Category: Transit

Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?

Mockup of new, clearer signage Sound Transit has proposed to reduce fare evasion and errors

1. Sound Transit board members had some pointed questions for agency CEO Peter Rogoff on Thursday, when staffers presented the agency’s plan to address concerns about fare enforcement to the board.

The proposed changes, which come after months of community outreach and both onboard and online surveys, include new signage that will indicate more clearly that people must pay fare in order to enter light rail stations; reduced fines for people who still fail to pay their fare; more warnings before a rider receives a fine; and new, in-house “fare education ambassadors” who will replace the private security guards who currently check fares and issue citation.

Board members, including Joe McDermott (West Seattle), Claudia Balducci (Bellevue), Victoria Woodards (Tacoma), Dave Upthegrove (Federal Way), and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, wanted to know why Sound Transit staff have not proposed taking fare evasion and fines out of the court system, as King County Metro has done. Failure to pay fare on Sound Transit’s system, which includes Link Light Rail as well as express buses and Sounder trains, can result in a $124 fine plus late payments and potential criminal penalties if a rider does not pay the penalty. Unpaid fines can end up in collections and can damage a rider’s credit for years.

What would it take, Balducci asked, to get the staff to take requests from board members seriously and come up with a plan that didn’t expose riders to financial hardship and a potential criminal record for failing to pay a $3 fare?

“The challenge we have is figuring out for those folks who are persistent fare violators and are not among those classes that I just cited—people who clearly are economically distressed or are drug-addicted or homeless—what, then, do we do, if not the courts?” Rogoff said.

It’s unclear exactly how many people fit into the category of “persistent fare violators” that Rogoff described. According to Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham, about 7.6 percent of riders did not pay their fares in October. (Sound Transit has been charging fares since July, after making rides free for several months in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Currently, fare enforcement officers do not scan riders’ cards individually to see if they’ve paid their fare; instead, they ask riders to show that they have a card or a ticket.)

“Fares are critical to pay for transit services, and Peter’s comments referenced concerns about the potential level of non-compliance that could result if penalties were reduced to the point that it became known over time that there was little or no consequence for fare evasion,” Cunningham said. “The result of that would be increased costs for taxpayers and potential impacts on projects and services. It can be reasonably assumed that some segment of riders, potentially increasing over time, would respond with chronic fare evasion.”

But there may be an additional reason Sound Transit is so reluctant to bring fare evasion penalties in-house. “State law vests the District Court with exclusive jurisdiction to impose fines for fare evasion infractions,” Cunningham says. In other words: The state legislation that created the agency establishes that failing to pay fare is a civil infraction that must go through district court. Taking fare enforcement out of the jurisdiction of local courts might require a change in state law. Historically, Sound Transit has tried to avoid reopening its authorizing legislation, since Republican legislators have tried to change it in the past to, for example, make Sound Transit’s board an elected body.

“Difficult” is not the same thing as “impossible.” But any major changes to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy would require a significant shift in thinking at the agency about its mission as well as the reasons people don’t pay fares. Rogoff’s response indicated that his longstanding position on “fare evasion”—a concept that implies conscious ill intent, if not outright criminality—has not changed, even as the political environment in Seattle and across the country undergoes a seismic shift.

At a time when agencies at all levels of government are working to undo and prevent future harm to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, Rogoff is still drawing distinct lines between the people who don’t deserve to get caught up in the criminal justice system—”someone who’s poor… someone who’s homeless, someone who’s drug-addicted”—and the modern-day turnstile jumpers who will keep robbing the system unless there are harsh consequences when they do.

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During yesterday’s meeting, Rogoff suggested that King County’s alternative fine resolution program, which is intended for people who can’t pay that agency’s $50 maximum fine, has been something of a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said. “We need a better mousetrap, and we’re trying to figure that out with the community and with King County Metro.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?”

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”

Plan to Preserve Metro Bus Service Heads for November Ballot

After a lengthy debate over the correct size and duration for the proposed renewal of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District—a Seattle-only tax originally intended to supplement King County Metro bus service—the city council voted unanimously to put a six-year, 0.15 percent sales tax proposal to fund bus service on the November ballot. The measure will provide a little over $39 million a year for bus service, compared to $56 million a year under the measure that expires this year—enough to preserve between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of existing in-city service.

