Category: Transit

Is It Time for Free Transit?

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

By Katie Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many Top Mayoral Candidates Support Free Transit. Here’s What Corporations Would Save.

Image by Atomic Taco, via Creative Commons

As the leading mayoral candidates establish (and sometimes alter) their positions on major campaign questions, including homelessness, growth, and transportation, a surprising consensus has emerged around an issue that wasn’t even on the table four years ago: Free public transit.

The city has slowly expanded programs subsidizing transit passes for students and low-income residents, providing free or reduced-cost passes to thousands of riders. But elected officials, as well as the leaders of Sound Transit and King County Metro, have balked at making transit free for everyone, arguing that free transit would punch a huge hole in their agencies’ budgets. About a quarter of both agencies’ budgets come from revenue collected at the farebox.

Current city council president Lorena González and former council member Bruce Harrell both said they support free fares, at least in concept, although González has been more enthusiastic in her support. At a forum sponsored by the MASS Coalition last month, González said she “would be committed to making sure that we initiate every effort we can to accomplish the goal of free public transit,” looking to US cities and cities in Europe that have made transit free, such as Talinn, Estonia, as examples.

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Jessyn Farrell, a former state legislator who directed the Transportation Choices Coalition, was more effusive, saying at the same forum that she “absolutely and with a great amount of enthusiasm” supported eliminating transit fares. “Free transit is a core component to getting us to net zero [carbon emissions],” she said. “And it is a core component to racial equity in our system and access and decriminalizing the use of our transit system.”

People who pay full price for public transit would benefit from fare-free transit, obviously. So would large and small businesses, which provide a substantial chunk of transit agencies’ revenue through free or subsidized transit passes for employees, including highly compensated tech workers who could easily afford to pay full fare. This raises potential equity questions, because free transit would shift the cost burden for these workers’ free transit from corporations like Amazon and Microsoft onto taxpayers. Continue reading “Many Top Mayoral Candidates Support Free Transit. Here’s What Corporations Would Save.”

Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process

Anna Zivarts, Disability Rights Washington

by Leo Brine

Transportation advocates were actually pleased when lawmakers ended the most recent legislative session without passing a new transportation package.

After the transportation committees released their proposed revenue packages late in the session, transportation accessibility groups and environmentalists were disappointed by the outdated investment priorities. Wanting a more equitable transportation package, advocates repeated a line of critique they’ve been making for years: The state needs to find new transportation revenue sources and free up revenue that is otherwise restricted to highway spending.

However, and perhaps because their recommendations have gone unheeded for a decade, a new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

Anna Zivarts, Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative for Disability Rights Washington, said the current system is a “pork model,” where legislators pick projects for their districts rather than investing in projects that make the whole state transportation system function better.

“A transportation system has to work across the state,” she said. “If you have everyone competing, that’s not going to create the best system overall.”

Advocates say lawmakers have too much power over which projects get funded and have political incentivizes to fund major highway expansion projects rather than expand transit services or improve pedestrian infrastructure. Featuring friction over projects, funding, regionalism, mode split, and maintenance versus new construction, the legislative ritual, akin to passing a kidney stone, played out in 2003, 2005, and 2015.

A new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

In April, during the last weeks of the session, the House and Senate transportation committee chairs, Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), shared their transportation revenue proposals. The House proposal would have spent $22 billion over 16 years, earmarking the majority of the dollars for highway projects, with about 20 percent going to multimodal projects. The Senate’s proposal would have spent $18 billion over the same period, with less than 10 percent going to multimodal projects.

Leah Missik, transportation policy manager for Climate Solutions, said lawmakers’ proposed investments in multimodal projects were a major step up from previous packages, but “continuously investing in road expansions is certainly not the way we want to go.”

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Front and Centered, a BIPOC environmental group, said, “this package process needs to go.”  Transportation packages never meet people’s needs and are a hodgepodge of project ideas from legislators, he said. Instead, Nunes-Ueno says lawmakers should establish climate, infrastructure, and safety goals, and allocate funding to state and local agencies that would decide how to allocate funding on projects.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, said politics play too great a role when lawmakers craft transportation packages. She said lawmakers are more likely to invest in large projects, like highway expansions or major road repairs, because they garner more attention than smaller multimodal projects. “This process doesn’t incentivize … projects that help people travel between places,” Serebrin said. “Instead it incentivizes larger, geographically isolated projects.”

