Category: Guest Contributor

Is It Time for Free Transit?

Image of Metro’s Route 99, a free waterfront bus that ran until 2018, by Atomic Taco

By Katie Wilson

Last week, PubliCola reported a “surprising consensus” among Seattle mayoral candidates on the subject of free public transit. Jessyn Farrell, Lorena González and Andrew Grant Houston have all displayed enthusiasm for pursuing this vision, while Colleen Echohawk and Bruce Harrell have expressed more cautious interest.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when local transit agencies stopped charging fare and implemented back-door boarding, transit riders who kept on riding got a taste of what a fare-free system might be like. No more fumbling for change, no tapping a card, just hop on the bus or the train. But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

On January 1, 2020, Intercity Transit, which serves Olympia and the rest of Thurston County, went fare-free. In the first month, ridership jumped up 20 percent. Bobby Karleton, a community organizer and daily bus rider in Olympia, noticed the change: “More people of color, elderly and disabled people and families with small children appear to be using the system,” he said. “For IT’s most impoverished riders—many who are homeless—free service means saving $1.25 every bus ride. That may not sound much, but it adds up.”

But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

Olympia wasn’t alone. In December 2019, Kansas City, Missouri became the first major U.S. city to dispense with fares. A few months earlier, Lawrence, Massachusetts began a two-year pilot. It was starting to look like a trend, but it wasn’t entirely new—in fact, the Pacific Northwest has long been something of a quiet national leader on free transit. A number of smaller cities and rural areas in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have operated fare-free systems for decades. Visiting Whidbey Island? Put away that wallet. Traveling around Mason County? Welcome aboard.

For Seattle, a city accustomed to being on the leading edge of progressive policy, this is all a little embarrassing. How could we let other parts of our own state—including some that vote Republican!—get so far out ahead? Why are many of us still paying $2.75 to stand, crammed in like sardines, on buses crawling down car-choked streets? Why do we submit to the indignity of fare inspections, with steep fines that punish poverty and disproportionately harm Black riders? In a global climate crisis, why are we still erecting barriers to choosing sustainable transportation? In short, when is fare-free transit coming to Seattle and King County?

Sadly, it’s not quite that simple — but it’s not an impossible dream, either. Let’s take a look.

The transit agencies that have recently hopped on the fare-free bandwagon all have one thing in common: They’re smaller systems, and their revenue from fares is small both absolutely and as a portion of their total budget. Kansas City had to scrape together a modest $9 million per year. In the case of Intercity Transit, fares covered less than 2 percent of operating costs, and the agency was facing an expensive upgrade to the ORCA card system. For some rural systems the calculus is even more extreme: The ancillary costs of collecting fares exceed the fare revenue itself. In both cities, fare-free just makes sense.

The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

By contrast, in a large, dense urban system like ours, fares bring in real money. Pre-pandemic, farebox revenue covered about a quarter of the operating costs for King County Metro’s bus system. Metro’s annual haul from fares was somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 million. Sound Transit, which operates Link light rail, regional Express buses and the Sounder line, brought in another $100 million. While it’s true that collecting and enforcing fares also costs money—a 2018 audit found that Metro spent $1.7 million per year on fare enforcement, for example—the amounts simply aren’t comparable. The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

That’s not the only challenge for fare-free transit. While it’s undeniable that the cost of fares is a hardship for many and a disincentive for many more, the bigger problem for most people—including those with low incomes—is the service itself. Public transit doesn’t come frequently enough or get people where they need to go fast enough. Buses and trains are overcrowded and don’t run at all times of the day and night. So even if the transit agencies found a quarter billion dollars on the doorstep every year, eliminating fares might not be the highest and best use of those funds—especially since people would respond to this change by riding still more, further increasing the demand for service.

Recognizing these realities, over the past decade community organizers, advocates and transit riders have taken a needs-based approach to fare-free transit. Through pressure and work with elected officials and agency staff, they’ve won and expanded a suite of reduced- or no-cost transit programs serving specific populations: the Human Services Ticket program, ORCA LIFT reduced fare program, Seattle Youth ORCA program, and, as of last fall, a no-cost annual transit pass program for people below 80 percent of the federal poverty level. I have been involved in all these efforts through my work with the Transit Riders Union. Continue reading “Is It Time for Free Transit?”

Guest Post: New Affordable Housing Dashboard Promotes Transparency and Accountability 

by Claudia Balducci

It’s no secret we have a dramatic housing shortage in King County. This has real human consequences, leaving too many with insecure housing and contributing to an unacceptably high level of homelessness. Many people and organizations – public and private – have been working hard to tackle the problem. We’ve seen increased investment at all levels of government and from private companies, partnerships to provide affordable housing near transit, new funding sources to support subsidized housing, zoning changes to allow more housing in some areas, new regional collaborations, and much more.

