Category: Transportation

After Years of Debate, Still No Fix for Sound Transit’s Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy

By Erica C. Barnett

Going back to at least 2019 (and, really, 2015 or earlier), Sound Transit—the region’s light-rail agency—has been under pressure to end its punitive and racially biased fare enforcement policy, which subjects riders who fail to show proof of payment to fines and potential criminal charges. (The policy has effectively been suspended since the beginning of the COVID pandemic last year).

Instead of rejecting the punitive policy outright—something the legislature gave the agency explicit authority to do earlier this year—Sound Transit has spent the last two years conducting surveys, doing community outreach, and launching a pilot program that replaced uniformed security officers issuing fines with T-shirt-wearing “fare ambassadors” who give information and issue warnings to passengers who fail to pay their fare.

Last Thursday, the Sound Transit board got another update on its ongoing outreach and engagement work that reiterated similar conclusions as previous presentations: Riders want Sound Transit to advance racial equity, build trust with communities, and listen to what they have to say. Like earlier staff presentations, this one also included a timeline: The board should be prepared to adopt a new fare enforcement policy next March, and to implement a “permanent program” by June.

The presentation did not include information about what such a program might look like. In an interview with PubliCola, Sound Transit regional government and community relations director Carrie Avila-Mooney said the decision wasn’t as simple as whether to punish fare evasion or not. For example, “if you don’t do a civil infraction, we have to develop a whole different process or policy,” Avila-Mooney said. “The engagement that we’re doing right now is also different than the engagement we’ve done in the past, because we’re really trying to talk to people who have been most impacted by our past fare enforcement policy. So that takes time.”

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In addition, Avila-Mooney said, “We do have farebox recovery considerations.” In August, Sound Transit staff projected that the amount of revenue the agency receives from fares would be around $34 million short of what the agency budgeted. However, Sound Transit’s assumptions about “farebox recovery”—the percentage of its budget that comes directly from rider fares—are higher than comparable agencies; Sound Transit assumes, for example, that fares will fund 40 percent of the cost of running Link Light rail, compared to King County Metro’s target of 25 percent.

Rogoff and Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel have repeatedly raised concerns about what will happen if people no longer feel compelled to pay their fare by the threat of enforcement. According to the fare ambassadors’ data, 31 percent of riders had no proof of payment in September, a number that decreased to 11 percent by October, after the ambassadors started issuing warnings for nonpayment. Continue reading “After Years of Debate, Still No Fix for Sound Transit’s Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy”

Other US Transit Agencies Stiff Riders on Restroom Access. Sound Transit Should Defy the Trend.

An earlier version of this graphic, from 2019, touted 18 future stations; the two non-Sound Transit stations (in gray, and added to Sound Transit’s own facilities here) are at the ferry terminal in Mukilteo and at the Tacoma Dome.

By Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit’s current plan for public restrooms at its light-rail stations calls for a grand total of 14 agency-operated restrooms between Lynnwood and Tacoma Community College more than 50 miles away—a sparse distribution that will leave many riders, including those in Seattle and most of the Eastside, with little or no restroom access.

The restrooms, when they open, will be for customers only, and may require riders to ask a security guard to unlock the restroom for them. Currently, the only public restrooms Sound Transit provides in the city of Seattle are at Union Station (upstairs from the Chinatown/International District station, and only open until 5pm) and Northgate (accessible only by requesting access from a security guard.)

Lack of access to restrooms impacts everyone using transit, but the problem is particularly acute for people with travel patterns that don’t mirror traditional home-work-home commutes, including but hardly limited to: People with disabilities that require regular restroom access; women, who tend to use transit for household errands that require many individual stops; students; people experiencing homelessness; low-income people and others who use transit to access services; and anyone who wants to rely on transit for more than a few hours at a time, in a city where restrooms for the general public are already few and far between.

Additionally, requiring riders to seek permission to relieve themselves from security guards is a barrier to anyone who doesn’t speak English or prefers to avoid encounters with law enforcement.

