Category: Transit

Unpaid Tickets from West Seattle Bridge Violations Add Up to Millions

West Seattle and Spokane Street Bridges
Unauthorized drivers who used the lower Spokane Street Bridge (right) when the West Seattle Bridge was closed for repairs racked up more than 130,000 traffic citations in 2021 and 2022. Photo by Lizz Giordano.

By Lizz Giordano

A windfall from traffic tickets during the closure of the West Seattle Bridge could soon reach the Seattle Department of Transportation, as more than 74,000 citations from traffic cameras on the Spokane Street bridge, also known as the “lower” West Seattle Bridge, head to collections next year. 

When the West Seattle Bridge closed for repairs in 2020, the city banned most drivers from using the lower bridge except between late night and early morning to give buses and emergency vehicles a clear path between West Seattle and downtown. The city first relied on police officers to catch scofflaws, then installed automated cameras to issue citations in early 2021. 

As of the end of this October, more than half of those citations remain unpaid. At $75 per citation, that adds up to more than $5.5 million in potential revenue, half of which goes to the city.

Most people used the First Avenue Bridge, located two and half miles south of the high bridge, as their detour route.

City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, noted that most commuters didn’t break the rules during the bridge closure.

However, she added, “It’s sad that over 500 drivers … had such a large number of tickets, [disobeying] policies that were created for everyone’s safety. While an occasional violation is perhaps understandable, this quantity suggests disregard for the need to keep the bridge use at a level that allowed for unimpeded emergency vehicle access.”

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

In 2021, photo enforcement cameras along the Spokane Street Bridge issued 89,041 citations to unauthorized drivers on the low bridge. This accounted for nearly half—46 percent—of the 192,432 camera citations issued citywide that year. In 2022, before the West Seattle Bridge reopened in September, drivers using the lower bridge racked up another 41,535 citations, for a total of more than 130,000 tickets on the bridge.

According to Seattle Municipal Court data, drivers have paid just 32 percent of these tickets. The court suspended late fees and stopped sending outstanding tickets to collections at the beginning of the pandemic. But starting at the end of January, drivers who have failed to pay their fines will be subject to late fees.

The court also plans to start sending unpaid fines to a collections agency, which tacks on a 15 percent fee on each ticket, as soon as the end of April.

“People with unpaid tickets from 2020-2022 should plan to respond to their tickets by January 30, 2023,” said Laura Bet, a spokeswoman for the court. “People can respond to their tickets by setting up a payment plan, setting up a community service plan if they are low-income, or scheduling a hearing.”

A handful of drivers could face some particularly hefty invoices. Two vehicles racked up more than 300 citations for crossing the Spokane Street Bridge without authorization in 2021 alone, according to the data. Another 35 drivers amassed more than 100 tickets each and more than 500 accumulated more than 20 citations that year. 

The city was able to deploy the cameras on the low bridge as part of a pilot program after the state legislature expanded the city’s authority to use automated cameras to enforce traffic laws. The new law also allows camera enforcement when drivers ”block the box” by stopping in intersections at red lights.

State law dictates that half of the revenue for the pilot goes to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to fund bicycle, pedestrian and non-motorized safety projects. SDOT is using its half of the money to add accessible signals that vibrate and chirp to some pedestrian crossings.

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

Before the pandemic, drivers paid 74 percent of citations from photo enforcement cameras issued in 2018 and 2019, according to data from the court.

A spokesperson for SDOT declined to comment on the large number of tickets drivers racked up on the Spokane St. Bridge.

Mayor Reshuffles Office Chairs, Council Considers Fixes for Pedestrian-Hostile Third Avenue

Third Avenue downtown (image via Downtown Seattle Association)

1. Learn to trust the Fizz: As PubliCola reported last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell has just reorganized his office, including the reassignment of former Director of Public Safety Andrew Myerberg to the newly created position of special projects director, answering to Harrell’s favored public safety advisor Tim Burgess (whose own title is, confusingly, Director of Strategic Initiatives). The public safety shuffle reportedly reflects a division in the mayor’s office between Burgess (a former city council member who favored law-and-order strategies like a ban on “aggressive panhandling”), Myerberg (the former Office of Police Accountability Director) and Harrell’s niece and senior deputy mayor, Monisha Harrell, who was previously Myerberg’s boss.

The divide between all these players isn’t just about policy, but perception—Myerberg, whose experience is more in the realm of policy than politics, is reportedly getting stuck with the blame for the negative public response to an ill-conceived plan to crack down on people gathering at Third and Pine downtown by using rarely deployed laws governing behavior on buses and bus stops.

The reorganization of the mayor’s office doesn’t stop there. Jeremy Racca, Harrell’s former council aide-turned-general counsel, has taken on additional duties under the new secondary title of “chief administrative officer,” while policy director Dan Eder, a former council central staffer, now reports not to the mayor but to Racca.