The original 2014 STBD ballot measure included a $60 vehicle-license fee, which was supplemented by a $20 fee passed by the council, but the city has been unable to spend the revenues from either fee since Washington state voters passed the car-tab-killing Initiative 976 last year; the state Supreme Court is set to rule on the initiative’s constitutionality later this year.

It’s a sign of how much the funding landscape has changed that the biggest debates on Monday were about whether to preserve the sales tax approved by voters in 2014 at its existing level, as Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed, or increase it slightly, and on whether the funding package should last four years or six. Every option the council considered would, at best, offset service reductions from the county—a major difference from the original 2014 ballot measure, which expanded transit service by 350,000  hours

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Proponents of a larger tax hike—to 0.2 percent—argued that it may be possible, in theory, to reduce the tax after the county passes its own region-wide taxing measure, or when a court overturns I-976, making car tab revenue available again. Opponents expressed skepticism that voters would pass a significant tax increase during a recession that has already resulted in unprecedented unemployment. “Even though a 0.1 percent regressive tax maybe isn’t going go be the straw that but the aggregate impact is something that I’m very concerned about,” council member Andrew Lewis said.

Along somewhat similar lines, proponents of a shorter-term ballot measure—four years, as opposed to six—argued that a levy that expired earlier would light a fire under the city and county to come up with a regional ballot measure whose cost and benefits would be spread across the entire county instead of concentrated in Seattle. Opponents (those who supported a six-year renewal) argued that a six-year measure would put the city in a stronger bargaining position with the county if and when the county gets around to proposing a regional measure.

Worth noting: Although most council members seemed optimistic that a countywide transit measure would pass, very recent history suggests otherwise. The whole reason the city proposed a Seattle-only ballot measure in 2014 is that a countywide measure failed overwhelmingly earlier that same year, losing by double-digit margins in the suburbs, and by eight points overall. The fact is that the county could put together a regional bus funding measure on the city’s preferred timeline, only to see it fail—an outcome that may be more likely, not less, during an economic downturn.

The proposal that passed Monday also includes a measure limiting the portion of the new tax that can be spent on things like low-income transit passes, rather than service hours, to $10 million—the same cap as in the mayor’s original 0.1 percent proposal—and increases the amount that can be spent on “emergent needs,” such as bus service for West Seattle residents stranded by the closure of the West Seattle Bridge, to $9 million.

Council member Alex Pedersen, who sponsored the original 0.1 percent legislation and was the only council member to vote against expanding it to 0.15 percent, said the unanimous vote demonstrated that “despite the divisions and conflicts that many people might see reported in the media, the mayor and city council can pull together and row in the same pos direction when we direct our energy toward the hard responsibility of governing. … It may not be perfect for each of us, but it is necessary for everyone.” And with those less-than-rousing words, the stopgap transit funding measure headed toward the November ballot.

Metro Could Require Reservations for Late-Night Service

King County Metro is asking people who use its late-night bus service to provide feedback on whether the transit agency should require reservations to take the bus between 1am and 5am. The online survey describes the new “concept” this way: “a reservation-based system [in which a]ll passengers boarding buses between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. would book their essential trip in advance using a free reservation system (interpreter and TTY services would be available).” 

Currently, Metro requires riders to wear masks and maintain six feet of separation from others—a requirement that works out to a maximum of 12 riders on a 40-foot bus and 18 on a 60-foot bus. After those limits are reached, drivers are allowed to pass up riders waiting for the bus. The reservation system, according to the survey, would “ensure there is enough space on transit to support essential trips during Night Owl service.”

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Torie Rynning, a spokeswoman for Metro general manager Rob Gannon, said Metro is considering a reservation-based system after hearing “from some riders who are not able to board their desired bus due to our ‘social distancing’ capacity limits.” Rynning said Metro doesn’t have details about what a reservation system might look like, but it would likely require, at minimum, access to a phone. Rynning said requiring reservations is just one option Metro is considering for late-night service; another is “increasing [the] supplemental service] that Metro has already added on the routes with the highest late-night ridership.

According to Metro, ridership has decreased dramatically during the late-night hours, declining between 53 and 57 percent overall between 10pm and 5am.

