Category: Environment

Ruling: No Need to Review New Tree Regulations’ Impact on New Housing

Trees! Better than housing?

By Erica C. Barnett

On Thursday, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled against the Master Builders of Seattle/King County in a case involving a proposed new citywide tree ordinance, concluding that the city does not have to undertake any additional review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to move forward with the new law.

The proposed new law, supported by TreePAC and City Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Alex Pedersen, would lower the size threshold for “significant” and “exceptional” trees and make them harder or illegal for private property owners to remove; removing a tree larger than 12 inches in diameter, for example, would require a developer to either replant the tree on site or pay a fee based on the value of the tree.

MBAKS, which represents small-scale multifamily developers, argued that the new rules will discourage density in Seattle, “protecting” single-family neighborhoods in leafy parts of Seattle where people of color were historically barred from living, while doing nothing to improve tree coverage in sparsely canopied, more diverse parts of the city. They argued that the city needs to do more environmental analysis to consider the potential negative effects the ordinance would have on housing development and density.

In response to the ruling, MBAKS Seattle Government Affairs Manager Aliesha Ruiz said, “Although MBAKS is disappointed in the decision of the hearing examiner, we look forward to working with our housing partners and City Council to create legislation that supports both trees and housing.”

In his ruling, Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil said the developers didn’t clear the very high bar for requiring additional environmental review, essentially by failing to prove a negative: “Appellants’ arguments that the Proposal will increase the costs of development, and will have negative impacts on the City housing supply were based on speculation, not any actual quantitative analysis that was introduced into evidence, Vancil wrote.

“Appellants’ expressed concern that development will be more expensive, uncertain, and problematic on some unidentified number of lots is not enough to demonstrate that the Proposal will likely have significant adverse impacts to future housing in the City.”

Vancil also ruled that the tree ordinance, which defines an “exceptional” tree (the most protected category) as any tree more than two feet in diameter, is consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides development policy in the city and will be overhauled in 2024. (That process is just getting underway). In their appeal, the developers argued that in addition to doing more environmental analysis, the city should consider requiring developers to add street trees whenever they build new detached single-family houses, which do nothing to achieve the comprehensive plan’s density goals.

In addition to more analysis that looks at density, not just privately owned trees, MBAKS has asked the city to consider requiring street trees when developers build new detached houses in single-family zones.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Strauss, who represents Northwest Seattle, said, “Seattle is called ‘the Emerald City’ for a reason, and we need to do better at preserving our cherished urban forestry. We know trees add value to existing homes and development and many parts of our city need more tree canopy. I am excited to finally be able to create stronger tree protections here in the Emerald City.”

 

Ruling on Tree Regulations Coming Soon, City Attorney Filed Charges in Just Over Half of Cases This Year

1. The Seattle Hearing Examiner is expected to rule as soon as next week on a case in which the Master Builders Association of King County and Seattle—a business group that represents housing developers—is seeking a more thorough review of a new tree ordinance that would make it harder to remove trees on private property. The goal of the new restrictions, MBAKS argues, isn’t to protect Seattle’s tree canopy (which includes many trees on public property that wouldn’t be subject to the new restrictions); it’s to prevent new housing in historically exclusive single-family neighborhoods.

“There are people and groups in our City that care deeply about trees and about the health of Seattle’s urban forest,” MBAKS wrote in a letter to Mayor Bruce Harrell last week. “Those are the people and groups we’d like to work with. However, the loudest voices are anti-development groups that have weaponized tree protection to support their singular goal of stopping development in their beloved single-family neighborhoods.”

The new tree ordinance would lower the size threshold for regulated “significant” and “exceptional” trees and make them harder or illegal for private property owners to remove; removing a tree larger than 12 inches in diameter, for example, would require a developer to either replant the tree on site or pay a fee based on the value of the tree.

Technically, the appeal questions the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s “determination of non-significance” under the State Environmental Policy Act—essentially a conclusion that imposing new restrictions on tree removal (and thus development) will have no significant impact on the city’s environmental policies or its Comprehensive Plan, which guides future development and land use decisions in the city. SDCI and TreePAC are the two groups opposing the Master Builders’ appeal.

