Analyzing the Sahalee Way improvement controversy


By Scott Hamilton

sahalee-roadThe Sammamish City Council once again debated the proposed improvements to Sahalee Way before voting down a design and engineering contract 4-3, split along the long-standing divisions between the H-3 and V-3 factions.

Mayor Don Gerend was, as he often is, the swing vote. He sided this time with the V-3, Ramiro Valderrama, Christie Malchow and Tom Hornish, to oppose approved a $1.57m contract.

The H-3 faction, Kathy Huckabay, Tom Odell and Bob Keller, are strong advocates for changes to Sahalee Way. Odell lives along the corridor. Keller and Huckabay live elsewhere in the City.

Odell, Keller and Malchow are on the Council’s Transportation Committee, which reviewed plans before these went to the Council. Malchow has been a long-time skeptic of the plans.

As I watched the Council meeting via the City’s website Tuesday, I couldn’t help but be struck by some of the information and debate. In Sammamish, I “made my bones” on transportation concurrency issues. I served on the Planning Advisory Board and Planning Commission (both with Keller) and transportation was one of my focuses on each.

So, for what it’s worth, here is my analysis of the Sahalee Way controversy.

The starting assumption

The first thing that must be done is to start with the foundational assumption: do improvements have to be made to Sahalee Way, and if so, then what?

Other than possibly Valderrama, who appears to oppose any changes to Sahalee (based on his vociferous comments Tuesday and lack of alternative suggestions), there’s no one on the Council who thinks nothing should be done.

There are probably few citizens who would back the “nothing” approach, either.

So let’s start with the assumption that something must be done to improve Sahalee.

The options

The question then becomes, then what?

An $80m, five lane solution is out. First, the cost is huge. Second, a five lane road ends into a two lane road that’s owned by King County, which has no money to do anything. Third, this portion dumps into SR202, which is a congestion nightmare all unto its own.

The current plan calls for a sidewalk on the west side, bike lanes on both sides, a center median with turn lanes and one traffic lane in each direction.

A sidewalk for the east side was omitted to save costs.

Valderrama, Hornish and Malchow objected that no more vehicle capacity would be added for the cost ($16m-plus). This isn’t strictly true, but this gets into arcane engineering analysis that is largely neither here nor there.

Flaws in the design

From my perspective, there are two major flaws in the current design: the removal of the sidewalk from the east side and the inclusion of medians on a two-lane road. As Valderrama correctly points out, such a median creates a hazard for emergency response if the lane is blocked for any reason.

On East Lake Sammamish Parkway, a garbage truck blocks the lanes, stopping for pick-ups. On Sahalee, there are no homes fronting the road, so this isn’t an issue, but accidents, stalled vehicles, etc., would block the lane. With a median, cars can’t edge around.

A median on a two lane arterial is a dumb idea.

There is also a stretch of Sahalee where no left turns are possible. A median, or even a left turn lane, isn’t needed.

Sidewalks should be on both sides of an arterial. As Odell pointed out during the discussion, trying to get across the street, especially at night, is dangerous at peak traffic hours. The absence of a sidewalk on the east side, essentially driving people to cross to get to the west side sidewalk, is inviting disaster.

Having said that, then one can conclude that the design is almost “there.”

Lipstick on a pig, or a hippo

Valderrama, who got elected to Council opposing improvements to East Lake Sammamish Parkway, repeatedly compared the Sahalee Way plan with those for ELSP, which were similar: a full-length median from Inglewood Hill Road north to the Redmond city limits, a sidewalk on one side (the lake trail being on the other) and a big expense.

Valderrama repeatedly claimed the project was cited as the worst (as in costly) project ever, a claim I don’t recall, but this isn’t the point. Valderrama couldn’t make the point once and let it go; he said it repeatedly.

As he did with his labeling the Sahalee plan as “lipstick on a pig.” He said this over and over until he upped the game to “lipstick on a hippo.”

Frankly, he wore out his welcome with these tactics.

He should have followed Hornish’s thoughtful lead. Hornish listened to all the discussion from Council, staff and consultant, acknowledged the pluses and minuses and declared, “I’m just not quite there,” before voting no.

