February 28, 2023 - From the March, 2023 issue

Seattle DOT Director Greg Spotts on Implementing Innovation

With an award of $25.6 million from the US Department of Transportation’s Safe Streets For All program, the City of Seattle recently doubled its available funding for safe streets infrastructure improvements. TPR followed up with Greg Spotts—former CSO and executive officer at Streets LA—to update readers on his recent move north to serve as Director of Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). In addition to highlighting his department’s focus on user experience and project delivery, Spotts elaborates on what he’s learning from his first few months in Seattle leading a department overseeing both operations and maintenance of the city’s streets and transit system.

Greg Spotts

“I’ve themed 2023, for all SDOT programs, as “Delivery, Fast and Flavorful’ …we don't want to deliver on-time by sanding off the best parts of the project. We want to deliver a holistic multi-benefit project that deploys emerging best practices in world-class street design.”—Greg Spotts

Greg, with your appointment by Mayor Bruce Harold to be the inspirational and aspirational leader of transit for the city of Seattle,  and building on your VX News exit interview from StreetsLA, share what your first year on the job has been like and how you’ve prioritized to realize the objectives that Seattle’s mayor had for Seattle’s DOT.

Greg Spotts: It was very interesting. I had thought a lot in the summer as I was preparing to take the job about how do you parachute into a new community and start making decisions about transportation when you don't know the neighborhoods and when you haven't been a rider on the bus system?

 So, I decided to try something different and launched what I was calling a “listening tour”. We put up a link in August inviting small community groups to invite me to take a walk or a bike or a transit ride in their neighborhood. Nobody really knew what kind of appetite there might be for that. We had 180 applicants, and I've already done about 100 of these, mostly walks, but some bike and transit rides.

Basically, every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I start my day in community boots on the ground, rain or shine— and a lot of times it's raining.

It's been a really fascinating way to practice my craft. Not only have I been in many of the neighborhoods, with a special emphasis on underserved and BIPOC communities, but also the rest of my day is informed by this first experience on the streets with Seattleites, which is really different than starting your day in the digital space looking at emails and spreadsheets and PowerPoints about the streets.

 It's something I actually want to try to continue in an evolving form, because it's been a really amazing way to ramp up the learning curve on Seattle, and it's been augmented by the fact that I didn't bring a car here. I chose to live in South Lake Union, which is a very walkable neighborhood just to the north of the core business district. I'm walking to work or taking the streetcar or the bus every day.— that's how I'm getting around on weekends too.

 So, it's been really educational to be transit dependent. As I learn the city, if you ask me how to get somewhere, I can tell you how to get the take the bus there, but I probably couldn't tell you how to drive there.

Elaborate on the responsibilities you inherited, and how you’ve begun to implement programs and incubate projects around the confluence of technology with infrastructure. 

The responsibilities are profound in that so many things are under this one jumbo agency in Seattle. The roadway, the sidewalks, the street trees, the signals, the striping, the signage, and the bridges—SDOT oversees the operations and maintenance of these elements. We also have great partnerships with King County Metro, Sound Transit, and the Washington State Department of Transportation who manage the transit systems, state highways, and freeways.

When I was in public works in LA, I was helping construct and maintain the system, but I wasn't in charge of operating it. So, there's a lot of different pressures, such as keeping the traffic signals up, or getting them back up during power outages.

 SDOT owns four movable bridges, and they need to move because we have maritime traffic here that services Alaska. A lot of the food in Alaskan supermarkets gets shipped by boat from Seattle.

There's this one bridge called the Spokane Street Bridge that if that doesn't operate, Alaska starves. That bridge had a technical issue after an ice storm two days before Christmas. When it powered back up, half of it didn't power up correctly, and a component was damaged.

 So, the subsequent couple of weeks weren't a relaxing Christmas and New Years’ break, because we were trying to figure out how to take this 15,000-pound hydraulic cylinder out of this tiny concrete bunker and get it to an off-site rehabilitation center. Then, operate the eastern side of the bridge on one hydraulic cylinder, which it had been designed to do, but had never done before.

 That was a completely new type of experience for me. It's very interesting because I'm not a bridge engineer, so it becomes a moment, as a leader, of creating a safe and supportive space for high-tempo, but very detail-oriented work, to occur safely and properly. That's a different and interesting part of the job.

Address the interface between King County’s transportation responsibilities and yours, and how you've managed that city-county relationship to the benefit of all the residents of Seattle.