But the headlines keep coming: housing costs continue to rise and COVID times have brought job loss and the risk of housing loss for many more people than before. Many thousands of families spend more than half their income on housing, leaving them just one extra expense away from homelessness. Questions should be asked:  Are our efforts enough? What more must we do to ensure that people have access to the housing that they need and deserve? To understand the answers to those questions and to be sure our efforts are working, we needed to know more.

That’s why I’m excited to share that this week the Growth Management Planning Council’s Affordable Housing Committee, which I chair, released a Regional Affordable Housing Dashboard to track our county’s progress toward our goals. This new tool will help hold us all accountable to the bold and ambitious goals set by the Regional Affordable Housing Taskforce to build or preserve 44,000 affordable homes by 2024 and 244,000 homes by 2040.

The dashboard will help jurisdictions track their progress, arm housing advocates with data to make their cases, and provide the public with information to hold elected leaders accountable.

To our knowledge, no dashboard like this has ever been built. The dashboard will help jurisdictions track their respective progress, arm housing advocates with data to make their cases, and provide the public with information to hold elected leaders accountable. The dashboard’s “Jurisdictional Snapshots” section offers information about housing affordability and policy enactment by city. Additionally, a wide variety of affordable housing data— from housing policies to transit-oriented development and displacement—are available for download either as raw data or charts.

The tool itself illustrates the power, and challenge, of working together. The Affordable Housing Committee, which is composed of 19 elected, nonprofit and business leaders, provided an umbrella for the hard work it took to identify data sets, analyze the data and reach agreement on how to interpret the data.  This collaboration across our county is something to celebrate.

Here’s what the dashboard tells us already:

• King County lacks an adequate supply of affordable homes for the lowest-income renters who must compete for the limited number of rental homes affordable to them in the private market. Only 27 units are affordable and available for every 100 extremely low-income households (those making between 0 and 30 percent of Area Median Income, or AMI).

  • Black households are severely cost-burdened (defined as paying more than half of one’s salary for housing) at twice the rate of white households. Twenty-six percent of Black households are severely cost-burdened, as compared to 13 percent of white households.
  • Our region established a goal to build or preserve 44,000 homes affordable to households with incomes at or below 50 percent of AMI between 2019 and 2024. To meet this goal, we need to create 8,800 affordable units per year; but in 2019, only 1,595 affordable units were created.

Continue reading “Guest Post: New Affordable Housing Dashboard Promotes Transparency and Accountability “

Rachel Smith: The Chamber’s Recovery Agenda (And Why We Aren’t Endorsing Candidates This Year)

Seattle Metro Chamber President & CEO Rachel Smith. Photo by Alabastro Photography

By Rachel Smith

Global pandemic. Racial reckoning. Economic recession. Capital insurrection. Massive joblessness. Vaccine shortage. Unprecedented times.

This is the backdrop of the moment when I optimistically started in my new role as President and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. And yes, I say optimism; optimism that comes from our region’s demonstrated ability to rebound and reimagine itself, as well as optimism about how the Chamber can play a central role in the work ahead. Today, we’re starting to see more signs of hope – and I’m even more excited to help lead one of our region’s civic voices as we begin to slowly emerge from these incredibly challenging times.

In 2021, the Chamber will not make candidate endorsements, nor will we engage in candidate spending through the Chamber PAC. Instead, we will focus on elevating – and pushing for – serious civic dialogue on the most pressing issues in our region.

First and foremost on my to-do list is driving a robust and inclusive regional economic recovery, and that starts with helping struggling small businesses secure federal PPP loans – including pro bono CPA services and connection to lenders; handing out PPE, helping business with Public Health guidance, standing up partnerships to distribute vaccines, and advocating for continued state and federal relief for employers.

Equity and inclusion are also core pillars of that recovery agenda, and we need to focus our economic tools and resources to create a change in outcomes. The Chamber will work to build wealth in historically excluded communities by investing in the retention and expansion of BIPOC-owned businesses, as well as providing all of our members with resources and guidance on becoming more anti-racist institutions.

Emerging from this pandemic in a position of strength also requires partnership with public officials and leaders throughout our region. I believe strongly that we accomplish the biggest things and make the most transformative change for the most people when we work in coalition – government, business, labor, and community. This moment does not call for small-ball victories; it calls for working together in common purpose to ensure that employers survive, people stay employed, the region is prosperous, and everyone has access to that prosperity.