Both Metro and Sound Transit, the regional rail and bus agency, have struggled with the question of how (and whether) to accommodate so-called “non-destinational riders”—a euphemism, generally speaking, for homeless people who seek warmth and shelter on buses and trains—at a time when space on transit is at a premium and transit is free. Sound Transit has decided to resume charging fares (and fare enforcement) on June 1. Metro has also set a “target date” of May 31 to start charging fares again.

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Modes of service | Sound Transit
Image via Sound Transit

Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced this morning that it will resume charging fares on Link Light Rail and Sounder trains on June 1. Fare enforcement officers will begin riding trains again and “educating” riders about the reintroduction of fares and providing information about how to access reduced-fare ORCA Lift cards starting tomorrow, May 19. Starting in June, fare enforcement will begin again. Officers are supposed to “follow social distancing guidelines” when checking fares.

A temporary “recovery fare” of $1 for Link trains and $2 for Sounder will be available through an app called Transit GO Ticket and at fare machines for one month.

According to a press release, “riders taking repetitive trips without apparent destinations” have been “associated in part” with “a dramatic increase in unsanitary conditions, rider complaints and incidents of vandalism after fares were temporarily suspended in March.” In other words: Homeless people riding trains for free have trashed our trains and made other riders uncomfortable.

“Beyond providing money to support transit operations, the resumption of fares will also allow Sound Transit to increase safety and security for essential riders,” the announcement says.

The notion that some riders are “essential” and others are effectively joyriding ignores the fact that, during COVID, most of the places that homeless people are allowed to be during the day, including libraries, community centers, day centers, and even many feeding programs, have shut down. Non-“essential riders” ride buses and trains because they have nowhere else to be, which is a symptom of the unaddressed crisis of homelessness, not the essential maliciousness of people experiencing homelessness.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

In an email following up on today’s announcement, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick emphasized that complaints about, and hygiene issues related to, non-destination riders were among the primary reasons for the decision to reinstitute fares. “For the four week period ending on April 26, we recorded 293 biohazard incidents and 59 vandalism/graffiti incidents on Link. … On a per-passenger basis, biohazard incidents skyrocketed by almost 1700 percent while vandalism/graffiti incidents increased more than 1400 percent.”

Using “per-passenger” numbers as a “skyrocketing” metric is misleading. Because ridership has dropped, according to Sound Transit, by 85 percent, it would be more useful to look at increase in incidents rather than the number per rider. Sound Transit was unable to provide 2019 incident data by the end of the day on Monday. But extrapolating from the numbers that they did provide, a 1700-percent increase in incidents per rider suggests there were about 113 biohazard incidents last April, compared to 293 this year, and about 22 graffiti and vandalism incidents, compared to 59. Both numbers more than doubled, but neither increased anything like 1400 or 1700 percent.

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry.

“The frequency of these incidents are unacceptable by any measure,” Patrick continued. “Our first obligation as the region’s transit provider in these times is to provide a safe, secure, and sanitary trip to passengers who are taking truly essential trips. This includes the many health care workers who are heroically traveling to our health care facilities on light rail to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry. This judgment might seem fair if Sound Transit were comparing nurses to, say, school kids hopping the bus to hang out with their friends across town, but it gets a lot dicier when the people being deemed non-“essential riders” are riding because their other option is sitting on.a sidewalk in the rain. Libraries, community centers, and food courts aren’t homeless shelters either, but they do routinely provide places for people experiencing homelessness to go during the day. Now that those places are closed, people are turning to buses and trains for daytime shelter—and being told they are ruining it for everybody else.

In an ideal world, of course, no one would use public transit (or libraries, or community centers) as shelter, because everyone would have a place to live or at least a place to be. In this less-than-ideal world, there are more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County alone, and no matter where they are, there will be someone complaining that they’re causing problems or just taking up space. King County Metro has also seen an increase in these “nondestination” riders, and a rise in complaints. But while Sound Transit has responded by reinstating fares, reinstituting enforcement, and explicitly trying to drive away riders taking “repetitive trips with no apparent destination,” Metro has acknowledged that homeless people are riding transit in greater numbers because they have nowhere else to be.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter,” Metro general manager Rob Gannon told me earlier this month. “That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, says the agency “is still evaluating the best time to reintroduce fares and has not yet landed on a date.”