On Thursday, Sound Transit staff justified the sparse restroom distribution by noting that only a few locations met the criteria the agency established—a circular argument that makes it seem as if Sound Transit has no authority over its own rules. To merit a restroom, a station must be the served by at least five transit routes, have at least 10,000 boardings a day, and be at least 20 minutes away from the nearest station with a restroom by train. This standard assumes that many people—those whose final destination isn’t a station with a restroom—will plan extra time into their day to ride the train to a station with a restroom, use it, and then board another train to go on to their destination.

Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue and much of the Eastside on the King County Council, pointed out on Thursday that “when you apply these criteria, you end up with an entire section of our system that has truly no restroom access, which I don’t think we were going for.” Board chair Kent Keel, a member of the University Place city council, added, “When I look down at Pierce County as well, there’s none. I see the gray one at the Tacoma Dome—one of two restrooms provided by other public agencies Sound Transit has included on its own list—but that’s been there forever.”

Public-transit restrooms, which are ubiquitous in other countries, are relatively rare in the United States. Sound Transit staffers noted Thursday that they had looked at nine other “peer” transit agencies, including New York, Washington, D.C., Miami, and Los Angeles, and all offered very limited restroom access, within fare-paid zones and at major transit hubs; all require passengers to seek out a staffer to unlock the restrooms for them. To people from countries where using transit is the norm, depriving riders of such a basic amenity smacks of barbarism; in 2015, he UK Guardian described the lack of public restrooms in US transit systems as a sign that we lack “urban civilization.”

Historically, Sound Transit has rarely chosen to blaze trails when it comes to passenger access, comfort, or accessibility. For years, the agency mostly ignored complaints about its punitive fare enforcement policies, which can lead to crushing fines and even criminal charges, and continues to maintain that it must crack down on “fare evaders” because otherwise, everyone might decide to ride for free

In the case of restrooms, though, there’s still plenty of time to revamp existing policy. Instead of making restrooms rare and inaccessible, Sound Transit could decide, today, to make restroom access part of its commitment to customer service, by providing restrooms not just at far-flung transit hubs but throughout the system. Doing so would not only improve passenger comfort; it would also send a message that all kinds of people are welcome to use the system at all times of day, to go anywhere they want—whether it’s commuting straight from home to work or exploring the region from Bellevue to Ballard to Federal Way, with no particular destination in mind. Isn’t that also what transit is for?

Durkan Budget Would Gut JumpStart Spending Plan, Increase Funding for Encampment Response

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Jenny Durkan released the final budget of her term yesterday, outlining the proposal at a very high level in a six-minute speech from North Seattle College. In the coming weeks, the proposal will be debated, analyzed, and rewritten by the Seattle City Council (the addition of 35 net new police officers is an obvious target for their red pens), and PubliCola will be covering every aspect of those upcoming discussions. For now, though, here are a few initial notes on the plan, which reflects better-than-expected revenues and incorporates a lot of ongoing federal funding for COVID relief.

• The budget proposes taking $148 million from the city’s payroll tax fund, a repository for revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, and moving it into the general fund to pay for Durkan’s other priorities. Legislation the mayor will transmit to the council would also empower future mayors to use JumpStart revenues for virtually any purpose, including the “[m]aintenance of existing essential City services.” The mayor’s proposal would remove language from existing law stipulating that the tax can’t be used to “supplant existing funding from any City fund or revenue source.”

The council adopted the payroll tax specifically to fund programs addressing housing, homelessness, and equity, and created a separate fund for JumpStart revenues with the intention that they couldn’t be used for other purposes—which is precisely what Durkan is proposing to do.

“The proposed changes are necessary in order to reconcile the priorities identified in [the JumpStart bill] with Council actions in support of other critical funding needs, including homelessness, community safety, BIPOC investments, domestic violence prevention and victim services, appropriate compensation for City employees, and the ongoing shortfall in some City revenues,” the mayor’s budget proposal says.

The city estimates that JumpStart will bring in about $235 million next year, so Durkan’s plan would use up the majority of JumpStart funding for non-JumpStart purposes.

Durkan attempted to reallocate JumpStart revenues last year as well.