That is the way I intend to lead at the Chamber—working in partnership to accomplish big things. And as with any new leader, you’ll see some changes. One of the first is a new approach to local and regional elections this year. In 2021, the Chamber will not make candidate endorsements, nor will we engage in candidate spending through the Chamber PAC. Instead, we will focus on elevating – and pushing for – serious civic dialogue on the most pressing issues in our region.

These issues include:

  • Specific economic recovery actions to ensure that large employers are able to bring employees back to safe and welcoming business districts, including downtown Seattle, and that small businesses can keep their doors open and attract the volume of customers they need.
  • Working toward racial justice to address longstanding and ongoing inequities
  • Utilizing strategies to address affordability issues so that people of all income levels can afford to live in our region.
  • Making real and sustained progress on homelessness, to bring people inside and provide access to services they need.
  • Implementing police reform and building trust in communities of color, in tandem with a robust plan to keep people and businesses safe.
  • Maintaining our aging infrastructure and a long-range vision for the future of transit and mobility.
  • Delivering on local government basics: light and power, garbage and recycling, potholes and sidewalks, parks and neighborhoods, employees and administration.

Why this switch from endorsements? We believe everyone who gains the trust of the voters and is elected to office has the responsibility to lay out their approach and commit to specific actions to solve our greatest challenges.

Especially in a time of economic crisis, helping all employers and their employees recover and thrive isn’t just a “business” issue.

Especially in a time of economic crisis, helping all employers and their employees recover and thrive isn’t just a “business” issue. Every candidate elected should have a plan to keep and grow jobs – not just candidates looking for the Chamber’s endorsement. Every candidate needs to share their plan for how they will address homelessness – plans measured not just in taxes raised and dollars spent, but in outcomes achieved and how many fewer people are spending their nights outside. Every candidate needs to talk about how they plan to deliver on the things we count on local government to provide – like dependable city services, community safety, and reliable transportation options.

And the Chamber can play a role in informing and educating the business community and the public about the issues, the candidates, and their plans. Continue reading “Rachel Smith: The Chamber’s Recovery Agenda (And Why We Aren’t Endorsing Candidates This Year)”

Guest Post: The Gas Tax is Regressive and Racist. Let’s End It.

Photo by Alexander Grishin via Pixabay.

By Anna Zivarts and Paulo Nunes-Ueno

Maybe we shouldn’t raise the gas tax. In fact, maybe it’s time to get rid of the gas tax altogether.

That might seem like a strange statement coming from advocates like us, who are firmly aligned with the pro-transit, pro-climate justice, pro-investments-in-equity corner of the political landscape. But as we look at the proposed transportation packages in the legislature this session, we are starting to believe that only a truly transformational approach to funding transportation will allow us to address the harm caused by our current system.

What’s wrong with the gas tax? Well, first of all, it’s regressive. You pay the same amount no matter what you can afford, and if you’re wealthy, you’re likely to own a more fuel-efficient vehicle. In fact, these days, you’re likely to own an electric vehicle and pay no gas tax at all. On top of that, as cities become more expensive, you’re more likely to have a long commute if you’re poor.

And the gas tax is receding: Over the last 20 years, gas consumption has not kept pace with population growth. Sooner or
later, this isn’t going to be a reliable revenue stream.

The gas tax is also restricted to funding highways, thanks to the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution, which was enacted eight decades ago in 1944. Every other type of transportation infrastructure, from light rail lines to local bus service, must come from “unrestricted” sources such as car tabs and other vehicle fees—sources of revenue that, thanks to Tim Eyman, have been under constant threat for a generation.

The gas tax restrictions are redlining on wheels, funneling investments away from BIPOC neighborhoods because of the restrictions in where revenue can be spent

Currently, less than 4 percent of our transportation spending goes toward non-highway projects. In fact, in the last three state transportation packages, these non-highway investments have received a decreasing percentage of the total funding.

Which leads us to why the gas tax is racist. You’ve heard of redlining rules that kept banks from giving mortgages in Black or brown neighborhoods. The gas tax restrictions are redlining on wheels, funneling investments away from BIPOC neighborhoods because of the restrictions in where revenue can be spent. Instead of investing in reliable transit service that would benefit BIPOC communities where people are more likely to be transit-reliant, highway expansion funded by the gas tax directly contributes to increased pollution and negative health outcomes in these same communities.

Over the previous year, Front and Centered and Disability Rights Washington have been conducting listening sessions and interviews with our community members across Washington state, resulting in a report and transportation storymap. We’ve heard so many stories from our communities about how our current transportation system is failing us.

