Category: Transportation

LA Transportation Veteran Tapped to Lead SDOT Says He’ll Do “Top to Bottom Review” of Vision Zero Efforts

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing in the 85-degree heat at Roberto Maestas Plaza across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station on Wednesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced his appointment of Greg Spotts, the sustainability director for Los Angeles’ street services bureau, as the new head of the Seattle Department of Transportations. A veteran of the LA department, recently rebranded StreetsLA, Spotts advocated for the installation of solar reflective coating on pavement, street trees, and shade structures to combat the urban heat island effect, in which pavement and buildings increase temperatures in urban areas.

Each of the past four elected mayors (not counting Tim Burgess, who served temporarily after Ed Murray’s 2017 ouster) has appointed their own transportation director, although each mayor has had varying levels of interest in the department. The last transportation director, Sam Zimbabwe, oversaw the closure and repair of the West Seattle Bridge as well as the transfer of about 100 parking enforcement officers and supervisors from the Seattle Police Department into SDOT.

As head of SDOT, Spotts will be responsible for crafting the new Seattle Transportation Plan, overseeing the renewal of the Move Seattle Levy, and addressing the city’s failure to achieve the goals of Vision Zero, a plan for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

“I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”—SDOT director nominee Greg Spotts

Since 2015, when the city adopted this goal, more than 175 people have been killed by vehicle collisions and more than 1,200 have been seriously injured, a trend that accelerated in the last several years and is by far the worst in Southeast Seattle, which encompasses many of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods as well as some of its most dangerous arterial streets.

Asked Wednesday what he would do to get Seattle’s Vision Zero plan back on track, Stotts said, “I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives or offer the best chance of saving lives, on a go-forward basis, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”

PubliCola also asked Stotts about the proliferation of “eco-blocks”—huge, heavy blocks made out of waste material from concrete production—in areas where the city has swept RVs, vehicles, and tents. As PublICola first reported a year ago, it is illegal to place these blocks in the public right-of-way, but SDOT, which answers to the mayor, has not enforced the law.

Stotts said there’s a similar thing happening in LA, where an estimated 48,000 people are living unsheltered and businesses have been placing boulders in the street to prevent unsheltered people from occupying public spaces. However, he said LA has only removed these obstructions on occasion, and added that he has no plan “yet” to respond to their proliferation here.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell, on removing encampments and RVs during this week’s heat wave

“There are occasions where we remove some of those obstacles from the public right of way, on a case by case basis,” Stotts said, “so I’ll  bring some of those experiences to complex discussions about how to handle it” in Seattle.

As the temperatures rose into the high 80s during the press conference, Harrell was asked about his decision to continue removing encampments and RV sites—impounding at least seven vehicles on Tuesday, according to SDOT—in the middle of a historic heat wave.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing,” Harrell said. “For me, doing nothing is the wrong thing to do. … And so we are aggressively finding housing and housing alternatives and getting people into cooling centers. I take ownership for what we’re doing, and I’m pretty proud of the work we’re doing, and quite frankly, a day doesn’t go by without people saying ‘thank you.'”

According to the mayor’s office, 20 people out of the dozens living at a longstanding RV encampment in SoDo accepted offers of shelter, which is not housing and does not include “treatment,” which itself is not something unsheltered people automatically want or need.

Toll Revenue Projections Plummet for Costly Waterfront Tunnel as Drivers Stay Away

By Erica C. Barnett

Revenues from tolls on the SR 99 tunnel, which replaced the Alaskan Way Viaduct on the downtown Seattle waterfront, are coming in much lower than the state Department of Transportation assumptions, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future, the state treasury department told the Washington State Transportation Commission this week. Deputy state treasurer Jason Richter told the commission that the new projections likely represent a “permanent reduction” in toll revenues, which pay for construction debt, ongoing maintenance, replacement and repair costs, and a loan from the state’s motor vehicle account.

In May of this year, for example, the state collected just under $5.7 million from tunnel tolls, about $3 million less than projected last year. That trend extends into future projections, which show a shortfall ranging from around 16 percent over the latter half of the 2020s to 30 percent or more in the future. In some years, according to the latest projections , toll revenues won’t be enough to cover debt service on the $3.4 billion tunnel and waterfront roadway project. By 2026, the projections show the tunnel project about $2.5 million in the red, and “then the difference starts to climb at a pretty uncomfortable clip,” Richter said, with a cumulative negative balance of more than $200 million projected 25 years out.

The state can make up for some of the shortfall, Richter told the WSTC, “but I’m suspicious that that’s not going to be sufficient to cover the entirety of this issue, given that the shortfall in a lot of years is equal to roughly a third of the revenue coming in.”