As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders

This article originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It wasn’t so long ago — just 2018 — that Seattle could be proud of its status as the only city in the nation where transit ridership was actually going up, and the number of people commuting to the center city by car was going down. COVID-19 didn’t just reverse this trend; it obliterated it. Ridership on King County Metro buses is down about 73%, while ridership on Sound Transit’s light rail line has shrunk an estimated 70%. In an attempt to protect drivers from riders who might be COVID-positive, both agencies eliminated fares, and Metro implemented back-door-only boarding, in March. Both agencies also cut service, which has led to overcrowding on popular routes, such as the Route 7, that serve essential workers getting to and from the center city.

In response to complaints, Metro added more service in April. But they also limited the number of riders who can be on a bus at one time, which has meant that people waiting at bus stops are sometimes passed up because buses are over capacity. This has created tensions, which have coalesced around so-called “non-destination riders” — people who are not going to work or running essential errands, and who generally happen to be homeless. The number of non-destination riders is higher, proportionally, than it was before. But it’s also higher in absolute terms, because libraries, community centers and day shelters — all the places people experiencing homelessness used to go during the day — are closed. This leaves only a few places for people without homes to sit down, get warm and doze off for a while.

Some riders and drivers began calling on King County Metro to address the problem by barring homeless people from riding. Other suggestions included kicking them off at the end of the line, starting to charge fares again or forcing them to wear masks. Seattle is hardly the only city whose homeless population is using buses as a substitute for shelter during the pandemic. And it’s far from the only city where people have accused homeless riders of crowding the transit system, or making it dirty or putting people at risk by not wearing masks. Leaders of some transit systems have rushed to judgment — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stained his legacy by stating that homeless riders were “disgusting and disrespectful.” But to their credit, Metro, and its general manager, Rob Gannon, have not.

In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Gannon talked about non-destination riders, how Metro will get people back onto buses again, and the agency’s financial future.

Let’s start with what the new normal looks like. How much has ridership fallen off, and where is Metro currently seeing the highest ridership? 

Even though our ridership was down dramatically — between 70 and 75 percent—we’re still seeing about 100,000 boardings each day. If you look out your window and see an empty bus, that is not a guarantee that that bus is going to be empty the entire trip.

The more heavily-used routes are in the South End and southeast King County. On the RapidRide lines — the A, the E, the D Line — we continue to see a level of ridership that makes it difficult to have a coach that is not subject to crowding conditions, which is why we’re trying to add back service.

“We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.”

Farebox revenues are currently nonexistent, and sales taxes, which are always volatile, are likely to take a long-term hit. How have you balanced the need to add more buses with the need to keep Metro’s budget in line with the current revenue reality?

We’re anticipating that the lost revenue associated with the pandemic response — meaning, sales tax being severely depleted and farebox not recovering because we’re operating with free fares right now — will amount to $220 million to $265 million in losses in 2020. That is now offset by about $243 million coming in [from the federal CARES Act], so we are sustainable for the current year.

What we don’t know is what the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the economy — when will sales tax begin to rebound and when will ridership start to come back? So our 2021-‘22 outlook is pretty stark right now. We see a recession coming and we know the Seattle Transit Benefit District [a Seattle tax that adds service inside the city] is set to expire at the end of this year. And we know that the city continues to deliberate about when and how to bring that measure back in front of the voters. I-976 [an initiative that will, if upheld, slash revenues from car taxes and fees] brings uncertainty, generally, to the financing of public transportation. So 2021 and 2022 are going to be a period where we have to consider service reductions, and the where and the how of that is something we’re going to continue to assess.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter. That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

It’s hard to believe that as recently as March, Metro was holding open houses throughout Southeast Seattle on route options for the RapidRide R, which is supposed to replace the Route 7 on Rainier Ave. S. Are this route and the other planned RapidRide lines being put on hold?

The planning is not on hold. In high-level terms, when we identified those RapidRide corridors as places to enhance the service experience and to enhance the way customers can get where they need to go, that was based on some well-founded analysis and community participation. We still think those are all the right areas. The question now becomes: will we have the resources to stay on that investment timeline? We’re still doing planning, we’re still going to figure out how to engage the community, we’re still going to bring those services online. We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.

