Category: Guest Contributor

The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City

Sound Transit Roosevelt Station facade
Image via Sound Transit.

By Katie Wilson

Anyone who’s ever been carless in Seattle knows the feeling that your city wasn’t really built for you. Cars whiz by, spewing exhaust and, if it’s especially wet, plowing up great sprays of dirty water that don’t respect the boundaries of the sidewalk. Biking on most streets is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it takes so long to cobble together a bus trip from here to there, it’s almost faster to walk. Seattle has been making progress on its multimodal infrastructure, and some streets are safe, beautiful and well-designed — but take a wrong turn, and very quickly you can feel like an unwelcome stranger in your own city.

That’s what made the opening of three new light rail stations earlier this month so thrilling. An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I biked and walked past that construction site at NE 43rd St. in the University District so many times over the past few years, it began to feel like a permanent feature of the neighborhood. I almost forgot it was ever going to open. Then, suddenly, it was October 2 .

Now I could leave my Capitol Hill apartment, walk for ten minutes, board the train and be whisked away to the heart of U District in what felt like a heartbeat — no bus transfer, no hike through campus. Wandering the streets around the U District station that afternoon, you could feel the neighborhood being transformed. What had been a dead end was now a hub, a portal. People streamed in and out of the station. They bought lunch, sat at picnic tables, conversed. A new place had been created.

An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I probably wouldn’t have ridden the train on that first day if it weren’t for Pauline Van Senus, also known as the Transit Fairy. While the rest of the Transit Riders Union floated off into the Zoom-o-sphere during the pandemic, Pauline doubled down on the physical world, pulling weeds and picking up trash around transit stops. She wasn’t about to let such a momentous transit occasion slide by without TRU members marking the occasion, so a group of us met at the Capitol Hill station that morning and rode up to Northgate together.

“It’s like 14 minutes to get to Northgate from downtown,” said Pauline. “Even if I-5 was wide open, that would be hard to top. And it very seldom is wide open; it’s usually backed up.”

Train speeds that beat the pants off driving—that’s the kind of transit system that entices people out of their cars. In our era of climate crisis, it’s what we desperately need.

For Jim MacIntosh, who lives in Magnolia with his family, the new light rail extension shaves a good twenty minutes off the trip up to Northgate to visit his mother. That trip used to require traveling all the way downtown. “Now I can take the 31 right to the U-district station, and then just hop on the light rail, and it’s two stops and five minutes later we’re at Northgate,” he said.

We need more funding for transit, and we need changes to zoning and land use regulations that encourage greater housing density, so that neighborhoods near the light rail line can accommodate more people who will actually use late-night runs.

Jim says he’s thrilled that our transit system is starting to feel more and more like a real metropolitan subway system, the kind he remembers from visits to London and Vienna, Washington D.C. and New York City.

“What we have is maybe not quite the level of New York, but it’s a start,” he said with a laugh. “It’s going to add mobility, especially for those that choose not to drive or don’t drive for whatever reason.”

Jim doesn’t drive because he’s visually impaired. He predicts he’ll be making the trip north more often now — and it’s not only about the time savings.

“It’s just a more pleasant run,” he said. “The light rail trains are smooth. You don’t have the up and down motion that you have in a bus, and the swerving where buses have to get around cars or every time they pull into a bus stop. When the bus moves, a person standing there is thrown off balance, so they have to grab onto a pole or something. On the light rail you don’t have the sudden motions back and forth.” Continue reading “The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City”

“Compassion Seattle” Is Dead. Now What?

By Katie Wilson

Two years ago, Seattle’s corporate set learned that money can’t buy you the Seattle City Council. Now they’re finding out it can’t even buy a measly amendment to the city charter.

I’ve written before about how Charter Amendment 29, promoted by the business-backed group “Compassion Seattle,” was an expensive unfunded mandate with troublingly unclear implications for the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness. Last month, a King County Superior Court judge struck it from the ballot for wholly different reasons: It’s a misuse of the initiative process, conflicting with state law and usurping the city’s legislative prerogatives. The state Court of Appeals denied Compassion Seattle’s appeal of the ruling on Friday.

To be clear, I wasn’t an impassive observer in this process. The organization I work for, the Transit Riders Union, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. TRU is also a part of House Our Neighbors!, the grassroots coalition convened by Real Change to oppose Compassion Seattle.

