Category: Transportation

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.”

 

Former SRO Gets Landmark Status, Council Considers Cell-Phone Tracking Tech

1. Plans to build a 14-story hotel across the street from the north First Avenue entrance to Pike Place Market are now in limbo after the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board voted 6-1 to designate the three-story Hahn Building a historic landmark last week. The board previously rejected applications to landmark the building twice, in 1999 and 2014, and commission staff recommended against a landmark designation this time, “as it does not appear to have the integrity or the ability to convey its significance as required.”

The Hahn Building, which served as a single-room occupancy hotel for low-income workers, was completed in its current, three-story form in 1907, making it one of the older buildings in the area and one of dozens of SROs that used to operate downtown. (The original one-story building was finished in 1897.) One At last week’s landmarks board meeting, landmarking proponents argued that its history and proximity to Pike Place Market qualified it for historic status.

Photographer and writer Jean Sherrard called the building a “vital hinge in the market’s front door” and “a transitional step down from the tall buildings that fill the downtown core behind it.” Landmarks commissioner Jordan Kiel, who cast the lone vote against landmark status, countered that “being landmark-adjacent does not make you a landmark,” calling the heavily altered Hahn a “background” without “a significant impact to the city as an SRO.”

Residents of the Newmark condo tower, which sits directly to the east of the Hahn, have heavily supported the landmark effort, creating an online petition and GoFundMe to support their efforts. If the hotel is built, many of these condo owners would lose their views of Puget Sound to the west. Newmark residents also supported efforts to “save the Showbox,” which sits on the same block and was going to be developed as an even taller condo building.

Landmark status does not prevent a building from being demolished, but it’s one factor that a city hearing examiner will consider when deciding whether to approve a master use permit for the proposed new hotel. The developer can also appeal the landmark’s board decision to the hearing examiner.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

2. Over the next year, the Seattle Department of Transportation plans to replace all its license-plate readers—cameras that track cars and buses through traffic, producing data that SDOT uses to determine real-time travel times and improve things like signal timing—with cell-phone-tracking censors made by a company called Acyclica. The sensors, which will be embedded in utility cabinets along a handful of major arterial streets, track people’s location by identifying a specific code, or address, associated with their cell phones.

Although the city has been using Acyclica’s technology on a smaller scale since 2014, the 2017 surveillance ordinance requires the city to periodically review surveillance technologies for compliance with the ordinance. Last week, the city council’s transportation and utilities committee discussed Acyclica in the context of a city audit on license-plate readers. Several council members brought up concerns about the new technology, including the possibility that it can be used to track individual Seattle residents or by law enforcement. Continue reading “Former SRO Gets Landmark Status, Council Considers Cell-Phone Tracking Tech”

Public Restroom Closures Coincide With Shigella Outbreak Among Seattle’s Homeless

Plus election speculation and news from City Hall.

1. As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches the one-year mark, the city of Seattle has decided to keep some restrooms in parks and other public spaces open over the winter so that people who might ordinarily use restrooms in fast-food restaurants or libraries can have more places to go.

As PubliCola reported last month, the city’s Parks Department says it has no choice but to close certain parks restrooms down during the winter months because their plumbing can’t withstand freezing temperatures. The department provided PubliCola with a list of all the restrooms that are currently closed, either for winterization or for other reasons, such as fires, vandalism, or structural damage.

The upshot: Of more than 130 restrooms operated directly by the city, and not counting restrooms in library buildings or shelters operated by nonprofit providers, more than 60 are currently closed. Of those, fewer than half have been replaced by what the city euphemistically calls “sanicans,” better known as portable toilets, and only a relative handful of which include a place for people to wash their hands after doing their business.

In Judkins Park, near PubliCola HQ, a lonely pair of portable toilets that replaced two multi-stall restrooms looked the worse for wear this weekend, as did toilets placed in nearby Sam Smith Park. The official restroom map maintained by the city’s Human Services Department lists two open restroom buildings and a 24-hour “sanican.” Other restrooms that only have portable toilets, according the Parks Department’s list, show up on HSD’s list of open restrooms, as do many non-city restrooms that are open limited hours, such as Immanuel Community Services (open from 8 to 2 on weekdays) or are only accessible to certain groups, such as the women-only day center at Mary’s Place.

The result is that—like last year—the city’s list of “open” restrooms overstates the actual number of restrooms that are open, accessible, and safe, not to mention clean.

2. Limited-access day centers, the five library branches (of 27) that allow walk-in restroom use, and portable toilets with handwashing stations are certainly better than nothing. But during a pandemic, when people experiencing homelessness have less access than usual to basic hygiene, portable toilets without toilet paper or a sink invite the spread of disease. Last month, King County Public Health issued a warning about an outbreak of Shigella, a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. According to the county, “the [Shigella] germs can spread when someone with Shigella does not wash their hands well after using the toilet then contaminates objects, food or water.”

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Since the end of October, Public Health has received 61 reports of Shigella, 46 of those after December 14. Of that total, the vast majority—47—occurred among “people who reported experiencing homelessness or unstable housing or who accessed homeless services,” a spokeswoman for Public Health told PubliCola. Because these numbers only reflect reported cases, the true number is undoubtedly higher.

According to King County’s info page, simple “handwashing with soap and water is the best way to protect yourself and others against Shigella infections.” Many homeless people lack this option, and we’re seeing the results.

3. Lorelei Williams, the deputy director overseeing capital projects for the Seattle Department of Transportation, is leaving the city after more than 16 years to take a job with WSP, a mega-engineering firm that has many current contracts with the city, including a contract to monitor the structural integrity of the West Seattle Bridge. Williams will be WSP’s Pacific Northwest Transportation Business Line Leader.

According to an SDOT spokesman, Williams “has not had any role in selecting WSP or overseeing their contracts” for SDOT. She’ll be the second high-ranking SDOT staffer to make the jump to the engineering firm in recent years, after Mike Terrell left his position as deputy director in charge of capital projects and roadway structures to take a job at WSP in 2018. Although city rules bar certain high-ranking employees from lobbying elected officials for three years after leaving the city, there are no rules prohibiting city employees from taking jobs at firms that compete for city contracts.

4. Although conventional wisdom has it that King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is running for reelection this year, has a lock on the position, one name keeps coming up as a potential challenger: Washington State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34). Nguyen won his senate seat in 2018, defeating Constantine’s deputy executive, Shannon Braddock. He did not return a call seeking comment about whether he’s running.

Tunnel Option Back on the Table? Plus: Updates on Homeless Authority and Vaccinating Unsheltered People

An example of a lot in West Seattle that went up dramatically in value after a developer built a 300-unit apartment complex on site.

1. At Sound Transit’s system expansion committee meeting today, agency staff will present new numbers showing a greatly reduced cost differential between the elevated and tunnel options for light rail between Ballard and West Seattle, according to multiple sources. Previous cost estimates indicated that any tunnel would be far more expensive than the agency’s preferred elevated options, adding well over a billion dollars to the cost of the project; if the difference turns out to be negligible, a tunnel alignment would start looking better and better.

Sound Transit’s preferred alternatives for the Ballard-to-West Seattle segment include both elevated and tunnel options, but the tunnel has always come with an asterisk: The agency will only consider building it if tunnel supporters can find third-party funding to pay the difference.

Last week, Sound Transit released new cost estimates showing that the Ballard-downtown-West Seattle alignment will cost between 53 and 59 percent more than the agency estimated in 2019, due primarily to increased property acquisition costs. As PubliCola reported, the most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment.

Joe Gray, Sound Transit’s director of real property, said in an interview Wednesday that Sound Transit based its new property value estimates on the past several years of property sales in the neighborhoods along the alignment, without regard to the development potential of individual properties. For example, a vacant parking lot that is zoned for nine stories of residential development would be assessed not at the potential value of the future apartment building, but on the actual sales price of comparably zoned parking lots in the area over the past five years. If someone buys that parking lot and puts a 300-unit apartment complex on it (see image above), the difference in value becomes an unanticipated cost.

“It’s an estimate, because we only have the data that’s out there,” Gray said. This could be one reason the West Seattle estimates went up more dramatically than those for Ballard—”it’s a hot market,” Gray said, and the large number of property sales is reflected in Sound Transit’s higher estimates for that area. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick confirmed that the difference between the cost increases in West Seattle and Ballard “is due to the property development currently underway in the area.”)

An alternative approach would be to pick a different cost escalator—one based on the likelihood that West Seattle and Ballard will continue to grow, particularly along the light rail alignment—and come up with new, higher estimates based on that assumption. But Gray said that would require assumptions Sound Transit is not prepared to make; after all, “the bottom could fall out” of the real estate market. “We wish we had that crystal ball to say that growth is going to continue in the commercial and in the industrial [sectors], but we just can’t,” he said. “We have to go to on what the property is [worth] today. We don’t guess.”

That approach—basing cost estimates on recent sales—is conservative in the sense that it doesn’t assume huge spikes in property values without direct evidence. In another sense, though, it could actually be risky: By assuming that property values will basically stay on their current trajectory into the indefinite future, even if their underlying zoning is designed specifically to encourage development that will dramatically increase its value, Sound Transit may be ensuring that it will have to come back with new, higher estimates year after year.

For now, the Sound Transit board and staff will consider a more immediate question: What will happen to the West Seattle-Ballard line? One possibility is that the new line (which is actually three separate segments, any of which could be built on its own) could be truncated or delayed. Another is that Sound Transit will give the tunnel options a closer look. Property values have less of an impact on tunnels because they just don’t require as much property acquisition. But tunnels can go over budget, too—and some of the new costs revealed last week have nothing to do with property values.

2. After numerous delays, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to hire a director—which the agency calls a “CEO”—and is interviewing four finalists for the job this week. As part of that process, the candidates will be meeting separately with members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people that has three representatives on the regional authority’s implementation board. The idea, board member and Lived Experience Coalition founder Sara Rankin said, was to bring these marginalized people closer to power, in this case by giving them a chance to sit down with the potential leaders of the new agency.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

On Wednesday, the board approved another informal meeting—this one with representatives of the Sound Cities Association, a group of suburban cities that are members of the authority. The SCA, which includes Renton, Kent, and other cities that are often at odds with Seattle and King County’s approach to homelessness, reached out to ask for the “informal meet and greet,” as former Bellevue mayor John Chelminiak put it. “If this body is going to be successful, there has to be some sharing and some building of trust, so I would be in favor of finding a way to do this,” Chelminiak said.

Board member Simha Reddy, a doctor who provides health care to people experiencing homelessness, supported the motion for a different reason. “It’s important for the candidates to know what they’re getting into.”

3. During a press conference announcing a city-led effort to vaccinate people living in congregate settings such as long-term care facilities on Tuesday, PubliCola asked Mayor Jenny Durkan whether the city had any plans for reaching the thousands of unsheltered and temporarily sheltered people experiencing homelessness during later vaccination phases. Homeless people who “live in or access services in congregate settings” won’t get their turn in line until Phase B4 unless they’re over 70 (Phase A2), and the current list of phases does not include any guidance at all about people living unsheltered, who may spend little or no time in congregate settings at all.

Durkan’s response was nonspecific. “That is something we’ve been discussing a lot with the county and the state,” she said, adding that “that phase is in robust planning” by city and county officials. “Some of those people live in congregate settings, like permanent supportive housing, and so setting up systems to get them vaccinated will be easier than those who are unsheltered.”

This is probably an understatement. Because the vaccine must be administered in two doses, unsheltered people who receive the first shot must “keep a record of their vaccination status and when they need to follow up for a second dose,” according to the CDC. Then, after hanging on to that piece of paper for nearly a month, they have to follow through on schedule. How Seattle and King County will track down unsheltered people who fail to show up for their second vaccination appointments remains unclear.