For example, Amanda, from Cowlitz County, shared, “I feel like as a senior in high school I should be able to walk to school on a sidewalk. I have to walk on the road with just a guardrail. It’s scary. I don’t want to get hit by a car on my way to school. This is the reality for other people of color.”

We know that what we are suggesting is a departure from the current transportation consensus, but as we’ve seen throughout the last year, sometimes we need to start thinking about how we can fully dismantle systems that perpetuate inequities.

Currently, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) estimates they have less than half of what they need to keep the current highway system in good repair because our elected leaders would rather use gas tax revenue to build new highways and overpasses. With so much unfunded mitigation and basic preservation need, it is inexcusable to expand the system further.

The cost of preserving our highway system must include the costs of mitigating the harm it creates. But even though it’s possible to spend gas tax revenue for this purpose, the legislature has yet to invest the $3.1 billion estimated needed to build fish culverts, so salmon can get past highways. They have not even begun to talk about funding the $5.7 billion that WSDOT estimates is needed to repair the gaps and barriers created in the pedestrian network by the state highways that cut through our communities. For decades, our legislators have underfunded the preservation work needed to keep our highway and bridges from crumbling. And, given the health impacts of dirty air caused by highways and roads, WSDOT should pair road maintenance with air quality monitoring. Continue reading “Guest Post: The Gas Tax is Regressive and Racist. Let’s End It.”

Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets

By Lisa Herbold

Seattle is a city of hills and water; thus we are also a city of bridges. Our bridges are critical for mobility and both the local and regional economy.  Bridges are also critical transit infrastructure. That’s why I, along with Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, have introduced legislation, along with a companion budget action for 2021, that would create a new $20 vehicle license fee (VLF) to pay for critical bridge maintenance throughout the city. The fee, if it’s approved by the Council this week, will be added to the existing $20 fee that funds additional Metro bus hours through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District.

The closure of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 placed Seattle’s dependence on its bridges in stark relief. Every person and business in West Seattle, or anyone going to West Seattle, has felt the impact of this closure. Before it was closed, the West Seattle Bridge carried 17,000 daily transit riders on 13 routes making 900 daily trips. Two of these routes—the RapidRide C Line and Route 120—were among the top 10 routes for ridership in all of King County.

But the West Seattle Bridge is hardly the only vulnerable bridge in Seattle; for decades, funding for critical maintenance has fallen short, allowing the city’s bridges to fall into further and further disrepair. In September, the City Auditor released an audit, requested by Councilmember Pedersen, that focused on 77 bridges owned and operated by the Seattle Department of Transportation. That audit reported that bridge funding is well below the minimum annual $34 million level needed for the long-term health of this critical infrastructure.

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The audit notes the overall condition of SDOT’s bridges has declined during the last decade and that Seattle is “not spending enough on the upkeep and preservation of its bridges, and risks becoming out of compliance with federal regulations.” This is, unfortunately, consistent with previous findings on the state of Seattle’s bridges, including an SDOT report from 2013 that found that 43 of the city’s bridges were “functionally obsolete,” and suggested that the city had a bridge maintenance backlog of nearly $2 billion.

We must address this underinvestment and protect our Frequent Transit Network, which includes all routes that operate with frequencies of 15 minutes or less for most of the day. Continue reading “Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets”

Guest Editorial: For a True “15-Minute City,” We Need Action, Not Rhetoric

By Mike Eliason

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly referred to the “15-Minute City” concept as a way of recovering from COVID-19. In the September 19 Durkan Digest, the mayor said she had directed Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development  to “explore the concept of a ’15 Minute City,’ as a potential framework for the next major Comprehensive Plan.”

The 15-Minute City is a sustainable cities concept developed by Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno, an advisor to several government and non-governmental agencies, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The concept is a city of complete, sustainable, connected neighborhoods, where every daily need can be met within a very short distance. The goals of a 15-Minute City include coordinated mobility, increased solidarity between residents, improved well-being, greener cities, more access to open space, rapid improvements to residents’ quality of life, and mitigating climate change.

As an architect deeply committed to decarbonized buildings and livable cities, I would gladly welcome a massive shift to a system this transformative and sustainable. However, Seattle’s next major Comprehensive Plan update won’t be adopted until 2024—meaning it would take over a decade to be realized. A framework that delays the transformation cities need to adapt to climate change (and COVID-19) for this long is neither climate action nor a path to economic recovery.

Seattle’s mayor, like nearly every other U.S. mayor, is not making a city for my children. Or yours.