The comprehensive plan encourages density inside neighborhoods as a bulwark against suburban sprawl and social inequity, since Seattle’s tree canopy is heavily concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods that were historically redlined to keep people of color out. In addition to more analysis that looks at density, not just privately owned trees, MBAKS has asked the city to consider requiring street trees when developers build new detached houses in single-family zones.

Chart showing Seattle City Attorney's Office Case Filing decisions (filed or declined), January-June 2022

2. City attorney Ann Davison, who announced in February that she would decide whether to file charges in her office receives from the police department within five days, decided to file charges in just over 56 percent of cases between the day she announced the new policy and late June of this year, records PubliCola obtained through a disclosure request show.

This represents a significant uptick in the percentage of cases Davison’s office filed compared to her predecessor, Pete Holmes’, filing rate during the pandemic, but is similar to Holmes’ pre-COVID filing rates when compared to data provided (in chart form) in a report from Davison’s office earlier this year. The overall number of cases coming in from SPD is lower than before 2020 because of a number of factors, including SPD’s decision to stop pulling people over for some minor traffic violations; Davison’s report suggests the cause is “the loss of a significant number of SPD officers.”

The charges Davison declined to file most frequently after announcing the close-in-time filing policy on February 7 included assault, assault with sexual motivation, theft, and property destruction; the charges she has filed most frequently also included assault and theft along with trespassing, harassment, and charges that involve driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Case filings declined during the pandemic, in part, because the court shut down during COVID, creating a massive backlog that the municipal court is still struggling to work through. King County’s jails, meanwhile, remain understaffed even as jail populations rise, leading to conditions that both jail staffers and defense attorneys have described to PubliCola as inhumane. The more misdemeanor cases Seattle sends into this system, the greater the downstream backlog becomes.

Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda

Despite Democratic control in both houses, Washington state’s tax code remains deeply inequitable.

By Leo Brine

Last Thursday marked the end of the 2022 legislative session. Lawmakers only had 60 days to pass legislation, write and pass two supplemental budgets, and pass a transportation spending package. At the outset of the session, Democrats, who have a 57-seat majority in the house and a 29-seat majority in the senate, said they wanted to pass bills to help with housing affordability, homelessness, environmental sustainability, and the economy.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola, “it was not a great year in terms of policy.” Macri pointed out that Democrats killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill to allow denser housing statewide (HB 1782) and Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bill (HB 1660), both of which could have helped the state increase its housing stock. Bateman’s bill would have required all Washington cities to include denser housing options, like fourplexes and courtyard apartments, in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing, while Shewmake’s would have permitted mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages in all types of residential neighborhoods.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) said “it was not a great year in terms of policy.”

The legislature also killed Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21, Lynnwood) tenant protections bill (HB 1904), failing to vote on it by the first legislative deadline.  Michele Thomas from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said it was “one of the biggest losses of the session,” adding, “Democrats in the House shouldn’t have been afraid to vote on that bill.” The bill would have required landlords to give tenants six months’ notice before increasing rent; capped fees for late rent payments at $75; and provided tenants who could not afford a rent increase assistance moving somewhere they could afford. Thomas said the bill was tame and didn’t propose any kind of rent control, typically a third rail for legislators.

Democrats did manage to pass some homelessness bills that will provide temporary help to people living on the streets. The house and senate passed Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43, Seattle) bill that attempts to connect people under the state’s Apple Health (Medicaid) program with permanent supportive housing (HB 1866). Although the bill initially passed without funding, Democrats secured $60 million for the program in the capital budget. Macri saw the provision as a necessary upgrade. “Being on the budget team, I tried to focus on making sure we had strong investments because we didn’t have the strong policy I wanted to see pass,” she said.

To respond to the ongoing climate crisis, which is only getting worse, Democrats used their transportation package to try and reduce the state’s overall emissions by investing in electrified ferries, expanded transit services and better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Climate Solutions Washington Director Kelly Hall said she was pleased with the investments Democrats made with the transportation package and hopes they will allocate more of the funding from the transportation package toward electrifying heavy-duty machinery, like long-haul trucks and construction vehicles, between now and the 2023 legislative session.