The COVID pandemic had unprecedented impacts on traffic into and through downtown Seattle, changing commute patterns and reducing the number of cars on every road. During 2020, the number of people using the tunnel plummeted to less than 40,000 vehicles a day, and that number has not increased much even as other roads, like I-5, have started to approach pre-pandemic traffic levels. Gas prices, which are currently at unprecedented highs, have also caused people to rethink how they get around, combine trips, and avoid unnecessary driving.

But even before the pandemic and $6 gas prices, people weren’t using the tunnel nearly as much as WSDOT predicted they would; in fact, once tolls went into effect in 2019, the number of vehicles using the tunnel dropped by 28 percent to fewer than 60,000. Contacted by email, WSDOT toll division spokesman Christopher Foster noted that “prior to the pandemic, trafficvolumes in the tolled tunnel were exceeding forecasts,” but both the forecasts and “baseline” tunnel usage are moving targets; while the tunnel was originally justified on the grounds that 130,000 cars would use it every day, the state has continually adjusted its forward-looking projections downward in light of actual traffic volumes.

One of the major reasons people aren’t driving in the tunnel is that there’s no real incentive to use it: If you can from point A to point B quickly and conveniently for free, why would you pay for the privilege? If you’ve driven in the tunnel, you’ve probably noticed that it often feels like an empty highway in the middle of the night—people avoid the tunnel in favor of existing surface streets, including the currently two-lane surface Alaskan Way, which WSDOT is currently widening into yet another highway.

Cary Moon, the founder of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, which advocated against the tunnel, is reluctant to say “I told you so.” But she will say that the data WSDOT used to justify building the tunnel—which initially projected 130,000 vehicles would use the tunnel every day—was “a joke” even before COVID came into the picture.

“Driving alone, especially in the tunnel, is dropping significantly and that’s’ a good trend long term,” Moon said. It’s also “what we knew would happen. … If we had invested in the right infrastructure, can you imagine what we could have done?”

But to WSDOT, despite its stated commitment to sustainability, the best outcome is one in which drivers get back in their cars and start using the tunnel again. The state could continue to boost toll rates, which currently range from $1.20 to $2.70 each way, to make up for lost revenues, and undoubtedly will, but higher tolls tend to lead to more diversion and people making different travel decisions. It’s a delicate balance.

“I think the transportation commission is doing their best to set tolls at a level that covers costs but also doesn’t cause excessive diversion,” Richter told PubliCola. The negative balance in WSDOT’s tunnel account is “cumulatively growing to the point where there’s going to have to be a conversation with legislators, as well as the transportation commission, to come up with a viable way to solve this,” Richter said. In other words, the legislature needs to come up with a solution, and funding, because the tunnel’s financial underpinnings are shaky.

“The bills have to be paid, and I have no doubt they will be paid—it’s going to be a question of, how do we do so without causing harm to the corridor and do so in a sustainable manner?”

 

Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route

Fourth Avenue Viaduct
A 4th Avenue route for the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension is the clear favorite in the Chinatown-International District neighborhood, but requires a costly rebuild of the viaduct over existing train lines in the area.

By Lizz Giordano

UPDATE: Citing missing data in the DEIS, which fails to identify the loss of Alki Beach Academy and the childcare spots, Councilmenber Alex Pedersen is proposing the city not make a recommendation in the segment that runs through the Delridge/ Youngstown area.

The amendment also makes its recommendation for a 17th Ave. W. route in Interbay contingent on the preservation of a proposed Seattle Storm practice facility in the area; former Mayor Jenny Durkan fast-tracked the new building, which contradicts the city’s recently adopted industrial land-use policies, before she left office last year.

The committee is set to vote on this amendment and a few others on Tuesday, July 5.

Original story:

As Sound Transit moves toward a decision about path of its new light rail line to Ballard and West Seattle, the city is preparing to adopt legislation urging the transit agency to bury the track underground, in order to minimize residential and maritime displacements. But the city held off on making a recommendation about the line’s routing and station placement in the Chinatown/International District, citing community concerns about displacement.

The new light rail line, known as the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension (WSLBE), will connect downtown with West Seattle and Ballard, running through the North Delridge Neighborhood and into the Alaska Junction to the south and through South Lake Union, Seattle Center and Interbay to the north. Regardless of the final route the Sound Transit board chooses next year, businesses and residents will get displaced, and construction will close streets for months or years. 

