Category: Transportation

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packages late in the session, transportation accessibility groups and environmentalists were disappointed by the outdated investment priorities.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”

Police Accountability Leader Asks SPD to Phase Out Routine Traffic Stops

Image by Erik Mclean via Unsplash.

By Paul Kiefer

Citing concerns from community members and police officers about the dangers of police traffic stops, Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge sent a letter to Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz on Tuesday asking him to start phasing out traffic stops for “civil and non-dangerous violations”—violations that, unlike DUI or reckless driving, do not endanger the public.

Judge, whose office conducts audits of systemic problems within SPD and issues policy recommendations, cited half a dozen well-known examples of traffic stops that turned fatal. Her list included a traffic stop for a suspended license on Aurora Avenue North that led to an SPD officer fatally shooting 36-year-old Iosia Faletogo on New Year’s Even in 2018; Faletogo’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city in March.

“Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

Judge also noted that even non-fatal traffic stops can undermine public trust in police officers. Traffic stops are the most common type of encounter between police and civilians—SPD issued nearly 28,000 traffic infractions in 2019 alone—and Black and Latino drivers are far more likely to be injured or killed during routine traffic stops.

SPD isn’t required to act on Judge’s letter, nor is the letter a fully formed policy proposal. Judge’s office will need to conduct more research into best practices for phasing out low-level traffic stops.

However, Judge told PubliCola that she believes the issues she raised in her letter require an urgent response. “Rather than taking to time for a painstaking audit, we have a practice of sending an ‘alert letter’ to SPD to get the ball rolling quickly.” This isn’t the first issue Judge has flagged for SPD: In February, her office sent letters to Diaz urging him to clarify his department’s vehicle pursuit guidelines and to reconsider how his officers respond to people experiencing mental health crises while carrying knives.

Judge is not alone in pressuring police departments to scale back the use of traffic stops: during the final weeks of this year’s state legislative session, state senator and King County Executive candidate Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) introduced a long-shot bill that would prohibit police officers from stopping drivers for eight minor civil violations. Nguyen told PubliCola in April that he hopes the issue will return to the surface during next year’s session.

If SPD follows Judge’s recommendation, Seattle would join a growing number of cities across the country—both small and large—taking steps to reduce the risks posed by traffic stops to both officers and civilians. In 2020, the New York State attorney general recommended that New York City’s police department phase out traffic stops for minor violations after officers shot and killed a driver in the Bronx whom they had stopped for a seatbelt violation in October 2019. More recently, after Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kimberly Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Duante Wright during a traffic stop last month, Brooklyn Center’s city council voted to prohibit police officers from stopping drivers for minor traffic infractions and non-felony offenses or warrants, instead assigning that responsibility to a new civilian department.

Durkan Revisits Push to Move Parking Enforcement from Police to SDOT

Seattle Parking Enforcement Vehicle (Creative Commons License)

By Paul Kiefer

Six months after the Seattle City Council voted to move the city’s parking enforcement officers from the police department to a new Community Safety and Communications Center by June, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Sam Zimbabwe hope the council will revisit their decision. On Tuesday, Durkan’s office transmitted legislation to the council that would move the roughly 100 parking enforcement officers to SDOT instead, arguing that SDOT is better equipped to manage parking enforcement.

But the proposal is an unwanted case of déjà vu for the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild (SPEOG), the union that represents the officers. When the council was considering opportunities to shift some positions and responsibilities away from the Seattle Police Department as part of the larger conversation about defunding SPD last fall, SPEOG leadership lobbied the council to move them into the Community Safety and Communications Center, arguing that the placement would signal the parking officers’ role in the city’s re-imagined approach to public safety.

SPEOG’s lobbying efforts worked on the council, which passed legislation in November creating the Community Safety and Communications Center to house both the city’s 911 call center and the parking enforcement unit. But they didn’t convince Durkan or SDOT, which maintained that SDOT would be a more appropriate home for parking enforcement and assembled a team of staff members to prepare for the “technical, operational and human resource” challenges involved in absorbing the parking enforcement unit into their own department.

In a letter to council members on Tuesday, Zimbabwe reiterated his arguments from last year, arguing that SDOT can offer its existing human resources staff, safety office, and budget staff to the parking enforcement unit, as well as the department’s “fleet management infrastructure,” including electric car charging stations that could serve parking enforcement vehicles. “No comparable resources will be as readily available to Parking Enforcement should they not come to SDOT,” he wrote.

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But convenience is not the main reason Zimbabwe says he wants to move the parking enforcement unit to SDOT, he told PubliCola. “First and foremost, I think the most important thing is the alignment of our policymaking about curbside management and the enforcement of those policies,” he said—in other words, the people who create the policies should also be in charge of enforcing them. Housing the two functions in separate departments, he added, “leaves a lot more gray areas about who is supposed to be doing what.”

In his letter, Zimbabwe wrote that consolidating parking enforcement into SDOT is a matter of conforming with “national best practices,” citing nearly a dozen examples of cities that successfully shifted parking enforcement from police to their transportation departments.