While Hall supports the transportation package, she said the legislature failed to pass bills that would reduce emissions from the state’s gas-heated buildings and from other common polluters people don’t often think of. Hall pointed out Rep. Macri’s bill (HB 1918) would have exempted the purchase of energy efficient lawn equipment from the state’s sales tax and encouraged more people to ditch their gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers for zero-emission models. Gas-powered lawn tools “emit a lot of toxic air pollution right in our communities,” Hall said. Continue reading “Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda”

Parking Officer Falsified Tickets, Canceled Homeless Count Un-Canceled, City Pays to Clean Up Mess at Police Firing Range, and More

1. Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released its first investigation into misconduct by a parking enforcement officer since the city’s parking enforcement unit moved from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation last year. OPA investigators found that the officer had falsified more than 100 parking citations and warnings to appear more productive.

The officer’s supervisor complained to the OPA after a review of the officer’s work turned up more than a dozen warnings and citations issued to the same car in a short time span—supervisors later learned that the car belonged to the mother of the officer’s children. Looking deeper into the officer’s work log, supervisors discovered that his GPS location often didn’t match the location of cars he cited. The officer later confessed to the OPA that he pretended to be productive by creating warnings or citations for nearby vehicles and listing an inaccurate location for the non-existent parking violation. The OPA determined that the officer had committed perjury and fraud, leaving SDOT leadership to decide how to discipline him.

The OPA’s investigation began while the parking enforcement unit was still housed within SPD, but it concluded after the unit moved to SDOT in the summer of 2021. The OPA is still technically a part of SPD, but the city’s ongoing efforts to move some law enforcement functions out of the police department has expanded the OPA’s footprint; the parking enforcement officer’s case, the first OPA has referred to SDOT for discipline, is a prime example. The OPA also has jurisdiction over the city’s 911 dispatchers, who moved out of SPD last year into the newly created Community Safety and Communications Center.

2. In a reversal of a decision announced late last year, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will perform an in-person manual count of the region’s homeless population in March. According to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, the March count will serve as the official Point In Time (PIT) Count for King County. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires homelessness agencies, including the KCRHA, to physically count the unsheltered homeless population in the area they oversee every two years, although King County has historically done an annual count.

The last scheduled count, in 2021, was scuttled by COVID. In announcing their initial decision to skip this year’s count, the agency argued that because the count is only required in odd-numbered years, “2022 is not a required year.” HUD disagreed and said that KCRHA could be penalized in future requests for federal funding, but Martens told PubliCola in December that HUD had agreed to waive the requirement after the agency announced a new tally based on data obtained from homeless service providers, among other sources.

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At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s homelessness committee earlier this month, authority CEO Marc Dones characterized the March head count as “a rough count” and noted that the authority is basing its planning on the data-based estimate of 45,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County in 2019. That number dropped to around 40,000 in 2020, largely because fewer people were accessing the homeless services on which that estimate is based.

Martens said the March head count “will be deemed a PIT Count for HUD purposes.” The agency will also be doing qualitative research to determine “the ‘why’ and the context around homelessness… to help us build our system in a way that centers people with lived experience,” Martens said.

3. The city of Seattle has paid more than $140,000 to clean up a wetland in Tukwila after the Seattle Police Athletic Association (SPAA), a 70-year-old nonprofit that runs a clubhouse and firing range for Seattle police officers, dumped truckloads of dirt, tires, concrete and other debris onto the marshy banks of the Duwamish River last year.

SPAA is currently not paying for any part of the restoration effort; instead, that burden falls to Seattle’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), which owns part of property occupied by the gun range. FAS spokesperson Melissa Mixon told PubliCola that her department can’t comment on whether SPAA will contribute to the restoration costs because of pending litigation.

As PubliCola reported last year, the association used the dirt and debris, which came from an unknown construction site in the Seattle area, to build a backstop for the association’s firing range. Tukwila’s code enforcement office issued a stop-work order in May. According to Mixon, the city is still working to restore the site and is “staying on target with deadlines discussed with Tukwila.”