Residents and businesses in the Chinatown-International District have raised significant concerns about the new line which could take several blocks of the historic area—displacing residents and businesses—while also bringing noise and dust during construction and when trains begin operating. The resolution, drafted by mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and sponsored by council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen, says Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement for the project lacks details about these displacements and potential strategies to mitigate noise, dust, and road closures during construction. The resolution also calls for more community engagement in the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods.

Sound Transit is considering several different options for each segment of the route as the project moves through the lengthy planning stage. The next big step in the planning phase will come later this summer, when the Sound Transit board will select alternatives to continue studying while also re-identifying a preferred alternative for each segment, which the agency describes as a statement of preference, not a final decision about what to build.

“All of the alternatives are analyzed equally, but design emphasis and refinements, and mitigation strategy refinement, will be focused on the preferred alternatives,” said Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham. 

Chinatown/International District options

Both potential routes in the Chinatown-International District, along Fourth or Fifth Avenue, have significant potential drawbacks. Running light rail under Fifth Ave. would swallow several blocks of the historic community near the Chinatown Gate and expose the heart of the neighborhood to the brunt of the noise and dust that comes with a large construction project. It has drawn fierce opposition from the neighborhood. 

Fourth Avenue would require a rebuild of the bridge, or viaduct, that runs between S Jackson Street and Airport Way S., and would cost about one-third more than any of the Fifth Avenue alternatives Sound Transit is studying. It would also severely impact King County Metro Transit’s bus base in the area. 

Both CID alternatives would take many years to build—in the case of the shallow Fourth Avenue alternative, more than a decade— and temporarily or permanently shut down the Seattle Streetcar system, which runs from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Each alternative also has deep and shallow station options; the city’s recommendations mostly avoid the alternatives with deep-tunnel stations that can only be accessed by elevators.

The city doesn’t plan to pick a preferred alternative in the CID, and is asking Sound Transit to refrain from doing so as well. Instead, the city will recommend that Sound Transit extend the study period for another six to nine months to further engage with the community. Seattle leaders also want to see more details about potential displacement in the area, along with mitigation strategies to help the neighborhood deal with construction as well as long-term changes.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, said Betty Lau, a leader in the CID  and member of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association who is pushing for a Fourth Avenue station.

She’s optimistic about this pause.

“I think with the extra time and talking with more community members, they’ll get a better idea of how these things really impact the people who live there, who do business, who depend on the tourism and on the regional draw of the three neighborhoods—Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon,” Lau said. “They also have more time to work on environmental studies.

“It’s also good for community members,” Lau added, “because we’re still getting the word out, we’re still looking for our allies and people to help. We’re still informing the non-English-speaking members of the community. And that does take time.”

Delridge 

In West Seattle, city staff recommend supporting a tunnel route that would cut into the ground after passing the Nucor Steel facility, then go underground near the northwest edge of the West Seattle Golf Course. This medium tunnel alternative is a less costly option than digging a hole all the way from the middle of West Seattle Golf Course and into the Alaska Junction, another proposed route.  Continue reading “Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route”

Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps

1. A new audit of the King County Sheriff’s Office found significant racial disparities in use of force, arrests, and who becomes a “suspect” in areas where the sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency.

Residents and sheriff’s deputies “reported Black people as suspects and officers arrested Black people at rates nearly four times higher than expected given their proportion of the county population,” according to the audit report.

Although the county’s data on use of force was limited—619 calls led to a use of force between 2019 and 2021—the audit found that “overall, White officers as a group used force twice as often as Black or Asian officers. Additionally, both Black and Hispanic people were subjected to uses of force more often than White people.”

As the chart above shows, there were also major disparities in arrests—specifically, Black people were three and a half times more likely to be arrested than their proportion of the population would predict. In some areas, such as Sammamish and Woodinville, Black people were arrested at a rate more than ten times out of proportion to their population.

After “controlling” for overall arrest rates between various racial groups, that differential more or less disappears, but it still illustrates major upstream disparities, principal management auditor Peter Heineccius told the King County Council on Tuesday: Black, brown, and Native American people are far more likely than white and Asian people to become suspects (in part because people call police on them more), and more likely to be arrested as the result of a 911 call.

“This shows the risk of how an analysis that controls for certain factors might explain away racial disparities because it removes analysis of how [people of] different races become suspects,” he said.

Another factor that makes it hard to grasp the scope of racial disparities in stops and detentions: The sheriff’s office does not collect information about race during the vast majority of encounters with the public. Under the department’s interpretation of a law intended to protect immigrants from ICE, the county council would need to change county law to allow officers to start routinely recording the race of people they encounter.