Mayor Hidalgo, arguably one of the most visionary mayors in the world today, ran—and more critically, won—on a platform of massive ecological transformation during COVID. The ‘ville du quart d’heure‘ was a critical component of this. Under Hidalgo’s leadership, Paris installed 50 kilometers of pop-up bike lanes within a few weeks of that city’s COVID-19 lockdown in preparation for recovery. More recently, Hidalgo announced Paris’s iconic Rue de Rivoli will be car-free—permanently. The city is transforming streets from spaces for cars to places for people and nature, with plans to replace 72 percent of on-street parking spaces with public squares, playgrounds, and pedestrian and cycling zones.

I am a huge fan of pedestrian zones. These are urban spaces where cars are generally not allowed, with exceptions for deliveries, accessibility, or resident access. They can vary in size from a single block to entire neighborhoods. In European and Asian cities, they are being expanded to areas outside downtown neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of Mayor Durkan, Seattle still has no fully realized pedestrian zones. The closest the city has come is low-traffic “Stay Healthy Streets,” which, under Durkan’s leadership, are located mostly in single-family neighborhoods, far away from businesses, parks, and apartments. Meanwhile, bike lanes were delayed for years or eliminated completely to appease motorists, resulting in unsafe streets. The Mayor’s proposed budget for 2021 also includes cutting tens of millions of dollars for safe streets and nonmotorized transportation. This is not climate leadership. Continue reading “Guest Editorial: For a True “15-Minute City,” We Need Action, Not Rhetoric”

Sterling Harders: Proposed State Funding Cuts Would Harm Patients, Essential Health Care Workers

The 45,000 in-home and nursing home caregivers of SEIU 775 have always been on the front lines of health care. We’re the first ones to know if our clients are coughing or running a fever. We know when the person we care for seems dizzy, or when their appetite is off. We know first because we’re inside of their homes providing health care, preparing food, and cleaning surfaces, giving invaluable care to the most vulnerable people in our communities. We keep those who want to stay in their homes out of costly institutions, and care for those who require nursing home care to stay healthy.

Caregivers didn’t stop providing care during the coronavirus pandemic, despite a glaring lack of PPE in the first few months. Nelly, a caregiver in Yakima, lives with her client. When everyone in Nelly’s home, including Nelly, tested positive for COVID-19, she continued providing care and kept her vulnerable client out of the hospital.

The proposed Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) cuts would kick 10,000 seniors and people with disabilities off home care, and put more than 10,000 caregivers out of work when we can least afford to lose more jobs.

Caregiving is essential. Yet it has been consistently devalued because of systemic racism and sexism. Like farm workers and domestic workers, caregivers were deliberately excluded from the worker protection laws created after the Great Depression. We were excluded because of who we are and what we look like—predominantly women, including black women, women of color and immigrants. Caregivers had to fight to win basic standards like minimum wage, the right to a union, and even the right to protection from harassment and discrimination long after other workers won those rights.

When the coronavirus hit, the caregivers of our union immediately started negotiating with the state for COVID protections. We were the first caregivers in the country to win hazard pay. But everything we’ve won—not just hazard pay but our health care, our wages, and our jobs themselves—are at risk due to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

There are about 30 million people unemployed in this country, including half a million people in Washington State. Millions more are risking their lives going to work every day—not just caregivers but grocery workers and farmworkers and delivery drivers—and these folks are often working for near poverty wages. Yet with looming budget shortfalls facing our state, what’s on the table for caregivers? Cuts. The state is trying to find revenue by proposing massive, devastating, offensive cuts.

The proposed Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) cuts would kick 10,000 seniors and people with disabilities off home care, and put more than 10,000 caregivers out of work when we can least afford to lose more jobs. The cuts to wages and benefits could result in a loss of $1,300 a year for a full-time caregiver. In nursing homes, perhaps the most dangerous place to be during a global pandemic, DSHS has proposed cutting funding by $240 million dollars per year. Continue reading “Sterling Harders: Proposed State Funding Cuts Would Harm Patients, Essential Health Care Workers”

Andrew Lewis: Ditching District Elections Would Be Bad for Democracy

By Seattle City Council Member Andrew Lewis 

I am a strong supporter of district elections for Seattle City Council. I have been ever since managing former council member Nick Licata’s re-election campaign in 2009 and seeing the deficiencies of the old city-wide alternative. 

So I read with great interest a September 2nd article by former Councilmember Jean Godden reporting on an effort to revisit districts and potentially go back to an at-large system or add more citywide positions to the council. Anonymous critics quoted in the piece raised several concerns about the current system.

First, they claimed districts enhance the power of “interest groups”. Second, they argued districts are fragmented and include neighborhoods without perceived commonality, citing examples such as Magnolia and Belltown in District 7 and Mount Baker and Rainier Beach in District 2. And third, they claimed districts result in less diversity in government and are unfair to poor and minority voters. 