A summary of the bill by the City Budget Office notes that Durkan didn’t sign the JumpStart bill, “expressing many of the same concerns about earmarking certain revenue streams at a time when the City was making significant investments using one-time funding received from the federal government as a response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.” She also vetoed legislation last year that used JumpStart revenues to fund COVID relief, a veto the council narrowly overturned.

The city estimates that JumpStart will bring in about $235 million next year, so Durkan’s plan would use up the majority of JumpStart funding for non-JumpStart purposes. The budget would use one-time federal emergency dollars to backfill the gap in the JumpStart fund, but because those funds only last one year, the budget creates a future funding cliff for the next mayor and council. If the council adopts this plan, it will have to either cut the programs Durkan funded using a tax meant for other purposes, or continue to dip into JumpStart revenues while cutting back on programs funded this year with one-time funds. It seems unlikely that the council will allow this part of the budget proposal to stand as is.

This is hardly the first time Durkan has proposed dipping into funds earmarked by legislation for a specific purpose in order to fund her own unrelated priorities. In 2018, she started using funds from the sweetened beverage tax—a tax that was supposed to fund healthy food programs in areas most impacted by the tax—to pay for programs that had historically been funded through the city’s general fund, creating “extra” money for her office to allocate elsewhere.

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said the higher-than-expected contribution to the regional homelessness authority “represents increased spending on homelessness projected 2022. The [agreement] was written in 2019 and did not contemplate the pandemic or the massive infusion of funds to help our most vulnerable neighbors stay safe.”

When the council attempted to reverse this sleight-of-hand and use the tax revenues for their designated purpose, Durkan accused them of “cutting” programs that she was using the tax to fund, setting off a nasty battle that resulted in the council creating a designated fund for soda tax revenues—much like the designated JumpStart fund.

• Durkan wants to add another 35 (net) new police officers to the force—a fairly modest goal, but one directly in conflict with many council members’ stated commitment to reduce the size of the police department and invest the savings into community-based public safety alternatives. Last year, Durkan vetoed the entire city budget because the council amended it to reduce the size of the police force, a veto the council subsequently overturned.

Although the budget proposal includes funding for new and continued alternatives to policing and police response, such as Health One and Triage One, and funding for the Regional Peacekeepers Collective, a gun-violence prevention program, it also commits to “restoring SPD staffing to previous levels” by hiring new officers. To that end, Durkan’s budget also includes $1.1 million to pay for hiring incentives for new recruits and officers who make lateral transfers from other departments.

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The city council just rejected a series of proposals from Councilmember Alex Pedersen that would have set aside as much as $3 million to retain existing officers and recruit new ones to the department.

• The budget proposes sending more money than the city originally agreed to provide—$104.2 million, compared to $75 million the city agreed to provide in the interlocal agreement adopted in 2019—to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to take over (almost) all the homelessness programs previously managed by the city at the end of this year. The homelessness authority is funded by the city and King County; suburban cities, which hold three seats on the authority’s governing board, don’t contribute financially to the authority.

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said the higher-than-expected contribution “represents increased spending on homelessness projected 2022. The [agreement] was written in 2019 and did not contemplate the pandemic or the massive infusion of funds to help our most vulnerable neighbors stay safe.”

The new funds include $2.4 million in state and local funds for “tiny home villages,” coincidentally the same amount of state and local dollars the council has been trying to get the mayor to release to pay for three new tiny house villages this year. The mayor’s proposed $2.4 million would pay for ongoing “operations, maintenance, and services s for three tiny home villages (estimated 120 units) or other noncongregate emergency shelter or temporary housing options,” leaving open the possibility that the regional authority might fund a different shelter option.

However, because the money is supposed to “operationalize” funding in the state capital budget that was explicitly for “tiny homes,” it’s likely that advocates for tiny house villages would object strongly to using the money for some other kind of shelter. Authority CEO Marc Dones has expressed skepticism about tiny houses as a form of temporary shelter, noting that people tend to stay in villages far longer than the city’s own goals for the program.

There’s also funding in the proposal for a new men’s shelter run by Africatown at a former nursing home in the Central District; ongoing support for the Salvation Army’s mass shelter in SoDo; and about $190 million for new housing, paid for through the voter-adopted housing levy, federal dollars, and other funding sources.