4. Seattle Public Library employees who staffed library branches during the recent winter weather emergency will receive retroactive payments of $150 for every shift they worked between December 24 and January 3. Former mayor Jenny Durkan issued an executive order providing incentive pay to all “frontline” executive-branch employees on December 24, but because the library is not an executive department, the offer did not extend to library staffers. According to an SPL spokeswoman, the payments will go out to all eligible employees, including library associates, librarians, security officers, and custodial workers, once it’s approved by the library union.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

 

Senate Bill Would Remove Regulatory Hurdle from Homeless Shelter Siting

Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-34

By Leo Brine

State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, White Center) has proposed a bill that would make it easier for homeless service providers to build homeless shelters across the state, including in Seattle.

The city of Seattle consulted with Nguyen on the legislation, which would allow cities to permit homeless shelters without subjecting such projects to a time-consuming environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act. The bill would apply to jurisdictions, including Seattle, that have declared a homelessness state of emergency, and to shelters permitted for three years or less that serve 200 people or fewer and do not require the construction of any new permanent buildings.

According to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) code development manager Mike Podowski, SEPA review can delay the siting and permit process an additional six to eight months “without really adding value, in terms of environmental protection, life safety, or neighborhood fit.”

Once a SEPA review is complete, anyone can appeal its result to the city’s hearing examiner, Podowski added, leading to additional delays.

In July 2018, for example, a group called Safe and Affordable Seattle filed an appeal to stop the expansion of a tiny house village in Interbay, arguing that the city failed to meet SEPA requirements. The appeal, which the hearing examiner denied, delayed the project, which was finally able to open 12 months after it was first proposed.

Nguyen said that tiny home villages and temporary shelters aren’t the answer to the homelessness crisis, “but in lieu of having enough supportive, affordable housing, you need this option.”

This is Nguyen’s fourth year sponsoring the bill. In 2019 and again in 2020, the Senate passed his bill, but the majority house Democrats never brought it to the floor for a vote. Without a vote, the opponents remained anonymous; Nguyen suspects “people who are worried about tiny villages in their district” killed the bill each time. Continue reading “Senate Bill Would Remove Regulatory Hurdle from Homeless Shelter Siting”

Longtime Legislator Carlyle Says He’s Going Out on Top

www.senatedemocrats.org/wp-content/uploads/2021...

By John Stang

On Monday, longtime state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, announced that he won’t run for re-election. In an interview with PubliCola, Carlyle said he has “a deep sense of fulfillment” and is “taking the luxury of going out on top.”

He is the second Seattle state senator to announce that he won’t seek re-election, following Democratic Sen. David Frockt (D-46), who announced his retirement in October.

Seattle’s liberal legislators have gradually shifted further left over time, a trend that led to rumors that Carlyle would face a primary challenge from someone on the left. (As PubliCola reported Thursday, Rep. Noel Frame, D-36, has said she will seek the seat Carlyle is vacating.)

Carlyle said his party’s ongoing leftward tilt (at least in the Puget Sound region) had nothing to do with his decision to leave. Citing his margin of victory in 2018, when he won 89 percent of the vote, Carlyle said he wasn’t worried about reelection. As of Thursday, he had $135,000 remaining in his campaign account, according to state Public Disclosure Commission records.

Instead, Carlyle pointed to the 2021 passage of the Climate Commitment Act  as a crowning achievement of his legislative career. The Climate Commitment Act places a cap on greenhouse gas emissions while creating a program to auction off emissions allowances to large polluters. It took Carlyle several years to get the legislation passed, after first facing a hostile Republican-controlled Senate, then opposition from moderate Democrats in swing districts after his party took over the Senate in 2018.

Carlyle said his biggest unfulfilled wishes are eliminating the death penalty and bolstering the state’ data privacy laws — efforts that have passed the Senate, but stalled in the House.

“We won the Super Bowl of climate activities,”  he said.

The 2021 law requires the state Department of Ecology to create a system by 2023 capping the state’s annual industrial carbon emissions, a cap that slowly decreases over time—from almost 100 million tons in 2018 to 50 million by 2030 and 5 million by 2050.