Jamie Housen, the mayor’s campaign consultant-turned-communications director, has been bumped up to report directly to Harrell, while deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, the former homelessness director for the Human Services Department, gained two new direct reports, including Lisa Gustaveson, a former homelessness staffer at HSD who worked briefly for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority before returning to the city earlier this year.

So what does it all mean? As Harrell told PubliCola during a press conference last week, “moving people around” early in a mayoral term isn’t uncommon—but it does speak to who’s in and out on the seventh floor (and the mayor’s good graces). Out: Myerberg (who is, interestingly, the only person Burgess oversees), Eder… and possibly another top staffer whose responsibilities are officially the same, but who we’ve heard been relieved of some duties. In: Washington, Burgess, and Housen—whose former boss, Harrell’s political consultant Christian Sinderman, reportedly has his own office space at the city. In addition, top-level staffer Adiam Emery, the mayor’s former chief equity officer, has a heightened public presence and new title, executive general manager.

Closed-for-business vibes: Pre-pandemic snapshots of Third Avenue from the DSA report.

2. The city council’s homelessness and public assets committee considered a resolution yesterday to endorse a plan created by the Downtown Seattle Association to revitalize the Third Avenue transit corridor—currently a wide, bus-clogged expanse of pavement flanked by narrow sidewalks and many boarded-up businesses.

The DSA’s “Third Avenue Vision” has actually been around for several years, but got sidelined by the pandemic, which exacerbated some of the issues the DSA raises in its report while reducing the number of people riding buses on the street—which, as of 2019, was the busiest bus-only corridor in the nation.

DSA director Jon Scholes said the business group’s pre-pandemic surveys found “a strong consensus that Third Avenue is the street that most people don’t want to be on. … It really hasn’t recovered as a street since the … original transit tunnel was dug through and along Third Avenue in the early ’90s.” That tunnel has served light rail exclusively since buses were kicked onto surface streets, including Third Ave., in 2019. Since then, many businesses shut their doors because of the pandemic, and Third Avenue continues to be the focus of periodic crackdowns on drug sales, retail theft, and people hanging out without an obvious destination (what’s often lumped the general category of “disorder.”)

The proposal aims to reduce bus traffic volumes, provide more exposure for street-level businesses, and give pedestrians more space through four potential strategies: A “compact transitway” that would create new sidewalk space by reducing Third Avenue from four lanes to two; a “median transitway” option that would move bus stops to a new median and convert the street into a two-way transit street, using shuttles to move riders through downtown; a “transit shuttle and hub” model that would also rely on shuttles through downtown, but eliminate the median in favor of a two-lane roadway; and a “transit couplet” framework that would turn a three-lane Third Avenue into a lower-volume one-way “couplet,” with buses traveling north on Third and southbound on a parallel street such as Second Ave.

Although the DSA’s report does not explicitly mention crime or homelessness, focusing instead on ways to improve the pedestrian environment broadly, council president Debora Juarez brought it up on Wednesday, saying, “We should be honest about it how Third and other streets have changed and have become not safe. We want it to be safe for everybody, and also for addressing homelessness and getting the right people down there to handle it, but also alleviating some of what pressure from a major corridor like Third. So I think we have to be honest about that.”

Scholes did not respond to Juarez’s comments directly; however, the vision the DSA has proposed for Third Avenue appears to offer little room for poor or homeless people. Notably, two sites of frequent crackdowns on homelessness and crime—the area around the McDonald’s at Third and Pine and City Hall Park in Pioneer Square—have been reimagined in the DSA’s renderings: The park, which was closed and fenced after the removal of a large encampment, appears as the front door to a fanciful “osteria” on the south side of the King County Courthouse, and the McDonald’s has been replaced by a sidewalk cafe.

Cascading Construction Errors Add New Delays to Light Rail Expansion

Inspectors found gaps between rails and pre-cast concrete plinths on both sides of the I-90 water crossing. They addressed the problem by installing mortar, which subsequently failed. Image: Sound Transit presentation

By Erica C. Barnett

Shoddy workmanship, the concrete workers’ strike, and the collapse of an embankment in Kent will delay the opening of the regional light rail expansion by a year or more, Sound Transit staff told agency board members on Thursday. The board already knew that a light rail extension linking Seattle to the Eastside across Lake Washington was behind schedule because of issues with concrete plinths, or track supports, installed by contractor Kiewit-Hoffman, but learned more details last week about both that construction snafu and other issues that will contribute to delays throughout the project.

The biggest potential delay involves the light-rail extension across I-90, where Sound Transit inspectors discovered problems with the concrete plinths that directly support the rails leading up to the water crossing, pre-cast concrete blocks on the bridge deck, and the nylon inserts that hold bolts in place where the rail is attached to the floating bridge itself.

“I want to be clear that as we talk about challenges and risks, we’re speaking to the ability to meet current schedules and not the ability to deliver light rail across the I-90 floating bridge,” Sound Transit’s interim CEO, Brooke Belman, said during last week’s meeting. “We are 100 percent confident in the design and operability of the segment across the floating bridge and [that we will] complete the entire alignment.”

