In the fight over Chris Hansen’s proposed arena in Sodo, a major issue for the Port of Seattle was its belief that vacating Occidental Avenue on behalf of another pro sports venue on its doorstep would be a major impediment to freight mobility, hastening the container port’s economic demise.
The port characterized the development as another shiv in the ribs from a city eager to abandon its maritime heritage, and all its middle-class jobs, for gentrification.
The City Council, by a 5-4 vote, bought the argument and all but killed Hansen’s project. Now, the news gets even better for the port.
Wednesday the U.S. Department of Transportation, elbowed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, awarded $45 million to the Lander Street overpass project, a bridge that is a twin of the Edgar Martinez Drive flyover next to Safeco Field that helps relieve congestion and improve safety at one of the more dangerous intersections in town.
That doesn’t mean the Lander project is a done deal, but it pushes the total of funds committed to $100 million of the estimated $140 million cost.
If funding is completed soon, the Seattle Department of Transportation believes the project could break ground in spring 2018, or nearly 20 years after the city formally determined that the nine sets of rail lines crossing Lander and relentlessly stopping traffic each day was a bad idea.
What does a bad idea look like there?
SDOT research shows the gates close to allow train traffic about 100 times a day, stopping vehicle traffic for 4.5 hours. SDOT’s Lander project leader, Jessica Murphy, told me that Lander is in the top half of the worst one percent of car/train intersections for accidents in the U.S. Over the past five years, 85 accidents have been recorded, including three fatalities, one on April 30.
So the Lander Street project isn’t just about big trucks or big hoops.
“We’re very excited,” Cantwell told KING 5. “This will help us maintain the competitiveness of our ports. All of this freight moves up and down I-5. But the last mile can mean four hours of delay.”
After the announcement, Port Commissioner Tom Albro issued a statement saying the port was drafting an agreement with the city to kick in $5 million too, the first such contribution by the entity likely to benefit the most from the Lander bridge.
For any citizen/resident/taxpayer/port worker, the progress represents good news. For basketball fans, the question is: How much closer would the project be if it had up to another $20 million or so in private money?
That’s what Hansen was said to be ready to contribute to Lander if his arena was granted a master use permit for construction, which would have allowed him to better pursue an NBA or NHL team.
The exact amount remains unclear, but in the 2012 memorandum of understanding between him, the city and county on building the Sodo arena, a Sodo Transportation Infrastructure Fund of $40 million was created.
The money, including a big share from Hansen, gives, according to Section 11a, “first priority to projects protecting the operations of the Port of Seattle, such as those involving Terminal 46, and improving freight mobility, including projects that improve pedestrian safety, enhance transit service and connectivity and overall traffic management in the Sodo area.”
If that doesn’t sound like the Lander bridge project, I’ll eat my yellow hard hat.
Whether all of that $40 million could go to Lander, or must be shared among other Hansen commitments to infrastructure such as a parking garage and pedestrian overpass, is unclear.
What is clear is that a large gift of private money for a public transportation project is rare, part of a series of sweeteners totaling more than $100 million Hansen added to his original proposal in 2012. But the council vote had the effect of rejecting the gift.
Some might say Hansen was trying to bribe his way into the council’s hearts. But it’s not a bribe if it’s visible and benefits all. The commitment shows how much Hansen wanted the deal, since he was offering big cash up front for improved public benefits to the arena site in exchange for the right to access the city’s cheaper interest rates on 30-year construction loans.
A receipt of public benefits that can be argued as a sufficient reason to justify a public contribution.
Publicly, Hansen has said nothing beyond his website response to the May 2 council vote: “We don’t believe it is the end of the road in our quest to bring the NBA and NHL back to Seattle. We know all the fans who have stood solidly by us these past years share our disappointment but it is important that we all stay focused on our shared goal. We now need to take a little time to step back and evaluate our options, better understand the council’s concerns and find a path forward.”
Privately, according to a source, conversations are going on, as Hansen’s statement implied. That the city’s application for a $45 million federal grant was accepted has to been seen as good news for renewed ambitions from Hansen. There’s lots of moving parts, but the a gap of “only” $40 million to a Lander solution looks more “bridgeable” than at any time since the problem was diagnosed.
In a statement Wednesday, Mayor Ed Murray said, “We’re now one very significant step closer to building a critical overpass in Sodo that has been greatly needed for improved safety and mobility — particularly for our local maritime and industrial sector — since the 1990s.
“With the arrival of new stadiums and increased transit, rail and commercial activity over the years, the need for the project has only grown. The City will continue to work with our partners, including the state, the Port of Seattle, and those in the private sector to close the remaining gap.”
The “remaining gap” might be an opening for Hansen, who can argue, “If I can help the port get what it has long wanted, I can seek the port’s help to get what I want.”
Imagine: A win-win.