Odell also got elected opposing the ELSP plans, so it’s a bit ironic he’s promoting a design that is like the ELSP plan he so opposed. Odell took exception to Valderrama’s comparisons, noting that there is no parallel lake trail that walkers can use, for example.

Walkers and bicyclists

The presence or absence of walkers and bicyclists today and whether investing in a sidewalk and bike lanes was a matter of debate.

This one always puzzles me. I find the citing of the absence of these “today” to be largely irrelevant.

Walkers don’t like to walk on roadway shoulders, especially where the speed limit is high. It’s downright scary, and it’s dangerous. The same can be said for all but the most ardent bicyclists and the absence of bike lanes.

While on the PAB, one of the local cranks kept coming before us to blast the idea of spending money on sidewalks on 228th, claiming that nobody walks there “today.” Of course they didn’t. There were no sidewalks. But after they were installed, people used them. Including the crank.

The same is true about opponents to the East Lake Sammamish Trail. Some opposed to opening the interim trail have been seen using it once it opened. They also use the permanent trail at the north end.

Building sidewalks and bike lanes falls into the category of if you build it, they will come.

Opposing construction because today nobody (or few) is (are) there is one of the most specious arguments advanced against the Sahalee Way plan.

[M]ucking up the message

This is a family blog, so I toned down what I really think about the City’s messaging on the proposed improvements.

Once again, Sammamish officials [m]ucked up the message.

These have been billed as congestion relief. That’s been the message.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Traffic consultant Vic Salemann, who served the PAB and Planning Commission while I was on both, and in whom I have great respect, made it clear: the improvements won’t relieve congestion in any meaningful way.

This is because Sahalee feeds into King County and SR202. Although regional efforts are underway to adjust traffic light timing, any improvements in traffic flow will be minutes only.

Odell cited plans to install Intelligent Traffic System (ITS) on 202 to gauge traffic and adjust signalization. I’m not sure he should have. The ITS system installed on 228th Ave. from one end of the City to the other proved to be deeply flawed, [m]ucking up left turn and cross street signals. A year after installation, up through my moving from Sammamish last August, didn’t see any improvements. (I don’t know if any progress has been made since then.)

Instead of promoting the improvements as addressing congestion, the improvements are better related to safety.

“We mismanaged the messaging, again, that went out to our citizens,” Malchow complained Tuesday. “They deserve to know” this won’t fix congestion. “It’s about safety. I’m struggling how off we were on the messaging. We should have been clear that we can’t get you to SR202 faster.”

Coincidentally, this exchange with a reader of The Comment occurred hours before the City Council meeting:

Reader: I have lived off this section of Sahalee Way for 30 years. And yes, the side of the road is used for walking and biking all of the time. Right now, walking and biking on that section of road is scary. Crossing the street is like playing frogger and you’re the frog. This has gotten worse over the years. We badly need the sidewalk, bike lane, turning pockets and traffic lights. This project would also connect the sidewalk and bike lane that runs almost the entire length of the city. It would be nice to be able to safely walk to the beautiful Evans Creek Preserve trail head. Now I get in my car and drive.

I don’t see this improvement as doing anything for traffic congestion. It will, however, make this section of road safer for turning traffic and pedestrians. Over the past decade our neighborhood has lodged numerous complaints to the City about the dangers of this road. I guess you actually have to live in the north section of Sammamish to appreciate how bad this section of road has gotten. I’m afraid our local government will ignore our pleas and focus on only the issues in their section of the city. It’s a shame that our kids don’t have the option to walk or bike safely to school or ball fields, or to a friend who lives a quarter of a mile away.

This project is an important part of making Sammamish a more livable City by providing safe connectivity for all its citizens using all forms of transportation.

Sammamish Comment: [You] raise excellent points. It also raises another issue: the poor messaging from the City and its communications department. While the “messages” have been about traffic congestion, which won’t be solved, it perhaps should be about “safety,” for which there will be undeniable improvements. Then the expense would be more palatable.

Way back in 2009, the Planning Commission sent a message to the City Council on a 7-0 vote recommending (among other things) that a public relations firm was needed because the City was failing to adequately communicate its messaging to citizens. Today’s Council Members Don Gerend and Kathy Huckabay were on the Council then. Nothing was ever done.