“It was a very strange working situation for absolutely everybody, including folks who would have been on the ground looking at the work and now were required to work from home. So there were a variety of issues that led to this place where we find ourselves.”—Sound Transit deputy director Kimberly Farley

Sound Transit started unearthing problems with its I-90 crossing in 2019, when inspectors discovered that the top surface of some plinths did not connect with the rails they were supposed to be supporting. To close these gaps, Sound Transit’s Kiewit-Hoffman installed mortar between the blocks and the rails, a solution Sound Transit deputy director Kimberly Farley said the agency believed would fix the problem. Subsequently, though, that mortar failed, and Sound Transit discovered another set of problems, “including concrete placements that were too low, too high, constructed to the wrong geometry, or resulting in voids under rail fasteners,” according to a staff report.

During work to fix those construction problems, the team discovered additional issues, “such that the overall scope of the challenges has increased rather than decreased”; for example, many of the blocks had improperly installed or missing rebar, which strengthens concrete and prevents it from cracking. During this time, Sound Transit also discovered that the nylon bolt holders were stripped and decided to replace all of them. They also noticed that some of the pre-cast concrete blocks that support the rails across the bridge were cracking.

Asked why Sound Transit’s inspectors didn’t discover these problems sooner, Farley noted that much of the construction took place at the height of the pandemic, when “it was just a struggle to get everybody on site, keep the work going, and keep the protocols in place.”

“It was a very strange working situation for absolutely everybody, including folks who would have been on the ground looking at the work and now were required to work from home,” Farley continued. “So there were a variety of issues that led to this place where we find ourselves.” Earlier this year, Sound Transit hired a forensic engineer to evaluate Kiewit-Hoffman’s repairs and keep tabs on construction.

Board member Claudia Balducci told PubliCola  she was glad Sound Transit staff revealed the latest issues to the board at this stage, rather than waiting until they had come up with fixes, noting that the agency has historically had issues with transparency. Former director Peter Rogoff could reportedly be tight-fisted with information, preferring to address issues internally rather than bringing them to the board or discussing them in public. “I want that kind of transparency,” Balducci said. “I don’t want staff to be like, ‘We won’t report to the board or to the public until months later, when we have identified a problem and fully engineered a solution.'”

It could be months before the agency identifies a solution to unstable soil conditions along the alignment between Kent and Federal Way, where a 200-foot section of embankment slid nine feet earlier this year, forcing a partial closure of I-5. Originally, Farley said at last week’s meeting, Sound Transit had hoped to use timber pilings to shore up the slope, but after the slide, they went back to the drawing board. “The reason that you didn’t hear the solution [at the meeting] is because, frankly, we don’t have one yet,” Farley told PubliCola. Continue reading “Cascading Construction Errors Add New Delays to Light Rail Expansion”

Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route

Fourth Avenue Viaduct
A 4th Avenue route for the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension is the clear favorite in the Chinatown-International District neighborhood, but requires a costly rebuild of the viaduct over existing train lines in the area.

By Lizz Giordano

UPDATE: Citing missing data in the DEIS, which fails to identify the loss of Alki Beach Academy and the childcare spots, Councilmenber Alex Pedersen is proposing the city not make a recommendation in the segment that runs through the Delridge/ Youngstown area.

The amendment also makes its recommendation for a 17th Ave. W. route in Interbay contingent on the preservation of a proposed Seattle Storm practice facility in the area; former Mayor Jenny Durkan fast-tracked the new building, which contradicts the city’s recently adopted industrial land-use policies, before she left office last year.

The committee is set to vote on this amendment and a few others on Tuesday, July 5.

Original story:

As Sound Transit moves toward a decision about path of its new light rail line to Ballard and West Seattle, the city is preparing to adopt legislation urging the transit agency to bury the track underground, in order to minimize residential and maritime displacements. But the city held off on making a recommendation about the line’s routing and station placement in the Chinatown/International District, citing community concerns about displacement.

The new light rail line, known as the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension (WSLBE), will connect downtown with West Seattle and Ballard, running through the North Delridge Neighborhood and into the Alaska Junction to the south and through South Lake Union, Seattle Center and Interbay to the north. Regardless of the final route the Sound Transit board chooses next year, businesses and residents will get displaced, and construction will close streets for months or years. 

Residents and businesses in the Chinatown-International District have raised significant concerns about the new line which could take several blocks of the historic area—displacing residents and businesses—while also bringing noise and dust during construction and when trains begin operating. The resolution, drafted by mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and sponsored by council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen, says Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement for the project lacks details about these displacements and potential strategies to mitigate noise, dust, and road closures during construction. The resolution also calls for more community engagement in the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods.

Sound Transit is considering several different options for each segment of the route as the project moves through the lengthy planning stage. The next big step in the planning phase will come later this summer, when the Sound Transit board will select alternatives to continue studying while also re-identifying a preferred alternative for each segment, which the agency describes as a statement of preference, not a final decision about what to build.