Durkan’s proposed budget increases funding for Parks’ encampment work by almost a million dollars, adding 6.5 full-time equivalent employees to respond to “the increased demand on [Seattle Parks and Recreation] to address impacts of unmanaged encampments, such as litter removal, storage of personal belongings, and data collection & reporting in compliance with Multi-Department Rules (MDAR).”

The budget also proposes $6 million for services to help people who receive federal emergency housing vouchers maintain their housing when the vouchers run out. Some of this money, according to the budget summary, could come from rapid rehousing funds. As we’ve reported, the city’s plan to move people quickly from two shelter-based hotels into apartments using rapid rehousing subsidies has failed to place many people in housing, largely because the people moving into the hotels tend to be poor candidates for rapid rehousing programs, which generally require tenants to pay full market rent within a few months to a year.

• Although Durkan’s budget plan relinquishes control of most homelessness work, it still assumes that the city, not the regional authority, will maintain its role removing encampments and, to some extent, doing outreach to unsheltered people, although the form that role will take is unclear. Budget director Ben Noble told PubliCola yesterday that although “the shelter contracts and related pieces are all going to the regional authority… the feeling was that folks who are on the street and not in a sanctioned encampment but living outside are sill the primary responsibility of the city.” Continue reading “Durkan Budget Would Gut JumpStart Spending Plan, Increase Funding for Encampment Response”

Sound Transit CEO Rogoff Out Next Year, Labor Council Wades Into Sawant Fray, 43rd Democrats Divided on Dow

1. Learn to trust the Fizz: Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff will leave the agency next spring. On Thursday, Sound Transit board members voted to approve the terms of Rogoff’s departure and queuing up a national search for his replacement.

The announcement came two weeks after the board removed what had seemed to be a standard one-year renewal of Rogoff’s contract from their regular agenda, after a nearly two-hour executive session in which board members discussed his performance as director of the agency. Board members also retreated to a lengthy executive session during Thursday’s meeting before emerging with the news that Rogoff “did not foresee continuing in his role,” in the words of board chair Kent Keel.

As PubliCola reported in early September, board members have spent the last month discussing whether to renew Rogoff’s contract, raising questions about Rogoff’s leadership style as well as large cost increases—largely for property acquisition—that forced the board to adopt a “realignment” plan for the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 package earlier this year. Mayor Jenny Durkan King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and King County Executive Dow Constantine are among the board members who brought up concerns publicly and internally.

According to a report by an independent consultant, Triunity, the cost increases were worsened by the fact that various divisions of the agency didn’t communicate with each other, thanks to a “siloed” organizational structure and a culture of keeping bad news under wraps. Another issue: Sound Transit, under Rogoff’s leadership, has been slow to make decisions that could reduce costs, such as choosing a single preferred alignment for light rail expansion instead of continuing to study many different options.

Durkan, one of two board members to vote against retaining Rogoff after allegations that he acted inappropriately around female staff, did not join in the round of praise for Rogoff that followed the board vote Thursday. After a round of effusive praise for Rogoff (Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus: “We should be very grateful as a board and a region for his expertise and skills”), Balducci’s comments focused mostly on Rogoff’s early years at the agency, calling him a steady hand when the agency was struggling to get its bearings

“We were trying… to build this incredibly ambitious and future-looking transit plan, to finally meet the promise of what we have needed and wanted in this region for over 50 years,” Balducci said. “Peter stepped in in the middle of that and quickly got his bearings and helped to bring us home.”

Rogoff will receive severance worth one year’s salary, plus unused vacation time and other benefits outlined in his contract. Speaking after the vote, Rogoff said he has found the job “simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting,” sometimes leaning more toward the latter. “I will continue to be the loudest cheerleader for Sound Transit’s staff and all of their accomplishments even after I step to the sidelines next year,” he said.

2. The King County Labor Council, which represents around 150 unions in King County, tweeted on Thursday urging Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant to stop “meddling” and “interfering” in the internal business of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Union, which is currently on strike over a contract that a majority of members rejected over issues including pay, contract length, and parking reimbursements. “Ask how you can support instead of being a nuisance,” the Labor Council said.