Other advocates agree that politics should play less of a role in the state’s transportation system. Vlad Gutman, Climate Solutions’ Washington director, like Nunes-Ueno, wants legislators to devise a set of goals and values for Washington’s transportation infrastructure and allocate funding to state agencies who can come up with projects and programs to accomplish the goals.

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno said, “this package process needs to go.”  Instead, Nunes-Ueno wants lawmakers to set climate, infrastructure, and safety goals and allocate funding to state and local agencies.

“We need to be selecting projects and investing and designing our transportation system in a sort of objective, metric-based way that also recognizes and inputs the needs of communities and people who are impacted and stakeholders of transportation,” he said.

To do so, he argued, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) should study the needs of the state and select projects based on those needs, “instead of [lawmakers] sort of piecemealing it by selecting projects one at a time,” Gutman said.

This participatory approach to transportation planning doesn’t make sense to Senate Transportation Chair Hobbs. “We’re in a democracy and legislators have a right to say how their districts should be supported by government,” he said.

Continue reading “Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process”

Oly Fizz: Wealth Tax Dies, State Could Re-Criminalize Drug Possession, Sound Transit Gets Green Light to Fix Fare Enforcement

1. A proposed 1 percent tax on the wealth of 100 or so very rich Washington state residents is dead for this year. The cause of death: The House Appropriations Committee did not include the wealth tax (HB 1406) on this week’s committee agenda, which means the bill will not move forward. The bill had detractors in both parties and never advanced past the House, where it has languished since early April. The session ends next Sunday, April 25.

The chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane) said the committee was prioritizing bills that have gone through the legislative process. The committee is hearing only four Senate bills this week, including the cap-and-trade bill (SB 5126) and a bill addressing the State v. Blake decision, which effectively decriminalized simple drug possession in Washington state (SB 5476).

Tax reform bills arguably had a better chance of passing this year than any time in recent memory, with Democrats firmly in control of both houses and the pandemic exposing the economic gulf between the very wealthy and everyone else.

While legislators did pass some progressive legislation that had been in the works for years, including the working families tax exemption (HB 1297), and the capital gains tax (included in the budget), the wealth tax stalled.

Tax reform advocates say because the wealth tax is the first legislation of its kind in the nation, it will take some time before legislators start pushing the policy forward. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing about the legislative process,” Misha Werschkul, executive director of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, said. “If there’s a good idea, there’s no reason not to pass it the first year it’s introduced.” However, Werschkul and other advocates said they think the wealth tax has enough momentum to move faster than previous tax bills.

2. The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would re-establish a criminal penalty for drug possession in response to the state supreme court’s landmark ruling in February that effectively decriminalized drug possession.

In that decision, State of Washington v. Blake, the court ruled that Washington’s so-called “strict liability” drug possession laws—which made no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug possession—were incompatible with the due process rights enshrined in both the state and federal constitutions. The court’s decision rendered Washington’s existing drug possession laws toothless, sending lawmakers, prosecutors and attorneys statewide scrambling to adjust to the sudden end of decades of harsh drug policies.

In the legislature, a group of lawmakers saw an opportunity to cement de-criminalization in Washington law by rewriting the state’s drug possession statutes. Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue) led the charge in the state senate, drafting a bill that would have removed all criminal penalties for possessing a “personal use amount” of an illegal drug—up to one gram of heroin or two grams of methamphetamine, for example. The bill also proposed a system in which law enforcement could pass the names and contact information of drug users to a “care coordinator,” who would then reach out to the drug user to offer treatment and recovery resources.

As the end of the legislative session approached, senate Democrats rushed to adjust the bill to reach an agreement with some of their Republican counterparts. The resulting amendments, Dhingra wrote in a press release last week, no longer reflected a “treatment-first approach” to drug use. Instead, the revised bill would impose a gross misdemeanor charge for drug possession—making no distinction between a “personal use amount” and larger quantities.

While the re-worked bill would require prosecutors to divert people charged with drug possession to addiction treatment for their first and second violations, it would grant prosecutors leeway to decide whether a person is eligible for treatment after their third violation, re-introducing the possibility of fines or jail time.

Dhingra, still listed as the bill’s sponsor, chose not to vote in support of her bill when it passed the senate last week. “I understand the importance of keeping a statewide policy response moving, and this compromise was the only way to do that,” she wrote in the press release. “Too many lives, especially Black and brown lives, will continue to be shattered by a criminal justice approach to what is fundamentally a public health problem.”