“All of the alternatives are analyzed equally, but design emphasis and refinements, and mitigation strategy refinement, will be focused on the preferred alternatives,” said Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham. 

Chinatown/International District options

Both potential routes in the Chinatown-International District, along Fourth or Fifth Avenue, have significant potential drawbacks. Running light rail under Fifth Ave. would swallow several blocks of the historic community near the Chinatown Gate and expose the heart of the neighborhood to the brunt of the noise and dust that comes with a large construction project. It has drawn fierce opposition from the neighborhood. 

Fourth Avenue would require a rebuild of the bridge, or viaduct, that runs between S Jackson Street and Airport Way S., and would cost about one-third more than any of the Fifth Avenue alternatives Sound Transit is studying. It would also severely impact King County Metro Transit’s bus base in the area. 

Both CID alternatives would take many years to build—in the case of the shallow Fourth Avenue alternative, more than a decade— and temporarily or permanently shut down the Seattle Streetcar system, which runs from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Each alternative also has deep and shallow station options; the city’s recommendations mostly avoid the alternatives with deep-tunnel stations that can only be accessed by elevators.

The city doesn’t plan to pick a preferred alternative in the CID, and is asking Sound Transit to refrain from doing so as well. Instead, the city will recommend that Sound Transit extend the study period for another six to nine months to further engage with the community. Seattle leaders also want to see more details about potential displacement in the area, along with mitigation strategies to help the neighborhood deal with construction as well as long-term changes.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, said Betty Lau, a leader in the CID  and member of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association who is pushing for a Fourth Avenue station.

She’s optimistic about this pause.

“I think with the extra time and talking with more community members, they’ll get a better idea of how these things really impact the people who live there, who do business, who depend on the tourism and on the regional draw of the three neighborhoods—Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon,” Lau said. “They also have more time to work on environmental studies.

“It’s also good for community members,” Lau added, “because we’re still getting the word out, we’re still looking for our allies and people to help. We’re still informing the non-English-speaking members of the community. And that does take time.”

Delridge 

In West Seattle, city staff recommend supporting a tunnel route that would cut into the ground after passing the Nucor Steel facility, then go underground near the northwest edge of the West Seattle Golf Course. This medium tunnel alternative is a less costly option than digging a hole all the way from the middle of West Seattle Golf Course and into the Alaska Junction, another proposed route.  Continue reading “Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route”

Bike Board Member Asks for Encampment Ban Near Bike Lanes, Poll Tests Streetcar Popularity; Council Clarifies “Z-Disposition” for 911 Calls

1. Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Dr. Doug Migden wrote to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office earlier this year to complain about the homeless people he sees while riding his bike, and to suggest legislation that would ban people from sleeping within up to 200 feet of any bike facility or sidewalk.

“First, I voted for Mr. Harrell and the primary reason is that crime and encampment related filth in Seattle is now totally unacceptable,” Migden’s letter begins. “I have lived on the north end of Queen Anne, in a house I own, since 1997. Unfortunately I’ve never seen Seattle in such a mess.”

Council member Alex Pedersen installed Migden on the bike board earlier this year, rejecting a different nominee the board identified through a months-long recruitment and nomination process. The bike board advocates for and advises the city on policies to make Seattle safer and more welcoming to cyclists from all backgrounds, including low-income and homeless people.

Given that “bicycle commuters in West Seattle can’t even safely get to downtown because of encampments and illegal activity such as IV drug use on or adjacent to bicycle pathways,” Migden continued in his letter, “how about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces. This is not too much to ask and it’s certainly doable. Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.”

“How about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces.  Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.” —Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Doug Migden

Yes, Migden wrote, it’s important to “take care of” truly “vulnerable populations,” but a lot of the homeless people he sees around are able-bodied men who “are not mentally ill,” are “in no distress,” and are well-off enough to “indulge” in cell phones. “[S]tratification and picking apart which illegal campers truly need assistance and which ones are basically freeloading off of responsible citizens who pay taxes etc., is crucial,” Migden wrote.

The mayor’s office, in a standardized response, told Migden they would forward the information about the encampments he reported (including “disgusting RVs” in Fremont and Ballard) to the city’s encampment cleanup squad.

2. A recent poll tested voters’ opinions about completing the long-delayed downtown Seattle streetcar project, along with various local funding options, such as increasing the commercial parking tax, increasing the local vehicle licensing fee, and increasing local sales taxes, already among the highest in the country.

The poll, conducted last week, seems to favor streetcar completion—stating, for example, that federal funding could cut the $350 million estimated cost of the streetcar almost in half, but is only available for a limited time. (Federal funding for the streetcar is far from certain, although, as the Urbanist pointed out earlier this year, a potential $75 million request for federal funding still gets a “high” rating from the Federal Transit Administration.)