Though conversations within SDOT about renewing the push to absorb parking enforcement began months ago, SPEOG president Nanette Toyoshima told PubliCola that her union was caught off-guard when they learned about Zimbabwe and Durkan’s intentions. “We didn’t know until maybe a week and a half ago,” she said. “It came as a shock, but maybe it shouldn’t have. We got an ordinance that said, ‘set up parking enforcement in the Community Safety Communication Center,’ and then we saw not one bit of work done towards moving that plan forward.”

Continue reading “Durkan Revisits Push to Move Parking Enforcement from Police to SDOT”

Cap and Trade Moves Forward Over Republican and Some Democratic Opposition

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

By Leo Brine

After a five-hour debate, the Democratic majority in the state Senate narrowly passed a cap-and-trade bill (SB 5126) last Thursday night on a 25-24 vote. The bill taxes large companies that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by requiring them to buy permits from the state to compensate for every ton of carbon dioxide they produce.

The proceeds from the permits would go into a new Climate Investment Account that would fund things like greenhouse gas mitigation, clean transportation and transportation alternatives, and clean energy programs.

Republican senators prolonged the debate with 45 amendments; they passed three of them.

Later in the night, and with much more ease, Democratic senators passed the House’s clean fuels bill (HB 1091). Governor Jay Inslee had requested both bills.

Three Democrats voted no: Bob Hasegawa (D-11, Seattle); Liz Lovelett (D-40, Anacortes); and Kevin Van De Wege (D-24, Sequim). Every Republican voted against the bill.

None of the three amendments Republicans passed alter the underlying framework of the bill. One directs the Department of Ecology to create a website showing which companies are participating in cap-and-trade program; another requires the department to notify the legislature when a company is no longer part of the program—a political move by Republicans to demonstrate that cap and trade doesn’t work.

Republican senators spent most of the five-hour floor debate giving speeches about how much the bill, in their view, would ultimately cost working-class Washingtonians.

Republicans such as Senator Doug Ericksen (R-42, Bellingham), said the bill—which he referred to exclusively as “cap-and-tax”—would force companies to raise the prices on their goods, specifically on gas, and pass the cost on to consumers. Judy Warnick, another Republican senator (R-13, Moses Lake), said she was taking a stand for mom-and-pop farms and ranchers who would also need to lower the emissions in their production process under the bill.

Moderate Democratic Senator Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) added an amendment that gives industries that are vulnerable to foreign competition, like steel and oil refineries, more time to reduce the amount of carbon emissions in their production process. The amendment also gives the companies free emissions permits while they make their adjustments. But the companies will have to lower their emissions at pro-rated, faster rates once the adjustment period ends.

Some Democratic senators, like freshman Senator T’wina Nobles (D-28, Tacoma) had issues with the bill, arguing that it does not lower emissions fast enough or low enough and is unclear on how it will invest in and assist communities who have been negatively impacted by air pollution because of their proximity to highways. Continue reading “Cap and Trade Moves Forward Over Republican and Some Democratic Opposition”

Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil

1. The Seattle Public Library spent nearly $40,000 installing slanted steel sculptural grate covers above the grates outside its Ballard library branch to prevent unsheltered people from sleeping there. The grates open onto the parking garage, and are a warmer place to sleep than the nearby concrete sidewalks or the grass in Ballard Commons Park, a nearby park and plaza where homeless people also live.

According to library spokeswoman Laura Gentry, the new grate covers, which consist of steel plates pitched at a steep angle to the ground, are meant to “prevent people from placing items or sleeping on the grate due to the public safety risks involved.

“In particular,” Gentry continued, “the Library sought to prevent two regularly recurring incidents: 1) unsafe items, trash and human waste falling through the grate into the parking structure below and 2) the grate getting completely covered so that air could not flow through it, which creates serious safety hazards. Proper air flow is critical for fire safety, and is especially important during a pandemic.”

The sidewalks around the library, and the nearby park, have been a constant source of complaints by housed neighbors who argue that tents in the park are unsightly and that the people inside them pose a danger to children and others who use the park.

Two years ago, SPL took a similar action to deter people from congregating near the Ballard library, installing a series of bent metal pipes at a cost of $10,000 to serve a similar purpose. (At the time, library communications director Andra Addison said the purpose of the pipes was to address “unattended items left overnight in those areas, smoking, food and beverage waste, feces, urine and discarded needles” in response to neighborhood and patron complaints.)

Both installations are examples of “hostile architecture”—elements, such as the “anti-homeless spikes” some cities install on railings and benches, designed to prevent people from lingering in a space or using it for something other than its intended purpose, such as sleeping. In a 2019 photo essay, the New York Times described hostile architecture as “ways of saying ‘don’t make yourself at home’ in public.”

According to Gentry, “the Library has no additional plans to install similar elements at other libraries.”

2. After nearly an hour of public comment, much of it from residents arguing that needle-exchange programs encourage addiction by providing clean needles to injection drug users (an argument that makes about as much sense as claiming the availability of glassware encourages alcohol abuse), the Federal Way City Council voted Tuesday night to suspend a 10-year-old program that provides overdose-reversal drugs, counseling, and access to treatment in addition to clean needles.

As a needle exchange opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

The resolution, which refers to needle exchanges as “hypodermic needle giveaway programs,” extends a voluntary suspension of the program by King County Public Health give an 11-person committee time to meet and decide whether to allow the program to operate and, if so, under what conditions. “It is our collective belief that handing out needles in parking lots does not further the goal of treatment or helping those they serve,” the resolution says.

Hysteria over the program ramped up, according to reporting in the Federal Way Mirror, after a local woman did a “stakeout” of a needle exchange van operated by the South County Outreach Referral and Exchange (SCORE). The van responds to people who call the program requesting service. The woman said she requested, and received, 100 needles without turning any in—proving, at least to some residents who oppose the program, that the “exchange” program is really just a needle giveaway.

As an opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

Needle exchange programs prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis and provide health-care workers an opportunity to meet with drug users who may be isolated and lack access to health care and other services. (It is beside the point that, as another anti-needle exchange speaker said last night, that “the thing with AIDS is that AIDS is treatable now, and hep C is curable.”)

Since the 1990s, needle exchanges have been common (and are no long especially controversial) in cities; the programs King County funds in Seattle also offers medical care including vaccinations, hepatitis and HIV testing, and abscess treatment in addition to clean needles and Narcan.

Back in 2016, a countywide task force recommended that the county work quickly to stand up two safe consumption sites for drug users, including one outside Seattle. Nearly five years later, the county and city have made no visible progress toward that goal; banning a longstanding needle exchange program marks a significant step in the opposite direction.

3. Last week, environmental and transit access groups were disappointed by the House’s proposed transportation package. This week, their disappointment continued when the Senate Transportation committee unveiled an even more conservative plan on Tuesday. While the House package dedicated just 25 percent to multimodal projects, the Senate allocates even less to that side of the ledger, with just 1.7 percent of the total going to multimodal projects.

The Senate Transportation committee unveiled its new transportation package, “Forward Washington,” at a work session Tuesday. The Senate’s package will generate $17.8 billion in tax revenue over the next 16 years, most of it coming from gas taxes, a new cap-and-trade program, and electric/hydrogen fuel cell vehicle tax, and state bonds.

Transportation accessibility groups and environmental groups say the plan is only a slight improvement over previous packages, like 2015’s roads-heavy “Connecting Washington,” and doesn’t advance the state’s transit infrastructure in a meaningful way

City leaders from around the state showed up to the session to support the package, including the mayor of Issaquah, Mary Lou Pauly; the package includes $500 million to widen SR 18 through the city.

Continue reading “Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil”

Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule

King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones

1. King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht will fire a detective for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” before fatally shooting a car theft suspect near Enumclaw in 2019.

Detective George Alvarez is a 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office with a lengthy use-of-force record, including five shootings and a criminal charge for assaulting and threatening an informant in 2003. In November 2019, Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, driving in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, but when the detectives found him, he had parked next to a power station to smoke a cigarette. At the time, Johanknecht wrote, “there was no imminent risk” to members of the public.

Nevertheless, without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver’s-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the stolen SUV across the road and broke the driver’s-side window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.

In a letter to Alvarez explaining her decision, Johanknecht emphasized that she did not decide to fire him for the shooting itself, but for his decisions that led up to the shooting. “You did not use the opportunity you had to slow things down,” Johanknecht wrote. “The urgency here was created by your actions, not the actions of the suspect.” Johanknecht and other department leadership also called into question Alvarez’s claims that Chilcott posed an “immediate danger” to witnesses at a bus stop nearby. Instead, Johanknecht argued that Alvarez’s actions had placed bystanders—and Lerum—in danger by sparking an unnecessary confrontation with Chilcott.

For his part, Lerum received a written reprimand for not wearing his ballistic vest or clothing identifying himself as a law enforcement officer during the encounter.

In a press release on Thursday, King County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sergeant Tim Meyer drew a parallel between Chilcott’s death and the failed sting operation in 2017 during which plainclothes sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens on a residential street in Des Moines. King County agreed to pay a $2.25 million settlement to Dunlap-Gittens’ family in May 2020; however, according to Meyer, Alvarez is the first officer whom Johanknecht has fired for misuse of force or failure to de-escalate since taking office in 2017.

Cooper Offenbecker, an attorney representing Alvarez, told the Seattle Times that his client intends to appeal Johanknecht’s decision.

According to Rachel Schulkin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the city “will not immediately resume issuing citations starting April 1 and will instead have a grace period in which we remind the public about the parking rules.”

2. In a media availability this week, new King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones said they intended to “allow for regional variations” in how various parts of King County respond to homelessness, giving the example of a “mega-shelter in Black Diamond” as something that “would not make sense” as part of a regional response. “I don’t see this job as being about running roughshod or issuing policy fiats; it will be about building things together,” they said.

However, Dones added, they are not interested in promoting the narrative that Seattle is somehow producing homelessness or generating the region’s homeless population; cities are natural “draws” for people experiencing homelessness in nearby areas, they said and “there is a natural pull to where there are services. We see this in jurisdictions across the country—people go where they think they can get the help they need.” Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule”

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.