Sawant began inserting herself into the debate earlier this month, when she issued statements and held a rally urging union members to vote “no” on the contract. Union leaders, including the head of the anti-Sawant Building Trades Union as well as the Carpenters’ Union itself, have repeatedly asked Sawant to stay out of their negotiations. “[N]o politician should be meddling in a private sector union contract negotiation,” Washington State Building Trades vice president Chris McClaine said. “It only helps those who want to destroy worker unions and take money out of workers’ paychecks.”

This week, Sawant issued a flurry of statements supporting the strike, touting her own promise to contribute $10,000 (up from an initial pledge of $2,000) to the carpenters’ strike fund, and showcasing a letter of support from several dozen carpenters’ union members for “stepp[ing] forward in solidarity” with the strike. The $10,000 pledge will come from the Sawant Solidarity Fund, which supports various political efforts and campaigns.

Sawant also said this week that she will introduce legislation to “require construction contractors to fully pay for workers’ parking costs, strengthen enforcement and penalties for wage theft, and restore [the] right to strike” at sites with a project labor agreement (PLA)—a bargained agreement between the union and contractors that prohibits workers from walking off the job. PLA sites in Seattle include the NHL hockey arena, the downtown convention center, and Sound Transit’s ongoing light rail construction.

It’s unclear when Sawant plans to introduce the legislation or what mechanism it would contain for requiring specific parking reimbursements, which are currently included in union contracts, not dictated by legislation.

3. The 43rd Legislative District Democrats failed to reach an endorsement for King County Executive at their endorsement meeting Tuesday night, a victory of sorts for incumbent Dow Constantine after a series of landslide votes for lefty candidates in other races. Constantine received a little over 43 percent of the vote to his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen’s, 54 percent.

That may not seem like a blowout, but compared to the district’s sweeping support for other progressive candidates—city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas Kennedy, City Council candidate Nikkita Oliver, and mayoral candidate Lorena González all received first-round votes of at least 75 percent—Nguyen’s 54 percent showing looked limp.

“We cannot wait for the status quo to solve the problems that have been impacting us for decades and they especially won’t be solved by those who helped create them,” Nguyen said before the vote. Constantine responded to this by highlighting the county’s work responding to the COVID pandemic, including the imposition of a countywide vaccine mandate for indoor and large outdoor events. “This is the kind of difficult work that real leaders do. I’ve never been much for bluster,” Constantine said.

Sound Transit CEO’s Contract Renewal Delayed as Board Discusses Job Performance

According to a new report, Sound Transit's decision to keep many alternatives on the table contributed to cost increases for the West Seattle-Ballard light rail expansion.
According to a new report, Sound Transit’s decision to keep many alternatives on the table contributed to cost increases for the West Seattle-Ballard light rail expansion.

By Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, whose three-year contract is up for its first one-year renewal this year, is reportedly facing internal criticism from Sound Transit board members who have felt blindsided by revelations over the past year and a half that the Sound Transit 3 program, which includes light rail to West Seattle and Ballard, will cost far more than originally estimated.

Last week, the board met in executive (closed) session for nearly two hours before returning and, without explanation, removing Rogoff’s contract renewal from the agenda. The board has until the end of September to decide whether to renew Rogoff’s contract, although Rogoff himself can extend that timeline by requesting an additional month for board consideration.

Board members have raised concerns in the past about Rogoff’s on-the-job behavior, including alleged inappropriate behavior toward female employees and an abrasive communications style, and the board agreed in 2018 to pay for a $550-an-hour coach to improve his approach to leading the agency. What’s in question now, though, is his job performance.

For the first several years of Rogoff’s time as CEO, the high-profile elements of his job included passing the ST3 ballot measure and amassing federal funds for the agency during the Trump presidency, a time of great uncertainty for transit agencies. Now, the job is more about planning and implementation—building the system voters adopted on time and on budget (and more quotidian stuff like making sure elevators and escalators are usually in working order).

The report also concludes Sound Transit has a “cultural problem about not wanting to deliver bad news or daylight issues in a timely manner,” keeping board members in the dark and delaying action when things go wrong.

