Yikes! New Seattle Bike Lanes Were Supposed to Cost $860k per Mile. Some Are Costing $13 Million Instead.

Yet another Seattle transit project goes off the rails.


Mikael Damkier/

When the $930 million "Move Seattle" transportation levy appeared on the ballot in 2015, voters were promised some very specific things in exchange for a $275 yearly bump in the city's average property taxes. This included 50 miles of protected bike lanes, 180 miles of repaved arterial roads, and the redesign of seven transit corridors to allow for easier bus, bike, and pedestrian travel.

Then–City Council President Tom Rasmussen also promised "accountability and transparency in how the levy dollars are spent."

Fast-forward three years. Ballooning cost estimates now have city officials saying they will not be able to fulfill every pledge made to voters in 2015—promises that were known to be unrealistic when they were made.

"We do not have enough funding right now to do everything that was promised, we just don't," said the city's interim Department of Transportation (SDOT) chief, Goran Sparrman, at an oversight meeting last week. Sparrman added that "some of those dollar amounts estimated for what projects would cost were clearly insufficient, even at the time."

Take the bike lanes.

The original 2015 levy budgeted about $860,000 for each promised mile of new protected bike lane and greenway. That's a smidge lower than the actual cost of the four-block bike lane project on Seventh Avenue in Seattle's downtown, which came in at $3.8 million (about $13 million per mile). Another bike lane, on Second Avenue, cost $12 million a mile.

A review of the levy's progress gives no precise dollar figure on how insufficient the bike lane budget is, saying only that the program needs "further review and adjustment."

The review says the same for those 180 miles of arterial road repaving that need to be done and those plans to increase bus speed and service on seven congested corridors, not to mention the curb repairs promised at 775 intersections.

Plans to replace any old tree removed by the city with two new trees is still on track, as are stepped-up crosswalk repainting and seismic upgrades to 16 vulnerable bridges.

SDOT blames the cost overruns on a 2016 Americans with Disabilities Act consent decree requiring the city to ugrade more sidewalks than anticipated (despite the city claiming earlier that the consent decree would not affect the delivery of Move Seattle projects), uncertainly about the availability of federal grants (despite the feds boosting transit funding this year and greenlighting several Seattle funding awards), and faster-than-anticipated growth in real estate costs.

That latter explanation has been trotted out for a number of recent transit cost overruns in the Seattle area. Sound Transit, a separate entity from SDOT, said much the same thing when it was revealed that the agency's Lynnwood light rail extension was coming in $500 million overbudget.

Sound Transit also leaned on this excuse when Seattleites learned that a $32 million park-and-ride garage that the agency was building would cost $65 million, or $100,000 a space. Outside estimates put the typical per-space cost of a Seattle parking garage at $25,000–$35,000.

Then there's the Center City Connector streetcar project, managed by SDOT, which started with cost estimates as low as $108 million but has since seen its price tag jump to $200 million, in part because SDOT officials knowingly lowballed some costs by as much as 50 percent. Construction has since been halted while an independent review of the project is performed.

The Seattle government's inability to deliver on the promises it has made to voters and taxpayers has so far failed to produce a political backlash. As Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat writes, "this pattern of overpromising or outright deception…never seems to get the city in too much hot water with voters. Maybe because we're so desperate for transit and infrastructure improvements."

A big part of the problem is that the department that receives money from a voter-approved transportation levy—SDOT in the Move Seattle case—is the same agency tasked with informing the public what their vote will get them. Levies need only pass once, after all, so the incentive to overpromise is strong.

In the run-up to the Move Seattle vote, SDOT and the mayor's office hosted five community coffee hours (and one happy hour), 35 community meetings, and three mayoral round tables attended by 40 stakeholder groups. SDOT also circulated information via its blog, the Move Seattle website, and online surveys, and it distributed materials at farmers markets, press events, and pop-up tables at community centers.

The stated purpose of this community outreach was to hear what kind of projects community stakeholders wanted. It's not hard to see this all as an effort to butter the public's bread, particularly given that it resulted in an extra $30 million in projects added without any rise in the per-person costs of the levy itself.

SDOT now has the uninviting task of paring down projects or scrapping up more revenue to give voters something close to what they've been promised.

This process is happening at the same time that development is getting underway for another Seattle-area transit expansion, the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 project, which includes a promise to build 62 miles of new light rail.

Expect to keep hearing about an unanticipated spike in real estate prices.