In every respect, these claims are unfounded. Districts, along with democracy vouchers, have considerably enhanced our democracy in Seattle by reducing special interest influence, encouraging accountability to community concerns, and increasing diversity of representation.

Districts Diminish Special Interest Influence

Former Boston Mayor Kevin White once famously said “don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.” Missing from the criticism of district elections is any comparison to the old exclusively at-large system. This is probably because on every purported critique of districts, an exclusively at-large system scores far worse.   

First, a close analysis of interest group influence reveals the old at-large system was far more susceptible. I was struck, while managing Licata’s campaign in 2009, by the incentives the at-large system created for candidates to choose donors over voters. Running citywide requires raising enough resources to buy advertising and build name familiarity in a city of nearly 750,000 people, essentially as big as a congressional district. Under the old system, locking down a few dozen big donors early was essential to be competitive.

The argument that the at-large system leads to a more diverse council ignores the fact that the current council is 5-4 people of color and 6-3 women—far more diverse than the preceding 20 years of councils under the at-large system. It also ignores the fact that at-large representation has historically been used to disempower minority voters.   

Under districts, candidates go door-to-door and talk to voters directly. I personally knocked on more than 8,500 doors last year, and I know most of my colleagues did the same. On hundreds of occasions, voters told me that no candidate for city office had ever knocked on their door. I learned about chronically ignored neighborhood issues that have shaped my priorities in office. Indeed, my successful efforts to save the UpGarden P-Patch started as a doorbell conversation. These interactions cannot happen at scale under an at-large system. The only viable strategy is dialing for dollars—which, in turn, gives more access to big donors, and by extension special interests.

Moreover, there’s no evidence that “special interests” are benefiting from districts. If special interests equate to big money, then districts have considerably mitigated their advantage in Seattle elections. Of all the candidates who won last year I had the most independent money spent on my behalf, $409,887 from UNITE HERE Local 8, a union representing hospitality workers. Even so, the aggregate of support from the Chamber of Commerce, big hotel owners, and other business-aligned PACs in independent expenditures for my opponent totaled $586,456, a disparity of $176,569. 

I suspect what is really happening is that the coalition that was largely unsuccessful in the 2019 council elections thinks an at-large system would benefit them electorally.

This trend was consistent across council races: In five out of seven districts, the candidate with the least special interest money spent on their behalf went on to win. My colleague Dan Strauss was outspent by an unprecedented $747,538. That result implies districts are far less susceptible to the influence of big money, and therefore the influence of interest groups is considerably diminished.

A Return to At-Large Does Nothing to Mitigate “Fragmentation”

Another issue district critics raise is the grouping of neighborhoods perceived to have different priorities into the same district, creating a fragmentation of interests. 

The fragmentation argument is perhaps the strangest one for abolishing districts. If districts are so large that neighborhoods with divergent interests are being lumped together, isn’t that an argument for more districts? 

It also assumes a council member is incapable of attending to the various needs of different neighborhoods within their district. My staff and I have a regular presence in community council meetings in all the neighborhoods of District 7. In the case of the small Cascade Neighborhood Council, I was the first city council member to ever attend one of their meetings.

Under an at-large system, such sustained engagement with neighborhood organizations is difficult and accountability to the community is diffuse. After every census districts are redrawn, and if there truly are issues related to fragmentation they can be dealt with through that process. Reverting to an at-large system would do nothing to address it.          

Districts Have Led to a More Diverse Council

The argument that the at-large system leads to a more diverse council ignores the fact that the current council is 5-4 people of color and 6-3 women—far more diverse than the preceding 20 years of councils under the at-large system. It also ignores the fact that at-large representation has historically been used to disempower minority voters.    Continue reading “Andrew Lewis: Ditching District Elections Would Be Bad for Democracy”

Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery

By Alex Hudson

When the pandemic began and much of the world stopped moving, public transit carried on, connecting essential workers to jobs and people to food, health care, and other critical services. Bus drivers bravely continued working to get people where they needed to go, and adapted to help deliver food to seniors and patients to care. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a deep truth: public transit is, and always will be, essential.

There is worry that ridership is down now and won’t return. These fears are based on a return to pre-COVID levels of congestion and skyrocketing used car sales. But the risks of veering away from transit in a post-pandemic world are huge. If drivers get back in their cars exclusively, we’ll cut people off from opportunity and will be stuck in worse congestion than before, resulting in wasted time, more greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants that make our planet less livable, and hundreds of lives lost to preventable crashes.