“Connecting Seattle’s two existing streetcar lines just makes sense,” one of the poll’s test messages begins. (Many polls test messages that could be used for or against a proposal or person during a future campaign.) “This project will link our busiest transportation hubs serving people coming downtown by bus, light rail, ferry, Sounder, and Amtrak train creating a more seamless and convenient transportation system.”

Former mayor Jenny Durkan paused work on the downtown streetcar connection in 2018, citing cost overruns. Before and since then, streetcar skeptics have argued that the downtown line is redundant with existing bus and light rail service and would not serve enough riders to justify the ballooning cost. Last year, the city council gave the long-moribund streetcar a kickstart by providing $2.4 million in funding to resume work on the project.

It’s unclear who’s behind the poll; local political consultants, transit advocates, business groups, and streetcar proponents all told PubliCola it wasn’t them.

3. During an update on the city’s efforts to established an alternative response system for 911 calls that don’t require an armed response, city council public safety committee attempted to clarify an issue that recently confounded a prominent local columnist: The so-called “Z disposition” the Seattle Police Department gives to certain low-priority calls.

Previously, committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, dispatchers would routinely put the 911 system into “priority call status,” meaning that calls that didn’t rank in SPD’s top two “priority” designations (which include violent crimes and crimes in progress) would not get any response at all. Now, an officer reviews lower-priority calls before deciding whether they merit a response before dismissing them. “In my mind, that’s that’s a better approach, because at least you’re having somebody on the ground with law enforcement expertise making that decision,” Herbold said.

In April, she added, the city’s Office of Police Accountability recommended establishing a clearer system for assigning low-priority calls, in response to a high-profile complaint about two officers who ate breakfast near the Ballard library rather than responding immediately to a call about a person asleep inside their car.

Councilmember Sara Nelson said that in her view, the new system is actually worse, because under “priority call status,” police would at least tell low-priority callers to call back or give them a general estimate of when they might hear back about their call. “There is a customer service issue going on with the call with the system right now with no communication and that’s why people are getting upset,” Nelson said.

Efforts to replace police with civilian responders for some 911 calls remain largely stalled, and the Seattle Police Officers Guild has demanded to bargain any changes to the SPD-centric 911 response system.

One Thing We Learned During the Pandemic: Transit’s Not Dead

SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

by Josh Feit

There’s a stat in the latest report from Commute Seattle that offers a glimmer of hope for transit advocates. In a report that otherwise shows a stark drop in transit commutes between 2019 and 2021, coupled with a dramatic rise in telecommuting—arguably a double whammy of bad news for future transit investments—there is one finding that points toward a potential transit renaissance.

The survey showed that a key bloc of downtown workers, employees at small businesses (between 1 and 49 employees), represent the greatest untapped market for transit.

According to the City’s Office of Economic Development, small business—places with 50 employees or less—make up 95 percent of Seattle’s companies. Given small businesses’ big footprint, it’s time for the city to make policy that not only serves this important workforce, but also serves Seattle’s goal to be a sustainable, green city.

In its report, Commute Seattle, the local nonprofit that facilitates alternatives to solo car commuting, describes the encouraging news this way: “Unmet demand for employer-paid transit is higher among employees at smaller worksites than their counterparts in larger ones.” In other words, despite all the doom and gloom soothsaying about transit, the untapped demand is actually there.

At a time when some urbanists are anxious about a post-pandemic world that sidelines train and bus commuting, the news that employees at small businesses would like to ride transit, but aren’t, is particularly welcome because small businesses employ an outsized percentage of the downtown workforce. The most recent info on downtown employment comes from a November 2020 report from the Office of Economic Development, which, in addition to the 95 percent number noted above, also found that businesses with fewer than 50 employees make up provide nearly 200,000 jobs, about a third of all jobs in the city.

The numbers about transit demand tell the story: At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, more than 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use them” if they were. For companies with 10 to 49 employees, the number was 25 percent. Based on Commute Seattle’s outreach work, the people who work at small businesses citywide are overwhelmingly hospitality, restaurant, health care, and in-home health care workers, they say.

Just 23 percent of employees at the smallest companies and 32 percent of workers at larger small businesses report that subsidized transit programs are actually available and that they use them. This means that interest in transit at these small businesses totals 64 percent and 56 percent, respectively, as the chart above indicates.

At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use ‘them'” if they were.

By the way, at the city’s largest companies, 100 or more employees, transit benefit usage is high, at 60 percent. This high use is easy to explain: State law requires large employers to make a “good faith effort” to use commute trip reduction plans to meet state environmental and traffic congestion goals. What jumps out about this number is that it’s about equal to the pro-transit number among employees at Seattle’s smallest businesses. This raises a question: Why is public policy only about getting white-collar workers to the job, but not employees at smaller businesses, including working-class people?

