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