There have been complaints from drivers and riders about homeless people riding the bus and not wearing masks or taking up seats on buses that are supposed to only be for essential rides. How do you respond to these complaints, and what is Metro currently doing to ensure rider and driver safety? 

First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that our bus system is safe and reliable in this current health crisis. It started very early with daily cleaning of the buses, disinfecting, moving to a free-fare situation to limit the amount of interaction at the front of the coach, putting up a safety strap [between the front and back of the bus], and doing rear-door boarding. We have also been in everyday contact with our employees, trying to understand what conditions they face and how we can make it safer for them, fulfilling requests for PPEs, outfitting operators with sanitation kits and gloves and hand sanitizer and wipes, and, on April 11, bringing masks into the equation [for drivers]. So a lot of that isn’t about the non-destinational rider. It’s about how do we make the system safe for all those who use it?

The rider that is finding shelter on the coach — in one sense, we all find shelter on a coach, because it is the alternative to walking, to being exposed to the elements. What we hope to see is that a rider comes on board, pays a fare, and rides to a specific destination. When they don’t, when they try to use the bus as a shelter, it inevitably presents problems of crowding. It makes it more difficult to keep the buses as clean as possible. There is occasionally conduct inconsistent with the guidance for the transit system, and we have seen an increase in those incidents. Continue reading “As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders”

Driving a Metro Bus Through the Pandemic

The post excerpted here originally ran on Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Driving a city bus has always had its hazards. Until recently, exposure to a deadly pandemic was not among them. But as most workers are staying home to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, bus drivers remain on the front lines, transporting strangers around the city in what one driver referred to as “rolling petri dishes.”

With protective equipment such as masks and gloves in short supply, drivers say they have no way of knowing whether they’ve been exposed. Every interaction with a rider, another driver said, is a potential opportunity for infection: “Everybody’s got a gun now, but we don’t know who has bullets.”

In Seattle, where the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, were detected in February, conversations with nearly a dozen bus drivers revealed widespread anxiety about driver and passenger safety.

While many drivers sympathize with riders who still rely on buses to get to work or the store ― or just have nowhere else to go ―  some drivers said they didn’t understand why so many buses were still on the road. They have no idea how many of their fellow drivers have been infected because the public transit authority, King County Metro, won’t say. And drivers are frustrated with what they see as a lack of clear direction from management about how to protect themselves, when to stay home, and how they will be compensated if they take time off.

Nathan Vass is a veteran Metro driver who recently decided to take unpaid time off because he thinks he may have been exposed to the coronavirus. He said that his route, which is one of the busiest in the city, has remained crowded through the pandemic — an observation confirmed by Metro’s ridership statistics, which show that buses serving lower-income areas, like the one Vass drives, have seen much lower reductions than commuter and suburban routes.

Vass said he’s not sure what’s worse: Failing to serve people who rely on transit by shutting the buses down, or allowing the virus to spread unchecked by keeping them in service.

“If we’re going to continue allowing transit, we have to be OK with the fact that we’re spreading the virus as well,” said Vass, who recently published a book chronicling his experiences as a bus driver. “Transit is just not conducive to restricting the transmission of viruses.”

Metro, like other transit systems across the country, has reduced service dramatically during the pandemic. But drivers in Seattle — unlike, for example, in Vancouver, Canada, where the bus agency recently closed off every second row of seats — have been offered limited official options for enforcing social distance.

A recorded message, which is only in English, instructs riders to sit six feet apart, but that’s an impossible standard to achieve on the more crowded routes. And even if riders do sit six feet apart, the coronavirus lingers on surfaces, so if an infected person sneezes on a handrail or touches a seat with dirty hands, they can still infect the next person who sits there.

At the same time, Metro has officially designated bus drivers “first responders” and instructed all drivers who don’t show COVID-19 symptoms to keep showing up for work, even if they think they’ve been exposed to the virus.

“That is the opposite of everything we’ve been told, from CDC on down,” said Audrey Monroe, who has driven for Metro for almost four years. “It seems wild to me that that’s their policy when we know that you can have no symptoms and still be shedding the virus.”

Metro will not say how many drivers have been infected. According to King County Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer, releasing illness numbers “could lead to individuals being identified and could cause other spaces to be mistakenly seen as being without risk,” and might cause drivers not to seek needed medical care. A driver for Community Transit, an agency that serves the suburbs north of Seattle, died of COVID-19 last month; so far, the agency has confirmed 10 cases among its drivers.