It’s worth pointing out that the high demand for transit benefits from workers at smaller businesses is coming from people who’ve yet to experience the practical benefits of transit—no gas bills, for one—at their current jobs. Just imagine how those numbers would climb if these employers offered to subsidize their ORCA cards and word spread among coworkers about the benefits. As Commute Seattle’s communication manager Madeline Feig puts it: “The best way to get people to know if transit will work for them is to get transit passes in their hands—it makes the decision easy. It is difficult for folks to know whether they would use that type of benefit if they have never had it.” In short, total interest in riding transit may be much higher than what Commute Seattle’s report suggests.

The data about the intense demand at small worksites overlaps with another reality that became clear during the pandemic: Ridership data for transit agencies nationally, including Sound Transit and Metro, showed that that people in working-class communities and communities with high BIPOC populations continued to ride, or returned more quickly to transit, during the COVID-19 crisis.

I’m tying these two blocs of commuters together—those who work at small businesses and low-income and essential workers—because it reveals a strategy that could bring public transportation back to the forefront of our city vision, even as hybrid work models in the corporate world seem poised to undermine it. The strategy: Investing in public policy that brings transit to those who want it most.

“One of the most immediate actions we can take to address transportation inequities,” says Commute Seattle’s longtime program manager Nick Abel, “is offering transit opportunities to essential employees.”

Of course, subsidizing transit—or providing free transit— for 200,000 workers costs money. The good news is: Big employers are already paying. Sound Transit, for example, received about half its fare revenues from employer business accounts—more than $48 million of the $97 million the agency received in farebox revenue in 2019.

Given that status quo, given the environmental and city planning pluses of getting more people on transit, and given the unmet demand, it would make sense to replace this private cost with a broader, progressive business tax (smaller businesses pay less) to cover both the current cost at big companies and the cost to bring in new riders from small businesses.

Josh@publicola.com

Editor’s note: Columnist Josh Feit is an employee of Sound Transit, the regional transit agency. His views do not represent the agency’s.

Republican Proposes Map of Homeless People’s Tents; We’ve Updated Our City Directory!

1. When Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that he planned to include information about homeless encampments in a public-facing dashboard about the state of homelessness in Seattle, advocates worried that the website would include a map of existing encampments, endangering the privacy of unsheltered people and making them more vulnerable to vigilantes. The dashboard Harrell rolled out this week does not include this information; instead, a map shows encampments that have been removed along with the number of “verified” encampments in each neighborhood.

On Thursday, King County Councilmember (and Republican Congressional candidate) Reagan Dunn proposed legislation asking King County Executive Dow Constantine to direct the Sheriff’s Office, Department of Parks and Natural Resources, and Department of Community and Human Services to identify and map the locations of every encampment in the county, along with the approximate number of people living at each site—a proposal that would put a virtual target on the backs of thousands of homeless people around the county.

The bill also asks Constantine to “develop a comprehensive plan to remove homeless encampments for unincorporated King County” by this October.

During a media briefing on Thursday, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said, “I do not and will not ever support the disclosure of information about where people are living or what the needs of those people are because that is protected information in a number of ways.”

The legislation—which, like Dunn’s vote against a resolution supporting abortion rights, serves largely as a statement of priorities for Dunn’s Congressional campaign, does not come with any cost estimate. The county, like the city of Seattle, is facing down significant budget shortfalls over the next few years. On Wednesday, county budget director Dwight Dively told a council committee that “right now, the [20]25-26 budget is horrendously out of balance.”

2. Earlier this year, responding to the Durkan Administration’s decision to permanently delete the city’s public-facing employee directory offline (a decision that has not been reversed by the Harrell administration), we created our own searchable city directory, with all the same public information that used to be available on the city’s website.

Now, we’ve updated and improved that original directory, adding more detailed contact information and consolidating the whole directory in one searchable database that includes phone and/or email contact information for every city employee. Continue reading “Republican Proposes Map of Homeless People’s Tents; We’ve Updated Our City Directory!”

Sound Transit Removes Threat of Collections, Adds ID Requirement, In New Fare Enforcement Policy

By Erica C. Barnett

The Sound Transit board voted on Thursday to adopt a new fare enforcement policy that will provide more opportunities to resolve unpaid fares and give riders more chances before they incur fines and other penalties.

Under the new rules, which PubliCola covered earlier this month, riders who repeatedly failed to show proof of valid payment would face a gradually increasing set of penalties, culminating on the fifth offense in a $124 fine and the possibility of court action, which could lead to collections and other penalties if a rider fails to pay their fine.

Sound Transit’s outgoing CEO, Peter Rogoff, has argued repeatedly that without fare enforcement, “fare evaders” will take advantage of Sound Transit’s gate-free entrances and ride for free, cutting into agency revenues and producing an unpleasant environment for paying riders.

Farebox recovery—the amount of Sound Transit’s operating budget that comes from fares—has declined during the pandemic, as it has at all of the region’s transit agencies; Rogoff has claimed “fare evasion” is to blame for most of that decline. The new fare enforcement policy is aimed at addressing some equity concerns leveled at Sound Transit in the past—namely, that their fare enforcement efforts have disproportionately targeted Black and low-income riders—while increasing penalties for people who “could” pay and don’t.