NEXT: Another Socialist Success: Venezuela Imports Oil from U.S.

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  1. Look, I’m just happy that Vision Zero was an unqualified success.

    1. Well, it’s certainly done nothing for Seattle so if “Zero” is your metric for… oh, right, I think I get you.

    2. BUCS doesn’t ride bikes. All bicycles are clown bicycles to BUCS.

  2. Yikes! New Seattle Bike Lanes Were Supposed to Cost $860k per Mile. Some Are Costing $13 Million Instead.

    $860k per mile is approximately $840k too expensive.

    FYI, this is what happens when your mayor appoints a for-real bike “activist” as your Head of Transportation. And also, Scott Kubly, said former had of transportation is firmly ensconced in the public sector->lobbyist pipeline.

  3. Yet we can’t build more roads, lets build more bike paths that .01% of the people actually use.

    1. Using the federal mileage allowance as a rough estimate, you could dedicated a truck to load up the bicycles and riders, driven 22 million bicycle trips over that given mile of bike path, and set them down on the far end, for the same money. You could use something big, like … a bus … and …

  4. The left needs to get over their fetish for public transportation and pedestrian crap. Cars / roads are how 99% of the people get around so that should be where 99% of the money goes to.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make a city more “bike friendly”, but there’s a right and wrong way to do it.

      1. Yes there is. Make it more “bike friendly” and you’ll get more bikers.
        Bikers are what roads get instead of fleas.

        1. Aww, is your tribalism showing?

          What did I ever do to you?

          Abusus non tollit usum.

      2. This 100%. The right way to do it is the way the Dutch did it.

        Eliminate thru traffic (ratruns) in residential neighborhoods using bollards/woonerfs/etc that most residents want now anyway. Arterials should be around those neighborhoods – not thru them. Eliminating that thru traffic also eliminates need for excess traffic lights on arterials.

        Connect the different neighborhoods around the city with separate bike paths (not bike lanes in most cases) cuz bikes can get thru the bollards even if cars can’t. The city will then have 90% of the bike infrastructure it needs so that anyone can get anywhere else without forcing them to ‘share’ with vehicles at speed. No helmets, racing gear, or need to stop/start all the time. Bikes will create their own way of using their grid – just like cars do now. That will increase bike usage for short trips (kids to/from school, errands, etc) and every one of those trips reduces the need for that trip done by car. Even in the US, 50% of car trips are less than 5 miles (the likely max range where bikes are a substitute) – higher in urban areas.

        The rest is done over decades by just incorporating ‘biking’ into regular road system stuff. I doubt we ever get to the point where the Dutch are now – 25% of trips by bike v 50% by car v 10% by masstran – and an 85% reduction in absolute traffic deaths since the early 70’s. But yeesh – we can sure do a lot better than we do.

        1. Bad news for you.
          Americans With Disabilities Act.
          A bazillion old geezers with arthritis in both knees.
          And at least for a few more years, private property.
          Other than that, you go for it!

          1. Not at all. This video only shows the bike infrastructure on the ‘connecting bits’ but obviously the neighborhood itself is how the scooters get out to the connecting infrastructure.


            Mobility scooters are less than 10% of the cost of a car – can also get thru bollards – and are far more useful for the disabled than a car at the end of their voyage (eg inside a retail outlet itself – or at work). And once people bike for utility reasons; then bike shops will sell a ton of stuff that isn’t even sold here cuz this is exclusively an automobile country.

          2. Those scooters and special bikes are also much safer for both the elderly and others. In the US, it is often a battle when one’s parents are too old to drive safely. Because there ain’t no alternative mode of transport here so you are stealing their very independence and freedom. One of my mom’s friends last acts (in her mid-eighties) was killing a kid on a bike because she couldn’t control the car as well as she once could but the car is still always a deadly weapon. She lost her will to live at that point too and died a month later.

            What a shitty definition of independence and freedom we have in this country. The kid has to ride his bike near traffic cuz FYTW. The old lady has to keep driving cuz FYTW.

          3. People always cite the elderly as the reason why we need to accommodate driving. They never seem to reconcile that assertion with the fact that the elderly are demonstrably more dangerous drivers and should be shunted to other modes of transportation, to the extent practicable.

            Just the other day, in NYC, an 86-year-old mowed down a 7-year-old crossing the street with his mother with the right of way. Sounds like the kid died in his mother’s arms. Dude raced off and stopped only when a taxi driver chased him down. The 86-year-old alternately claimed, first, that he didn’t realize he’d hit anyone, and then claimed that the woman had jumped in front of his car. He had already received several other citations for dangerous driving. Sounds like he might get a few tickets this time.