Over the past two years, the cost to build ST3 has ballooned, compromising Sound Transit’s ability to complete the program as planned. Last month, the board adopted a “realignment” strategy that calls for moving ahead with the projects in ST3 on a delayed schedule, but accelerating projects in a predetermined order if there are sufficient revenues to pay for them.

A new report on the agency’s cost estimating practices, which the board received earlier this month, hints at some board members’ concerns. The report, by Denver-based Triunity Inc, concludes that under Rogoff’s leadership, Sound Transit has been slow to make crucial decisions that could reduce costs (such as choosing a preferred alignment for light rail expansion), that “siloed” divisions within the agency failed to talk to each other while developing alignment alternatives, and that staffers are reluctant to share concerns with the board because of Sound Transit’s culture of keeping bad news under wraps.

For example, according to the report, the managers of the West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail Extension division didn’t communicate well the division that acquires property for construction and right-of-way. Ultimately, the report concludes, that lack of communication, as well as understaffing in Sound Transit’s right-of-way division, contributed to higher-than-expected land acquisition costs. 

“We have to figure out how to make a safe space at the staff level, [for staff] to know that they can raise challenges. There’s a lot of work to be done.”—Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci

The report also concludes Sound Transit has a “cultural problem about not wanting to deliver bad news or daylight issues in a timely manner,” keeping board members in the dark and delaying action when things go wrong. “The daylighting issues on [the West Seattle-Ballard extension] have been significant and it is unclear to staff at times how, when, and where to daylight issues to agency leadership when scope, schedule, or budget change,” the report says. “There is a lack of an appropriate forum for communicating these issues with ST leadership on a regular basis and availability of time from leadership is limited due to other priorities or duties. This impacts crucial decision making for ST leadership and the Board.” Continue reading “Sound Transit CEO’s Contract Renewal Delayed as Board Discusses Job Performance”

“Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

Drive through Seattle’s industrial areas—Georgetown, South Park, parts of Ballard, and SoDo—and it’s hard to miss them: Bulky, horizontal concrete blocks lined up like giant Legos along the sides of the street, preventing large vehicles from parking by the roadside.

At Third and Brandon in Georgetown, around the corner from the headquarters of the LGBTQ+ health care organization Lifelong, a row of bright-white barricades prevent any vehicle longer than a passenger van from parking on the street. Along a quiet, wide stretch of road near West Marginal Way in South Park, graffiti is just starting to pop up on an older, graying line of blocks set a dozen feet apart across a chain-link fence from a modern apartment building.

The blocks, known as “ecology blocks” because they’re made of waste material that concrete producers would otherwise throw away, are there to prevent large vehicles—primarily RVs—from parking in front of businesses. They started proliferating in industrial areas, which are the only areas where Seattle allows RVs to park overnight, during the pandemic, when the city suspended rules requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours.

Equinox Studios owner Sam Farrazaino, who says the blocks have given his neighborhood the feel of a “war zone,” has installed a number of the blocks around land he owns in Georgetown, although he says he used his “eco blocks” to “define parking” for his business, painted them to make them more attractive, and did not put them in the public right-of-way. “It’s a complicated… debate,” said Farrazaino, who described a rat infestation on a lot surrounded with RVs that made the ground look like “a moving carpet.” On the other hand, he said, “We keep pushing people around and saying we solved the problem, but the end result of the people with the power and land being able to push out that people that don’t have power and don’t have land is terrible.”‘

Although most of the debate about unsheltered homelessness centers on people living in tents in so-called “unauthorized encampments” (in Seattle, there is no other kind), about a quarter of people living without shelter in the city live in RVs, which are only allowed to park overnight in industrial areas. The city dedicates few resources to helping this group, who are often seen as less vulnerable than tent residents and are unlikely to “accept” the city’s offers of shelter, because even so-called enhanced shelters, which are open during the day and allow people to bring their partners and pets, provide less privacy and autonomy than the most rundown RV.