One of the great things about coming here is how there's such a deep and mutually-supportive relationship between SDOT and King County Metro, which operates the bus system, and SDOT and Sound Transit, which is the multi-county agency that's building out the light rail system.

 I've been really impressed with the deep collaboration and mutual trust in these two critical relationships. I think it's some of the highest-functioning interaction like that in the country.

 One of the results was, pre-pandemic, Seattle had a very high percentage of choice riders on the bus system. Almost every major employer in Seattle distributes a free transit card to their employees, and pre-pandemic, lots of office workers who could afford to drive were choosing to take the bus. That habit has been somewhat altered because of the pandemic, and it's something we're all working really hard to improve.

 A fascinating way that SDOT interacts with King County Metro, is that SDOT receives a special tax in the City of Seattle from the Transportation Benefit District. We can make investments in transit with that money, even though the transit agency is a countywide agency. Recently, we bought 10,000 free transit cards for the residents of Seattle public housing apartments, so our low-income public housing residents have a free transit pass. That's a really cool piece of policy that I could have never gotten near in the previous role that I had in public works in Los Angeles.

With increasing local and federal prioritization of Vision Zero, how is Seattle embracing or addressing efforts to reduce fatalities and make streets safer for all users? 

When I joined, on my very first day, I asked the staff to do a top-to-bottom review of Vision Zerowhich was released in late February.

 In the meantime, we applied for a new Safe Streets and Roads For All federal grant through the US Department of Transportation funded by the Biden Infrastructure law. We just found out, in late January, that we are getting $25.6 million of federal money for more than 100 interventions to make our streets safer for people walking and biking. More than 90% of these locations are in underserved communities, which was a focus area of the grant.

I'm really thrilled about that because that grant will basically double the size of our program. So now, we have to build our staff and team to really be able to deliver more, faster. In fact, I’ve themed 2023, for all SDOT programs, as “Delivery, Fast and Flavorful” in concert with our values. We're having lots of debate within SDOT about “what does Greg mean by flavorful?” It has stimulated good teamwork while building commitment and enthusiasm for the mission.

 What I meant by it is that we don't want to deliver on-time by sanding off the best parts of the project. We want to deliver a holistic multi-benefit project that deploys emerging best practices in world-class street design. I'm really excited to see how the staff responds to this kind of high-tempo approach that I'm bringing.

Speak to the challenges of balancing priorities and aspirations with delivery.

It’s a $700 million budget between the operating budget and the capital budget, but the budget is sliced into many, many, many little pieces since it comes from lots of different funding sources. So, there is very little discretion when moving money around inside of this large budget.

In the middle of our budget process last fall, there was a negative revision to expected tax revenues for 2023-2024. There isn't going to be a lot of fresh money in the regular city budget to launch new things, so I decided to prioritize delivery, rather than shiny new things for 2023, when that negative revision to revenue came out.

Since then, we've seen additional tech layoffs in Seattle and nationally, but there are opportunities to do new things through very large state and federal grant programs. This may be one of the best environments ever for a municipality to compete for outside funds. To the extent that we want to do new things, we must make sure that we have a world-class competitive proposal that aligns with the grantor’s expectations and goals. That's why I'm so thrilled that last fall, the staff put together such an effective Safe Streets application.

You've long focused in your public career on building a team and delegating responsibility. Talk about SDOT’s stars and staff and how you've delegated responsibilities.

You know, the staff is amazing at SDOT. A lot of the time people talk about government, they say “good people, bad system.” I've never been a believer that the system has to be bad. I actually think I've walked into a situation with great people, and my job as a leader is to improve the system to support them, and align them towards well-understood priorities.

So, I feel very blessed by how smart, educated, and qualified the staff is; and by their really intense commitment. If you spend time with SDOT staff every day, like I do, you would see the commitment, the energy, the long hours that is often found in a hard-driving private sector environment. The passion and energy are amazing.

When something happens, like the bridge malfunctioning, the mobilization that occurred during Christmas week in SDOT was really palpable. This bridge is the best bike route from West Seattle to the main part of Seattle; there's another bridge for cars, but it doesn't have bike facilities on it. So, we rented 1,700 cones and put out a temporary bike detour to help cyclists get around this temporary bridge outage. We did that when we got back the first week of January, and I saw a level of coordination, commitment, and tempo that impressed the heck out of me.

