Category: Transit

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

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”

Sheriff Finalists Announced; Sound Transit Moves to Reinstate Fare Enforcement, but Staffing Challenges Remain

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine announced three finalists for King County sheriff on Thursday: Charles Kimble, chief of the Killeen, Texas Police Department; Reginald Moorman, a major in the Atlanta Police Department; and King County’s current interim sheriff, Patti Cole-Tindall.

The next sheriff will be the first to be appointed to the office by the county executive since 1996, when voters made the sheriff an elected position. County voters passed a charter amendment reversing that decision in 2020, making the sheriff’s office an appointed position once again—a move supported by many police accountability advocates, who criticized former sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht for her handling of multiple high-profile shootings by sheriff’s deputies. Johanknecht didn’t seek the appointment.

Before joining the sheriff’s office in 2015, Cole-Tindall served as the director of the county’s labor relations unit and as interim director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, an independent agency that investigates misconduct and systemic problems in the sheriff’s office. A graduate of Central Washington University, Cole-Tindall began her career in law enforcement as a special agent with the Washington State Gambling Commission in 1991.

Reginald Moorman joined the Atlanta Police Department as a beat officer in 2001; he later served as the deputy director of a regional drug enforcement task force and as the commander of the department’s community-oriented policing, major crimes and airport security sections. Moorman is currently a precinct commander and adjunct professor in the criminal justice department at his alma mater, Georgia State University.

Charles Kimble spent most of his 25 years in law enforcement in North Carolina, including as the deputy police chief in Fayetteville and as the police chief in the smaller town of Spring Lake, both adjacent to Fort Bragg. He took over as police chief in Killeen, a small city near Fort Hood, in 2017; three years later, his department faced a lawsuit after Killeen police officers shot and killed a man while serving a no-knock warrant. Kimble is a US Army veteran and holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Liberty University, a Christian university in Virginia founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell Sr.

In the final stage of the selection process, the three finalists will meet with community, labor and municipal representatives from King County and take part in a series of public forums. Constantine plans to make a decision by early May, after which the King County Council will begin the confirmation process; the next permanent sheriff will likely take office by this summer.

2. The Sound Transit board’s executive committee approved a new fare enforcement policy on Thursday that brings back fines, court involvement, and the possibility of collections for riders who fail to pay fines for nonpayment. The policy still has to be adopted by the full Sound Transit board; as we reported Wednesday, board member Joe McDermott, a King County Council member, plans to introduce amendments that would take fare nonpayment out of the court system and would remove the possibility of collections.

Board members voted unanimously for the changes, which come after more than two years of debate over how to balance the need to collect fares (which currently fund about 5 percent of Sound Transit’s budget) with pressure to eliminate punitive policies that disproportionately target Black riders. During the pandemic, Sound Transit has experimented with various approaches, ranging from traditional fare enforcement to a pilot “fare ambassador” program in which non-uniformed staffers checked fares and provided information about low-income transit pass options, but did not issue tickets. Currently, according to a Sound Transit staff presentation, about 40 percent of riders do not pay the required fare.

Before voting for the changes, several board members expressed their opinion that the new fare policy—which provides several opportunities to resolve unpaid fares before fining riders, and eliminates the option of trespassing riders from the system—doesn’t go far enough to punish riders who fail to pay.

“When we’re thinking about equity, I also think about the equity of who’s paying for this system,” said board member (and Everett Mayor) Cassie Franklin. “Riders do need to pay for the system they’re using, because we have a lot of non-riders paying for the system right now. And I think that I fear that compliance will get worse, not better, with this current policy.” Franklin said she would like to change the policy in the future to start fining riders immediately after a second warning, rather than allowing them to avoid fines with alternatives like loading money onto a transit pass or attending a Sound Transit focus group.

Board member (and Pierce County Executive) Bruce Dammeier, who recently called Sound Transit trains “unsanitary and unsafe” and said he would not ride them, called the new policy “a little soft” on nonpaying riders, and said he would like to revisit the policy in six months “to determine what’s worked and what has not.”