The state will auction off parts of the overall annual limit to large polluters—those that emit 25,000 metric tons or more of greenhouse gases annually four times a year, and companies will be allowed to trade, buy and sell those allowances. The state estimates that about 100 companies produce that quantity of greenhouse gases, including the oil, cement, steel and power industries, and predicts that the auctions will raise about $500 million a year for projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions (and alleviating the impact of climate change) across the state.

Carlyle also sponsored a bill in 2019 that will phase out all coal-fired electricity in Washington by 2025 and eventually phase out natural-gas power as well. The new law sets a goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. Over the past several years, Carlyle said, “we have passed the strongest suite of climate change legislation in United States history at the state level.” Continue reading “Longtime Legislator Carlyle Says He’s Going Out on Top”

How Seattle’s Mayoral Candidates Rank Green New Deal Priorities

Photo by Atomic Taco; Creative Commons license

By Maryam Noor

In 2019, the city of Seattle joined a growing list of US cities by passing a local Green New Deal resolution that would mobilize all city departments to reduce the city’s reliance on fossil fuels and invest in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution. The resolution calls for new public investments to increase access to healthy foods, transition homes from natural gas to electric power, and strengthen green building standards.

In September 2019, just months after passing the Green New Deal resolution, the city council passed an ordinance requiring the city’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment to establish a 19-member Green New Deal oversight board, including eight members of communities directly impacted by racial, economic, and environmental injustices.

But in the years since the two bills passed, the city still hasn’t implemented many of the policies it recommends.

As PubliCola’s new intern, my first assignment was reaching out to Seattle’s mayoral candidates to ask them what they think of the policies outlined in the Green New Deal, and which ones they’d prioritize if elected. We also asked them to rank four policies in order of importance: Appointing a Green New Deal oversight board [Editor’s note: See correction below]; ensuring free public transit for all Seattle residents; decreasing the use of fossil fuels in Seattle homes; and exploring alternative housing models that aim to increase equity and affordability, such as community land trusts and limited-equity coops.

“
We’ve taken steps forward in banning reliance on fossil fuels in new construction of commercial buildings. I think we need to use the focus on that to make sure that we are not continuing to build infrastructure that delivers one of the most harmful emitters and products out here.”—Mayoral candidate Lorena González

Of the six candidates who responded to our questions––Colleen Echohawk, Jessyn Farrell, Lorena González, Bruce Harrell, Andrew Grant Houston, and Lance Randall–– Houston, Farrell, and Randall all said that alternative housing options would be their first concern. Farrell said she considered free public transit equally important, and Randall questioned the validity of free public transit in general.

“I would say in terms of importance, the alternative housing models would be my first priority,” Houston said. “In order to build new housing, it’s going to take at least three to five years, and so that’s something we should start off immediately.”

Farrell said affordable housing and transportation have to work together; you can’t have one without the other. “You gotta do housing and transportation together.”

Randall doesn’t want free public transit, at least not for everyone, because he believes it wouldn’t be practical or affordable.

“I believe more in subsidies for low-income people who need help, but there are a lot of people who can afford to pay for transit and they should pay for it because we have to pay the drivers,” Randall said. “We have to do bus maintenance. We have to purchase new buses.”

One of the most ambitious goals of Seattle’s Green New Deal is achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. In order for Seattle to do so, the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere need to be equal to the amount taken out in the city. Hitting this goal would mean implementing incentives to reduce carbon emissions, such as carbon taxes and electrification of industries and transportation, and long-term investments in clean energy sources like renewable diesel or biogas.

Only one candidate, Lorena González, put reducing carbon emissions in Seattle homes at the top of her priority list. To some extent, this is already happening. In February, the city banned the use of natural gas for space heating in new commercial and apartment buildings larger than three stories and for new heating systems in older buildings that match these qualifications. The ordinance also bans the use of natural gas to heat water in larger hotels and apartment complexes.