Spike In Cost Estimates Raises Questions About Future of West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail

By Erica C. Barnett

The estimated cost of extending Seattle’s light rail system to Ballard and West Seattle, as well as several other components of the Sound Transit 3 plan adopted by voters in 2015, has risen dramatically since last year, Sound Transit staffers told the agency’s executive committee Wednesday. The main factors driving the increase, according to the agency, are higher than anticipated property acquisition costs, higher costs for labor and materials, and unanticipated “soft costs,” including additional funding for contingencies.

Overall, according to the staff presentation, the estimated cost to build the West Seattle-Ballard line and other aspects of the planned expansion, including a planned Tacoma Dome extension and a new operations and maintenance facility in South King County has increased by $7.9 billion, with the bulk of that—around $4.4 billion at the midrange of Sound Transit’s new estimates—coming from increased costs to build light rail between West Seattle and Ballard.

Sound Transit provided PubliCola a more detailed breakdown of the West Seattle-to-Ballard cost increases. The chart below represents the best-case (lowest-cost) scenario from the range Sound Transit released yesterday. The most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment, which Sound Transit attributed to the higher cost of property in quickly densifying West Seattle.

The main reason for the cost increases in general, Sound Transit deputy CEO Kimberly Farley said, was the cost of buying up property along the line. Property values have continued to skyrocket in Seattle and across the region despite the recession. Exacerbating that problem, Sound Transit will have to buy back an undisclosed number of buildings that are either currently under development or that have been developed since the ballot measure passed in 2015.

One of these is the Legacy at Fauntleroy mixed-use building, which will include more than 300 apartments and ground-floor commercial space. That building, and likely others, is on land that was upzoned in 2019 under Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program. The upzone, to 95 feet, went into effect in April 2019, making the seven-story project possible, and construction began three months later. The building is still under construction. PubliCola has a call out to the owner of the property.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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During Wednesday’s meeting, board members and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff hastened to emphasize that these huge unanticipated costs should be viewed as a challenge, not a disaster. “While these numbers are sobering, they’re not catastrophic,” Rogoff said. King County executive Dow Constantine added that the one certainty is that light rail will only get more, not less, expensive to build in the future. “This system would have been a lot easier to build 50 years ago,” he said—an allusion to the frequently referenced Forward Thrust plan that Puget Sound region voters rejected in 1968 and again in 1970.

Staffers noted Wednesday that it was possible to make some “protective acquisitions” of property to prevent huge spikes in property values along the line, but agency spokesman Geoff Patrick told PubliCola their power to do so is limited. “While public agencies can secure federal approval for protective acquisitions in some cases, most property acquisition must occur after environmental review processes are completed and the Board has adopted the final project to be built,” he said. “This occurs after completion of the draft and final environmental impact statements that are required for most major projects.” Continue reading “Spike In Cost Estimates Raises Questions About Future of West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail”

Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing

The details of Sound Transit’s plan to lower fares on its Sounder commuter trains, which Mayor Jenny Durkan cast the lone vote against. 

1. Sound Transit’s full board voted unanimously on Thursday to approve a resolution updating the agency’s fare enforcement policies while keeping fare enforcement squarely within the courts and criminal justice system, after a dramatic discussion one week earlier, which PubliCola covered most recently here

Durkan, along with the rest of the board, voted for the fare enforcement motion, after noting that it was only a first step toward decriminalizing fare nonpayment entirely. 

Oddly, Durkan made exactly the opposite argument after casting the lone “no” vote on a proposal to lower fares for low-income, disabled, and elderly Sounder riders. Initially, Durkan cast the vote without comment, but revisited it several minutes later, saying that she wanted to clear up any confusion about why she voted against the fare reduction. (Her staff pays close attention to Twitter). “The reason I voted against that,” she said, “is, I believe that people should have free transit and not pay anything, and we should follow [the lead of] Seattle and give students and low-income people” access to free transit passes.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Durkan has not proposed such a measure in her three years on the Sound Transit board. The reasoning Durkan gave for her vote also contradicts her own previous vote in favor of lowering fares on more widely used Sound Transit Express buses, as well as her vote in favor of the fare enforcement resolution just moments earlier, which she justified by saying, essentially, that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Contacted after the vote, mayoral spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said, “The Mayor believes that Sound Transit has the infrastructure and ability to make transit free for youth, low-income, older, and disabled riders, and she will continue to vote according to that belief and principle.”