“Previous Sheriff’s Office leadership has also stated that officers should not collect information about race, limiting the ability to quantify and ultimately reduce racial disparities,” the audit says.

Calling in to the council meeting on Tuesday, county Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said she “was heartened to see that while the report did say there are racial disparities, the amount of force that we use, based on the number of contracts was very, very minimal”—about 0.06 percent of all calls for service result in force, according to the audit.

2. The city’s decision to refund around $5 million in parking fines, and drop the equivalent of another $5 million in tickets, is not the only issue parking enforcement officers have raised during their transition from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Parking officers, who are considered “special police officers” under the commission from SPD that was at the center of the parking ticket snafu, want to retain access to the Criminal Justice Information System, a that allows police to do background checks on vehicle owners, via radio, before making a stop.

Now, the union that represents the parking enforcement officers, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG), filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the city for taking away their access to CJIS without bargaining the changes with the union. CJIS is only available to law enforcement officers; the state Public Employment Relations Commission is currently considering their claim.

“We sill have access to radio—it’s that the information is not the same as when we were at SPD,” said SPEOG president Chrisanne Sapp. “We are able to read between the lines, but with the body of work that we do, I don’t find that reading between the lines is an acceptable response.”

PERC hearings are not public; however, representatives from the city have argued that parking enforcement officers can still call in plates and find out if they should avoid a parked vehicle, even without access to the information system.

2. The recent removal of a small encampment from a park near the West Seattle Golf Course illustrates the problem with the city’s approach to sweeps, according to Keith Hughes, a neighbor who runs a day center at the nearby American Legion hall: Without housing and meaningful services, people just come back.

All five people who were living in Totem Pole Park a week ago returned to the area within three days, according to Hughes, including a couple who moved their tent temporarily to another location and three single men who stayed a couple nights in a large downtown shelter and came back to West Seattle days after they left. One of the men subsequently attacked Hughes physically, he said, punching the 74-year-old in the face and leaving him with a droopy eye, a large cut, and bruises on his left shoulder. Continue reading “Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps”

Sound Transit Board Selects Mystery Candidate to Head Agency After Series of Closed-Door Sessions

File:Sound Transit Type 2 S70 LRV number 202 at SODO OMF.jpg
Image by SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

On Thursday, a Sound Transit committee voted to formally recommend an unidentified “Candidate A” as the new CEO of the regional transit agency and to authorize the chair and vice chairs of the committee to enter contract negotiations with the candidate, whom the board chose from a list of three finalists in a series of closed-door executive sessions.

The process for selecting a new leader for the regional transit agency has been shrouded in secrecy. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said anonymity “helps encourage qualified people who are currently employed to put their hat in the ring. Many of the more than 90 applicants likely wouldn’t have stepped forward if doing so was conditioned on their current bosses, employees and stakeholders potentially learning of their interest to move on.”

Patrick said the agency will reveal the name of the nominee in a press release before the final vote.

“We certainly need to just hold the name in confidence just for a little bit longer,” Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel, a University Place council member, said at Thursday’s meeting. “We need to move forward with a couple more items, contract negotiations and such, and the hope is that once the chair and the two vice chairs can get through significant part of those further your conversations with the candidate a we will be in a place to put that name out.”

“If anything, the Sound Transit board’s public discussion about candidates ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ only breeds more skepticism among citizens. This practice is the opposite of the participatory government that we all aspire to.”—Washington Coalition for Open Government

The state’s Open Public Meetings Act allows agencies to have closed-door deliberations to “evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment” as long as “final action hiring” takes place in public.  The committee’s action is fully consistent with the law,” Patrick said, adding, “our committee’s action recommending a candidate and directing next steps of contract negotiations took place in open session.”

However, many other governments in the region conduct high-profile hiring processes largely in public, identifying lists of finalists and conducting public interviews for positions as varied as city council member, county sheriff, department director, and law enforcement oversight office director.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government told PubliCola that in keeping the identities of the finalists secret, the board “snubbed the very people—the public—that it serves. … If anything, the Sound Transit board’s public discussion about candidates ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ only breeds more skepticism among citizens. This practice is the opposite of the participatory government that we all aspire to.”

Sound Transit also confirmed that the dozens of community stakeholders who took part in the selection process agreed to sign nondisclosure agreements saying they would not speak about the candidate review process.

Sound Transit is currently facing significant challenges, including a budget shortfall, delays, malfunctioning escalators at its stations, and lagging ridership that will likely be exacerbated as the agency reduces service—increasing the time between train arrivals to 20 minutes—for construction this summer. 