The legislation is now one of two bills written in response to the Blake decision before the House Appropriations Committee. The other, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Woodinville) and Rep. Tara Simmons (D-23, Bainbridge Island), would make possession of a “personal use amount” of illegal drugs a civil infraction.

3. Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation last week (HB 1301) that authorizes Sound Transit to create an “alternate fare enforcement system,” removing what the agency called the primary legal obstacle preventing it from decriminalizing fare nonpayment on buses and trains. Unlike King County Metro, Sound Transit has resisted calls to end its punitive approach to fare enforcement, arguing that a more lenient policy would lead to revenue loss as people realize they can get away with riding for free.

Under existing policy (which Sound Transit is not currently enforcing), people who fail to show proof of payment more than once in a year receive a ticket and $124 fine; if they fail to pay the fine, they can face criminal charges.

Advocates for low-income transit riders have long argued that this policy is too punitive and disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color; in 2019; King County Metro revised its own, similar rules to take fare enforcement out of the courts and give riders multiple alternatives to paying fines. Sound Transit said it would like to consider decriminalizing fare enforcement, but its enabling legislation required the fines.

For the next year, as part of a pilot program aimed at testing out potential long-term changes, Sound Transit isn’t issuing citations and has replaced private security guards with “fare enforcement ambassadors” who work to educate people about how and when to pay their fare and how to access low-income ORCA cards, among other changes.

Transit Advocates Push for Bigger Multimodal Investment from State

by Leo Brine

Transit advocates tolerated the House and Senate’s transportation committees’ underwhelming 2021-23 biennium budget announcement last month believing that legislators were cueing up a more multimodal approach in the pending transportation package. (The previous budget announcement was about funding earlier commitments made by previous legislative sessions.) However, the House Transportation committee unveiled an all-new 16-year transportation package (HB 1564) on Thursday that, once again, provides large sums of funding for highway expansion projects and road and highway maintenance while shortchanging transit.

Troubled by how few dollars the House allocated for multimodal and green initiatives when compared to the highway-related initiatives, advocates are now hoping for big changes before Democrats move the package to Governor Inslee’s desk.

The new transportation package, dubbed “Miles Ahead Washington,” allocates a total of $22.3 billion to funding transportation initiatives. Seventy percent of the funds ($15.7 billion) go to “highway-related initiatives,” including $6.1 billion for highway expansion projects and $4.6 billion for maintenance and repairs over the next 16 years. Meanwhile, the House allocates about 25 percent of the package, $5.5 billion, to multimodal projects, including investments in multimodal transport, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, safe routes to schools, and rural mobility transit grants.

Mobility rights activists say the new proposal is too similar to past transportation packages, with similar funding shortfalls. “We can’t support it because there’s not enough investment in transit service and in sidewalks and other kinds of pedestrian access,” Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative Program at Disability Rights Washington (DRW) said. “It makes it hard to get excited about something that we see as just so far from the unmet needs.”

Continue reading “Transit Advocates Push for Bigger Multimodal Investment from State”

Legislation Eliminates One Objection to Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Reform

Image by SeattleDude via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

Legislation that would make it easier for Sound Transit to adopt a fare enforcement system that does not involve the court or criminal justice system is coasting through the state senate after passing the house on a near-unanimous bipartisan vote.

House Bill 1301, originally sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle), gives Sound Transit the authority to create an “alternative fare enforcement system” that could include resolutions other than fines for people who fail to pay their fare. The state senate transportation committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to move the bill to the rules committee, the final step before a floor vote.

Sound Transit director Peter Rogoff and some Sound Transit board members have resisted reforming the agency’s fare enforcement procedures, arguing that removing penalties—which include steep fines that, if unpaid, can lead to criminal charges—would lead to revenue shortfalls as people simply stop paying fares. And although the agency has instituted some reforms in the wake of the pandemic, negative press, and data showing that fare enforcement disproportionately impacts Black riders, the changes it has made so far fall far short of King County Metro’s proactive approach, which focuses more on harm reduction and access than punishment and fines.

“There’s a law-and-order mentality that’s more pervasive in Sound Transit than at Metro, both among agency staff and the board.”—Transit Riders Union general secretary Katie Wilson

Advocates, who have pointed to King County Metro’s far-reaching fare reforms as a local best practice, have long been skeptical of the claim that Sound Transit is powerless to keep fare enforcement out of the court system, but say they’re happy to see the issue resolved beyond any doubt.