González doesn’t think it’s enough. “Fossil fuels are the largest producer of carbon emissions. 
We’ve taken steps forward in banning reliance on fossil fuels in new construction of commercial buildings,” González said. “And so I think we need to use the focus on that to make sure that we are not continuing to build infrastructure that delivers one of the most harmful emitters and products out here.”

Find out how the six candidates ranked the four issues we asked about below.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the mayor and council had not yet appointed the members of a new Green New Deal Oversight Board. The board has been appointed and will convene later this year. We have edited the story to remove quotes about the board, but have left the rankings below in their original order.

Continue reading “How Seattle’s Mayoral Candidates Rank Green New Deal Priorities”

Cap and Trade Moves Forward Over Republican and Some Democratic Opposition

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

By Leo Brine

After a five-hour debate, the Democratic majority in the state Senate narrowly passed a cap-and-trade bill (SB 5126) last Thursday night on a 25-24 vote. The bill taxes large companies that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by requiring them to buy permits from the state to compensate for every ton of carbon dioxide they produce.

The proceeds from the permits would go into a new Climate Investment Account that would fund things like greenhouse gas mitigation, clean transportation and transportation alternatives, and clean energy programs.

Republican senators prolonged the debate with 45 amendments; they passed three of them.

Later in the night, and with much more ease, Democratic senators passed the House’s clean fuels bill (HB 1091). Governor Jay Inslee had requested both bills.

Three Democrats voted no: Bob Hasegawa (D-11, Seattle); Liz Lovelett (D-40, Anacortes); and Kevin Van De Wege (D-24, Sequim). Every Republican voted against the bill.

None of the three amendments Republicans passed alter the underlying framework of the bill. One directs the Department of Ecology to create a website showing which companies are participating in cap-and-trade program; another requires the department to notify the legislature when a company is no longer part of the program—a political move by Republicans to demonstrate that cap and trade doesn’t work.

Republican senators spent most of the five-hour floor debate giving speeches about how much the bill, in their view, would ultimately cost working-class Washingtonians.

Republicans such as Senator Doug Ericksen (R-42, Bellingham), said the bill—which he referred to exclusively as “cap-and-tax”—would force companies to raise the prices on their goods, specifically on gas, and pass the cost on to consumers. Judy Warnick, another Republican senator (R-13, Moses Lake), said she was taking a stand for mom-and-pop farms and ranchers who would also need to lower the emissions in their production process under the bill.

Moderate Democratic Senator Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) added an amendment that gives industries that are vulnerable to foreign competition, like steel and oil refineries, more time to reduce the amount of carbon emissions in their production process. The amendment also gives the companies free emissions permits while they make their adjustments. But the companies will have to lower their emissions at pro-rated, faster rates once the adjustment period ends.

Some Democratic senators, like freshman Senator T’wina Nobles (D-28, Tacoma) had issues with the bill, arguing that it does not lower emissions fast enough or low enough and is unclear on how it will invest in and assist communities who have been negatively impacted by air pollution because of their proximity to highways. Continue reading “Cap and Trade Moves Forward Over Republican and Some Democratic Opposition”

Transit Advocates Push for Bigger Multimodal Investment from State

by Leo Brine

Transit advocates tolerated the House and Senate’s transportation committees’ underwhelming 2021-23 biennium budget announcement last month believing that legislators were cueing up a more multimodal approach in the pending transportation package. (The previous budget announcement was about funding earlier commitments made by previous legislative sessions.) However, the House Transportation committee unveiled an all-new 16-year transportation package (HB 1564) on Thursday that, once again, provides large sums of funding for highway expansion projects and road and highway maintenance while shortchanging transit.

Troubled by how few dollars the House allocated for multimodal and green initiatives when compared to the highway-related initiatives, advocates are now hoping for big changes before Democrats move the package to Governor Inslee’s desk.

The new transportation package, dubbed “Miles Ahead Washington,” allocates a total of $22.3 billion to funding transportation initiatives. Seventy percent of the funds ($15.7 billion) go to “highway-related initiatives,” including $6.1 billion for highway expansion projects and $4.6 billion for maintenance and repairs over the next 16 years. Meanwhile, the House allocates about 25 percent of the package, $5.5 billion, to multimodal projects, including investments in multimodal transport, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, safe routes to schools, and rural mobility transit grants.