 

Seattle Shuffles Scooter Share Deck, Library Invests in Social Services, Campaign Forms to Fight Potential Cannabis Tax

1. Bird, a scooter provider that’s already ubiquitous in cities across the country, will soon enter the Seattle market, while Spin and the venture-backed sit-down scooter company Wheels will no longer be seen on Seattle streets. In addition to Bird, Link and Lime will continue as scooter providers in Seattle.

The Seattle Department of Transportation announced the scooter shuffle on its website last week, just weeks after publishing the results of a controversial, nonscientific survey concluding that more scooter riders are injured while riding than previously reported.

The city will also permanently permit a new bikesharing company, Veo, whose low-slung bikes have vestigial pedals but function more like a sit-down scooter, with a throttle that allows riders to propel them while using the pedals as footrests.

Seattle’s relationship with scooters (and bikesharing) has long been ambivalent. In 2020, two and a half years after banning scooters entirely, the city took a baby step forward by issuing permits to three companies for 500 scooters each. Since then, the city has expanded its scooter permits to allow each of three providers to put 2,000 scooters on the streets; Lime, which provides both e-assist bikes and scooters, has a fourth permit for a total of 2,000 bikes and scooters.

According to SDOT’s scoring matrix, Spin narrowly lost out to Bird, Link, and Lime after scoring slightly lower on two measures: Parking (which includes policies the company implemented to make sure people parked correctly and how it responded to improperly parked scooters) and “operations and equity,” which included a number of factors such as how the company responds to complaints and its efforts to place scooters in “equity areas” outside the center city, including southeast and far north Seattle.

According to the city’s scooter data dashboard, Wheels scored particularly poorly compared to other companies, including Spin, at providing equitable access to its scooters.

Veo, which operates like a scooter but is classified as a bicycle, poses what SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson calls “interesting questions” for the city. Unlike traditional scooters, Veo devices are legal on sidewalks; because they aren’t classified as scooters, they also occupy one of just three potential bikeshare permits, which could limit the number of shared e-bikes allowed on city streets in the future, if other companies decide they want to enter the Seattle market.

“The bike/scooter share landscape is very dynamic and has shifted considerably since the bike share program began in 2017,” Bergerson said, and now includes “more companies offering devices which combine some of the features of bikes and some of the features of scooters. … If this market trend continues, it may make sense to consider how to adjust our permits to reflect the changing technology and industry trends.”

2. The Seattle Public Library is ending its contract with the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which for more than five years has provided a part-time “community resource specialist” to connect patrons to food, social services, and shelter, and hiring its own social service specialists.

The new hires include an assistant managing librarian at the downtown branch to oversee the work; a new social services librarian who will “work with information staff to maintain current information and contacts, coordinate the Bus Ticket program, and act as a link between our regular information services and our Community Resource Specialists,” according to library spokeswoman Elisa Murray; and two new in-house community resource specialists, including one who will focus on outreach to youth and young people.

“While this new model doesn’t necessarily provide patrons more time with on-site staff, we do think we can maintain more partnerships with this model, which we hope will lead to increased opportunities for patrons to access the supportive services they need,” Murray said.

For years, libraries (including Seattle’s) have debated whether, and to what extent, library staffers should be responsible for connecting patrons not just to library materials, but to social services and resources outside the library’s direct control. By hiring staff to oversee some of this work, SPL is making a more direct investment in the the theory that libraries can and should do both.

3. A new independent expenditure group representing marijuana retailers, called People for Legal Cannabis, just filed with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, reporting $16,000 in debt to the polling firm EMC Research. The group’s intent: To fight off potential legislation, first reported by David Hyde at KUOW, that would impose an additional sales tax on weed sales in Seattle. If the legislation, currently being floated by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000, passes, the group could propose a referendum to overturn the law.

According to a presentation first posted on KUOW, which PubliCola obtained independently, the UFCW’s still-nascent proposal would impose a “cannabis equity tax” of 25 cents a gram on flower; $2.00 per half-gram of high-potency concentrates; and a penny per milligram of THC in everything else. The money would fund a paid “cannabis equity commission”; “workforce training” for cannabis workers; and a “cannabis equity fund” that would “prioritize the needs of those most impacted by the War on Drugs,” which locked up millions of Black and brown Americans for possessing and consuming weed. Continue reading “Seattle Shuffles Scooter Share Deck, Library Invests in Social Services, Campaign Forms to Fight Potential Cannabis Tax”

Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda

Despite Democratic control in both houses, Washington state’s tax code remains deeply inequitable.

