrongDespite the economic headwinds, we want to be very clear: the City and SDOT will be very busy through 2021 delivering on many  projects and reaching critical milestones along the way.

Working Towards a Shared Vision for a Stronger Seattle & Next StepsThese are big challenges, but ones we can choose to tackle together. We look forward to working with the community to map an equitable, inclusive, and impactful path forward for 2021 and beyond.


Today, Mayor Jenny Durkan released her 2021 Proposed Budget. This budget comes during a series of challenges for the City. A global pandemic, an economic recession, a civil rights reckoning, devastating wildfires exacerbated by climate change, a continued housing crisis, and infrastructure challenges in our City have all combined to make this budget unlike any other in our history. All of these challenges are significant on their own, let alone all at once. 

While SDOT faces significant budget challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and specific declining revenues, the majority of projects and priorities remain on track. Uncertainty remains regarding the legal challenge of I-976, which could provide significant resources to the Department should the City prevail. Our approach to meeting the current budget shortfall recognizes that revenue will recover as the economy does. We have built flexibility into our choices, understanding that as more revenue becomes available, we may scale back up investments.  

Economic Impacts:  

Seattle is an exceptional city, but it is no exception when it comes to the staggering impacts that COVID-19 has and continues to have on our economy, just like all cities large and small across the country. Since March 2020, our economy has been hit again and again. Presently, the City is anticipating an overall revenue shortfall of $337 million in 2020, relative to the 2020 adopted budget. Further, we expect continued revenue declines into 2021.  

This is a level of impact that cannot be offset by tweaks on the margin. It requires hard decisions, across the board, with real and consequential impacts. In many ways, this is acutely so for SDOT in 2021, where we are facing significant declines in projected revenues. The 2021 funding gap is anticipated to be $85 million with revenue and funding declines comprising $53 million or 66% of the gap.

Public Input + Project Pauses:  

As we worked to rebalance our 2020 budget in the wake of COVID, we froze spending, delayed projects, and spent down one-time revenue sources to limit the impacts to our projects and programs, while maintaining existing staffing levels. Nonetheless, we still faced a series of hard choices about which bodies of work would be paused. In June, we also shared that we did not expect an economic recovery to be swift and that projects may still be added or removed from our “pause” list as we further our prioritization efforts and revise revenue projections. SDOT’s key sources of revenue are acutely sensitive to both an up and down economy and have not improved as we prepared our proposed 2021 budget, transmitted by Mayor Durkan this afternoon.  

These are serious numbers that require serious decisions. Some of those decisions will be directly reflected in the Mayor’s 2021 budget proposal in the form of updates to project scopes and schedules. Others will speak to gaps in programmatic funding but will not be definitive on how we move forward with less. In all instances, it will be incumbent upon all of us to identify how we allocate those fewer resources in ways that meet the demands of these challenging times as we center the needs of BIPOC communities and address our ongoing asset maintenance needs across our portfolio.  

One way we will be seeking this input is through the Move Seattle Levy Assessment process, which is our review of original levy commitments. The Levy Assessment will be a formal evaluation of the scope, schedule, cost, and funding assumptions for each levy commitment; and, a consideration of program management strategies to improve project delivery as we move into the second half of this critical investment in our city’s infrastructure. This will happen concurrently with the budget review this fall, with plans to present a draft assessment in December to the Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee, in partnership with the Transportation Equity Workgroup.  

Values Framework to Guide SDOT Forward:  

While feedback from stakeholders and the public will play an important role in shaping our path forward, all of our decisions will also be filtered through a core-values framework that has and will continue to guide SDOT through these choppy waters. These include:  

