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Can Levy Buy Enough Tech To Move Seattle Traffic?

Drivers wait to cross Mercer Street
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Drivers wait to cross Mercer Street

It’s rush hour on Mercer Street, in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. Tech workers are getting off work. Lauren Wheeler and Sande Ditt just finished an after-work jog – when I flag them down and ask them to share their traffic horror stories.

“On Mercer?” asks Ditt. At times, she says, “I’ve probably been here at least 45 minutes just trying to get on the freeway.”

Above us, a traffic camera watches the intersection in front of us. “That signal is piped into a room on the 37th floor of the municipal tower,” I tell the joggers. “Where there’s somebody who has the power to change the traffic light timing.”

“Is it happening now?” asks Wheeler.

“Yeah, it’s happening right now. If we stood in front of that camera, she could probably see us,” I say.

“OK, it’s not working,” says Wheeler.

It’s not working because the cars are stuck. At the intersection in front of us, the light turns green. But the cars on Mercer can’t move, because the lanes ahead of them are blocked.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Sande Ditt and Lauren Wheeler were jogging while many of their colleagues sat in traffic on Mercer. They've changed their lifestyle to avoid South Lake Union's horrible rush hour traffic. Ditt takes the bus and Wheeler rents an apartment nearby.", "fid": "121502", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201510/Joggers.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Wheeler says the traffic engineers have failed here.

“Better luck next time,” is the message she says she’d send them.

This November, Seattle voters will decide whether to commit almost a billion dollars in property taxes to help reduce traffic problems like this. The Move Seattle levy promises to fill potholes, add bus lanes and boost stoplight technology.

But this visit to one of Seattle’s most congested neighborhoods shows the promise – and the limits – of that traffic management technology.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "'I'm Making A Difference'", "style": "full"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "Mercer Street during the afternoon rush hour.", "fid": "121506", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201510/gridlock_2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]“I feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives,” said Adiam Emery. She’s the person on the other side of that traffic camera. She runs the city's Transportation Operations Center.

Emery watched a wall of moving images. They show a couple dozen key intersections all over Seattle. I see the South Park Bridge, a curvy section of Interstate 5.

It’s all eerily silent, like an art installation, a portrait of our constant need to be somewhere else … and our failure to get there in time. “We’ve outgrown what we’ve built,” Emery said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Adiam Emery runs the city of Seattle's Transportation Operations Center. Each intersection on the screen behind her comes from a traffic camera.", "fid": "121507", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201510/TOC.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]When Emery or one of her traffic engineers sees something out of the ordinary, they try to figure out the cause. “We’re constantly monitoring it, to say, ‘OK, I’m seeing backup, what’s the trend?’” Emery said.

Sometimes, they see a pattern. That’s when they tell the computer to change the traffic signal timing for a group of stoplights in an area. “So you would kind of adjust that to say ‘OK, there’s a higher volume coming through here,’” Emery said, “and I would give more to the eastbound because I’m seeing a detour coming through here.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "A traffic camera on Mercer Street", "fid": "121508", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201510/traffic_cams.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Other streets have more complex systems. Sensors track traffic volume and algorithms tell the stoplights when to switch.

The Move Seattle levy promises to spread these technologies further through the city.

Still, there’s no guarantee that the projects described in this levy will get built. That led Amanda Clark and the board of the local League of Women Voters to come out against the levy. “This was a pretty hard decision,” Clark said.

She said the levy doesn’t have enough accountability or enough transparency. And she said it’s unclear which projects will be built first – and which will have to wait until the levy’s ninth and final year.

“We really, completely understand the dire need for transportation improvements,” she said. “I mean, we’re kind of at a critical stage. So it doesn’t make us happy to say this isn’t a really good levy.”

The levy campaign says some flexibility in the list of projects is necessary because the city's needs can evolve over time.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Overwhelming The System", "style": "full"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "A land-use sign on Mercer Street means more jobs and parking spaces -- and traffic -- are coming soon to South Lake Union. ", "fid": "121510", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201510/land_use_action.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]On the other side is Mark Hallenbeck, who runs the Washington State Transportation Center and is a levy supporter. He’s a big fan of the levy’s investments in bus lanes and filling potholes and rebuilding bridges and stuff.

He likes the technology, too: “Please, dear God, put in the technology.” But he says the technology has limits. Better stoplights can’t deal with the sheer number of cars on the road at rush hour in South Lake Union.

“Forget it,” he says. “Once you’ve overwhelmed the system, technology is not your savior. It’s cheaper for us as a city … it’s better for us in all kinds of ways for us to encourage you to walk and to bike and to take the bus. Because they take way less space!”

Hallenbeck says the levy will do the most good – by making these other modes of transportation easier.

The election is Nov. 3. The levy requires 50 percent approval in order to pass.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Bikes and pedestrians in the South Lake Union neighborhood.", "fid": "121513", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201510/other_modes.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]