By Leo Brine

Last Thursday marked the end of the 2022 legislative session. Lawmakers only had 60 days to pass legislation, write and pass two supplemental budgets, and pass a transportation spending package. At the outset of the session, Democrats, who have a 57-seat majority in the house and a 29-seat majority in the senate, said they wanted to pass bills to help with housing affordability, homelessness, environmental sustainability, and the economy.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola, “it was not a great year in terms of policy.” Macri pointed out that Democrats killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill to allow denser housing statewide (HB 1782) and Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bill (HB 1660), both of which could have helped the state increase its housing stock. Bateman’s bill would have required all Washington cities to include denser housing options, like fourplexes and courtyard apartments, in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing, while Shewmake’s would have permitted mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages in all types of residential neighborhoods.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) said “it was not a great year in terms of policy.”

The legislature also killed Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21, Lynnwood) tenant protections bill (HB 1904), failing to vote on it by the first legislative deadline.  Michele Thomas from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said it was “one of the biggest losses of the session,” adding, “Democrats in the House shouldn’t have been afraid to vote on that bill.” The bill would have required landlords to give tenants six months’ notice before increasing rent; capped fees for late rent payments at $75; and provided tenants who could not afford a rent increase assistance moving somewhere they could afford. Thomas said the bill was tame and didn’t propose any kind of rent control, typically a third rail for legislators.

Democrats did manage to pass some homelessness bills that will provide temporary help to people living on the streets. The house and senate passed Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43, Seattle) bill that attempts to connect people under the state’s Apple Health (Medicaid) program with permanent supportive housing (HB 1866). Although the bill initially passed without funding, Democrats secured $60 million for the program in the capital budget. Macri saw the provision as a necessary upgrade. “Being on the budget team, I tried to focus on making sure we had strong investments because we didn’t have the strong policy I wanted to see pass,” she said.

To respond to the ongoing climate crisis, which is only getting worse, Democrats used their transportation package to try and reduce the state’s overall emissions by investing in electrified ferries, expanded transit services and better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Climate Solutions Washington Director Kelly Hall said she was pleased with the investments Democrats made with the transportation package and hopes they will allocate more of the funding from the transportation package toward electrifying heavy-duty machinery, like long-haul trucks and construction vehicles, between now and the 2023 legislative session.

While Hall supports the transportation package, she said the legislature failed to pass bills that would reduce emissions from the state’s gas-heated buildings and from other common polluters people don’t often think of. Hall pointed out Rep. Macri’s bill (HB 1918) would have exempted the purchase of energy efficient lawn equipment from the state’s sales tax and encouraged more people to ditch their gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers for zero-emission models. Gas-powered lawn tools “emit a lot of toxic air pollution right in our communities,” Hall said. Continue reading “Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda”

Transit Advocates, Light Rail Agency Give State Transportation Package Mixed Reviews

File:3-car Link light rail train in Columbia City, Seattle.jpg
SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By Leo Brine

Democrats unveiled their $16.8 billion, 16-year transportation package to mixed reviews from transit advocates last week.

The package, which includes a bill outlining what projects the Democrats want to fund and a separate funding plan, marks a notable shift in Washington state’s transportation priorities. Transportation committee chairs Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds) included $3 billion in the package for street and highway maintenance, another $1.2 billion for active transportation projects that would create new walking and bike paths statewide, and $2.8 billion for projects that would expand existing transit services. Their plan would also invest roughly $2.6 billion in new highway projects and provide $1.4 billion to incomplete projects from past transportation packages.

Pro-transit groups like Front and Centered have been asking for major investments in maintenance and nonmotorized transportation for years and “feel really validated” by the proposals, spokesperson Paulo Nunes-Ueno said. However, Nunes-Ueno and other transit advocates are still frustrated by Democrats’ decision to spend about $4 billion on highway expansion projects: “If we continue to try and solve congestion by adding highways and ignore those highways’ impacts on communities of color, frontline communities, and the climate in general, then we still have a long way to go,” he said.

The transit grant program leaves out the highest-profile transit agency in the state, Sound Transit, which is currently building the biggest mass transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound regional light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail expansion.

For example, projects like widening State Route 18 east of Issaquah and replacing the US Highway 2 trestle in Snohomish County won’t reduce congestion in those areas, but, studies suggest,  create an incentive for people to drive more often, increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s infrastructure that’s going to guarantee fossil fuel use for a 30, 40, 50-year period,” Andrew Kidde, from climate justice group 350 Washington, said. Kidde is worried that the transportation package is at odds with the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to about 50 million metric tons per year by 2030. As of 2020, the state emitted roughly 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year.

