Category: Transportation

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.

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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.

SPD Pumps Brakes on Plans to Reconsider Low-Level Traffic Stops

Iosia Faletogo, 36, was shot and killed by a Seattle Police Officer in December 2018 during a struggle that began with a low-level traffic stop.

By Paul Kiefer

A long-awaited announcement by Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz outlining a plan to phase out low-level traffic stops by police officers did not appear when expected this month. The delay raises the prospect that the policy change, previously a point of agreement between Diaz and police reform advocates, could become entangled by the impending shakeup in city leadership, especially as Diaz waits to learn whether incoming mayor Bruce Harrell will appoint him as the police department’s permanent chief.

Last Tuesday, members of SPD’s command staff met with staffers from the Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the police oversight agency that first pushed SPD to forego low-level traffic stops earlier this year, to brainstorm how to disentangle traffic enforcement from policing. The meeting was a chance for Diaz to solidify a plan of action before the end of the year: a deadline he seemed to endorse in October.

Before he could announce any changes, Diaz quietly left his office for the holidays, which most likely means the traffic stop reforms will remain on hold until next year. The new year could also bring a new police chief: While Diaz has expressed his interest in becoming Seattle’s permanent police chief, Harrell says he will conduct a nationwide search. Impending shakeups within the core group of city departments responsible for spearheading traffic stop reform risk delaying the changes even further.

Removing police from low-level traffic enforcement, Inspector General Lisa Judge argued last summer, is a way to address longstanding concerns that both community members and police officers have expressed the safety risks involved in traffic stops. “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 in a letter to Diaz in May. “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.”

Traffic stops are still among the most common types of encounters between police and civilians in Seattle, though SPD’s traffic enforcement has waned as the department focuses its officers on other priorities after two years of high attrition. As of early November, SPD had issued about a third as many traffic citations as it did in 2019. The fines collected from minor traffic citations make up a relatively tiny portion of the city’s revenue—about $5 million since 2019.

Despite the drop-off in traffic stops, racial disparities persist: Though the Seattle Municipal Court has incomplete data on the demographics of people cited for traffic violations, even the partial data shows that Black people are overrepresented by a factor of two compared to the city’s overall population. Nationwide, drivers of color are also more likely to be injured or killed by police during routine traffic stops, a trend that Judge highlighted in her letter to Diaz in May.

Po Leapai, a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, is all too familiar with the dangers of traffic stops. On New Year’s Eve in 2018, SPD officer Jared Keller shot and killed his cousin, 36-year-old Iosia Faletogo, in Seattle’s Licton Springs neighborhood after a minor traffic stop and a case of mistaken identity turned into a foot chase. “We learned he had been killed from Facebook,” Leapai said. “We were all at a family New Year’s barbecue waiting for him to show up, and he never came.”

The incident began when two SPD patrol officers driving behind Faletogo on Aurora Avenue N. decided to search his license plate. Their search linked the license plate to an older woman with an expired driver’s license, a relative of Faletogo’s who owned the car. When Faletogo pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store, the officers pulled in behind him and turned on their emergency lights. After learning that Faletogo lacked a driver’s license and had two felony charges from his teenage years, the officers called for backup. When four more officers arrived, Faletogo ran.

The officers caught up to him across the street, tackling Faletogo to the ground. A gun fell out of his waistband, and as the officers tried to pin him to the pavement, Keller shot Faletogo, killing him.

The Office of Police Accountability, cleared Keller of wrongdoing for the shooting, citing Faletogo’s gun and his attempt to resist arrest. But in May, Judge cited Faletogo’s killing in her argument to end the use of police for low-level traffic enforcement.

Leapai believes his cousin would still be alive if SPD patrol officers hadn’t decided to stop him for a minor traffic infraction. “Those traffic stops are another kind of stop-and-frisk,” he said. “I can’t see why there was a need to pull my cousin over, and it definitely wasn’t worth killing him.”

Faletogo’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the City of Seattle in December 2020, arguing that the traffic stop that led to his death was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Faletogo was Samoan; a woman riding in the car with him was Black. Nathan Bingham, who represented the family in the lawsuit, said that the traffic stop itself is at the heart of the problem. “That stop never should have happened,” he told PubliCola. “Minor traffic stops, by their nature, always come with the threat of deadly force by police. They’re volatile and unpredictable.” The city settled with the Faletogo family for $515,000 in September.

If SPD takes more time to consider scaling back traffic stops, Seattle will find itself in a race with state lawmakers to implement reforms when the discussion about traffic enforcement resumes in January. At the very end of last year’s state legislative session, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) introduced a bill that would have prohibited police officers from stopping drivers for eight common civil infractions, including improper turns, driving with expired tags, and driving without a valid license. Continue reading “SPD Pumps Brakes on Plans to Reconsider Low-Level Traffic Stops”

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.