“They [Sound Transit] kept insisting that they couldn’t do what Metro was doing [to decriminalize fare nonpayment], and one of the excuses they started giving us was they were bound by Sound Transit’s authorizing legislation to use the court system for citations,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. “So that’s what this legislation takes care of.” Continue reading “Legislation Eliminates One Objection to Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Reform”

State Transportation Budgets Reflect Bygone Era

 

by Leo Brine

The House and Senate Transportation committees unveiled their transportation budgets (HB 1135, SB 5165) for the 2021-23 biennium Tuesday. Or, more accurately, they unveiled the state’s incorrigible commitment to highway and road expansion. Climate and transit activists hope this is the last budget of a bygone era. While they are unsurprised that the two budgets continue prioritizing road expansions, advocates say the transportation revenue packages expected next week must move away from putting more cement on the ground and move the state’s transportation infrastructure toward sustainability, equity, and climate action.

Tuesday’s Senate and House transportation budgets will each follow the typical process: committee votes, floor votes, and then switching houses. Legislators from both houses will then decide which bill moves forward and will hammer out details in a conference committee.

The Senate’s proposed transportation budget allocates $11.7 billion for various transportation projects and the House allocates $10.7 billion. Both direct money to projects—mostly highway expansions—that were a part of 2015’s transportation package, Connecting Washington.

Funding allocated to construction projects dwarfs funding for expansion of public transit access and green initiatives. For example, the House proposal allocates $453 million to widen I-405 between Renton and Bellevue and more than half a billion to the Puget Sound Gateway project, a massive highway expansion and extension megaproject in Pierce County.

The Senate bill would cut $260 million from the multimodal transportation account to fund Connect Washington and ferry maintenance. The House’s cut to the multimodal account is not as dramatic as the Senate’s—just $50 million, to fund ferry maintenance.

“I think the bigger story is that this budget represents big decisions made in the past. As the legislature continues debating the next transportation package, we need to make sure that it’s oriented toward a sustainable and equitable future.”—Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director, Transportation Choices Coalition

“I think the bigger story is that this budget represents big decisions made in the past,” said Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director at the Transportation Choices Coalition. “As the legislature continues debating the next transportation package, we need to make sure that it’s oriented toward a sustainable and equitable future. And that will look really different, and that will focus on transit, access to transit, maintaining the system we already have, and mitigating harm.”

During the public hearing on the Senate transportation budget, Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44, Issaquah) groused: “It wasn’t easy last year. Last year sucked, too. This year double sucked.” Hobbs said the priorities of the Transportation committee are “keeping the lights on” by maintaining roads and bridges, keeping ferries and buses operating and finishing Connecting Washington projects.

The transportation budgets are supported by the state’s gas tax, as well as state bonds and, this year, aid from federal pandemic relief funds, the American Rescue Plan Act. Washington’s gas consumption dropped during the pandemic and with it went a good chunk of revenue for the transportation budget. State projections show revenue for the 2019-21 biennium declining by $669 million, roughly 10 percent, and another $454 million in the 2021-23 biennium, about 6.5 percent. Over the next 10 years, transportation revenue is expected to decline by $1.9 billion. The state estimates it will be 10 years before gas consumption rates are back to their pre-pandemic levels.

Anna Zivarts, the director of disability and mobility initiatives at Disability Rights Washington, said the gas tax that props up the transportation budget is regressive. “We all know that the gas tax is at some point going to be an obsolete revenue stream,” she said. “The folks who can afford electric vehicles and not [have to] pay the gas tax are wealthier. And with the cost of living in a lot of communities being high, the people who have to commute further are lower-income” and are spending more on gas, thus contributing more to the system. Zivarts said while the tax is regressive, the state should use gas tax revenues to make the state’s transit infrastructure more equitable and environmentally sustainable.

Continue reading “State Transportation Budgets Reflect Bygone Era”

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

Photo by Alexander Grishin via Pixabay.

By Anna Zivarts and Paulo Nunes-Ueno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Customer-Only Rail Restrooms, Women’s Groups Denounce Fain Appointment, and WHEEL Shelter Finds a Home

1. The leaders of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, Washington State Democrats, and several other statewide organizations have signed a letter calling for former state senator Joe Fain’s resignation from the Washington State Redistricting Commission.