Malchow, in her first year on the Council, has done an admirable job of reaching out to the community, both individually and forcing the City to hold virtual town halls and engaging on social media. But the underlying problem remains: the City has a lousy communications department and strategy and neither the Council nor City Manager is willing to take the steps necessary to make changes.

Failure is an option

Malchow, Valderrama and Hornish expressed concern about proceeding with the improvement at a cost of $16m+, only to have concurrency failure by 2035, the projection of this project.

I hate to break it to you, fellas: Failure is an option. In an urban-suburban environment, it’s also inevitable.

Even with virtually unlimited funds, you cannot build your way out of concurrent or level of service failure. Future development will always put pressure on every road/intersection improvement. By the time you fix a problem “here,” development “there” will add more traffic. It’s a vicious, unending cycle.

Politics, society demand and the law won’t let you stop development forever. Eventually officials will have to simply accept that traffic is bad and there’s little or nothing that can be done. SR202 can’t be expanded yet again west of Sahalee. Fly-overs suggested from Sammamish still will empty onto 202 (or SR520) at some point.

The key, missing question; and what to do next

Now we come down to whether the Council should have approved or rejected the design contract Tuesday.

Vic Salemann, the traffic consultant, made some crucial points.

  • Sahalee Way is a hold-over from the rural design inherited from King County when Sammamish incorporated. Do we want to retain this, or bring it up to City/urban standards?
  • The absence of a sidewalk on the east side violates Sammamish’s own City standards that would be required of a developer.
  • The improvements for SE 212th meet the standards, and there is far less traffic on 212th than on Sahalee.

What Council Members did not ask is whether, if after approving the design contract, they must approve the project when the design contract is finished. The answer, of course, is no.

Also not asked was would this design work be wasted, on the assumption that someday, some improvements will be required? I’m guessing the answer is probably not.

Also not asked is whether some change orders during the contract would be possible, and what the procedure and impact of the change orders might be? I’m thinking about adding the east side sidewalk and removing the median, for example.

Bottom Line

I think the Council should have approved the contract with the east side sidewalk and no median, or with change orders allowed.

5 thoughts on “Analyzing the Sahalee Way improvement controversy

  1. First, great post. I pretty much agree with all of it.

    The result of the vote was disappointing. As a resident of the area, I can attest that Sahalee Way is sorely in need of safety and urbanization improvements. I believe in getting more single-occupancy cars off the road so I try to ride my bike to work or take the metro bus whenever practical. Just crossing the road at rush hour to/from the bus stop is dangerous unless you’re at the NE 25th Way or NE 37th Way crosswalks (the comment on an earlier post describing it being like Frogger is very apt). And not being able to safely walk to Evans Creek Preserve, which is a great local park, is embarrassing for the city, frankly (maybe that’s just the millennial in me talking).

    On the other hand, I understand the concerns of some of the City Council members, especially those of Malchow. There is no obvious and clear way that this project will, on its own, significantly make an improvement to traffic congestion… at least for the lay person without a degree in traffic engineering. That is going to make it feel like a frivolous expense to many who live further south in the city and only drive through the area.

    Given what I’ve learned, I think making a substantial improvement to traffic congestion on Sahalee Way at morning rush hour is an intractable problem right now. The biggest issues are further down the road, past the city limits on SR 202. Only marginal improvements can be made to Sahalee Way, e.g. bus turnouts, better separating cyclists from vehicles, traffic signal timing, speed limit adjustments. It won’t be enough to make it flow smoothly at 8:30am M-F.

    I think the message should be about improving safety and access for all city residents rather than traffic congestion relief. Perhaps that would lower the project priority, but it’s better than marketing it as something that it’s not, which will only serve to make people upset later when it doesn’t do what they thought it would.

    Valderrama’s concerns about sidewalk utilization aren’t without merit, even though I find it absurd to suggest that because few people walk or bike there now (by the way, I’ve seen numerous people doing both), a sidewalk or improved bike lane wouldn’t be used if it was there. In my opinion, the best way to respond to those concerns is to have survey data about how many people would use those features if they existed. I wish more work had been done there to answer those questions. The project proposers basically only had anecdotes to cite, which isn’t going to be a very persuasive argument.