3. In a separate meeting Thursday, Sound Transit’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee voted to continue the “fare ambassador” program and expand the fare ambassadors’ role to include fare enforcement, which the agency has renamed “fare compliance.” The proposal the committee adopted adds $1.3 million to the transit agency’s 2022 budget to hire up to 56 fare ambassadors this year.

That number could be optimistic. Sound Transit has struggled to hire fare ambassadors throughout the pilot period, which began in mid-September of last year. According to a Sound Transit spokesman, the agency had hoped to begin the program with 26 ambassadors , “but only 23 stayed on when we launched,”and the number of ambassadors “started declining from there.” Currently, there are 14 fare ambassadors, including supervisors, and 12 vacant positions.

According to a staff presentation at Thursday’s meeting, at current staffing levels, riders encounter a fare ambassador about 3 percent of the time; if the program was fully staffed, riders could expect to have their fare checked on one out of every three trips, the staffer said.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Plan Could Send Riders to Court and Collections

By Erica C. Barnett

This Thursday, Sound Transit’s executive committee will take up a proposed new fare enforcement policy that would reinstate fines of up to $124 and impose legal penalties against riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fares. The new policy, if adopted, will go into effect on September 1.

The transit agency, which operates Link light rail as well as regional buses and Sounder commuter trains, has been working on a new fare enforcement policy since before the pandemic, after an internal review showed that despite its supposedly neutral fare enforcement strategy, the system disproportionately penalized Black riders. < During the pandemic, Sound Transit briefly eliminated fares, then reinstated them along with a new "fare ambassador” program that focused on education and engagement, replacing uniformed security officers with Sound Transit staffers in vests and regular clothes. The program is currently understaffed and has been ineffective at getting riders to pay their fares; during a recent Sound Transit board meeting, staffers said fares account for just 5 percent of the agency’s budget, down from a 2017 high of almost 40 percent.

Riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fare (or “tap” their prepaid transit pass correctly) can still wind up in court facing a civil infraction, and unpaid fines will still go to a collections agency, which can lead to garnished wages and a cycle of debt.

The new policy includes a number of reforms designed to reduce the punitive nature of Sound Transit’s old fare enforcement system. For example, it provides a number of alternatives for resolving an unpaid fare, including reduced-fare cards for very low-income riders, and it ends the policy of suspending people from the system if they have unpaid tickets or multiple infractions. Under the new policy, riders will get two warnings in a 12-month period, followed by a fine of $50; fines will only rise to $124 after the fifth time fare checkers catch a rider without proof of payment, and anyone under 18 will be exempt from legal penalties.

Still, the new policy preserves many of the elements of the old fare enforcement policy many transit advocates found objectionable, starting with the reinstatement of fare enforcement by on-board staff.

According to the policy, fare ambassadors will essentially become plainclothes fare enforcement officers, “issuing fines and citations” to riders who fail to show proof of payment. Riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fare (or “tap” their prepaid transit pass correctly) can still wind up in court facing a civil infraction, and unpaid fines will still go to a collections agency, which can lead to garnished wages and a cycle of debt. And it remains unclear how, or whether, the new policy will address the stark racial disproportionality that plagued the pre-pandemic system.

King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who sits on the Sound Transit board, plans to introduce two amendments Thursday that would take away Sound Transit’s ability to send riders to court and send unpaid fines to collections. McDermott said the changes would address the agency’s “disproportional response” to fare evasion by a very small number of riders—perhaps 100 a year.

“The policy that’s before us now is light years better than what we were doing three years ago, McDermott said. “Removing collections and the courts are the final two pieces.” Continue reading “Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Plan Could Send Riders to Court and Collections”

For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains

Plans show a deep Westlake Station, similar to the new U District Station pictured here.

By Lizz Giordano

The massive draft environmental impact statement  (DEIS) for the West Seattle-Ballard light rail extension landed on Sound Transit’s website in late January. It lays out the pros and cons of a variety of elevated and tunnel routes as the agency tries to weave light rail tracks through some of the densest parts of Seattle.

This second Seattle light rail line will start at the current SoDo station and cross the Duwamish Waterway before skirting the north edge of the West Seattle Golf Course on its way to the Alaska Junction. The Ballard spur will start in the Chinatown-International District (CID), then head north through a new tunnel under downtown toward Seattle Center, through Interbay, and over or under Salmon Bay to its terminus in Ballard.