To align with the state’s climate goals and reduce emissions, the state should have “invested more in local, existing, regional rail” projects, Kidde said. The package would spend $3 billion funding 25 new transit projects and provide $1.4 billion in grants to local transit authorities, 35 percent of which Liias said will go to King County Metro. The grants will help transit authorities expand service and electrify their vehicles, he said; local transit agencies will have to apply for them and meet new requirements in the package, including letting anyone 18 years or younger ride free.

The transit grant program leaves out the highest-profile transit agency in the state, Sound Transit, which is currently building the biggest mass transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound regional light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail expansion.

Legislators did include $40 million for Sound Transit Tacoma Dome Link Light Rail extension in the package. CEO Peter Rogoff said the investments were “unprecedented in recent times.” But he also flagged the agency’s disappointment that Sound Transit didn’t qualify for any of the $1.4 billion in transit support grants.

“The proposal falls short,” Rogoff said at the Sound Transit board’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee meeting last week. The legislature passed a motor vehicle excise tax for regional transit authorities in 2015 which gave Sound Transit the ability to develop a ST3 ballot measure with the caveat that they would no longer qualify for state transit grants provided in future transportation packages. Continue reading “Transit Advocates, Light Rail Agency Give State Transportation Package Mixed Reviews”

Parking Officer Falsified Tickets, Canceled Homeless Count Un-Canceled, City Pays to Clean Up Mess at Police Firing Range, and More

1. Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released its first investigation into misconduct by a parking enforcement officer since the city’s parking enforcement unit moved from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation last year. OPA investigators found that the officer had falsified more than 100 parking citations and warnings to appear more productive.

The officer’s supervisor complained to the OPA after a review of the officer’s work turned up more than a dozen warnings and citations issued to the same car in a short time span—supervisors later learned that the car belonged to the mother of the officer’s children. Looking deeper into the officer’s work log, supervisors discovered that his GPS location often didn’t match the location of cars he cited. The officer later confessed to the OPA that he pretended to be productive by creating warnings or citations for nearby vehicles and listing an inaccurate location for the non-existent parking violation. The OPA determined that the officer had committed perjury and fraud, leaving SDOT leadership to decide how to discipline him.

The OPA’s investigation began while the parking enforcement unit was still housed within SPD, but it concluded after the unit moved to SDOT in the summer of 2021. The OPA is still technically a part of SPD, but the city’s ongoing efforts to move some law enforcement functions out of the police department has expanded the OPA’s footprint; the parking enforcement officer’s case, the first OPA has referred to SDOT for discipline, is a prime example. The OPA also has jurisdiction over the city’s 911 dispatchers, who moved out of SPD last year into the newly created Community Safety and Communications Center.

2. In a reversal of a decision announced late last year, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will perform an in-person manual count of the region’s homeless population in March. According to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, the March count will serve as the official Point In Time (PIT) Count for King County. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires homelessness agencies, including the KCRHA, to physically count the unsheltered homeless population in the area they oversee every two years, although King County has historically done an annual count.

The last scheduled count, in 2021, was scuttled by COVID. In announcing their initial decision to skip this year’s count, the agency argued that because the count is only required in odd-numbered years, “2022 is not a required year.” HUD disagreed and said that KCRHA could be penalized in future requests for federal funding, but Martens told PubliCola in December that HUD had agreed to waive the requirement after the agency announced a new tally based on data obtained from homeless service providers, among other sources.

Support PubliCola

Hey! Did you know PubliCola runs entirely on contributions from readers like you?

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.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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 of any amount, 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.

At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s homelessness committee earlier this month, authority CEO Marc Dones characterized the March head count as “a rough count” and noted that the authority is basing its planning on the data-based estimate of 45,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County in 2019. That number dropped to around 40,000 in 2020, largely because fewer people were accessing the homeless services on which that estimate is based.

Martens said the March head count “will be deemed a PIT Count for HUD purposes.” The agency will also be doing qualitative research to determine “the ‘why’ and the context around homelessness… to help us build our system in a way that centers people with lived experience,” Martens said.

3. The city of Seattle has paid more than $140,000 to clean up a wetland in Tukwila after the Seattle Police Athletic Association (SPAA), a 70-year-old nonprofit that runs a clubhouse and firing range for Seattle police officers, dumped truckloads of dirt, tires, concrete and other debris onto the marshy banks of the Duwamish River last year.

SPAA is currently not paying for any part of the restoration effort; instead, that burden falls to Seattle’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), which owns part of property occupied by the gun range. FAS spokesperson Melissa Mixon told PubliCola that her department can’t comment on whether SPAA will contribute to the restoration costs because of pending litigation.