  • Engage in an equity-centered recovery process. Minimize direct impacts to vulnerable and underserved communities. As a City and as a Department, we have underinvested in many of our BIPOC communities. The Black Lives Matter movement, the disparate impacts of COVID-19 from a health and economic perspective on BIPOC communities, and our commitment to RSJI means we must take an equity lens to all of our budget decisions.  We also recognize there will continue to be a community dialogue around transportation equity and how transportation is an important component of community health and safety, especially for those living with mobility disabilities. We need to be able to engage in this dialogue, be transparent on how and why traditional investments are changing based on an equity lens, and remain nimble in how we deploy our transportation investments to meet community needs.    
  • Preserve SDOT staff capacity for rapid recovery effortsThis will maintain our ability to respond to COVID-19 recovery, preserve public safety, drive economic recovery, move rapidly with our ongoing West Seattle Bridge mitigation efforts, and other emerging issues.  
  • Maintain Public Safety. Maintaining safety for the traveling public is a top priority. Through our asset maintenance, capital project delivery, and Vision Zero programs, SDOT is responsible for the safety of everyone in our transportation system, and we need to continue investing in all of our infrastructure.  
    • Within this broader context comes the critical consideration of bridge operations and maintenance. As was underscored in the recent and helpful report by the Seattle Office of the City Auditor, there is a critical need for new bridge maintenance funding, consistent with previous SDOT assessments. That is why, despite COVID’s impacts on our budget, SDOT’s Bridge Maintenance and Bridge Seismic program funding are largely unchanged, except for an inflationary increase. Until we work across all levels of government to find scalable, sustainable solutions, however, this will continue to be a key challenge that cannot be resolved without taking into consideration SDOT’s City-wide infrastructure maintenance and public safety obligations.  
  • Continue our fight against climate change by prioritizing our multimodal investments. Even amid tough economic times and reduced revenues, we cannot fail to make progress in our fight against climate change. Transportation is the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle, and we will continue to prioritize investments that lower carbon emissions from this sector. 
  • Maximize Federal and State funding opportunitiesWe need to retain our readiness to secure grants and our eligibility for other programs 
  • Maintain funding and flexibility within larger transportation and mobility focused programsWe have chosen to postpone discrete capital projects while retaining funding in programs that deliver on our commitments and priorities. 

Under Construction and Still Going Strong:  

Despite the economic headwinds, we want to be very clear: the City and SDOT will be very busy through 2021 delivering on many  projects and reaching critical milestones along the way. We look forward to sharing that scope in the coming days because we know that few things are positively shaping and enhancing the safety and livability of our communities like these Levy important transportation investments. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department has continued to deliver in every way possible, while facing competing priorities born of the pandemic, the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge closure, and limited staff resources as many high-risk individuals were unable to perform their normal duties. These successes can be seen across town, with the soon-to-be open Lander Street Overpass, the significant progress on the Northgate Pedestrian/Bike Bridge and the Fairview Ave Bridge Replacement, Safety and transit improvements on Rainier Ave S, new sidewalks and pavement on N 40th and N 50th Streets as part of the Green Lake and Wallingford Paving and Multi-Modal Improvements, and NE Pacific St next to UW Medical Hospital, the completion of seismic retrofit work on the Cowen Park Bridge and similar efforts on the Howe Street Bridge wrapping up this winter, the start of construction on the Delridge RapidRide H corridor, clearing Federal readiness requirements on the Madison BRT project, and the recent construction of the first phase of a 4th Avenue PBL, just to name a few.  

This small snapshot of key projects – along with a non-exhaustive list of many others – that will still be moving forward through the proposed 2021 budget can be found in the map format below. 

Click on the map above to zoom in.

Working Towards a Shared Vision for a Stronger Seattle:  

Once the budget is released, there will be a desire by many to try and make their key priorities whole in 2021 and beyond. This could entail a series of exercises that divide rather than unite us at a moment when we have an opportunity to come together and articulate our vision for the city of the future and the resources and tools it will take to get us there.  

With resources so tight and revenue streams way down as a result of COVID-19 and its persistent economic impacts, a change in one area will come at the expense of another that is also under strain. The pandemic and economic fallout has significantly impacted all of our revenue streams. This, plus the fact that I-976 still looms large, makes clear we need to have conversations in both Washington, D.C. and Olympia about additional local authorities and sustainable, scalable sources of revenue. 

Next Steps: 

The reality is that at a time of continued need for investment in the transportation system, there are some things we simply cannot control. The economic impacts of COVID-19 have and will continue to be as unprecedented as they were unpredictable. In the coming weeks and months, however, there are important areas where we can have some control and be very intentional in our actions.  

The Levy Assessment process is one such area where we will have an opportunity to reevaluate how to have the greatest possible impact with the resources we have and continue to center equity in the remaining years of the current Levy.  

We also have a choice to be intentional about setting the stage for securing the scalable and sustainable resources and progressive revenue tools we need. The Levy to Move Seattle is but one chapter in our shared story to create a more livable, inclusive, safe, and equitable city that we have all been hard at work building, but we still have more to write.  

As the fastest growing big city of the last decade, we have a lot of catching up to do. As mentioned above, the recent and helpful report by the Seattle Office of the City Auditor underscores a critical need for new bridge maintenance funding, consistent with previous SDOT assessments and, until we work across all levels of government to find scalable, sustainable solutions, this will continue to be a key challenge. 

These are big challenges, but ones we can choose to tackle together. We look forward to working with the community to map an equitable, inclusive, and impactful path forward for 2021 and beyond.