The vision for public transit in a post-pandemic Puget Sound hasn’t changed: It must be fast, frequent, reliable and affordable. COVID-19 has simply underscored the urgency of addressing how we plan for and fund it. As we recover, the smart and most affordable investment we can make is in building a resilient and accessible public transit system that connects people to opportunities, creates good paying jobs, and supports our climate goals.

Here are three steps we can take to get there:

Invest in transit like it’s a key part of a just economic recovery—because it is. There can be no economic recovery without well-funded public transit. In Seattle, essential workers account for 33 percent of transit riders. These folks keep Seattle’s hospitals running, our grocery stores stocked, and provide social service, caretaking and education that all of us are depending on. In addition to getting people to their jobs, transit investments create good, green, family-wage jobs that last. An analysis of the 2009 stimulus package found that stimulus dollars spent on transit projects created more jobs than dollars spent building or maintaining highways. “To create the most jobs per dollar, invest in transit and maintenance,” the analysis concluded.

Transportation is a household’s second-highest cost, and the average household in King County spends more than $12,500 per year on their vehicles. In 2019, seven million Americans were at least three months behind on their car loans. As unemployment remains high and household finances are stretched to the breaking point, public transit is a desperately-needed affordable alternative to driving that millions of people across the country are counting on.

To keep our communities strong during this challenging economic climate, public transit must be centered in recovery plans and cannot be left out of the federal stimulus packages. All new COVID relief funding on the local, state, and federal levels must include investments for transit, teleliving, biking, walking, and rolling. To make sure this happens, we have to continue building strong coalitions across business, labor, environmental, and social justice advocates. We need everyone at the table.

Pay for it now, or pay the price later. Transit is a fundamental pillar of a functional economy, yet we have seen that the funding that keeps transit moving is fragile and overlooked at every level of government. TransitCenter estimates that across the country, transit agencies will see a $26 billion-$40 billion annual shortfall due to COVID. Declines in fare revenue, as well as the underlying supporting taxes, leave our agencies facing extreme budget shortfalls and elected leaders grappling with no easy choices.

Funding for transit in Washington has never been resilient or adequate. The 18th Amendment to our state Constitution restricts how we can spend transportation dollars. Rather than using gas tax money to create a more efficient and sustainable system overall, the state is forced to funnel money into highway projects, many of which only further pollution and congestion. This outdated restriction must be reconsidered—our social, economic and environmental future depends on it.

Washington lacks progressive revenue options for transit, and the passage of I-976 left local governments with even fewer tools. We need to move away from regressive, restrictive, and volatile sources of funding like the gas tax and replace them with sustainable and resilient funding options, like an equitably designed road user charge or congestion pricing and a statewide air quality surcharge. While working toward reform, we must continue to utilize the existing tools and support local transit ballot measures, starting by passing Seattle Proposition 1 and renewing the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which funds transit investments in Seattle, for another six years.

Prioritize racial equity in our recovery plan and undue long standing disparities. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities that exist within and are caused by our transportation system. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experience disproportionate impacts through exposure to air and noise pollution caused by racist planning decisions which built traffic arterials and highways in their communities, lowering home values, separating communities, and increasing exposure to air and noise pollution and preventable traffic violence. Health disparities caused by exposure to air pollution, such as higher rates of asthma, have left BIPOC communities more vulnerable to contracting COVID. Creating an equitable transportation system is literally a matter of life or death for BIPOC communities in Washington. Continue reading “Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery”

Alex Brennan: Pandemic Shows that Density Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution

By Alex Brennan, Futurewise

During normal times, the case for moving into an efficient apartment in a dense urban neighborhood close to work, instead of a suburban house with a long commute, is compelling and logical.  For starters, the short commute means valuable extra time at home.

Meanwhile: You don’t need your own private yard because you can walk to the park. You don’t need a big apartment because the coffee shop down the block is an extension of your living room. Being out and about in the neighborhood is part of what makes urban life great. You run into people you know, and you come across all sorts of people you don’t know.

But now the coffee shop is takeout only. Crowded streets and parks require a masked, distancing dance, especially for elders or others at high risk. And for those of us who have switched to virtual work from home (it’s important to remember that many essential workers must still commute), we are now stuck in that apartment. Maybe we squeezed in a little work desk next to our bed or added it on to the kitchen table, but that roomy house an hour from the suddenly shuttered downtown office suddenly looks a lot more appealing.

Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions.

Since the pandemic upended our lives in March, people have been asking me if (or in many cases telling me that) the pandemic portends the end of cities and density. And I get it. Living in the city right now is hard. The pandemic surfaces old associations between cities and disease. And there are some signs in New York and San Francisco that those who can afford to move are leaving for the suburbs.