An amendment to the new policy, proposed by King County Councilmember Joe McDermott would have taken fare enforcement out of the court system, addressing a major concern advocates have raised for years. That amendment failed, with Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell among the majority voting “no.” Another McDermott amendment, which takes away Sound Transit’s ability to turn people with unpaid fines over to a collections agency, passed.

“Having debts sent to collections can impact someone’s finances for years to come in substantial ways—from wage garnishments that can impact your ability to afford day to day life, to a lower credit score that can negatively impact a person’s ability to find appropriate and affordable housing,” McDermott said.

The new policy rebrands fare enforcement officers as “fare ambassadors,” expanding a pandemic-era pilot program that took fare enforcement in-house at Sound Transit, and and gives fare ambassadors the authority to issue tickets and fines.

On Thursday, Fife Mayor Kim Roscoe proposed an amendment that gives fare ambassadors new authority to remove riders from trains and buses if they fail to produce ID—a power board members argued they need in order to see how many times a rider has failed to pay in the past to and ensure that riders can’t exploit the system by giving a fake name or otherwise refusing to identify themselves. That amendment passed, with both Harrell and Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez voting “no” and King County Executive Dow Constantine supporting the requirement.

Riders who are “responsible,” board chairman and University Place City Councilmember Kent Keel said, will “give them the ID.” But “where we find people that don’t want to give them their ID, my opinion is that [they’re] being less than responsible.”

“There’s nothing [in state law] that says you have to have an ID. So it is creating this opportunity for some people to be targeted … where otherwise there isn’t a legal requirement.”—ACLU-WA Senior Attorney Nancy Talner

Harrell argued that the ID requirement is in conflict with Washington state law, which does not require people to carry ID. “We do we know that some people, because of their immigrant status, for example, may be reluctant to carry ID,” Harrell said.

The Washington State Supreme Court is currently considering a case involving a Community Transit rider in Everett who was arrested after he failed to pay his fare and provided a fake name to officers. In that case, the ACLU of Washington argued that people do not give up their legal protections against warrantless search and seizure when they board public transit, and that punitive fare enforcement “exacerbates [the] legacy of racial discrimination” because it disproportionately targets people of color.
Continue reading “Sound Transit Removes Threat of Collections, Adds ID Requirement, In New Fare Enforcement Policy”

Metro Wants to Get Rid of Cash Fares. But Will Vulnerable Riders Be Left Behind?

Chart showing Metro fare revenue by fare typeBy Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, King County Metro plans to rip out its existing fare boxes, which accept cash, tickets, and ORCA transit passes, and replace them with a cash-free payment system—part of a long-term plan to expedite boarding, integrate the county’s bus system with Sound Transit, and reduce conflicts between riders and drivers. “Every second you save at the curb is money you can reinvest at keeping service operating,” said Carol Cooper, Metro’s Market Innovations Section manager.

But going cashless could end up reducing access for some Metro riders, including low-income and homeless customers, infrequent riders, people with disabilities, and those who don’t speak English—to name just a few groups for whom buying and using ORCA cards can be a challenge. “There’s a great deal to be gained by ensuring that more people get ORCA Lift [low-income passes] and other subsidized ways to ride, but I don’t think those can wholly replace cash in the system,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said.

In a recent report on the future of Metro’s fare system, the agency outlined its plans for smoothing the transition to eliminating cash fares, which—according to Metro—will make boarding faster, ease conflicts between riders and drivers, and eliminate the need to periodically repair Metro’s 1,509 on-board fareboxes, which are a decades-old model that is no longer being produced. Replacing fareboxes with new ones that accommodate cash payments would cost around $29 million, Metro estimates—a substantial cost for a system that is still recovering from the pandemic. Cash riders also have to pay a second fare to transfer to Sound Transit trains and buses, a problem that will only become more acute as Metro terminates more routes at light rail stations.

The move toward a cashless on-board system is happening as Metro, Sound Transit, and other regional transit agencies switch to a new generation of ORCA cards that will cost less to purchase ($3 instead of the current $5 fee), include the option of tapping a smartphone app instead of a physical card, and allow people to ride with a negative balance of up to $2.75, the equivalent of a single bus fare.

“Our goal is not to put anyone in a position where they can’t access our service. We’re pulling out all the stops in trying to address all of the different barriers, and that’s why it’s going to take time and we’re going to continue to evaluate our ability to [go cash-free.]”—Carol Cooper, King County Metro

Although social service providers and advocates have argued for doing away with card fees entirely, at least for low-income riders, that’s unlikely; the fees will pay to set up the new system and distribute cards, including a $1.25-per-card fee to a contractor called Ready Credit Corporation, whose core business is prepaid debit cards.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, the amount of money Metro received from cash payments had declined steadily for several years, falling 40 percent between 2013 and 2019, when cash fares amounted to around $19 million. During the same period, the number of riders who said they used cash “on a regular basis” declined from 32 percent to 11 percent, according to the report. Over the last two years, however, the percentage of regular cash riders increased to 17 percent, largely because white-collar workers with employer-funded ORCA cards were no longer riding buses.