Read the rest of this piece at HuffPost.

Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay

Sound Transit says this distribution of reasons riders said they failed to pay shows that “most riders are able to pay” their fares, which range from $2.25 to $5.75 for a one-way ride.

After a fare-checking incident on the first day of school led to widespread criticism of Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement policies, the agency said it would reconsider how it checks and enforces fare—just as soon as it could complete an in-person rider survey, an onboard rider survey, and a series of focus groups to determine what issues riders were most concerned about and the reasons people engage in “fare evasion” on Sound Transit trains. (“Fare evasion” is a term that suggests intent, or even theft, but it includes many situations where the “evasion” is unintentional, such as when a person buys an unlimited monthly pass but forgets to “tap” her card before boarding; hence the scare quotes)

For the onboard surveys, staffers shadowed fare enforcement officers until they caught someone without proof of payment, then gave them a survey about why they didn’t pay. The most common responses were that the rider forgot to tap their card, that their card didn’t work, or that they “couldn’t find where to tap.” This finding, according to the survey, “provides further support for the finding that most riders are able to pay but occasionally fail to do so for a myriad of reasons.”

The comment seems aimed squarely at advocates who have argued for free or reduced fares on the grounds that people who avoid fares typically do so because they can’t afford them. Those advocates expressed frustration last year after Sound Transit adopted a wait-and-see policy toward any changes to fare or fare enforcement, pointing out that a 2018 audit of King County Metro showed that a large number of riders who failed to pay did so because they couldn’t afford the fare. (In comparing the two surveys, it’s worth noting that Sound Transit’s survey included a bewildering array of 14 possible reasons for nonpayment, plus “other”—nearly twice as many options as King County Metro’s 2018 survey). If it turns out people could pay if they wanted to, but don’t, that would create a new bulwark against calls to make the system more affordable or accessible to low-income people.

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The on-board survey did find that people making between $0 and $50,000 were the least likely to pay, but the report doesn’t break that number down further, making it hard to draw conclusions about different groups within that broad income category. Currently, people making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $25,000 for an individual, are eligible for discount fares through the ORCA Lift program.

The King County Auditor’s independent review of Metro’s fare enforcement policies led to changes such as reduced fines for fare evasion and the creation of new avenues to address fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in ORCA Lift. Sound Transit is considering similar changes, but has rejected proposals to make its service free, and has resolutely defended its fare-enforcement practice of checking all riders on each car for fare, despite the fact that this practice has still resulted in racially lopsided enforcement.

The agency released the results of the surveys and in-person sessions last week, and held a listening session to talk about some of the proposals that emerged from the process at El Centro de la Raza on Wednesday night. The meeting was unusual for a “roundtable” style public meeting in a couple of respects: First, agency staffers kept the initial presentation short. Second, participants got a chance to rotate among six different tables to discuss a total of three separate topics instead of just one. Finally, because the public comment came at the end of the meeting, after everyone had spent an hour throwing out ideas, it was actually informed by the discussion, rather than rehearsed and packaged in advance. Continue reading “Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay”

Cyclists Pack Pedersen Forum, Libraries Still Lack Narcan, and an Update on LEAD

1. Bike and bus advocates showed up in force for a “town hall” meeting featuring District 4 city council member Alex Pedersen in Eastlake last night, but many said afterward that the moderators who chose the questions from a stack of cards submitted by the public—a representative from the Eastlake Community Council and a Pedersen staffer—rejected or ignored their questions.

I was live-tweeting the forum, and noticed early on that most of the questions seemed to be from people opposed to a planned protected bike lane on Eastlake, rather than the dozens of bike lane supporters in the audience. For example, early questions centered on how businesses were supposed to deal with the loss of hundreds of parking spaces directly on Eastlake Avenue; why cyclists couldn’t just ride on a parallel greenway somewhere near, but not on, Eastlake’s business district; and what can still be done to prevent King County Metro from replacing the milk-run Route 70 with a RapidRide bus route that will be faster and more frequent but won’t have as many stops.