This extension will add a second transit tunnel through downtown to handle increased train volumes (including the new extension to Everett, also part of Sound Transit 3) and new stations near existing ones at Westlake, the CID and SoDo, which will become transfer points between the two light rail lines.

Some options offer better bus connections or more potential for transit-oriented development. Other alternatives lessen construction impacts by moving stations to the fringes of the neighborhood or deep below ground.

While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

As the Sound Transit board makes a final decision on the route, expected in 2023, board members will be weighing short-term construction impacts against building a system that’s easy and seamless for riders to use for decades. Those decisions might be a little easier now that the costs of elevated routes is similar to that of tunneling. But underground stations don’t always equal a better experience for riders.

To keep certain tunnel routes on the table for West Seattle and Ballard, as requested by many in those neighborhoods, Sound Transit board members representing King County proposed a last-minute compromise in 2019. It stipulated that while the agency staff would continue to study the more expensive tunnel routes, they would not move forward without third-party (non-Sound Transit) funding.

A few years later, the relentless increase in property values has made it just as expensive to build above ground as to tunnel beneath the city for third-party funding.

In Ballard, where there are basically four options—an elevated or underground station at NW Market Street and either 14th or 15th Ave. NW—the price tag for the elevated options is now almost identical to the estimated cost to tunnel: Between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion, compared to $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion for the tunnel alternatives.

As the cost difference has evaporated, Seattle Subway, a transit advocacy group, hopes to persuade the agency to revive an old proposed route along 20th Avenue Northwest that would deliver riders closer to the core of the neighborhood rather than several blocks east. Serving dense neighborhoods (rather than more car-centric areas on their periphery) is a core urbanist tenet: High-capacity transit works best when it serves a dense core of riders, and easy access to transit can spur more density in urban areas.

To fully resurrect this option, however, Sound Transit would have to create an entirely new environmental impact statement, which is no easy task and could add time to the project.

If that doesn’t happen, routes along 14th Avenue NW might offer the best combination of transit connections and development potential. The 14th Avenue location provides better transfers between buses and trains than alternatives on 15th Avenue, while also avoiding the need to build a moveable bridge over Salmon Bay.

A buried route along 14th would also create opportunities for transit-oriented development on Sound Transit-owned land after construction—up to 450 housing units and 70,000 gross square feet of retail space. While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

A similar price convergence is also occurring between above and below ground options in West Seattle, where stations are planned for the Junction, the Avalon area and North Delridge.

While a long-requested tunnel route to preserve views and “neighborhood character” from the West Seattle Golf Course to the Alaska Junction—estimated cost: $1.7 billion—is still much more expensive than the two elevated options, which are priced at $900 million and $1.3 billion, respectively. But a shorter tunnel route that would head below ground after the Avalon Station is now estimated to cost $1.1 billion, less than even one of the above ground routes.

Locating a station here at Alaska Avenue and Fauntleroy, one of two preferred alternatives identified in the DEIS, offers less potential for transit-oriented development than building at 41st or 42nd, while also displacing a Safeway.

At the Alaska Junction, future transit-oriented development hinges more on the location of the station than on whether the line is elevated or buried. Stations at 41st or 42nd Avenues SW have the potential to create slightly more residential units and commercial space on leftover Sound Transit land than if the station is further east. Any kind of station on 41st Ave.  offers the best bus connection for what will become a terminus station, according to the DEIS.

While laying tracks underground minimizes construction impacts on the surface and usually displaces the fewest businesses and residents, it doesn’t always lead to a better experience for future riders. This is especially true if the journey out of these deep stations or between lines becomes its own leg of the commute.

At the new Westlake Station downtown, Sound Transit plans to bury the train platform 135 feet below the surface regardless of which alternative the board chooses—more than twice the depth of the existing station. The agency estimates it would take most riders three to six minutes to get from the street to the train platform —two escalators or two elevator rides, or a mix of both (plus a stair option on the last leg), according to the agency.

Expect another long ride to the platform at the Midtown Station at Fifth or Sixth Avenue at Madison St. downtown, which is likely to be buried even deeper: Between 140 and 205 feet. Continue reading “For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains”