Saving Grace

[ The horrors of Snowpocalypse 2008 ]

One of the smartest decisions the next mayor of Seattle could make would be to retain Grace Crunican as the director of the Seattle Department of Transportation.  But sadly no, both Mallahan and McGinn have said said they would not.  Given Crunican’s record, it’s hard not to interpret that positition as pandering.

Since being appointed by Mayor Nickels in 2002, Crunican has completely transformed the heart and soul of SDOT.  What had been an inflexible, close-minded, car-centric, typical American big city transportation department, has been reborn as an agency that embraces the concept of “complete streets;” that produced the bicycle and pedestrian master plans; that delivered Seattle’s first modern age street car; that has been dedicating significant resources to slowly but surely chipping away at the task of improving infrastructure for non-motorized transportation.

Crunican has been consistently pushing for a two-way boulevard to fix the “Mercer Mess,” a proposal that sends the “all developers are evil” crowd into convulsions.  But when you have urban designers, transportation engineers, and bike/ped advocates all agreeing, you can be pretty sure you’re on to something good.  All indications are that Crunican would also promote a balanced solution for the waterfront after the viaduct comes down.

Crunican is arguably one of the most progressive city transportation directors in the entire country.  So why all the zealous calls for her head?  Because of “Snowpocalypse 2008?”  The infantile reaction that some Seattleites had to the snowstorm is an embarrassment to humanity.  Or simply because she’s a convenient scapegoat to appease car-headed whiners?  Because she’s tainted by Nickels?  Somebody help me out here.

For two outsider candidates lacking experience in City Hall, saving Grace would demonstrate a recognition that in some cases stabilty and continuity are as important as renewal.

35 Responses to “Saving Grace”

  1. Joshua

    I couldn’t agree more. Grace is recognized nationally for the changes she’s made in SDOT, and rightly so. Losing her would be a real shame.

  2. Tony the Economist

    I get the impression that McGinn and Mallahan’s reasons are 180 degrees from each other. She’s too anti-car for Mallahan and too pro-car for McGinn. When McGinn says we need change, he is talking about pushing bike/ped/transit to a radically progressive level, not “slowly but surely chipping away at the task of improving infrastructure for non-motorized transportation.”

    Now, from what you say, it is possible that Crunican really does support a more radically anti-car agenda, but has never been empowered to go all in on it. If McGinn wins, I suspect he will evaluate whether Crunican is actually a moderate or if she is a closet radical. I think he’ll keep her on if he thinks she is the latter. If he does replace her, it will be with someone even more progressive.

    If Mallahan wins on the other hand, you can expect Crunican to be replaced by “an inflexible, close-minded, car-centric, typical American big city” transportation director.

    This election is not about simply choosing a new mayor; it is about the soul of this city. The tunnel is merely a symbol of the fundamentally different visions these candidates have for Seattle. We are at a fork in the road, and this election will determine our path for a generation if not longer.

  3. GreenwoodSam

    In response to Tony the Economist’s comment, I disagree on his last point. This election does not REPRESENT “a fork in the road for Seattle voters”. Rather it REFLECTS the damaging polarization that continues to bog it down. Nickels tried to play the middle ground between big business and the bike/ped/Green community. Look what it got him.

    Snowpocalypse 2008 reflects the whiny character of Seattlites, just like when the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl and locals just can’t stop complaining about it how the Seahawks lost unfairly. They just can’t get over it.

    There’s a pervasive feeling of entitlement here, and it has left us with an AWFUL choice of mayoral candidates. Both of them leave me wanting much, much more.

  4. wes kirkman

    Thanks Dan for the link to Alan’s discussion of car-head. Good job jumping in there at the last minute and responding to car-head commenter numero uno. I didn’t realize you were on the good side of the faction in cyclists. That said, you are wasting your virtual-breath. You are way more eloquent than I and thus more likely to persuade, but I just don’t see the VCs to be budging on this topic.

  5. Chris

    Great idea, Dan. Grace has been an excellent leader in transportation issues over her term.

  6. CentArea

    23rd ain’t looked this good since…

  7. jonathan

    The peasants with torches have been marching… the picture of botched curbs on the front page was huge.

    The Mercer issue is a problem though.
    Too close to the central strategy of the Nickels administration… be a green leader by doing sustainable things, AND build corporate cred by doing anti-sustainable things that cancel out 150% of the effect of the sustainable things. Vulcan, tunnel, etc.

  8. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    The more I look at the Mercer fix, the less I like it. Six lanes of traffic. New freeway overpass estimated at “only” $190m. But there are some trees, yay.

  9. slag

    The infantile reaction that some Seattleites had to the snowstorm is an embarrassment to humanity.


    But jonathan’s point probably better explains the candidates’ position.

  10. dave

    So people are calling for Grace’s head because a few wheelchair ramps and curb improvements were botched?

    This makes about as much sense as delivering Nickels on a spit for failing to control atmospheric pressure in 2008.

    Sounds to me like alot of misdirected anger.

  11. Sirkulat

    When Grace Crunican left her position at Oregon DOT, pedestrian, bicycling, ADA organizations celebrated. In Portland, she was vindictively indifferent to the non-road portion of a major inner-city highway and put pedestrians forever in danger with the completed work. She only puts on a show in Seattle to suggest she gives a damn. Don’t kid yourself. The lack of progress in Seattle is due to her willful obstructionism in disguise. The new Alaskan Way design is atrocious. ADA mandated curb cuts are minimized to no one’s benefit. Seattle can’t get simple bike paths in place; painted lanes maybe, but what a delicious revenge to pit bicyclists against motorists and parked cars. She’s the enemy. Don’t eat her candy, little boys.

  12. Weekend News Roundup - Seattle Transit Blog

    [...] Bertolet at HugeAssCity offers an articulate defense of embattled Seattle DOT head Grace [...]

  13. Chris Stefan

    @11 Sirkulat,
    Do you have a link for that? The only assertion I’ve heard that Grace wasn’t liked in Oregon has been by you. I’d like some confirmation before I get out the pitchforks and torches.

  14. Sirkulat

    The project in question is the complete rebuild of the surface, sidewalk and ornate ballistrade rail of Portland’s Ross Island Bridge, State Hwy 26. Crunican was ODOT director at the time.

    Ross Island Bridge is 4-lanes of high traffic with not enough shoulder for a painted bike lane next to the sidewalk. It’s speed averages 45mph.

    Pedestrian/bicycling/ADA groups petitioned ODOT to widen the sidewalk, which was instead left about 5′ wide, barely room for two wheelchairs to pass. 18″ of road width was gained by eliminating a catwalk on the south side. Instead of a widened sidewalk, it was used to widen traffic lanes.

    The final belligerant insult was the steel barrier rails installed directly to the ballistrade railing. It could have been installed between the sidewalk and the curb lane per Portland’s Broadway or Steel Bridges, but no. Crunican widened the traffic lanes which speeded up traffic a notch and left pedestrians inches away from speeding traffic unprotected. Shortly thereafter, Crunican left her position at ODOT like George HW Bush leaving the Nixon Adminstration for China to avoid Watergate. She became Seattle DOT chief in 2002.

    I’ve searched online, but there’s not much left in the public realm. The controversies in Seattle are evidence enough of her willful indifference to holistic transportation planning. Take for example the proposed streetcar line through the middle of the new Alaskan Way wide plaza. She must’ve known all along its operation there was unsafe and unsuitable for other reasons, but she left it on the books as viable for 5 years. Now, the Waterfront Streetcar line will not be reinstalled though it’s possible, and instead a streetcar line proposed for 1st Ave “left lane/Center platform.” Center platform! ie, stations in the middle of the street. Oh, she’s no good.

  15. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    The Ross Island Bridge (US 26 by the way) project finished in 2001:

    It’s hard to know who to blame how much on these problems. Clearly there are some assumptions at SDOT that kept, for example, a crosswalk off the east sides of Boren and Fairview in the Mercer redesign. But who and why?

  16. Bobby

    Grace should stay. The original post is accurate – she has turned SDOT around largely for the better. Either new mayor would be a fool to replace her, as they will find out if they try.

  17. LeAnne

    Sirkulat, You sound petty in your accusation that Grace is “vindictively indifferent.” It seems as though you’re looking for someone to hate rather than looking to understand transportation project parameters. It is an unfortunate over -simplification to say Seattle cannot get bike paths. There are not only many stakeholders involved – some avidly and successfully fighting against bike-friendly projects – but also limitations to consider such as not enough right-of-way space to allow for the addition of a bike lane (as you note with the Ross Island Bridge project in Oregon) or not enough funding to make a bridge repair project into a total bridge rebuild project (which added bridge width often requires). There are so many elements to balance that I give Grace kudos for working so hard to move forward despite the sometimes combative environment of clashing public opinion.

  18. Look4wrd

    The times I’ve heard Grace speak I’ve been impressed with her evenhandedness. I don’t think her failings are due to where she lies along the transportation spectrum. SDOT is a huge, bureaucratic, sluggish monstrosity. If anything her failures have more to do with how impossibly long it takes to transform an ingrown, good old boy, job for life, this is the way we’ve always done things institution. Unless she or her successor can fire and hire more freely and re-organize SDOT in a big way the dis-function will continue.

  19. Sirkulat

    I tried to explain how Grace Crunican has proved herself uninterested in the public good. She caters to automobile-only mobility to the detriment of pedestrian, bicycling and ADA organizations who made fair appeals to ODOT under her authority, and in Seattle. Go ahead and put your blinders on, LeAnne. Crunican talks nice. Forget about her record of failure to formulate a viable AWV replacement – the Deep-bore is atrocious, cost has nothing to do with its severe shortcomings; failure with the SLU streetcar, lackluster Link LRT and dismal prospects, failure with bike facilities, pedestrian amenities. She’s utterly incompetent, and more likely corrupt as a snake. Too much has gone wrong under her command.

  20. Michael

    I’m in agreement that the people of Seattle had no collective idea of what could be done (very little) and often were ignorant of our basic geography (no amount of salt and plows would have helped people down the Counterbalance or many other steep Seattle arterials). You might as well blame the City when you can’t get to work a few days after the Big One hits.

    @Sirkulat, you have an strong opinions about our transit that aren’t echoed by the people who actually use it, followed by personal attacks, indicating that your opinion is unworthy of consideration unless it’s in the manner of “he hates her so she must be okay.” In future you might try a more intellectual and less crankish approach to persuasion.

  21. John C

    Am I the only cyclist in Seattle who thinks the bicycle master plan has been implemented under less than ideal leadership by Crunican?

    I point most specifically at the Fremont Ave bike boulevard. Cruincan and SDOT have rejected criticism of bike boulevard planning and implementation because (I paraphrase) ‘Seattle is following it it’s own model – not that of Berkely or Portland.’

    That’s the response I received from Crunican herself when I complained that the Bike Master Plan requirements for pavement markings weren’t being followed for the the Fremont Ave. N bike boulevard.

    I have no doubt she is talented, but that isn’t enough. I believe she is not willing to take criticism and she is leading an agency that continues to be arrogant and refuses to learn from mistakes or the examples of others. When I look at transportation departments in Portland and NYC, I see a lot lacking.

    Seattle’s SDOT is not showing leadership. They are showing political expediency. I continue to believe that until proved otherwise by ACTION, not just words.

  22. Bobby

    John C., I fail to understand bike-related criticisms of Crunican. Under her leadership, bike infrastructure has been quinzupled in no time flat (in transportation time, anyhow). Very few hilly, densely populated cities in the U.S. have anywhere near the bike facilities we do. Granted, we’re far from perfect in Seattle and have a long ways to go, but sheesh, we’re doing very well.

  23. Madisonian

    But what about the crappy state of repair here in Seattle? The roads are in terrible shape. Crunican could have managed her department more efficiently, getting us better value for scarce maintenance dollars. I’m as much for complete streets as the next HAC reader, but Seattles’s deteriorated streets don’t do cyclists or bus riders any favors, either.

  24. dan bertolet

    Consider the potential of a strong, effective leader like Crunican working under a Mayor like McGinn, who would give her the mandate to make big, visionary changes.

  25. jonglix

    I have to agree with John C v. Bobby. I’m just not impressed by the new bike infrastructure. SDOT has made an industry out of painting sharrows on arterials and it just doesn’t count as real bike planning for me. I hope McGinn can redirect SDOT to make some tougher decisions and create some new ways for cyclists to ride out of traffic. We can’t have a system designed only for those brave enough to “take the lane” on a street like NE 45th.

  26. Sirkulat

    Crunican intentionally put pedestrians and bicyclists in danger with her oversight of Portland’s Ross Island Bridge rebuild. That was 8 years ago and I suspect she immediately left her position as ODOT chief because of it. A year later she shows up in Seattle and since then very little progress is made under her direction. Call me a radical, but this like no coincidence. It’s enough just to recognize that her job performance is less than stellar for those who won’t suspect incompetence bordering on corruption. Vote the Mallahan/Crunican ticket, Michael, and see how things stay the same and more likely get worse.

  27. reality based commute

    Sirkulat–if what you are saying is true, you should be able to produce evidence from the Oregonian. But even if the Ross Island Bridge was a failed project, you place it in no context whatsoever. What did business want, what were the political challenges locally, what role did the City of Portland play? These questions and more go unanswered.

    I think Grace has done a good job of turning around a weak department for the reasons Dan mentions and those of others on this post. If either of these candidates are worthy of being our mayor, they will reconsider this campaign promise and consider the facts.

  28. Sirkulat

    Ross Island Bridge is an Oregon State highway spanning the Willamette River that connects fully developed neighborhoods of Portland’s south edge. Being a State Hwy bridge put its reconstruction into State hands, rather than City or County. It was built in 1926 and needed its entire surface structure rebuilt and ornate concrete ballister rail recast. It has one narrow 5′-wide sidewalk on its north side with a fantastic view. Pedestrians and bicyclists have always used it at their peril. Grace Crunican ignored pleas to widen the sidewalk and place the protective rail between the sidewalk and the curb lane and racing traffic. People were pissed off about the finished project and soon thereafter Crunican resigned. Her performance in Seattle is less than stellar, no surprise to me. Most Seattlers are fed up with her job performance. I say she’s a vindictive highway boss running down pedestrians and bicyclists systematically.

  29. J

    Sirkulat, a.k.a Art Lewellen, has an ax to grind with SDOT because they haven’t bought his “Monorail Circulator” plan. Go ahead, Google it, you’ll see what I mean.

  30. News Roundup: Keep Grace Crunican - Seattle Transit Blog

    [...] since she’ll might be forced out by the McGinn over last winter’s snowstorm. Many smart people argue the Mayor-elect should keep her on. We agree: McGinn should consider keeping [...]

  31. “That mature attitude seems to have largely vanished.” | hugeasscity

    [...] in point—the Seattle Times editorial board’s take on the resignation of SDOT director Grace Crunican: Mayor Greg Nickels refused to fire Crunican out of loyalty and a sense that her overall [...]

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    Once I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a remark is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Is there any manner you can take away me from that service? Thanks!

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