Mobility rights activists say the new proposal is too similar to past transportation packages, with similar funding shortfalls. “We can’t support it because there’s not enough investment in transit service and in sidewalks and other kinds of pedestrian access,” Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative Program at Disability Rights Washington (DRW) said. “It makes it hard to get excited about something that we see as just so far from the unmet needs.”

Continue reading “Transit Advocates Push for Bigger Multimodal Investment from State”

State Transportation Budgets Reflect Bygone Era

 

by Leo Brine

The House and Senate Transportation committees unveiled their transportation budgets (HB 1135, SB 5165) for the 2021-23 biennium Tuesday. Or, more accurately, they unveiled the state’s incorrigible commitment to highway and road expansion. Climate and transit activists hope this is the last budget of a bygone era. While they are unsurprised that the two budgets continue prioritizing road expansions, advocates say the transportation revenue packages expected next week must move away from putting more cement on the ground and move the state’s transportation infrastructure toward sustainability, equity, and climate action.

Tuesday’s Senate and House transportation budgets will each follow the typical process: committee votes, floor votes, and then switching houses. Legislators from both houses will then decide which bill moves forward and will hammer out details in a conference committee.

The Senate’s proposed transportation budget allocates $11.7 billion for various transportation projects and the House allocates $10.7 billion. Both direct money to projects—mostly highway expansions—that were a part of 2015’s transportation package, Connecting Washington.

Funding allocated to construction projects dwarfs funding for expansion of public transit access and green initiatives. For example, the House proposal allocates $453 million to widen I-405 between Renton and Bellevue and more than half a billion to the Puget Sound Gateway project, a massive highway expansion and extension megaproject in Pierce County.

The Senate bill would cut $260 million from the multimodal transportation account to fund Connect Washington and ferry maintenance. The House’s cut to the multimodal account is not as dramatic as the Senate’s—just $50 million, to fund ferry maintenance.

“I think the bigger story is that this budget represents big decisions made in the past. As the legislature continues debating the next transportation package, we need to make sure that it’s oriented toward a sustainable and equitable future.”—Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director, Transportation Choices Coalition

“I think the bigger story is that this budget represents big decisions made in the past,” said Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director at the Transportation Choices Coalition. “As the legislature continues debating the next transportation package, we need to make sure that it’s oriented toward a sustainable and equitable future. And that will look really different, and that will focus on transit, access to transit, maintaining the system we already have, and mitigating harm.”

During the public hearing on the Senate transportation budget, Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44, Issaquah) groused: “It wasn’t easy last year. Last year sucked, too. This year double sucked.” Hobbs said the priorities of the Transportation committee are “keeping the lights on” by maintaining roads and bridges, keeping ferries and buses operating and finishing Connecting Washington projects.

The transportation budgets are supported by the state’s gas tax, as well as state bonds and, this year, aid from federal pandemic relief funds, the American Rescue Plan Act. Washington’s gas consumption dropped during the pandemic and with it went a good chunk of revenue for the transportation budget. State projections show revenue for the 2019-21 biennium declining by $669 million, roughly 10 percent, and another $454 million in the 2021-23 biennium, about 6.5 percent. Over the next 10 years, transportation revenue is expected to decline by $1.9 billion. The state estimates it will be 10 years before gas consumption rates are back to their pre-pandemic levels.

Anna Zivarts, the director of disability and mobility initiatives at Disability Rights Washington, said the gas tax that props up the transportation budget is regressive. “We all know that the gas tax is at some point going to be an obsolete revenue stream,” she said. “The folks who can afford electric vehicles and not [have to] pay the gas tax are wealthier. And with the cost of living in a lot of communities being high, the people who have to commute further are lower-income” and are spending more on gas, thus contributing more to the system. Zivarts said while the tax is regressive, the state should use gas tax revenues to make the state’s transit infrastructure more equitable and environmentally sustainable.

Continue reading “State Transportation Budgets Reflect Bygone Era”