During the meeting, I noticed that a pile of questions had been set aside, and that the moderator seemed to be favoring questions from people who opposed bike lanes and RapidRide over questions from the bike lane supporters who packed the room. So I asked via Twitter: If you were at the forum and asked a question that didn’t get answered, what was it?

Pedersen was fairly circumspect in his responses, suggesting repeatedly that people contact his office and promising he would get back to them by email. He did, however, say he supported changing the Eastlake bike lane plan—which has been debated, studied, and affirmed repeatedly over a period of several years—so that cyclists would have to shift back and forth between the arterial and short stretches of “greenway” on unnamed parallel streets. “I think [the Seattle Department of Transportation] should look harder at a combination of protected bike lanes on some part of it and greenways on some of it,” Pedersen said.

Invoking the specter of 35th Ave. NE, where a long-planned bike lane was scuttled after neighborhood activists complained that the loss of on-street parking would destroy local businesses, Pedersen added: “There was a lack of transparency” about the proposed bike lane, which he opposed. “People were just trying to figure out what was going on with it.”

“I think [the Seattle Department of Transportation] should look harder at a combination of protected bike lanes on some part of [Eastlake] and greenways on some of it.” — City council member Alex Pedersen

During the meeting, I noticed that a pile of questions had been set aside, and that the moderator seemed to be favoring questions from people who opposed bike lanes and RapidRide over questions from the bike lane supporters who packed the room. So I asked via Twitter: If you were at the forum and asked a question that didn’t get answered, what was it? Here are some of their (slightly edited) answers:

• Given that every study shows bike lanes make streets safer for everyone and are good for business (and that cyclists spend more than drivers), what data are you paying attention to? How will you incorporate the data that already exists about protected bike lanes around the world?

• Have you seen any analysis of the percentage of people who are NOT in Eastlake that commute to Eastlake for any of the businesses that are afraid of losing 320 parking spots? Do people drive to 14 Carrots from other parts of the city?

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• Have you seen any research about the actual impact of bike lanes on businesses?

• What options are you prioritizing to help my whole family get around without using a car?

• Many people bus and bike through Eastlake, but don’t stop because traffic is so dangerous. What can be done to make Eastlake more welcoming to visitors and encourage fewer single occupancy vehicles, supporting the goal of Vision Zero?

• When will the city consider a residential parking zone in Eastlake (which prevents people from commuting in by car and parking all day in neighborhoods)?

• Why is the RapidRide and bike lane project important for Eastlake and the surrounding area?

Jessica Westgren from Welcoming Wallingford, a group that supports housing density and alternatives to driving, asked Pedersen verbally why he wouldn’t return calls and emails from her organization. Pedersen responded that she should send him an email, ideally including specific information such as “I’m having this issue on my block.”

 

Mayor Jenny Durkan, flanked by parents who lost their son to an opioid overdose and local officials

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city will be distributing 700 doses of naloxone (Narcan), a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, in response to a surge in overdoses from fentanyl in counterfeit oxycodone pills—and, in particular, an increase in the number of teenagers who have died of fentanyl overdoses. Fentanyl is especially deadly, and overdoses happen quickly; an overdosing person can die long before first responders arrive, which is why having Narcan on hand (and knowing how to use it) is so critical.

Durkan said that kits will be distributed in schools, bars, and nightclubs—”any place where it is likely that someone might overdose.” The city is also planning 25 Narcan training workshops.

Since Seattle public libraries are among the places people use opioids—and are, because staff are always present, safer consumption sites than alleys or parks—I asked if the libraries would also start stocking Narcan, and if library workers would be trained to use it. (The library system has been slow to adopt harm reduction policies, and only added sharps containers in restrooms after I published several stories on the issue last year.) Durkan said “we’d like them in the libraries,” but her staff added later that this would be an issue for the library union to negotiate.

Library spokeswoman Andra Addison later confirmed that the library does not have current plans to stock Narcan or train library workers to use it. “The Library currently uses 911 for all medical emergencies. Use of Narcan in our libraries would involve union representatives, and those discussions are just under way,” Addison says. Asked to clarify what the issue would be for the library union, Addison said, “working conditions and the impact on working conditions.”