As PubliCola reported last year, the association used the dirt and debris, which came from an unknown construction site in the Seattle area, to build a backstop for the association’s firing range. Tukwila’s code enforcement office issued a stop-work order in May. According to Mixon, the city is still working to restore the site and is “staying on target with deadlines discussed with Tukwila.”

4. Seattle Public Library employees who staffed library branches during the recent winter weather emergency will receive retroactive payments of $150 for every shift they worked between December 24 and January 3. Former mayor Jenny Durkan issued an executive order providing incentive pay to all “frontline” executive-branch employees on December 24, but because the library is not an executive department, the offer did not extend to library staffers. According to an SPL spokeswoman, the payments will go out to all eligible employees, including library associates, librarians, security officers, and custodial workers, once it’s approved by the library union.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

 

Seattle Police Will No Longer Enforce Bike Helmet Law and Other Minor Traffic Violations

Source: Seattle Department of Transportation

By Paul Kiefer

Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced Friday that SPD will no longer stop people for four minor traffic infractions, including violations of the county’s mandatory bicycle helmet law. The announcement, which takes effect immediately, opens the door to additional future reductions in low-level traffic enforcement.

In addition to the helmet law, officers will no longer stop drivers for missing, expired, or improperly displayed registration; items hanging from rear-view mirrors; or cracked windshields. “These violations do not have a direct connection to the safety of other individuals on the roads, paths, or sidewalks,” Diaz wrote in a letter to the Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge announcing the decision. “We know there are also reasons for concern that these violations may disproportionately fall on those who are unable to meet the financial requirements set forth by law.” Officers will still be able to enforce the underlying laws, but only if they stop a driver or bicyclist for a more serious violation.

The announcement comes after months of discussions between the police, the Office of Inspector General, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and civil rights and police oversight groups. Judge organized the conversations herself last year, when she wrote a letter to Diaz urging him to consider removing police from low-level traffic enforcement. “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.”

Last fall, Diaz expressed an interest in introducing traffic stop reforms before the end of 2021. When the reforms hadn’t happened by December, some police accountability advocates who took part in the discussions between SPD and the OIG worried that the election of Bruce Harrell—and his decision to dismiss SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, an enthusiastic participant in discussions about traffic stop reform—would delay the reformsThe chief’s latest letter could help allay those concerns.

The list of violations SPD will decline to enforce could still grow, Diaz wrote, as SPD reviews Seattle’s traffic codes for other offenses that may not justify a stop. For now, he wrote, SPD will continue to stop drivers for other vehicle equipment violations, including broken taillights, which several civil rights groups urged the department to stop enforcing. “For pedestrian and driver safety, we cannot allow vehicles with safety equipment issues to just remain in that status,” he wrote.

Judge’s initial proposal to scale back the role of police in traffic enforcement triggered pushback from some law enforcement representatives, including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan, who called the recommendations “ill-advised, reckless, bizarre and nonsensical” and claimed that they could spur an increase in crime. “Does this now signal people to stop registering their vehicles and completely disregard the rule of law?” he wrote in an open letter last summer.

According to SDOT data, the minor driving infractions listed in Diaz’s letter do not present serious risks to the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers. The four leading causes of deadly or serious collisions in Seattle—speeding, distracted driving, ignoring pedestrians’ right-of-way, and driving while intoxicated—made up a third of all tickets given by SPD since 2015, and SPD has no plans to stop enforcement of those traffic laws.

The decision to stop enforcing the helmet law reflects more than a year of debate in King County about the disproportionate enforcement of the law against homeless people and people of color. After Crosscut reported in 2020 that nearly half of helmet law citations in Seattle went to homeless cyclists, the King County Board of Health, which oversees the helmet requirement, began discussing the possibility of repealing the law; the board is set to make a decision on the helmet law year.

In recent years, more than half of all cyclist citations were for helmet law violations, which typically involve a $100-$150 fine; according to Seattle Municipal Court data, 77 percent of those fines go unpaid. In addition to formal citations, a community stakeholder and bike advocate who contributed to the OIG’s discussions estimated that SPD officers may have stopped hundreds or thousands of bicyclists for not wearing helmets without issuing citations, sometimes as a justification to question the bicyclist about a different crime.

Diaz’s announcement does not necessarily spell a dramatic change in SPD’s day-to-day operations. After two years of very high attrition, SPD has dismantled its traffic enforcement unit and moved the officers to patrol shifts, triggering a dramatic decline in the number of tickets and warnings issued to drivers and bicyclists.