Fain was appointed to the five-member commission, which will redraw Washington’s congressional and legislative boundaries, by senate minority leader John Braun of Centralia. 

In 2018, a former city of Seattle employee, Candace Faber, said that Fain had raped her after a reception in Washington, D.C. several years earlier. Although the allegations eventually led to a state senate investigation, the investigation was dropped after Fain lost his reelection bid to Democrat Mona Das. Two months after leaving office, Fain was hired as head of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce.

Calling these new restrooms “public” would be a bit of a misnomer, since Sound Transit plans to sequester the new toilets inside the fare-paid area, and could require riders to scan their ORCA card or a QR code on a valid ticket in order to access them.

In the letter, the women’s groups decry Fain’s elevation to yet another position of power, noting that he has never been subject to a formal investigation nor responded publicly to the allegations against him. If Fain remains on the commission, they say, he should have no in-person access to staff, other commissioners, or members of the public, and all his communications should be supervised by an outside party.

“Lack of action on behalf of the Commission would normalize sexually predatory behavior and set a dangerous precedent that sexual assault accusations are not taken seriously by Washington State officials, further discouraging others who may experience similar incidents from bringing forth their own experiences,” the letter concludes.

2. Last week, Sound Transit’s ridership experience committee agreed to a new public-restroom policy that will, if implemented, add a total of seven new restrooms to the agency’s commuter and light rail system once it is fully built out decades from now. Three of those would be in Seattle—in Ballard, the Chinatown/International District, and Seattle Center.

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The new criteria the board will use to determine which stations get restrooms were based on what’s in place in other systems, but it’s important to note that these criteria are a decision, not an inevitability. Stations with restrooms will be those that have more than 10,000 boardings a day and where five or more different transit routes converge; additionally, Sound Transit staff has recommended, every rider should be able to access a restroom within a 20-minute ride from any point within the system. This set of rules leads to restrooms outside the downtown Seattle core, where there happen to be a large number of people living unsheltered without easy access to public restrooms, and at the new suburban hubs.

In the letter, the women’s groups decry Fain’s elevation to yet another position of power, noting that he has never been subject to a formal investigation nor responded publicly to the allegations against him.

Calling these new restrooms “public” would be a bit of a misnomer, since Sound Transit plans to sequester the new toilets inside the fare-paid area, and could require riders to scan their ORCA card or a QR code on a valid ticket in order to access them. Calling them “paid toilets” might be more accurate.  One can easily imagine a scenario in which a rider who is just outside the two-hour window when tickets or passes are valid finds herself locked out of the restroom at her destination.

3. The women’s homeless shelter provider WHEEL, whose request to open a nighttime-only shelter at City Hall was rejected last month, will have a new home starting this week: First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has also housed the city’s navigation center and other shelter providers over many years. The new space, which WHEEL is opening with city support, will have space for up to 60 women.

As PubliCola reported last month, WHEEL’s women’s shelter is low-barrier, meaning that the group accepts women in any condition and those who don’t do well in structured programs. The group had been trying to find a space since November to supplement its existing shelter at Trinity Episcopal Church near downtown, whose nightly capacity has been cut in half by COVID bed spacing requirements.

Financial Crisis Forces Sound Transit to Consider Tough, Complicated Choices

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the past few months, Sound Transit, the regional agency tasked with building light rail to Ballard and West Seattle lines as well as extending the main light-rail “spine” to Everett and Tacoma, has been dealt a double blow of bad news. Last June, agency staff estimated that total revenues could fall short by $8 billion to $12 billion by 2041, the original end date of the Sound Transit 3 program voters approved in 2016. (More recent projections have adjusted that projection down slightly, to a range of $6.1 billion to $11.5 billion, but the numbers remain grim).

Then, earlier this month, Sound Transit announced that the cost to build the ST3 package, which includes elevated lines to West Seattle and Ballard, had increased by about $8 billion. The combination of the shortfall and cost inflation has created an “affordability gap” of about $11.5 billion.

Referring to the chart above, which shows a green line marked “ending balance” plummeting below zero beginning in 2029, Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel said last week, “I’ve never seen a chart where the budget dropped off the chart … so that’s pretty sobering for me.”

Keel made his comments during a board workshop on Sound Transit 3 “realignment” last Thursday, where the general outlines of two broad options emerged.