 Leading the agency is a little bit like being the conductor of an orchestra where, when you lift up your baton, everybody's instrument goes up. That's kind of how it feels running SDOT, and it's really thrilling. 

Compared to LA, where some question the adequacy of the bicycle infrastructure ecosystem to justify increased investments, address the bicycle infrastructure ecosystem in Seattle, and whether you believe it is where it needs to be. 

Let me first mention, regarding LA, I helped build the Expo Line and the bike path associated with it. The part from La Cienega all the way to Santa Monica is a separated bike path, and that's an excellent facility. So, there are opportunities. There are commute vectors or bike routes that do have an excellent and safe facility, where going big to support cyclists with ancillary services, like bike storage, could be a great idea. The entire system doesn’t have to be perfect in order to do that.

Seattle is really different. It’s a long and skinny city, running north-south. People say that even by car, it's easy to get north-south, and it's really hard to get east-west, and that's also true on bike. But Seattle lends itself to be able to support a usable bike network, a little bit more than the multi-focal sprawl of LA. There was a lot of great work done on the bike network before I got here, but there’s still a long way to go.

 We have a funding mechanism called, Levy to Move Seattle, that was adopted about nine years ago and is coming up for renewal at the end of 2024. We’re making a huge push to deliver the volume of bike projects that was promised in that levy, over the next two years.

 I've spent a lot of personal attention unblocking bike projects that needed help moving forward, trying to move the design process more quickly, and creating more effective and efficient community outreach. I really do hope that an early legacy of mine can be the addition of some really great protected bike lanes.

 I was really pleased that in the fall, when I first got here, we started this project to finish a protected bike lane around Green Lake, which is this regionally-significant recreation spot where two-thirds of the park had a bike lane around it, but the last part had a state highway running along the edge. We actually worked it out with WSDOT to install concrete barriers to claim about 12 to 14 feet of that state highway 99 (Aurora Ave N), and we have now completed that bike loop.

When you were the Chief Sustainability Officer of Streets LA, you focused on overseeing efforts to pilot and implement zero-emission street services and other innovative technologies. Are you likewise focused in Seattle?

Seattle has a great set of environmental policies and a really effective environmental department; I've become good friends with their department head, and we're collaborating.

The mayor recently put out an executive directive on reducing the carbon emissions of transportation. In there, we put a directive that SDOT will work with other city departments and launch pilots on plug-in opportunities within the fleet. So, I'm really excited to bring some of the learnings from LA into the Seattle fleet..

Washington state is a different environment; in that, we don't have the scale and maturity of state policy supports that we did in California where drop-in renewable fuels such as renewable diesel are cost-competitive or even cheaper than diesel, because of substantial public policy support in California. Washington is rapidly catching up, but a lot of those policies are just onsetting now.

 I'm going to be exploring with other colleagues how we can try similar things in Washington, that are suitable to the local context and the local policy support that exists. I'm really excited about it, and I've come up with this catchphrase “right size and then electrify.” Meaning, before you look for an electric midsize truck or excavator, reconsider your task and figure out whether you really need a super heavy-duty vehicle to accomplish it. Ask your team, can we implement this task with lighter, more adaptive equipment that has less mass, uses less energy, and needs a smaller lithium battery, because lithium is going to be constrained. So, I'm really interested in further applying those concepts across the SDOT fleet, and collaborating with other fleet operators within the city family.

 Lastly, when you travel to other cities and participate in conferences—like VerdeXchange VX2023 in Los Angeles April 30-May 3— what do most want to share and also what to hope to learn about from other Mobility managers?

I would say one thing that attracted me to Seattle is that it's a city where the growth has been powered by innovation and the private sector. First it was Boeing, then Microsoft, then Amazon, then Zillow. There is also a lot of biotech that gets developed in Seattle, then eventually gets bought up by one of the global corporate players. So, I find it really neat to be in an environment where the whole economy is powered by innovation.

 In sustainable infrastructure, the amount of innovation that's needed is exponentially greater than where we were 10 or 20 years ago. And the rapidity in which we need to pilot and then take to scale, is so much bigger and faster. So, we need more innovation deployed to scale faster than ever before.

I think that the conference is a great place to discuss those opportunities and bring public, private, and social sectors together. I think it would be intriguing for Seattle to have a voice there, within the context of a city whose population has doubled since 1980, based on innovation-driven growth.



© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.