            And that’s just the most recent. It happens all the time, in this city, that the elderly get in their cars and drive straight through store fronts or over kids on sidewalks. But put more of them in cars, you people always say! Idiots, the lot of you.

            1. “People always cite the elderly as the reason why we need to accommodate driving”

              No, they don’t.

            2. “It happens all the time, in this city, that the elderly get in their cars and drive straight through store fronts or over kids on sidewalks.”

              Yeah, ALL THE TIME…then quotes instance from NYC. Your claim is as well-sourced as “Seems like there’s a school shooting every day!”

    2. If that’s what Seattle wants to spend its money on who are non-Seattlites to argue? Obviously it needs to be more cost-efficient. “Moar roadz” isn’t the only answer everywhere, either.

      1. “Moar roadz” isn’t the only answer everywhere, either.

        I’m the first to admit that Moar Roadz isn’t even possible under many places in Seattle. It’s a thin strip of land with water on both sides. Unless you start razing some neighborhoods, moar roadz aint’ gonna happen.

        However… when you take the roads you have and narrow them from four lanes to two, and drop speed limits to a grandma moses pace, the people idled on those previously efficient and fast-moving thoroughfares tend to get a little jumpy when they see 40′ of unused bike lane and “parkets” eating up the roadway.

        1. Those people could always, y’know, bike.

          1. Fuck off dude! Biking in freezing, rainy ass weather half the year IS NOT a real solution. All the roads in the city worked BETTER before they started doing all this nonsense. If people want to cut down on traffic they should take a bus, which is a far better way to get somewhere if it’s more than a mile or two away. And if they want to bike they don’t need 13 MILLION DOLLAR PER MILE special lanes for it. I rode a bike all the time as a kid, and we didn’t have any BS special lanes. The only people who get themselves killed riding bikes are idiot bikers who do themselves in, or a VERY small percentage who just have shit luck. The same can happen as a pedestrian or car driver too. Nobody uses the bike lanes, therefore they shouldn’t be screwing up car traffic to pump them up.

      2. If Seattlites want to be lied to, over-taxed and have their actual needs ignored in favor of utopian fantasies, who are non-Seattlites to argue?

        Who’s arguing, I’m just laughing. And DO continues to rationalize that all this is well-intentioned Good Things, not corrupt politicians laughing in your faces. Enjoy, suckers.

    3. OR…they could just say “Well, we don’t like how people get around so fuck them!” and do what they want with their money. What was the phrase used in that California town…”traffic dieting”? Where they produced a 400% increase in traffic accidents, and, IIRC, 11 fatalities in a 3-month period where they might or might not have had ONE before? This was done by making driving more difficult, unsafe and irritating, because they would PREFER their citizens got around in a different manner.

      Your liberal politicians, folks!! Killing the citizens they were elected to serve, for their own good!

  5. What does building a bike lane entail? I’d expect painting/changing some lines and adding some new roadsigns. Maybe repaving if the road is really bad. How do you get to $13M a mile for that? How do you even get to $860k a mike for that?

    1. Look, it sounds like you need to sit out of this before you embarrass yourself.

    2. Look the six-figure pensions for the fifty road crew standing around watching the two guys doing the actual work aren’t going to pay for themselves, moran.

    3. They’re *protected* bike lanes, Adam! PROTECTED!!

      1. I like you.

        /no homo

    4. You have to add an 800% markup for the inevitable embezzlement. If the actual cost is $10, the taxpayers will spend $10,000 lining the pockets of corrupt officials and contractors and $5 on the actual project. Since it was “underfunded” and left incomplete, traffic around the construction site will remain terrible until the serfs fork over more money.

      1. Ah, a succinct and accurate presentation of the Sanctuary City Budgeting Process for Special Projects. Thanks, seems about right.

        Who says there’s not enough wealth redistribution in America? Dollars moving here from “suckers trying to buy ‘cool'” to corrupt Democratic officials, lobbyists, union honchos and activists. All in order, it’s the American Dream amirite?

    5. What does building a bike lane entail?

      Gosh, it sure would be nice if journalists would tell us these kinds of things, right?

