Sound Transit Leaders Call Trains Dirty, Dangerous; San Francisco’s Experience with Sanctioned Camps; New Poll Tests Harrell Priorities

This graph is a metaphor: With no “Y” axis, an incomplete color key, and no definition of the three “issues” that are listed, it’s impossible to know whether these wavy lines represent an alarming increase in incidents or a modest pandemic-era increase.

1. Sound Transit board and staff members, including outgoing CEO Peter Rogoff, used an update on “current operating challenges” as an opportunity to portray the central light-rail system as a dirty and dangerous way to get around, especially during non-“conventional” hours, when fewer riders are on board. Only board member (and King County Councilmember) Claudia Balducci, of Bellevue, pushed back on her colleagues’ “unduly bleak” description of the system, saying, “it doesn’t match my own personal experience as a regular rider of our service.”

Almost since the beginning of the pandemic, Rogoff has argued relentlessly for increasing security and fare enforcement on trains, both to increase revenues and to punish people who fail to pay fare or behave in ways that make other riders feel unwelcome or unsafe. On Thursday, Sound Transit’s executive director of operations, Suraj Shetty, said the agency has had trouble retaining  private security and “fare ambassadors,” vest-clad staffers who check to see if riders have paid but do not issue tickets.

When the agency’s main private security provider, Securitas, failed to provide as many guards as they agreed to, Sound Transit contracted with two additional firms, both non-union—a fact that prompted a number of public commenters to accuse the agency of being anti-union. Sound Transit is also facing a shortage of drivers, cleaning staff, and maintenance crews.

Board member (and Pierce County Executive) Bruce Dammeier, a former Republican state senator, said he considered the system “unsanitary and unsafe,” adding, “I wouldn’t ride it,” and suggested stricter fare enforcement as a solution to problems like drug use and unclean conditions on trains. “We don’t want to stop running the trains at certain hours, but that is one of the solutions” to problems that become worse late at night, he continued. “Or maybe we put security guards on every train.”

Nancy Backus, the mayor of Auburn, chimed in, suggesting that the problems on trains are made worse by “some of the laws surrounding drug use, what police officers can and cannot do with low level property crimes and other issues.”

Responding to those comments, Balducci said that in her own “anecdotal experience” riding the system over the last two years, “this narrative that our system is falling apart just does not ring true to me. And we have to ask the staff and leadership of the staff to help us paint a truly accurate picture of what’s going on that we need to address.”

2. As PubliCola reported exclusively earlier this week, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office have been discussing a plan to relocate as many as 600 people living unsheltered in downtown Seattle into up to 10 sanctioned encampment sites. Lewis described the proposal as a humane way to transition people from unsheltered homelessness to housing as more permanent housing units become available this year.

The plan is also explicitly an attempt to make downtown more appealing to companies that want to bring workers back to the office this year—including the companies that funded a separate plan to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness” downtown by navigating people to shelter and services elsewhere.

Seattle would hardly be the first West Coast city to create fenced tent encampments as a response to increased homelessness. San Francisco began opening sanctioned encampments in 2021 in response to an increase in unsanctioned encampments during the pandemic.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, said unsheltered people in San Francisco said they preferred encampments to congregate shelter because, among other reasons, they offer more privacy and don’t have strict curfews or other rules common in mass shelters.

The drawbacks, Friedenbach said, are that the encampments are cold, tend to be expensive—around $70,000 per tent, per year—and are, obviously, not housing permanent housing. “Rental assistance with support services runs less than half” the cost of sheltering a person in a sanctioned encampment, she said. “So instead of sheltering you can just have housing for the people at half the cost.”

And, Friedenbach noted, San Francisco’s encampments are “used as a placement option in sweeps.” The Coalition did a report last year on San Francisco’s geographically focused efforts to eradicate (or “resolve”) encampments in specific neighborhoods, which found that most people who are displaced from one location end up unsheltered elsewhere, often after losing their possessions to sweeps. As in Seattle, there are typically only a handful of shelter beds available citywide for thousands of unsheltered people across the city.

3. A poll in the field this week was already taking Seattle voters’ temperature about new Mayor Bruce Harrell, interspersing favorability questions about the mayor with questions about his political priorities. For example, the poll asked recipients to rank priorities such as “expedit[ing] removal of homeless encampments from sidewalks and parks, with those of need of assistance being redirected into housing and services, with a minimum of 2,000 units brought into use this year”—a description of the Compassion Seattle initiative, which Harrell integrated into his campaign platform.

Other questions asked respondents how much the city should prioritize potential actions such as “cleanup of highway underpasses and other areas”;  “removal of RVs and other vehicles from unauthorized or inappropriate areas”; “expedit[ing] review and approval for construction of quality, affordable housing”; plans to “prioritize and improve public safety and address homelessness downtown”; plans for a city-run online jobs portal; hiring new police officers; and “cleanup and restoration of parks and open space.”

The poll also asked respondents for their opinion of Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Sara Nelson, Dan Strauss, and Kshama Sawant; the Seattle Police Department; the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce; and City Attorney Ann Davison. And it included questions about legislation that would have allowed duplexes, fourplexes, and similar low-level density within a quarter-mile walk of frequent bus or rail service.

We’ve contacted the Chamber to ask if they’re behind the poll.

The two questions on the state bill tested negative and positive messages on the proposal; the negative messages suggested density would cause seniors to lose their housing and take away incumbent residents’ right to determine what happens in “their” neighborhoods.

“Seattle is special because of our strong, single-family residential neighborhoods,” one anti-density message read. “We should add density around the growing light rail infrastructure and in commercial districts like West Seattle Junction and the University District, but we need to allow neighborhoods to decide their own future.” This message—density is appropriate next to train stations and busy bus lines, but inappropriate in residential areas—is similar to what Harrell had to say on the subject on the campaign trail.

—Erica C. Barnett

7 thoughts on “Sound Transit Leaders Call Trains Dirty, Dangerous; San Francisco’s Experience with Sanctioned Camps; New Poll Tests Harrell Priorities”

  1. One. Councilmember Balducci is a gem. There has always been a shortage of transit riders on the ST board. They have shared many anecdotes from the perspective of auto drivers. In the aughts, Councilmember Crawford was knowledgeable as his wife rode the bus. We need to figure out fast fare collection and humane fare inspection. It is difficult for transit to provide safe reliable mobility if it is also serving as a drug den.

  2. Assuming Balducci is being honest, she’s a very lucky transit rider. I’ve gone back to commuting by car because of the near-continuous cray-cray on the buses and trains. Is it fear-for-my-life sort of stuff? No. But when you experience day after day (and evening after evening) of anti-social behavior and/or tragic mental breaks, it begins to mess with my own sense of well-being. Life’s hard enough without confronting this stuff with alarming regularity.

  3. In the past week, I have ridden Link from Northgate to and from the airport after 8PM and I never saw anything that made me concerned. Not sure why I would care about the opinions of people who have never ridden it.

    1. I take the light rail multiple times a week and it is a mess. The last time I rode, a man openly smoked fentanyl in the seat behind me. Each of the past dozen of so rides, there has been a drug addict sitting in my section of the car. This is a huge problem which did not exist when they did real fare enforcement.

    2. Consider riding several times during day at different times.Rail in USA has become a mobile homeless shelters

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