I’m not here to predict the future, but I can tell you I’m not giving up on density. To explain why, I think it’s important to start by clarifying what is not happening.

First, density is not increasing your chances of getting COVID. In King County, for example, the densest zip codes have the lowest positive test rates and some of the lowest death rates. Globally, some of the densest cities in the world—Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei—are models for preventing the spread of the pandemic. (The concentration of top medical facilities certainly helps.)

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Second, we are not experiencing the end of agglomeration economies, the enigmatic force that brings businesses and jobs closer together. Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions. Amazon just leased another two million square feet of office space and announced they will have 25,000 jobs in downtown Bellevue by 2025—right across from the soon-to-open downtown Bellevue light rail station. Facebook just snatched up the headquarters office that REI let go—adjacent to the soon-to-open Spring District light rail station. And while perhaps struggling at the moment, Boeing isn’t going to start building airplanes on Zoom.

Beyond unpacking misperceptions about disease and jobs, it is important to think about the lessons we’re learning from the pandemic, the recovery that we want, and the important role dense, mixed-use, walkable cities can play.

Protecting rural areas. It might seem counterintuitive, but urbanism starts with respect for rural lands.  Remember the first time after lockdown that you left your home and went for a hike in our beautiful mountains? Remember what a blessing it was to have the great outdoors so close? Building up in the city allows us to protect our wild places and our working farms and forests. If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Climate Change.  The pandemic has taught us that we need to be better prepared for shocks, and there is no bigger shock coming than climate change. Are you angry that our leaders let our public health infrastructure waste away in good times? Well you should be furious about our inadequate efforts to mitigate and prepare for climate change. This year’s toxic smoke is only the beginning if we don’t act now.

If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Dense communities are one of the best tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (Washington State’s largest source of emissions) by shortening travel distances and encouraging walking, biking and transit over driving alone. Dense cities also allow us to grow without building suburbs out on the forest’s edge, reducing human exposure to the destruction of climate-exacerbated forest fires.

Health. That increase in walking, biking, and transit, over sitting in the car, improves outcomes for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. Those two conditions also happen to be two of the biggest risk factors of dying from COVID-19. But it’s not just about COVID, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the US (diabetes is the seventh) and both ailments diminish the quality of life of millions more. Dense, walkable urban neighborhoods that incorporate physical activity into daily life are a big part of the cure.

Cost savings. When the pandemic is over, governments and households are both going to have a lot of debt. Density is part of how we can have a great quality of life and save money. Dense development cuts down on infrastructure costs, requiring fewer miles of roads and water, sewer, electrical, and internet lines. Density makes fire, ambulance, and other response-time-based services more efficient. That translates into lower taxes or better services (take your pick).

For households, less driving reduces the second biggest household cost, transportation. And while density alone cannot solve our housing affordability crisis, when land is expensive, more efficient use of land reduces building costs.

Reviving Main Streets. Density isn’t just about the big city, it’s also important for small towns. Right now, locally owned small businesses are struggling more than ever. The foot traffic that they thrive on has been decimated by COVID-19. If we let these places continue to be replaced by online shopping and big box stores out by the interchange, our small towns will lose their heart, their sense of place, and their tax base. Allowing second-story apartments above shops, and duplexes and triplexes nearby, can help bring back the foot traffic that Main Streets need to compete.

Public life. Let’s return to where we started. During normal times, dense neighborhoods are places of community and connection, places to run into friends on the sidewalk or at the coffee shop, places for festivals and marches. Right now, unfortunately, we can’t enjoy being with other people this way, and that is hard. But I believe, after the isolation of the pandemic, we will emerge more hungry for public life than ever before.

The United States of America has the lowest-density cities in the world. This isn’t because we harbor a Jeffersonian love for the suburbs. It’s because federal policies like the interstate highway act and the VA and FHA home mortgage programs have promoted sprawl for decades. Local policies also play a role: It remains true today that most low-density development in Washington State would not be financially feasible if impact fees reflected the true cost of the associated infrastructure. At the same time, single family neighborhoods in inner-ring suburbs would be transitioning to duplexes, townhomes, and lowrise apartments if the zoning allowed for it.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, we will need to rebuild our country. Will we continue the policies of suburban bias that has guided the last 70 years or will we learn new lessons from the pandemic and create a more urban future?

Alex Brennan is the Executive Director at Futurewise. The organization’s current campaign, Washington Can’t Wait, is fighting to build more climate-resilient, equitable and affordable communities by strengthening the Washington State Growth Management Act.