The first, which staff have dubbed the “expanded capacity” approach, would involve finding additional resources, such as grants, federal dollars, or new taxes, to boost Sound Transit’s revenues and make the newly inflated project possible. The second, called the “plan-required” approach, would involve some combination of delaying elements of the project, permanently reducing the scope of projects, and eliminating some projects altogether. According to a lengthy report on the options, this alternative would only come into play “in the event that new financial resources are not secured.”

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Presented with these conflicting options, several board members insisted that the solution was doing “both.” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, for example, said, “We have to be working hard at what the resources we have, but [we also] have to look at what are other potential sources of revenues,” she said, adding, “Every time we pull the covers over ourselves, we fail ourselves. We have to be thinking of the future.”

To that end, the options Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff presented last week included: New federal funding; direct grants from the state; increasing the agency’s debt capacity; raising the rental car tax rate; purchasing lower-cost debt through federal loan programs; and increasing fares.

Most of these options come with significant caveats and downsides. For example, Sound Transit is already the nation’s largest Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act borrower, making it less likely the agency will be approved for additional debt. Rental-car tax revenues are currently negligible because of the COVID-related decline in travel. And any increase to the agency’s debt capacity would require either 60 percent voter approval or a change to the Washington State Constitution (and would lower the agency’s credit rating, resulting in higher interest payments.)

Finally, Rogoff said, the likelihood of more federal grant funding is dampened somewhat by the fact that Sound Transit already receives one-tenth of the Federal Transit Agency’s grant funding nationwide; “We would certainly love to get a higher percentage of that program, and we certainly would love to get an additional program funded, but there is certainly a limit to what one transit agency can call on from that program, or at least there has been to date,” Rogoff said on Thursday.

Complicating matters are some of the six factors the board will use to decide how to prioritize voter-approved projects in light of the budget gap. For Seattle residents, two factors could end up working against the city’s projects, including light rail to Ballard and West Seattle.

The first is whether a project serves to “complete the spine” of regional light rail, meaning the central line that will eventually extend from Tacoma to Everett.  This portion of the plan requires the construction of a second downtown transit tunnel, but Sound Transit does not consider that tunnel part of the “spine.” Instead, the tunnel—which will also connect downtown to West Seattle and Ballard—is considered a Seattle-only project for planning purposes. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the tunnel is funded regionally, the costs split between the three “subareas” within the Sound Transit taxing district). The upshot could be that when Sound Transit gets around to picking projects to delay or cut, West Seattle and Ballard could be first in line because Seattle already got a “Seattle” project in the form of a second downtown tunnel.

The second issue is equity—defined, for Sound Transit’s purposes, as how well a project serves low-income people, people of color, and people with disabilities within a one-mile radius of a project, such as a station. Although many ST3 projects scored low on equity, some of the worst were in Seattle. They included the West Seattle line (which scored medium-low), the downtown tunnel (medium-low) and the Ballard extension (low). This could bump these projects lower down the priority list.

Some board members argued that the definition of “equity” Sound Transit uses is narrow and self-defeating, since stations tend to raise property values (and prompt gentrification) in their immediate vicinity, driving down their equity scores even if they serve people from less-affluent, more diverse parts of town. For example, an infill station at NE 130th Street, in board member Debora Juarez’s Seattle City Council district, ranked low on the list, despite the fact that the station will serve people commuting into the area from elsewhere.

“I have a real problem with the equity” metric, because of the way it narrowly defines a station’s service area, Juarez said. “The whole point of having these stations is to get people to work, to the hospital,” Juarez said, referring to the UW Medical Center hospital near the station. “Taking three buses to get to the north end is ridiculous.”

The board isn’t expected to adopt a realignment plan until next summer, at the soonest. Although board chair Keel began a blue-sky discussion last week about how Sound Transit could cut costs or raise money—beginning with the rental-car tax, which would raise a negligible amount—board member Claudia Balducci, a King County Council member from Bellevue, cautioned against coming up with lists of cuts or new taxes before a thorough discussion.

“When we did this ten-plus years ago”—in the wake of the 2008-2010 recession—”we had a very deeply researched piece of documentation that was given to us with a lot of backup behind it,” Balducci, who first joined the Sound Transit board as Bellevue mayor in 2020, said. “I feel like we’re at that early stage of maybe trying to provide high-level feedback about the parameters around additional study that we want to see. … It feels like we’re rushing toward a solution when we haven’t identified the problems.”