2. During the same meeting, Durkan voted against an amendment to Sound Transit’s 2021 legislative agenda calling on legislators to “adopt legislation to base vehicle taxes on a more accurate and current value of a vehicle” for purposes of determining the Motor Vehicle Excise tax on which Sound Transit relies. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule was the subject of a lawsuit by vehicle owners who believe it unfairly overvalues more expensive, late-model used cars.

Durkan did not give the depreciation schedule as her reason for voting against the amendment—which county executive Dow Constantine voted for. Instead, she said she believes the MVET itself is inherently “regressive,” because many low-income people have no choice but to drive long distances to get to work, including those who commute to Sound Transit’s park and ride lots.

This claim that taxes on driving are inherently regressive has been made for decades, usually by people who have not owned a cheap used car for many years, if ever. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule may overvalue late-model used cars—the kind people buy for $30,000 at a dealer, for example—but it also appears to undervalue the older used cars that low-income people tend to actually drive. In this sense, it is actually a progressive tax—people who can afford to buy almost-new cars pay more, and those who buy 20-year-old cars for cash pay less. 

3. On Friday morning, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced $1 million in grants for community organizations to “develop alternatives to and address the harms created by incarceration, policing, and other parts of the criminal legal system.”
Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing”

These Streets Were Made for Walking

by Josh Feit

Due to the popularity of closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars—and opening it for walking, biking, and rolling only, as SDOT did during the recent Thanksgiving weekend and over the summer: one mile of the northern portion of Lake Washington Blvd from Mt. Baker Park to Stan Sayres Memorial Park will be a no-car zone this Friday, December 18 through January 3.

Apparently, the popularity of these closures is causing some angst. People who oppose closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars took their case to the joint Board of Parks Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee meeting last Thursday night.  At the online meeting, SDOT floated the concept of making some of 2020’s COVID-19-era pedestrian-and-bike-only streets permanent. Lake Washington Boulevard isn’t currently under consideration for permanent closure, but SDOT’s anxious critics, intent on nipping the idea in the bud, pointed out that the vaunted Olmsted Brothers originally designed Lake Washington Boulevard for cars. Specifically, they said, for “recreational…pleasure drives.”

I love it when city officials are able to turn original intent arguments back against NIMBYs, and Parks Commissioner Tom Byers did just that. Byers, former deputy mayor under Mayor Paul Schell, pointed out that the typical car speed when the Olmsteds designed the boulevard was 12 mph. Today, it’s 25 mph. (Seems more like 30 or 40 if you’ve ever been biking there and had a car up in your business, but still.) For the past decade, the city has traditionally closed Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on Sundays during summer months. 

This past summer, responding to people’s need for daily recreational opportunities in their neighborhoods during the pandemic, SDOT restricted car access on 26 miles of neighborhood streets, creating bike-and pedestrian-friendly zones known as “Stay Healthy Streets” to create more room for people to walk, bike, and roll while maintaining at least six feet of distance from others. SDOT also teamed up with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department for four additional miles of closed streets (I consider all these open streets), near Alki Point, near Green Lake, in Goldens Gardens Park, and along Lake Washington Boulevard, to expand park footprints. SDOT called these park-adjacent no-car zones “Keep Moving Streets.”

SDOT is now surveying the public to decide where to make 20 miles of these car-free streets permanent. It’s all part of the department’s pedestrian-centric response to the pandemic, which also now includes 150 sidewalk, converted parking spot, and street permits that neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants have used to set up outdoor seating. That popular program, known as “Safe Starts,” has been extended through October 2021.