3. City council member Lisa Herbold has released a copy of the letter I mentioned on Wednesday, urging Durkan to confirm that she will release all the funding the council provided for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in its adopted budget no later than March 1, and to affirm that LEAD—which offers alternatives to arrest for people suspected of committing low-level crimes—is a crime prevention program, not a homelessness program. Durkan has hired a consultant to look at LEAD’s performance and to determine performance metrics for the program; currently, LEAD is classified as a homelessness intervention and required to meet housing goals, even though more than a quarter of its clients are not homeless. Continue reading “Cyclists Pack Pedersen Forum, Libraries Still Lack Narcan, and an Update on LEAD”

Free Transit Off the Table, Sound Transit Says, Defending Its Fare Enforcement Policies

Sound Transit staffers emphasized that the agency would not consider eliminating fares or fare enforcement in light of recent controversies about its fare enforcement policies, saying that “high fare payment rates and compliance rates” was key to the agency’s financial stability. (Sound Transit has a higher fare recovery rate than many other transit agencies, and fares from Link Light Rail totaled about $41 million last year.) The emphatic rejection of free fare came during a  “process update” on a recent rider survey about fare enforcement at the agency’s executive board meeting this morning. Staffers said they were still analyzing the survey results and couldn’t provide any details yet about the survey findings or how the agency plans to address the fact that black riders are far more likely to receive tickets for nonpayment than other groups.

Sound Transit often points to its method of checking riders—from the outside in, checking everyone on the car—as an inherently unbiased model because, in theory, it prevents fare officers from singling anybody out. The agency frequently displays a slide of a train marked with arrows to demonstrate the method during presentations on fare enforcement. They used the slide (below), for example, after advocates raised concerns that fare enforcement officers were intimidating kids on their way to their first day of school. That day, the agency issued (and later voided) more than a dozen formal warnings to kids under 18 for not presenting proof of payment—the precursor to a $124 fine. (Once you get a warning, it starts a 12-month clock; if you get caught without fare again in those 12 months, you get an automatic $124 ticket along with the potential for criminal charges if you fail to pay).

At the time, staffers cautioned behind the scenes that the issue advocates were raising about fare enforcement wasn’t the method officers used, but the outcomes for low-income people and people of color. At the public meeting this morning, however, they focused on the method. “This practice has been cited by Transit Center as a good practice for reducing potential discrimination and profiling in our fare enforcement interactions,” said Rhonda Carter, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff’s chief of staff.

Committee vice chairman Paul Roberts asked whether Sound Transit had looked at other transit systems to see how they dealt with the fact that some people can’t pay their fare. Metro, for example, recently reduced fines for fare evasion, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges for nonpayment, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program. Carter responded that Sound Transit’s “practice for how we check fares is seen as a model for how to do this work equitably,” and that often, “other agencies will come to us” for advice on how to do it right.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.
K

ing County Executive and Sound Transit board member Dow Constantine brought up a letter his office received from a parent whose daughter, a Seattle school student, had received two $124 tickets for “fare evasion” despite the fact that she has a free ORCA pass. Fare enforcement officers frequently give “evasion” tickets to people who have simply failed to properly “tap” their cards, have tapped twice, or didn’t tap at all but have fully paid free ORCA passes. Under Sound Transit policy, anyone who fails to show proof of payment four times is referred to the King County Prosecutor’s office for a misdemeanor criminal charge. Policy director Carrie Avila-Mooney said Sound Transit has suspended that policy temporarily while the review is ongoing.

Rogoff said he had responded directly to the child’s parents, “in part because we obviously had great empathy for the child who was very concerned about what happened, but more importantly, the parents really did come forward with some thoughtful proposals. A lot of people complain but have no thoughtful proposals. They really thought about it and, indeed, some of their ideas are on the list.” He did not specify which ones.

While reducing fare enforcement or eliminating fares is off the table, Sound Transit is considering a few other options to address disparity in fare enforcement, including “Expand[ing] and target[ing] communications and marketing about how to access and use valid fare media,” flipping the calendar on warnings at 6 months instead of 12, replacing Securitas fare enforcement officers with in-house staffers, and moving fare enforcement from the trains to station platforms. They’re also considering some of the policies Metro has already adopted, such as reducing fines and giving low-income people alternatives to fines or charges.

Sound Transit will hold an open house at El Centra de La Raza, 2524 16th Ave S, from 6-8 pm on February 19 to provide more information about the survey findings.