Metro’s report does not say how many people occasionally, as opposed to regularly, use cash. But even 11 percent of riders amounts to millions of bus rides a year—rides that will no longer be possible without an ORCA pass if and when Metro makes the switch.

During a stakeholder engagement process, representatives from groups representing “priority populations”—riders with disabilities, Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) riders, low-income and homeless riders, and those whose primary language is not English—pointed to barriers that currently prevent many of their constituents from using ORCA cards.

According to the report, “Nearly half of riders who pay cash report that the reason they do not use ORCA is that they don’t ride enough to make it worthwhile.” However, “priority population” riders were also more likely than the general population say they use cash because it’s “easier, they do not have a credit or debit card, or can’t afford the card fee,” which even ORCA Lift pass holders have to pay every time they replace a card.  Many low-income riders, the report notes, don’t qualify for ORCA Lift passes, which are limited to people making less than 200 percent or less of the federal level, or around $27,000. Even among those who were eligible for ORCA Lift, about half still paid their fares with cash.

Metro’s Cooper says that as part of its transition away from cash, the agency is taking steps to make it easier for people to access ORCA passes, including low-income fares and reduced fares for people with disabilities. “Our goal is not to put anyone in a position where they can’t access our service,” Cooper said. “We’re pulling out all the stops in trying to address all of the different barriers, and that’s why it’s going to take time and we’re going to continue to evaluate our ability to [go cash-free.]” Continue reading “Metro Wants to Get Rid of Cash Fares. But Will Vulnerable Riders Be Left Behind?”

Male Advisor Scott Lindsay Wrote City Attorney’s “Glass Ceiling” Email Calling Council Sexist; Bus Safety Audit Finds Most Incidents Aren’t Investigated

1. An email signed by then city attorney-elect Ann Davison calling the Seattle City Council sexist for proposing new reporting requirements for the City Attorney’s Office was originally written not by city attorney Ann Davison but by her male deputy, Scott Lindsay, emails obtained through a records request show.

Davison’s office sent the email to council members and the press in response to a council bill that would have required the office to inform the council before making any changes to, or eliminating, diversion programs that allow people accused of misdemeanors to avoid criminal charges, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of diversion programs.

“I have drafted an email for you to send to City Council with the idea that you would send it this morning by 8:30am before you head downtown. The hearing on the bill is at 9:30am,” the email from Lindsay to Davison explains. “The concept in this email (I was planning a letter but now think email is better) is to roll up your key messages (collaboration and listening, centering victim voices, transparency and problem-solving) into one strong intro piece that also highlights your focus on real public safety problems … I think this piece is strong and unique enough that it will certainly be noticed around City Hall and may help stir media interest in your transition.”

“I have drafted an email for you to send to City Council with the idea that you would send it this morning by 8:30am before you head downtown. I think this piece is strong and unique enough that it will certainly be noticed around City Hall and may help stir media interest in your transition.”—Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, in an email to City Attorney Ann Davison

The email explicitly accused the council (which is made up of six women and three men) of targeting Davison because she is a woman. After describing the “unique barriers to women in the legal profession,” the email suggests the council was applying a “double standard”  based on Davison’s sex—one that sent a troubling message to “our daughters who may one day seek elected office.” (The line about daughters was not in Lindsay’s original email.)

“In the over 100-year history of the City Attorney’s Office, none of my male predecessors faced a single preemptive move by Council to establish additional reporting requirements and restrictions on operations in the two months before they took office. Nor did Council show any interest in scrutinizing the limited data provided by my predecessor,” Pete Holmes, the email says.

City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold responded earnestly to the email, noting that the council passed similar reporting requirements while Davison’s predecessor, Pete Holmes, was in office. “I’m sorry that the reporting bill has been received in this spirit. I do not believe it was the sponsors’ intent, nor was it mine in voting in favor of the bill,” Herbold wrote.

The council ultimately passed the bill, but changed the language; instead of requiring Davison’s office to let the council know before making changes to existing diversion programs, it requires the city attorney’s office to inform the council within 90 days after the changes are made. The legislation also required the office to report back once a quarter on changes to pre-booking diversion programs.

2. An audit of accidents and other safety incidents at King County Metro found that the agency fails to investigate the vast majority of incidents, leading to data gaps and negatively impacting the transit agency’s ability to train drivers and prevent dangerous incidents in the future.

“Metro Transit dedicates most of its analysis to incidents where there was damage or injuries reported and that the operator may have been able to prevent,” the audit found. “Once an incident is determined to be non-preventable or less severe, Metro Transit does not take additional steps to analyze or respond to its context or causes.” Continue reading “Male Advisor Scott Lindsay Wrote City Attorney’s “Glass Ceiling” Email Calling Council Sexist; Bus Safety Audit Finds Most Incidents Aren’t Investigated”