    Well, problems with Sahalee Way aren’t going away on their own. So I hope work here continues despite this setback. Personally, I would love to see a revised proposal like what you suggested here come before the City Council.

  2. The Sahalee project as proposed will not fix traffic. I stated we need to do the small incremental safety items that have an effect: turn lanes, pullouts, lights, cross walks. For the traffic improvements we need to look where can we get a real impact and I lhad last year suggested analyzing a much more costly but real solution of a fly over on 202 and express lane to 520. It would require more coordination and time but provide real traffic relief and safety. If we can’t provide transit improvements let’s move the money to where it can help and work solely on safety on Sahalee . That however is not what citizens had been pitched to date.

  3. I haven’t live in Sammamish long enough to know all the issues. But here’s what the pain points look like.

    In the morning, the traffic is stuck going to 520. Traffic improvement would mean building some kind of way to pass traffic lights near E Lake Sammamish (over head, under pass, express lane). That will clear the traffic and congestion even on Sahalee way.

    In the evening, you can clearly see the traffic stuck at the Redmond Way exit. There are two problems, first the traffic is stuck due to the same traffic lights near E Lake Sammamish, if that gets an overhead or underpass or express lane, then the traffic will most likely build up on Sahalee way. Perhaps add another lane in just that direction.

  4. I just don’t see how this project is worth the money.

    I do a ton of walking in various parts of the city, both where there are sidewalks and where there aren’t any. You are correct that Sahalee is a very dangerous section of road, but you omit the fact that pedestrians can walk safely to the east or west along alternates like 216th Ave NE, 205th Ave NE, and the Williams Pipeline right of way to the east. Having no sidewalks on Sahalee isn’t a problem because there is quite literally just ONE destination besides SFH along Sahalee Way itself – Evans Creek Preserve. It is not worth $16MM to build a crosswalk to a single destination, and I say that as an avid walker who enjoys doing it.

    You mention the “crank” complaining about sidewalks along 228th, but that is comparing apples and oranges. 228th had commercial development planned for years. Even before any of the Town Center plans were finalized, you had Safeway, Sammamish Commons, two (now three) high schools, QFC, additional retail, etc. Those are all destinations that encourage pedestrian traffic. There is none of that along Sahalee – and if you live in one of the neighborhoods adjacent to Sahalee, you have more than adequate alternates to get down to 228th and the town center.

    And frankly, as someone who commutes to and from Redmond every day, Sahalee is the least of the problems on that commute. The SR202 traffic lights between 520 and E Lk Sammamish Pkwy in Redmond are the real issue and Sammamish can’t solve those. You are correct that adding capacity to Sahalee isn’t going to do anything.

    Honestly, if you want to talk about inadequate sidewalks, let’s talk about NE 8th. You have two large schools there, Inglewood and Eastlake, and the sidewalk situation there is miserable – the south side just ends after Public Storage, and a large section of the north side is asphalt and isn’t ADA compliant. Or, what about the lack of a real sidewalk alone SE 24th near Beaver Lake Park? Spend money on those areas before the “sidewalk to nowhere” along Sahalee.

    Yes, Ramiro’s act is growing old, and I wish he’d actually bother to back up his positions with facts. Even if his logic is shaky, he’s correct on this one.

  5. I agree with some of the comments above that the primary issue is safety, not access. There is a huge safety issue at the NE 28th PL intersection and one that the City has been made aware of, several times in the last 10 years. There have been near-misses, wrecked cars, and in November 2017, a street sweeping vehicle coming out of Heritage Hills got T-boned by a minivan coming up Sahalee. There was a diesel fuel spill, that the city had to pay to clean up.

    As for access, I disagree with the statement made by ‘Concerned Citizen’ that “… if you live in one of the neighborhoods adjacent to Sahalee, you have more than adequate alternates to get down to 228th and the town center.” That simply isn’t true. Consider the situation on the 4 way intersection between NE 28th Pl and 228th. For residents of the Crest neighborhood, there is no alternative but to use this intersection to get out of the neighborhood.

    Please do not confuse the issues of access, traffic congestion and safety when you write on this topic.

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