Years of efforts by advocates and city council members to create “safe lots” for RV residents have been unsuccessful, thanks largely to neighborhood objections that have made it difficult to site lots for ordinary cars and trucks, much less RVs. And while the city council recently allocated $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds could create safe parking spaces for between 20 and 30 RVs, that represents a tiny fraction of the need; according to the most recent count of homeless people in King County, nearly 1,000 people were living in RVs, and vehicular homelessness expert Graham Pruss, an academic researcher who has advised the city on the needs of people living in vehicles, says the true number is likely much higher.

“The reality is that the people who live in the vehicles and the people who own the businesses who are angry about the vehicles are all subject to the same problem: There is not a private place for the person who lives in that vehicle to park, and if they don’t have a place to park, they are forced to occupy that public street,” Pruss said.

Compounding the conflict, the city has used laws and informal policies, such as “No Parking 2-5 AM” signs, to push RVs deeper into nonresidential areas, usually far away from frequent transit lines, hygiene centers, and agencies that provide resources like job assistance and addiction treatment.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would stop enforcing the 72-hour parking rule so that people could work from home; one year later, she announced she was reinstating the regulation, forcing people who had been living in one place for a year or more to get their vehicles in working order or risk losing them. 

Homeless service providers say the suspension of the rule had positive effects for vehicle residents, who didn’t have to deal with the daily stress of finding another place to park. “It was nice for them to have a reprieve where they didn’t have to move every 72 hours, where they could be in place and connect to service providers from one location and get more accomplished,” said Rebecca Gilley, the SoDo outreach coordinator for the homeless outreach group REACH. 

But it also led to increased conflicts with nearby business owners, who complained that people occupying space on the street were making it impossible for customers to park, committing crimes, and causing unhealthy and unsanitary conditions around their vehicles.

“There were folks who were here for a year and a half, blocking the whole sidewalk on both sides and blocking part of the travel lanes with all the stuff they had accumulated” around their RV, Farrazaino said. “If it was a house and the living conditions were the same as these, the county and the city would have shut it down and condemned the house.”

Placing ecology blocks or boulders in the public right-of-way without permission, as many businesses have done, is illegal under city law; theoretically, anyone who does so can be fined up to $4,000 for each individual violation.

The problem is, the blocks are cheap to put in place and expensive to remove. Farrazaino said he paid about $20 apiece for his ecology blocks, which he bought from Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel in Ballard. The biggest expense, he added, was moving them. “We drove back and forth to Salmon Bay with a big rental truck to get the ones we have here,” Farrazaino said. “It’s just a matter of moving them around with a forklift that can handle it.”

Removing the blocks would require the city to devote money, manpower, and storage space to addressing the problem, plus enforcement to ensure the blocks don’t come back. “Part of the challenge is that each ecology blocks weighs 1-2 tons, and more blocks continue appearing in new areas,” Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Ethan Bergerson said. “Removing these massive obstructions is costly and our employees are busy completing important work to maintain our streets and infrastructure.”

Mariajose Barrera, who owns Mose Auto in Georgetown, said she installed ecology blocks near her business because of “the garbage, the nuisance, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampments.” For example, she said, someone parked a large box truck outside her auto shop for several weeks and was using it to hold stolen goods; more recently, someone broke into her shop and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of tools.

“We’ve been working to be able to have parking for our own businesses and kind of deter people from long-term parking, because the garbage, the nuisances, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampment—it’s really rough.” Barrera said. Seattle Public Utilities provides garbage pickup and sewage pump-out services to some RVs through its RV remediation and pump-out programs, but the utility can’t serve every site, so garbage, sewage, and gas and chemical spills remain persistent problems.

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“Unfortunately, we’ve had set up these eco blocks because we’re not getting any other help from the city,” Barrera continued. “It’s unfair—we all work for our stuff and for these people to just come in take whatever they want, whenever they want, without any accountability is not okay.”

Part of his frustration, Farrazaino said, stems from the fact that the city has pushed people living in RVs into industrial areas, which make up just 12 percent of the city’s land. Gentrification in places like SoDo and industrial Ballard, where breweries and retail storefronts are overtaking traditional industrial businesses, has constrained options for vehicle residents even further; you’re less likely to get hassled or swept if you live next to a steel fabrication plant than in front of a popular bar. The result is more conflicts between RV residents and businesses in places like Georgetown and South Park, and the proliferation of barricades to keep them from coming back.