So yeah, I feel like running some victory laps. But going in circles, even metaphorically, is the last thing to be doing right now. There’s a good reason many thousands of Seattleites would have voted for the measure: It sounded great. It promised to do something about the ever-worsening homelessness crisis. With compassion, no less! It was a false promise, but attractive because the crisis is so vast, so heartbreaking and so visible.

So, what now? Here are four ways forward.

1. The city should make it easier, faster and cheaper to site and build shelter and permanent housing. CA 29 promised to do this by expediting project applications and waiving land use code requirements and permitting fees. This is one part of the measure that was actually good policy, but it also illustrates why the whole enterprise was so wrongheaded. Land use and zoning falls under the purview of the city’s legislative process and can’t be decided by initiative.

There’s a good reason many thousands of Seattleites would have voted for the measure: It sounded great. It promised to do something about the ever-worsening homelessness crisis. With compassion, no less! It was a false promise, but attractive because the crisis is so vast, so heartbreaking and so visible.

Siting shelter and housing for homeless people is often controversial. Suppose CA 29 passed and the city began fast-tracking projects; if disgruntled neighbors sued, they’d probably win. The Seattle City Council already took action in early 2021 to make it easier to site and build permanent supportive housing. The Urbanist reported on that effort here. Next year, Seattle’s new mayor and council should work together to make more changes like these the right way, by developing and passing legislation to allow projects to move forward faster.

2. The city should make smart use of new revenue flowing in from the JumpStart tax—a payroll tax paid by Seattle’s largest corporations—as well as the remainder of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act allocation, which will be budgeted this fall. JumpStart’s first year was focused on economic relief from the COVID-19 crisis. But that’s about to change. “Starting next year, two-thirds of the JumpStart funds are for housing and homelessness,” Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said. “That’s about $135 million annually for emergency housing, long-term housing solutions and everything in between.”

In July, Mosqueda and her council colleagues passed legislation creating a dedicated fund for revenues from the new tax, to help ensure they’re funneled to their intended uses.

This by itself won’t be enough to create 2,000 units of “emergency or permanent housing” in a single year, as CA 29 arbitrarily stipulated, let alone all the permanent supportive housing and deeply affordable housing that’s needed, but it’s a great start.

3. To go further, the city will need to explore new sources of progressive revenue. Last fall, King County enacted the Health Through Housing Initiative, funded by a one percent sales tax, to scale up its efforts on chronic homelessness; that’s not a progressive tax, but it is buying a lot of hotels. Seattle can do its part without further taxing poor people. Should it raise the JumpStart tax? Design a city income tax? Siphon off some unearned wealth? Push for other new options from the state legislature? City leaders should create a task force made up of policy experts and community stakeholders to research what’s possible and report back on the options.

4.  One of the most unrealistic pieces of CA 29 was the suggestion that the city should suddenly (and with no new funding) start playing a major role in providing mental health and substance use disorder treatment, services that are currently managed mainly through county and state agencies. The city should acknowledge that behavioral health services are a county and state responsibility and work in partnership with King County and state legislators to fund behavioral health care for people experiencing homelessness.

One promising idea comes from 43rd District Rep. Frank Chopp, who points out that health care is the proper responsibility of state government . He’s developing a proposal called “a prescription for a home,” which he hopes to advance in next year’s legislative session. It begins from the recognition that chronic homelessness is usually related to chronic health conditions, which are nearly impossible to heal or treat successfully without housing. Just as the state now funds health care through Apple Health for qualifying individuals, people experiencing chronic homelessness would have a right to a home and wraparound services.

“The core of the program would be funded right out of the state general fund,” Chopp said. Phased in over time, “it would be part of the state Medicaid budget, like nursing homes, like home care, like prescription drugs.” With the state taking on more responsibility for addressing chronic homelessness, local governments could focus on building housing for the rest of the homeless population and for low-wage workers.

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So much for what I think; with CA 29 off the ballot, what are its backers and opponents up to?

“We need to start treating housing as a human right, not an exploitative venture,” said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change. “For-profit housing will never be the answer to our housing needs. We need to immediately start shifting housing away from the private, for profit sector and into the public sphere. We need social housing now.” The House Our Neighbors! coalition, she says, isn’t going away — it’s planning its next steps.

Compassion Seattle, meanwhile, is urging supporters to pay attention to the city elections.

“We can still make our voices heard in the elections for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney,” the campaign said in a statement. “In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the Charter Amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”

Continue reading ““Compassion Seattle” Is Dead. Now What?”

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”