In the first installment of this column a couple of months ago, I wrote about all these programs combined, arguing that the ad hoc emergency response was energizing Seattle’s neighborhoods and providing a surprise opportunity to rethink how our city should be planned and zoned.

The notion of re-upping the Lake Washington Boulevard car-free pilot as a pedestrian and bike thoroughfare (thanks for bringing it up, guys!) is a prequel to the overdue debate over reallocating public right-of-way. It’s time to retrofit our growing city to human scale.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

SDOT’s idea isn’t about tradition. It’s about change. And ultimately, that’s what Byers’ “12 mph” quip was getting at.

“I’m really excited about the future potential of these streets,” Seattle Parks District Oversight Committee member Deepa Sivarajan seconded.

Sivarajan, a policy manager at Climate Solutions by day, went even further. “Let’s not prioritize historical intent and historical preservation when thinking about these streets,” she said. “A lot of historical preservation in Seattle tends to preserve an era that was de facto segregationist. Thinking about the historical intent of a ‘driving street’ is not the biggest factor we should be considering.” Sivarajan argued that the city should consider equity above original intent, and her own priorities seemed to also include health and safety; she cited collisions and pollution as something the Olmsteds didn’t consider when designing boulevards for “pleasure drives.”

Sivarajan’s social justice angle served notice on the opponents of SDOT’s potential plan. In addition to the goofy original intent talking points, the preservationists had also been arguing that closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars would be unfair to communities of color who, they claimed without presenting data, rely on the boulevard to access the city and parks from the Rainier Valley and beyond.

Opponents of a car-free Lake Washington Boulevard also got an earful from Parks Commissioner Dennis Cook, who’s African American. “I’ve walked the lake [for] many, many, many years,” he said. “During the pandemic, I’ve seen more people of color walking Seward Park than I have in the last five to ten years. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful to see because people are out there greeting people and their neighbors, and it’s building community.” Cook noted that the area in question is in the 98118 ZIP code, where the population is 25 percent African American. Seattle is 7 percent Black overall.

Continue reading “These Streets Were Made for Walking”

Sound Transit Keeps Punitive Fare Enforcement Options on the Table

Sound Transit board member Joe McDermott, legislating from his basement bunker

by Erica C. Barnett

A committee of the Sound Transit board passed a proposal to temporarily suspend citations for fare nonpayment while it conducts a “fare enforcement ambassador pilot” program, but rejected a proposal to decriminalize nonpayment completely after board chair Kent Keel argued that without criminal charges as a deterrent, some miscreants will avoid paying fares as a way to “get one over” on Sound Transit.

The proposed change was part of a motion from Sound Transit board member Joe McDermott directing Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff to recommend improvements to the agency’s fare enforcement policies by 2022. McDermott’s original motion would have said that the agency “must” recommend some of those changes, which also included lower fines and more warnings before fare officers issue a citation; Keel’s amendment changed the language to say that staff “should” include those recommendations in a list that may also include “alternate approaches resulting from community engagement and pilot program findings.”

Keel’s arguments came out of his own personal experience, but they also echoed an unusual memo Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff wrote at Keel’s request last week, laying out the “staff” case against taking fare nonpayment out of the criminal justice system. The memo reads, in part: “Most importantly, the staff is concerned with directives in section 3 that seek to predetermine the outcome of our community engagement and pilot program by dictating the measures staff “must” recommend to the Board at the conclusion of the process. Rather than specifying details that the future recommended policy must include, staff suggests in section 3 to replace “must” with “should consider.” 

This is extremely similar to the language Keel added to the suggesting close coordination between the Sound Transit board chair and the agency’s director—who has frequently raised objections to proposals that would reduce penalties for nonpayment—on a matter of contentious, hotly disputed policy.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

McDermott told PubliCola he saw the memo over the weekend, but was blindsided by Keel’s introduction of an amendment adopting Rogoff’s recommendations. “I wasn’t surprised to hear [Keel oppose decriminalization]. I understand that he believes civil infractions and possible court involvement are central elements of fare enforcement,” McDermott said yesterday, but “the language, and that it was written as an amendment—I didn’t know about that until today.”