      The 7th Ave project being pilloried here involves redesigning the whole street and what look like will be concrete curbs separating the protected bike lanes from car traffic lanes. It looks like there will also be some traffic signal upgrades and, on one street, they are redirecting the flow of car traffic. They’ll also be installing “bulb-outs” at some intersections, which are expanded sidewalk corners that extend further out so as to reduce pedestrian crossing distances. Since it sounds like they’re doing ADA-required upgrades, as well, it sounds like they’re probably tearing up some curbs here and there and installing ramps, perhaps adding audible traffic signals, that sort of thing.

      So I imagine there’s going to be a fair amount of tearing up the road, pouring concrete, lane closures, and things of that nature.

      1. The 7th Ave project being pilloried here involves redesigning the whole streetThe 7th Ave project being pilloried here involves redesigning the whole street

        Gosh, maybe the project pimpers should have been a little more realistic about the costs, then, shouldn’t they?

      2. “So I imagine there’s going to be a fair amount of tearing up the road, pouring concrete, lane closures, and things of that nature.”

        Does it all have to be done at “prevailing wage” (meaning inflated union labor cost) like in Cali?

      3. Yes, they tore up tons of stuff and replaced it with a bunch of garbage awkward chunks of cement etc that makes everything worse than before. It’s a GREAT improvement for… Nobody. The way they did it it’s pretty much more annoying even for the 6 people on actual bikes that bother to use it every day. It’s a total shit show and waste of money that just made traffic worse. Which was its intended goal anyway. I hate these politicians in this town, I can’t wait to move. I hope they LITERALLY die slow and painful deaths for all the bullshit they’ve unleashed on the people here.

  6. What about the Seattle Super Train?

    1. Look, what the Super Sonics do in the off season is not our problem.

    2. It was supposed to have great coffee and great music, but we got Starbucks and Nirvana.

      Seriously, they are building the super train. It’s price tag is $56 billion, and if ridership estimates are accurate (hardy har har), it will absorb the traffic generated by 1/10 of the people that move here by the time it’s built. No reductions for current traffic or the other 9/10.

      And if you think it will only cost 56 billion, I’ve got some high speed rail to sell ya.

  7. Yikes! New Seattle Bike Lanes Were Supposed to Cost $860k per Mile. Some Are Costing $13 Million Instead.

    Yikes! The fact that the *projected* cost of a single mile of bike lane costs more than a huge house on a multi-acre lot in most of the country is ridiculous.

    1. If they keep treating the dollar like strip club funny money, it’ll be worth about that.

    2. However, the price per mile is only slightly higher than the price of an average home in Seattle ($777,000).

  8. Ha, ha.

    Math and economic forecasting is hard.

    You fucked up! You trusted us…so we have no just but to tax you more!

  9. the four-block bike lane project on Seventh Avenue in Seattle’s downtown, which came in at $3.8 million

    You must mean *Seattle’s downtown* cost $3.8M, right? RIGHT?!

  10. Where is the opposition from the Libertarian Party or any real political party? I’ll bet 95% of Seattle taxpayers don’t even know about this waste of money. And, I’ll bet, the local tv news outlets in Seattle are ignoring this and reporting on the latest Kardashian soap opera, or sending a reporter off to London for the latest wedding of a royal twit.

    1. The NYT recently did a major expose of similar waste that plagues every major public project in NYC and literally nothing else happened. Nobody gives a shit. What are they going to do, NOT vote for Democrats?

      1. ^ so much this. It gets local news coverage. But Team Blue (actually Team Pinko in the case of Seattle) has a lock on local politics, so there are no consequences for failure. They had trouble getting rid of pedo-mayor.

        We have a statue of fucking Lenin and it is not ironic.

        1. “…But Team Blue (actually Team Pinko in the case of Seattle) has a lock on local politics, so there are no consequences for failure…”

          We know,
          San Francisco

      2. The lock that the unions have on infrastructure projects in NYC is a bit more nuanced than that. With the MTA, for instance, it’s substantially the result of Cuomo dealing handouts to the unions and his suburban constituencies. Cuomo is nominally a Democrat, but his policies and machinations tend to favor upstate Republican legislators, often at the expense of downstate Democrats and NYC. And then there’s a group of Democrats in the state Senate who have been actively working with Republicans to block any significant Democrat-backed legislation from getting through.

        It’s very, very difficult, and thoroughly corrupt, and to be sure a lot of it has to do with reflexive support for the Democratic candidate in many races. But it’s not like there are many good alternatives. A Republican governor would do exactly the same thing.