“SoDo is pushing everyone down here [to Georgetown] because they have a [business improvement area] and money to hire security,” Farrazaino said. A business advocacy group might give Georgetown or South Park more clout with the city; Erin Goodman, the director of the SoDo BIA, has pushed the city to crack down on RVs from the area for years, arguing that the presence of people living in vehicles has contributed to crime and filth in the area. Continue reading ““Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness”

“Three-Strikes” Resentencing Continues; Campaign Debate Highlights Urbanist Shift

1. On Friday afternoon, 63-year-old Raymond Ben became the fifth person from King County to be resentenced under a new state law intended to correct decades of harsh mandatory sentences by retroactively removing second-degree robbery from the list of offenses targeted by the state’s “three-strikes” statute, which imposes a life sentence without parole for so-called “persistent offenders.”

The law requires prosecutors to request resentencing hearings by July 25 for anyone currently serving a life sentence for a “three-strikes” case involving a second-degree robbery—which, unlike other three-strikes offenses like rape and manslaughter, typically doesn’t involve a weapon or injury to another person. The law made at least 114 people across Washington eligible for resentencing, including 29 people from King County—many of whom, like Ben, have spent a decade or more in prison.

In 2001, a King County judge sentenced Ben to life in prison after he stole a computer from a secure building at the University of Washington and punched three bystanders who tried to stop him; because of previous convictions for burglary and second-degree robbery, Ben fell into Washington’s “persistent offender” category.

Ben is one of a dozen inmates for whom the unit requested resentencing hearings before the July deadline. Two of those hearings—for 50-year-old Michael Peters and 59-year-old Rene Haydel—also took place on Friday.

Of the dozen inmates scheduled for resentencing before July 25, three—including Ben, who has cancer—received priority because of health concerns. Rickey Mahaney, the first person resentenced in King County under the new law, left the Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility in Franklin County on June 1 to move to hospice care.

Once the Washington Department of Corrections approves Ben’s re-entry plan, he has arranged to join his sister’s family after his release. But not everyone resentenced under the new law can turn to family members for support, which has forced the prosecutor’s office to rely on nonprofit organizations—the Seattle Clemency Project, among others—to organize housing, employment and other elements of re-entry plans for several inmates who would otherwise have no support system after their release.

Carla Lee, who leads the sentence review unit within the King County Prosecutor’s Office, told PubliCola that many other prosecutors’ offices in Washington won’t be able to provide backup options to those they resentence. “If someone in another county doesn’t have family to help them get back on their feet after their release,” she said, “there’s no guarantee that they’ll have another option.”

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2. PubliCola’s Erica C. Barnett moderated a mayoral forum sponsored by the MASS Coalition, Cascade Bicycle Club, Transportation Choices Coalition, and several other environmental groups last Wednesday.

The conversation, which featured five of the leading mayoral candidates (Colleen Echohawk and Casey Sixkiller were absent), highlighted substantive differences on issues that have flown under the radar during most debates this year, such as transit funding, the future of the Move Seattle levy, and the city’s contribution to climate change.

Some observations from the debate:

• Former council member Bruce Harrell, who’s leading (after “undecided”) in recent polls, has really embraced the idea that private donations will help solve the city’s biggest problems, including not just homelessness but transportation infrastructure.

In response to a question about the Move Seattle levy, which has failed to produce promised investments in sidewalks, bike infrastructure, and road and bridge maintenance, Harrell he would lean on large employers’ obligation “to give back to the community, to help us with the infrastructure. … So you’ll see not only a taxing mechanism, but you’ll see philanthropic efforts on my part.”

• Nearly every candidate supported the concept of making transit free—a huge endeavor that would have significant revenue impacts on both Sound Transit and King County Metro—although supporters varied in their responses to how they would like to see free transit happen. Continue reading ““Three-Strikes” Resentencing Continues; Campaign Debate Highlights Urbanist Shift”

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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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.

 

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”