Before the committee voted, Keel said that his own experience “as a young Black male” made him understand that a lot of people will try to “get over” on the system if there are no penalties for doing so. “There is a growing group of people that are just trying to get over,” he said, and other people who would ordinarily pay their fare see that behavior and follow suit. Judges and juries, he continued, could tell the difference between people who truly couldn’t afford to pay and those who are “just trying to get over.” Continue reading “Sound Transit Keeps Punitive Fare Enforcement Options on the Table”

Council Plans Police Budget Cuts, Parks Board Debates Encampment Sweeps

This post was updated with additional details about the SPD budget provisos on Friday, December 11.

1. City council members Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold have introduced legislation that makes good on Mosqueda’s earlier proposal to cut $5.4 million from the Seattle Police Department’s 2021 budget in response to the police department’s fourth-quarter budget request for that amount this year. The council decided to grant the request but expressed its “intent” to come back with legislation to cut the department’s budget by the same amount next year.

SPD said it needed the extra funding to essentially backfill the cost of protest-related overtime, unanticipated family leave, and higher-than-expected separation pay for officers who are leaving. Mosqueda and other council members countered this week that the police knew perfectly well that the budget explicitly did not fund any additional overtime, and that they were supposed to stay within their budget.

After some behind-the-scenes discussion about whether Acting Police Chief Adrian Diaz would be personally liable for unpaid wages if the council didn’t come up with the money, budget committee members decided last week to express the council’s “intent” to cut $5.4 million from SPD’s budget in 2021, most likely using the savings from higher-than-expected attrition.

Herbold said on Wednesday that she wasn’t “a person who is rigid in saying that I would not support more overtime,” but “there needs to be a consequence for a continued large expenditure of overtime resources.”

The council adopted the 2021 budget in November; Mosqueda’s proposal would cut that budget. “I am not interested in giving the department one more penny,” Mosqueda told PubliCola. “The reality is, we are in this situation because the department made managerial decisions to spend money on overtime instead of on other purposes.”

2. The budget committee also rejected a separate proposal to lift 13 provisos (spending restrictions) that the council imposed on SPD’s budget in August. The provisos withhold a total of $2.9 million until the department makes an array of cuts, including laying off officers who work on specialized units like the Harbor Patrol, SWAT and the (theoretically disbanded) Navigation Team.

The mayor’s office told PubliCola that SPD hasn’t been able to make most of the cuts the council requested, because they require “out of order layoffs” that would violate provisions in the city’s police-union contracts that require the least-senior officers to be laid off first. The city’s labor negotiation team will need to bargain with both unions before those layoffs can take place; in the meantime, SPD hasn’t laid off any officers, so the department still needs to pay their salaries.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

As a result, city budget director Ben Noble told the council, SPD needed the council to lift all 13 provisos so that the department can use the $2.9 million to fill holes in its budget. Mosqueda told PubliCola on Friday that “it’s premature to lift the proviso” before the council knows by how much SPD will underspend its budget in November and December. SPD, Mosqueda said, was only “in that spot because they failed to stay within [the] spending authorized” by the council in August. Noble maintained Wednesday that there won’t be enough of an underspend to fund the $2.9 million shortfall.

3. The Seattle Board of Parks Commissioners and the Park District Oversight Committee were scheduled to discuss the issue of encampments in parks during a joint meeting Thursday night, but a lengthy discussion about whether to permanently limit car traffic on Lake Washington Boulevard (in which historic-preservation advocates tossed around buzzwords like “redlining” and “equity” to justify turning the recently calmed roadway into Lake Shore Drive) pushed the discussion to the board’s next meeting in January. 