  11. SDOT now has the uninviting task of paring down projects or scrapping up more revenue to give voters something close to what they’ve been promised.

    I mean, do they really? I mean, if there are no political repercussions than SDOT can basically give the middle finger and nothing will happen. What are voters going to do, get their money back?

    1. Or threaten to vote for Republicans? As if…

  12. Yeah, how in the world do you even get to $860,000 per mile for a bike lane, let alone the $13 million or whatever?

  13. Wasting motorized transportation tax revenue on bike-fag infrastructure sucks. If those spandex-clad assholes want bike lanes so bad they should have to pay confiscatory taxes on their pedal toys.

    1. Why do carheads seem to want cyclists to ride in traffic? Bike lanes get cyclists out of the way and help streets flow more smoothly. Is that something you don’t want?

      1. Hey, if bicyclists don’t want to pay the tax to set up their own lane–you know, like car drivers do–then they can ride in traffic with the cars.

      2. But THEY DON’T help traffic flow more smoothly. When you remove 2 lanes from a 4 or 6 lane road, the number of cars doesn’t go down. It just moves slower and becomes gridlocked. PERIOD. This has happened everywhere around the city that they’ve done this stupid shit. 2nd Ave, Capitol Hill, all of them flow WAY worse than before the made these “improvements.” I’ve lived here for 13 years, I know what traffic is like. They’re not helping with any of this.

  14. OK, have I got this right?
    The city accountants did not know real estate prices go up.
    The city engineers did not know how to estimate prices.
    The city liaison with DC did not know what was going to be in the ADA.
    The city politicians DID know how to lie.
    The voters did not know any of the stuff above, but voted for more taxes.

    And somehow we are supposed to give a damn? Democrat politicians screwing over democrat voters.
    Win, win.


  16. C’mon, this is a city/county that builds light rail at $100,000 per linear foot and proposed a new precinct station at $160 million, and you’re quibbling over bike lanes that cost $2500 per foot? It’s a bargain I tell you.

  17. Can horses use bike lanes?

    1. No! They have to ride in the lanes with cars!

      This is a real thing actually. We have buggy things that do horse rides in parts of downtown as a tourist thing!

      1. Horses leave piles of poop six inches to a foot high and two feet across. You do NOT want to ride a bike through one of these.

  18. It gets really tiresome to have to do supplementary research on every Reason post commenting on transportation issues. For whatever reason, you cannot cover this issue honestly or accurately. Here, you misleadingly inflate the price tag of “bike lanes” when it’s clear we’re talking about a more comprehensive street overhaul whose price appears a lot more reasonable when not “scaled up” to a per-mile price-tag.

    1. They STILL claimed it was going to be 860K, and it was 13 million. They LIED bigly.

  19. Here, you misleadingly inflate the price tag of “bike lanes” when it’s clear we’re talking about a more comprehensive street overhaul

    No, idiot, the point is that Seattle’s government promised that the costs would be x, and the actual cost is actually x+________, and they won’t be able to deliver everything they promised, to boot.

  20. Nashville is voting today on a $9 billion transit plan and ironically it’s boosters have been pointing at Seattle as a model of success to as part of their rationalization of it.

    1. Ugh. Derailments are not something to aspire to. But there is one parallel: traffic is a chokepoint around a single interstate. Seattle is by far the worst layout in the nation admittedly: when rush hour hits, you wish your were a dot com millionaire and could charter a helicopter service to get out of traffic.

  21. Clearly, the only solution is to vote in more liberal politicians, who will set up more study groups, arrange more ‘public outreach meetings’ (or, “misinformation distribution nodes”), and set up more agencies and organizations to deal with issues…which agencies and organizations just happen to provide a lot of well-compensated white-collar jobs to the kind of people who support liberal politicians (I’m guessing, coincidence).

    Good job, Seattle, keeping those rich Republicans and corrupt crony capitalists out of your government!!

  22. Jesus. I knew those changes ruined traffic in all those spots… They’re HORRIBLE now. But I had no idea they blew THAT MUCH money for those insanely small, insanely bad projects. God I hate this city.

  23. Seattle is so doomed: wait til some hack finds a way to monetize “safety concerns for rollerblades” and demands… a new separate path so that speed differences don’t become a factor in injuries. On that note… maybe California should secede – that way Washington can repatriate some of the loons that moved north after helping turn their cities into cesspools. They are already doing the neo-confederate thing by claiming to be a “sanctuary state”.

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