Still, the commission gave parks department staff, including a beleaguered-looking Parks Director Jesús Aguirre, a preview of next month’s discussion, when they’ll consider weighing in formally on the city’s decision to put a pause on sweeps during the COVID pandemic. Commissioner Tom Byers, a mayoral staffer during the Charley Royer administration (1978-1990) expressed frustration that neither Aguirre nor anyone else at the city would commit to removing encampments and telling people to move along. When Royer was mayor, Byers said, the city and businesses would work together to ensure that unsheltered people couldn’t “take over parks,” and the city should show a similar commitment to keeping parks “clean” now. Continue reading “Council Plans Police Budget Cuts, Parks Board Debates Encampment Sweeps”

Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened

1. When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last month that the city would repair, rather than replace, the damaged West Seattle Bridge, she made an offhand comment that could have major implications for Sound Transit’s light rail project if it turns into policy: The new light rail bridge connecting downtown to West Seattle, she said, should include crossings for pedestrians and cyclists as well as light rail itself. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said.

Sound Transit is facing a revenue shortfall of $8 billion to $12 billion over the life of the Sound Transit 3 program due to the COVID-fueled economic downturn. Rachelle Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Durkan’s office and Seattle Department of Transportation Staff “informed us of the mayor’s idea prior to her announcement but there were not any substantive discussions” about how the bridge would need to be revamped to accommodate other, non-light rail modes and how much additional time and cost such changes would add to the project.

Sound Transit is scheduled to publish the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project in mid-2021; that document will only include the light-rail-only options that the agency has considered so far, “consistent with the ST3 plan,” Cunningham said. During their conversations with the mayor’s office, “Sound Transit staff noted that the voter-approved ST3 plan only authorizes construction of a light rail bridge. Changing that plan to a multi-modal crossing would require additional funding from alternative sources as well as additional planning time” to accommodate things like supplementary design work and additional environmental review.

The steep grades required for an elevated rail line across the Duwamish River crossing could be an issue for people walking, biking, or rolling as well. Any changes to the current plan would likely require review and action by the Sound Transit board, Cunningham said.

2. In a promotional email sent on Tuesday, Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan wrote that his new podcast could become “an effective tool to push back against the progressive march to socialism.” The first episode of Hold the Line with Mike Solan (rhymes if you say it with a Southern accent!) appeared on YouTube the same day; the featured guest was Victoria Beach, the chair of the Seattle Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council.

Solan opened his debut appearance with a call for unity, then pivoted to denounce a legislative proposal by city council member Lisa Herbold as a “preposterous” attempt to “legalize most crime.” (The legislation he was referring to would not “legalize most crime”; it would create new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder). But, Solan added, he’s open to bringing Herbold on the podcast to “talk it out.”

After a jarring transition involving a clip from the 1996 sci-fi film Independence Day, Solan introduced Beach, a close ally of retired Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best who made periodic appearances at protests on Capitol Hill this summer.

Beach, a lifelong Seattleite, told Solan she “grew up hating police.” Her nephew was beaten bloody more than a decade ago; in 2000, two SPD officers pointed guns at her 5-year-old daughter while responding to an erroneous call from a white college student about a stolen car. Solan interrupted her as she told this story to explain why officers might point guns at children during “high risk felony stop[s],” but Beach forged ahead. “I’ve never had a positive experience,” she said. “Nothing positive?” he asked, sounding hurt.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

During an hour-long conversation, Solan occasionally ventured toward self-reflection, at one point noting that his hunger as a rookie patrol officer for “action” and car chases in  the Rainier Valley was immature. But he also repeatedly minimized the significance of race in policing: he expressed discomfort with the “social justice term ‘white privilege'” because of his hard-working two-parent upbringing; he dismissed racial profiling by police as the consequence of inexperienced cops with “bad intuition”; and he lamented the public’s tendency to focus on “about 30 cases a year” in which police kill unarmed Black people when “most people killed by police are white.” When Solan commented that “there are racist cops, but there are racist plumbers and racist teachers,” Beach intervened. “But plumbers and teachers don’t carry weapons,” she said.

3. King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin—whose press conferences often feature stark reminders about COVID morbidity and phrases like “unprecedented death and devastation”—said Friday that even if the health department gets access to a vaccine, it may have to lay off the workers who would administer it to low-income and homeless people around the county. Continue reading “Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened”