Tag: King County Metro

Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets

By Lisa Herbold

Seattle is a city of hills and water; thus we are also a city of bridges. Our bridges are critical for mobility and both the local and regional economy.  Bridges are also critical transit infrastructure. That’s why I, along with Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, have introduced legislation, along with a companion budget action for 2021, that would create a new $20 vehicle license fee (VLF) to pay for critical bridge maintenance throughout the city. The fee, if it’s approved by the Council this week, will be added to the existing $20 fee that funds additional Metro bus hours through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District.

The closure of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 placed Seattle’s dependence on its bridges in stark relief. Every person and business in West Seattle, or anyone going to West Seattle, has felt the impact of this closure. Before it was closed, the West Seattle Bridge carried 17,000 daily transit riders on 13 routes making 900 daily trips. Two of these routes—the RapidRide C Line and Route 120—were among the top 10 routes for ridership in all of King County.

But the West Seattle Bridge is hardly the only vulnerable bridge in Seattle; for decades, funding for critical maintenance has fallen short, allowing the city’s bridges to fall into further and further disrepair. In September, the City Auditor released an audit, requested by Councilmember Pedersen, that focused on 77 bridges owned and operated by the Seattle Department of Transportation. That audit reported that bridge funding is well below the minimum annual $34 million level needed for the long-term health of this critical infrastructure.

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The audit notes the overall condition of SDOT’s bridges has declined during the last decade and that Seattle is “not spending enough on the upkeep and preservation of its bridges, and risks becoming out of compliance with federal regulations.” This is, unfortunately, consistent with previous findings on the state of Seattle’s bridges, including an SDOT report from 2013 that found that 43 of the city’s bridges were “functionally obsolete,” and suggested that the city had a bridge maintenance backlog of nearly $2 billion.

We must address this underinvestment and protect our Frequent Transit Network, which includes all routes that operate with frequencies of 15 minutes or less for most of the day. Continue reading “Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets”

King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity”

King County Council member Rod Dembowski, in pre-COVID times (flanked, L-R, by King County Executive Dow Constantine and council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Joe McDermott)

by Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council shelved a budget proposal by North Seattle council member Rod Dembowski yesterday that would have kept 47,000 hours of bus service inside Dembowski’s district after the Northgate light rail station opens next year. The proposal came in the form of a budget proviso, or restriction on spending, that would have withheld $5.4 million in funding for King County Metro unless the bus service went to North King County.

The hours will become available because King County Metro is shutting down its Route 41 bus line, which duplicates the light rail route. Instead of being redistributed throughout North Seattle to feed commuters to the new light rail line, as Dembowski proposed, those hours are likely to go to South King County, where King County Metro’s equity analysis shows the need is greatest.

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Dembowski argued that Metro’s usual practice is to reallocate service freed up by light rail into nearby neighborhoods, to make light rail more accessible. “We’re doing this all around the county,” he said. While this has been the practice in the past, it is not required—and Metro’s new Mobility Framework, created in collaboration with community groups over the past year, calls for new or reallocated service hours to go into communities where the need is greatest, regardless of where they originated.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity,” council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, says. “It goes around our established processes and guidelines, and that’s a dangerous road to go down.”

The debate, which centered on the question of what constitutes equitable transit service during a time of sweeping budget cuts, concerned a small slice of Metro’s overall budget. But it was also a preview for the battles that will play out over the next year, as Metro adopts new service guidelines that will benefit the county’s most underserved communities while diverting funds from areas that are, on average, wealthier and whiter.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity.”—King County council member Dave Upthegrove

Last year, before a global pandemic forced massive cuts to bus service and decimated transit agency revenues, King County Metro adopted a new “mobility framework” to guide future transit service decisions with an eye toward equity and economic and racial justice. The framework, developed by Metro in collaboration with an Equity Cabinet made up of 23 community leaders from across the county, was a precursor for revised Metro service guidelines, which will replace existing guidelines that emphasize ridership and geographic distribution, including in “areas where low-income and minority populations are concentrated.” Among other changes, the new framework recommends concentrating new (and reallocated) service in areas with high density, a high proportion of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and those with limited English skills. 

Community members who turned out to speak against Dembowski’s proposal talked about the challenges they face as bus riders in South King County. Najhan Bell, a student and retail worker, described a grueling daily routine: Up at 9 to catch a 10:15 bus that will take her, via two transfers, to her noon-to-9 shift at IKEA in Renton; leave work at 9 to do the same grueling commute in reverse; and land home at midnight to study for a few hours before getting up to do it all again. Bell said that if Metro was going to uphold its commitment to equity, it “must continue to put efforts into increasing service in areas in South King County so that people like me don’t have to spend most of their day waiting on a bus.”

The members of the Equity Cabinet, along with Transportation Choices Coalition, Disability Rights Washington, and other advocacy groups, wrote a joint letter to the council on Tuesday opposing Dembowski’s amendment.

Continue reading “King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity””

Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context

1. Last month, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff scoffed at the suggestion that the regional transit agency should stop sending riders to court over unpaid fines for fare evasion, arguing that efforts by King County Metro to offer alternative dispute resolution options have been a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said.

Rogoff’s number is correct—of the 4,039 fare violations Metro recorded in 2019, 403 were resolved (meaning that the person either paid a fine directly to Metro, added money to their ORCA card in lieu of a fine, or used another alternative resolution route), according to Metro’s latest fare violation report, issued last April. However, that statement is missing some important context about the mission and purpose of transit. And it ignores the fact that a 10 percent resolution rate actually represents a significant improvement over the previous resolution rate of just 3 percent under the previous, punitive system, in which all unpaid fines went to court and collections.

Fare enforcement has been a contentious issue for Sound Transit, where failure to provide proof of payment to fare inspection officers can result in a $124 fine plus late fees, damage to credit, and even misdemeanor charges if a rider fails to pay their fine. The agency has agreed to make some changes to its policies, including new uniforms, clearer signage, additional warnings, and lower fines.

But they have resisted adopting alternative resolution options for people who can’t pay, arguing that this concession would reduce revenues as people realized there was no real penalty for nonpayment, raising costs to taxpayers and potentially impacting future capital projects or service. (For perspective, fare evasion cost Sound Transit, on net, around $550,000 last year.)

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The debate over fare evasion is really about the purpose of transit and the mission of transit agencies.

Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the agency’s fare enforcement policy isn’t primarily about fare revenue at all. In taking fare enforcement out of the court system and offering alternatives to fines, “Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement,” he said. This goal is reflected in Metro’s fare enforcement mission statement: “to help minimize King County Metro Fare Enforcement Program’s contribution to negative outcomes for some of King County Metro’s most vulnerable riders.”

“Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement.” — Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer

But even Sound Transit’s more conventional fare enforcement mission—”to understand the impacts of our current program and develop recommendations that provide an equitable and customer-focused experience, including safety for all riders and integrity of decision making, while ensuring strong financial stewardship of taxpayer dollars—is still compatible with adopting a more lenient fare enforcement policy. That’s because in reality, few riders on either system actually fail to pay their fare.

Historically, Metro has set a fare evasion target of no more than 5 percent; in 2019, actual fare evasion on routes where Metro deploys fare enforcement officers averaged 4 percent, down from 5 percent the previous year. If the argument for sending people to court for failure to pay a $3 fare rests on the argument that not doing so will lead to rampant fare evasion, Metro’s example is showing that, so far at least, this worst-case scenario has not come to pass.

2. The city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan got some good budget news for once on Monday, when the city budget office issued a new revenue forecast for 2020 and 2021 that adds $36 million to the city’s general fund in 2020 and $32.5 million in 2021. The CBO attributed the new, higher projections to increased sales and business and occupation (B&O) taxes between July and September, “driven by significant improvement in the national and regional economic forecasts, particularly employment, personal income and personal outlays.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context”

Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?

Mockup of new, clearer signage Sound Transit has proposed to reduce fare evasion and errors

1. Sound Transit board members had some pointed questions for agency CEO Peter Rogoff on Thursday, when staffers presented the agency’s plan to address concerns about fare enforcement to the board.

The proposed changes, which come after months of community outreach and both onboard and online surveys, include new signage that will indicate more clearly that people must pay fare in order to enter light rail stations; reduced fines for people who still fail to pay their fare; more warnings before a rider receives a fine; and new, in-house “fare education ambassadors” who will replace the private security guards who currently check fares and issue citation.

Board members, including Joe McDermott (West Seattle), Claudia Balducci (Bellevue), Victoria Woodards (Tacoma), Dave Upthegrove (Federal Way), and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, wanted to know why Sound Transit staff have not proposed taking fare evasion and fines out of the court system, as King County Metro has done. Failure to pay fare on Sound Transit’s system, which includes Link Light Rail as well as express buses and Sounder trains, can result in a $124 fine plus late payments and potential criminal penalties if a rider does not pay the penalty. Unpaid fines can end up in collections and can damage a rider’s credit for years.

What would it take, Balducci asked, to get the staff to take requests from board members seriously and come up with a plan that didn’t expose riders to financial hardship and a potential criminal record for failing to pay a $3 fare?

“The challenge we have is figuring out for those folks who are persistent fare violators and are not among those classes that I just cited—people who clearly are economically distressed or are drug-addicted or homeless—what, then, do we do, if not the courts?” Rogoff said.

It’s unclear exactly how many people fit into the category of “persistent fare violators” that Rogoff described. According to Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham, about 7.6 percent of riders did not pay their fares in October. (Sound Transit has been charging fares since July, after making rides free for several months in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Currently, fare enforcement officers do not scan riders’ cards individually to see if they’ve paid their fare; instead, they ask riders to show that they have a card or a ticket.)

“Fares are critical to pay for transit services, and Peter’s comments referenced concerns about the potential level of non-compliance that could result if penalties were reduced to the point that it became known over time that there was little or no consequence for fare evasion,” Cunningham said. “The result of that would be increased costs for taxpayers and potential impacts on projects and services. It can be reasonably assumed that some segment of riders, potentially increasing over time, would respond with chronic fare evasion.”

But there may be an additional reason Sound Transit is so reluctant to bring fare evasion penalties in-house. “State law vests the District Court with exclusive jurisdiction to impose fines for fare evasion infractions,” Cunningham says. In other words: The state legislation that created the agency establishes that failing to pay fare is a civil infraction that must go through district court. Taking fare enforcement out of the jurisdiction of local courts might require a change in state law. Historically, Sound Transit has tried to avoid reopening its authorizing legislation, since Republican legislators have tried to change it in the past to, for example, make Sound Transit’s board an elected body.

“Difficult” is not the same thing as “impossible.” But any major changes to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy would require a significant shift in thinking at the agency about its mission as well as the reasons people don’t pay fares. Rogoff’s response indicated that his longstanding position on “fare evasion”—a concept that implies conscious ill intent, if not outright criminality—has not changed, even as the political environment in Seattle and across the country undergoes a seismic shift.

At a time when agencies at all levels of government are working to undo and prevent future harm to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, Rogoff is still drawing distinct lines between the people who don’t deserve to get caught up in the criminal justice system—”someone who’s poor… someone who’s homeless, someone who’s drug-addicted”—and the modern-day turnstile jumpers who will keep robbing the system unless there are harsh consequences when they do.

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During yesterday’s meeting, Rogoff suggested that King County’s alternative fine resolution program, which is intended for people who can’t pay that agency’s $50 maximum fine, has been something of a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said. “We need a better mousetrap, and we’re trying to figure that out with the community and with King County Metro.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?”

Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery

By Alex Hudson

When the pandemic began and much of the world stopped moving, public transit carried on, connecting essential workers to jobs and people to food, health care, and other critical services. Bus drivers bravely continued working to get people where they needed to go, and adapted to help deliver food to seniors and patients to care. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a deep truth: public transit is, and always will be, essential.

There is worry that ridership is down now and won’t return. These fears are based on a return to pre-COVID levels of congestion and skyrocketing used car sales. But the risks of veering away from transit in a post-pandemic world are huge. If drivers get back in their cars exclusively, we’ll cut people off from opportunity and will be stuck in worse congestion than before, resulting in wasted time, more greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants that make our planet less livable, and hundreds of lives lost to preventable crashes.

The vision for public transit in a post-pandemic Puget Sound hasn’t changed: It must be fast, frequent, reliable and affordable. COVID-19 has simply underscored the urgency of addressing how we plan for and fund it. As we recover, the smart and most affordable investment we can make is in building a resilient and accessible public transit system that connects people to opportunities, creates good paying jobs, and supports our climate goals.

Here are three steps we can take to get there:

Invest in transit like it’s a key part of a just economic recovery—because it is. There can be no economic recovery without well-funded public transit. In Seattle, essential workers account for 33 percent of transit riders. These folks keep Seattle’s hospitals running, our grocery stores stocked, and provide social service, caretaking and education that all of us are depending on. In addition to getting people to their jobs, transit investments create good, green, family-wage jobs that last. An analysis of the 2009 stimulus package found that stimulus dollars spent on transit projects created more jobs than dollars spent building or maintaining highways. “To create the most jobs per dollar, invest in transit and maintenance,” the analysis concluded.

Transportation is a household’s second-highest cost, and the average household in King County spends more than $12,500 per year on their vehicles. In 2019, seven million Americans were at least three months behind on their car loans. As unemployment remains high and household finances are stretched to the breaking point, public transit is a desperately-needed affordable alternative to driving that millions of people across the country are counting on.

To keep our communities strong during this challenging economic climate, public transit must be centered in recovery plans and cannot be left out of the federal stimulus packages. All new COVID relief funding on the local, state, and federal levels must include investments for transit, teleliving, biking, walking, and rolling. To make sure this happens, we have to continue building strong coalitions across business, labor, environmental, and social justice advocates. We need everyone at the table.

Pay for it now, or pay the price later. Transit is a fundamental pillar of a functional economy, yet we have seen that the funding that keeps transit moving is fragile and overlooked at every level of government. TransitCenter estimates that across the country, transit agencies will see a $26 billion-$40 billion annual shortfall due to COVID. Declines in fare revenue, as well as the underlying supporting taxes, leave our agencies facing extreme budget shortfalls and elected leaders grappling with no easy choices.

Funding for transit in Washington has never been resilient or adequate. The 18th Amendment to our state Constitution restricts how we can spend transportation dollars. Rather than using gas tax money to create a more efficient and sustainable system overall, the state is forced to funnel money into highway projects, many of which only further pollution and congestion. This outdated restriction must be reconsidered—our social, economic and environmental future depends on it.

Washington lacks progressive revenue options for transit, and the passage of I-976 left local governments with even fewer tools. We need to move away from regressive, restrictive, and volatile sources of funding like the gas tax and replace them with sustainable and resilient funding options, like an equitably designed road user charge or congestion pricing and a statewide air quality surcharge. While working toward reform, we must continue to utilize the existing tools and support local transit ballot measures, starting by passing Seattle Proposition 1 and renewing the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which funds transit investments in Seattle, for another six years.

Prioritize racial equity in our recovery plan and undue long standing disparities. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities that exist within and are caused by our transportation system. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experience disproportionate impacts through exposure to air and noise pollution caused by racist planning decisions which built traffic arterials and highways in their communities, lowering home values, separating communities, and increasing exposure to air and noise pollution and preventable traffic violence. Health disparities caused by exposure to air pollution, such as higher rates of asthma, have left BIPOC communities more vulnerable to contracting COVID. Creating an equitable transportation system is literally a matter of life or death for BIPOC communities in Washington. Continue reading “Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery”

King County Executive Highlights Criminal Justice Reform in Budget Preview

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday afternoon, King County Executive Dow Constantine previewed a number of new programs he will propose as part of his 2021-2022 county budget plan next week, including alternatives to jail, community-based public safety alternatives, and divestments from the current criminal legal system. “We took up a simple refrain to guide our budget: divest, invest, and reimagine,” Constantine said. “As we support community members in co-creating our shared future, we make an important down payment on building a strong, equitable, and racially just county.”

Toward that end, Constantine proposed spending $6.2 million over the next two years on a new program called Restorative Community Pathways. According to Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal, the program would refer 800 juvenile offenders away from the criminal justice system per year and instead provide “community-based support, mentorship, and targeted interventions.”

Those services would be provided largely by the three nonprofits involved in the program’s development: Community Passageways, Creative Justice, and Choose 180, which also all contract with the City of Seattle for violence prevention or youth diversion programs. The initial $6.2 million investment would also fund support for victims of crimes and a new “restitution fund,” which would cover court-mandated fines and financial obligations for juvenile offenders who can’t afford them.

According to a press release from Constantine’s office, the county hopes to get the program off the ground by 2022, and “eventually” fund it entirely through cost savings from the King County Superior Court, the Department of Public Defense, and the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

Constantine’s budget proposal also includes $2.7 million for restorative justice services for adults facing their first criminal charges for nonviolent crimes. According to King County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Casey McNerthey, the program would primarily serve those charged with property or low-level drug crimes, but could also include other nonviolent offenders. The adult program would rely on the same three nonprofit partners responsible for Restorative Community Pathways.

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After the press conference, Community Passageways CEO Dominique Davis told PubliCola that his group would assume responsibility for felony diversion, while Creative Justice would manage other elements of both restorative justice programs. Community Passageways doesn’t take referrals for anyone older than 27, but if the county decided to expand the program to serve people over 27, Davis is hopeful that other nonprofits could pitch in. “If in the first year we actually save the city and the county a lot of money [in court and incarceration costs], then we could tap groups like LEAD that already work with older adults,” Davis said. “We really don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

The proposed restorative justice programs would work in tandem with Constantine’s vision of a $1.9 million decrease spending on the the county jail. “With fewer people in jail,” Constantine said, “we will be able, in this biennium, to close one of the [12] floors of the downtown jail.” Since the beginning of the year, the county has already reduced the jail’s daily population from 1,900 to 1,300, and Constantine said he intends to continue that downward trend and increase the county’s savings in future years.

Constantine also proposed transferring $4.6 million of the county’s marijuana tax revenues from the sheriff’s office to three new programs: one helping those with past marijuana convictions clear their records and settle unpaid court fines and restitution; a “youth marijuana prevention” and employment program run by the county’s Department of Local Services in unincorporated King County; and a “community-centered advisory body” that would determine how the county spends marijuana tax revenue in the future.

The county also plans to suspend fare enforcement on King County Metro buses, even as they reinstate fares in October, and reassess the county’s $4.7 million fare enforcement contract with the private company Securitas. Interim Metro general manager Terry White added that when fare enforcement resumes in 2021, Metro will “use non-fine alternative approaches” for those who can’t afford to pay fare, ranging from community service to providing connections to social service agencies.

Constantine will present his budget to the King County Council, which has final say over most aspects of the proposal, on September 22.

Plan to Preserve Metro Bus Service Heads for November Ballot

After a lengthy debate over the correct size and duration for the proposed renewal of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District—a Seattle-only tax originally intended to supplement King County Metro bus service—the city council voted unanimously to put a six-year, 0.15 percent sales tax proposal to fund bus service on the November ballot. The measure will provide a little over $39 million a year for bus service, compared to $56 million a year under the measure that expires this year—enough to preserve between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of existing in-city service.

The original 2014 STBD ballot measure included a $60 vehicle-license fee, which was supplemented by a $20 fee passed by the council, but the city has been unable to spend the revenues from either fee since Washington state voters passed the car-tab-killing Initiative 976 last year; the state Supreme Court is set to rule on the initiative’s constitutionality later this year.

It’s a sign of how much the funding landscape has changed that the biggest debates on Monday were about whether to preserve the sales tax approved by voters in 2014 at its existing level, as Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed, or increase it slightly, and on whether the funding package should last four years or six. Every option the council considered would, at best, offset service reductions from the county—a major difference from the original 2014 ballot measure, which expanded transit service by 350,000  hours

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Proponents of a larger tax hike—to 0.2 percent—argued that it may be possible, in theory, to reduce the tax after the county passes its own region-wide taxing measure, or when a court overturns I-976, making car tab revenue available again. Opponents expressed skepticism that voters would pass a significant tax increase during a recession that has already resulted in unprecedented unemployment. “Even though a 0.1 percent regressive tax maybe isn’t going go be the straw that but the aggregate impact is something that I’m very concerned about,” council member Andrew Lewis said.

Along somewhat similar lines, proponents of a shorter-term ballot measure—four years, as opposed to six—argued that a levy that expired earlier would light a fire under the city and county to come up with a regional ballot measure whose cost and benefits would be spread across the entire county instead of concentrated in Seattle. Opponents (those who supported a six-year renewal) argued that a six-year measure would put the city in a stronger bargaining position with the county if and when the county gets around to proposing a regional measure.

Worth noting: Although most council members seemed optimistic that a countywide transit measure would pass, very recent history suggests otherwise. The whole reason the city proposed a Seattle-only ballot measure in 2014 is that a countywide measure failed overwhelmingly earlier that same year, losing by double-digit margins in the suburbs, and by eight points overall. The fact is that the county could put together a regional bus funding measure on the city’s preferred timeline, only to see it fail—an outcome that may be more likely, not less, during an economic downturn.

The proposal that passed Monday also includes a measure limiting the portion of the new tax that can be spent on things like low-income transit passes, rather than service hours, to $10 million—the same cap as in the mayor’s original 0.1 percent proposal—and increases the amount that can be spent on “emergent needs,” such as bus service for West Seattle residents stranded by the closure of the West Seattle Bridge, to $9 million.

Council member Alex Pedersen, who sponsored the original 0.1 percent legislation and was the only council member to vote against expanding it to 0.15 percent, said the unanimous vote demonstrated that “despite the divisions and conflicts that many people might see reported in the media, the mayor and city council can pull together and row in the same pos direction when we direct our energy toward the hard responsibility of governing. … It may not be perfect for each of us, but it is necessary for everyone.” And with those less-than-rousing words, the stopgap transit funding measure headed toward the November ballot.

Metro Could Require Reservations for Late-Night Service

King County Metro is asking people who use its late-night bus service to provide feedback on whether the transit agency should require reservations to take the bus between 1am and 5am. The online survey describes the new “concept” this way: “a reservation-based system [in which a]ll passengers boarding buses between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. would book their essential trip in advance using a free reservation system (interpreter and TTY services would be available).” 

Currently, Metro requires riders to wear masks and maintain six feet of separation from others—a requirement that works out to a maximum of 12 riders on a 40-foot bus and 18 on a 60-foot bus. After those limits are reached, drivers are allowed to pass up riders waiting for the bus. The reservation system, according to the survey, would “ensure there is enough space on transit to support essential trips during Night Owl service.”

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Torie Rynning, a spokeswoman for Metro general manager Rob Gannon, said Metro is considering a reservation-based system after hearing “from some riders who are not able to board their desired bus due to our ‘social distancing’ capacity limits.” Rynning said Metro doesn’t have details about what a reservation system might look like, but it would likely require, at minimum, access to a phone. Rynning said requiring reservations is just one option Metro is considering for late-night service; another is “increasing [the] supplemental service] that Metro has already added on the routes with the highest late-night ridership.

According to Metro, ridership has decreased dramatically during the late-night hours, declining between 53 and 57 percent overall between 10pm and 5am.

Both Metro and Sound Transit, the regional rail and bus agency, have struggled with the question of how (and whether) to accommodate so-called “non-destinational riders”—a euphemism, generally speaking, for homeless people who seek warmth and shelter on buses and trains—at a time when space on transit is at a premium and transit is free. Sound Transit has decided to resume charging fares (and fare enforcement) on June 1. Metro has also set a “target date” of May 31 to start charging fares again.

As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders

This article originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It wasn’t so long ago — just 2018 — that Seattle could be proud of its status as the only city in the nation where transit ridership was actually going up, and the number of people commuting to the center city by car was going down. COVID-19 didn’t just reverse this trend; it obliterated it. Ridership on King County Metro buses is down about 73%, while ridership on Sound Transit’s light rail line has shrunk an estimated 70%. In an attempt to protect drivers from riders who might be COVID-positive, both agencies eliminated fares, and Metro implemented back-door-only boarding, in March. Both agencies also cut service, which has led to overcrowding on popular routes, such as the Route 7, that serve essential workers getting to and from the center city.

In response to complaints, Metro added more service in April. But they also limited the number of riders who can be on a bus at one time, which has meant that people waiting at bus stops are sometimes passed up because buses are over capacity. This has created tensions, which have coalesced around so-called “non-destination riders” — people who are not going to work or running essential errands, and who generally happen to be homeless. The number of non-destination riders is higher, proportionally, than it was before. But it’s also higher in absolute terms, because libraries, community centers and day shelters — all the places people experiencing homelessness used to go during the day — are closed. This leaves only a few places for people without homes to sit down, get warm and doze off for a while.

Some riders and drivers began calling on King County Metro to address the problem by barring homeless people from riding. Other suggestions included kicking them off at the end of the line, starting to charge fares again or forcing them to wear masks. Seattle is hardly the only city whose homeless population is using buses as a substitute for shelter during the pandemic. And it’s far from the only city where people have accused homeless riders of crowding the transit system, or making it dirty or putting people at risk by not wearing masks. Leaders of some transit systems have rushed to judgment — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stained his legacy by stating that homeless riders were “disgusting and disrespectful.” But to their credit, Metro, and its general manager, Rob Gannon, have not.

In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Gannon talked about non-destination riders, how Metro will get people back onto buses again, and the agency’s financial future.

Let’s start with what the new normal looks like. How much has ridership fallen off, and where is Metro currently seeing the highest ridership? 

Even though our ridership was down dramatically — between 70 and 75 percent—we’re still seeing about 100,000 boardings each day. If you look out your window and see an empty bus, that is not a guarantee that that bus is going to be empty the entire trip.

The more heavily-used routes are in the South End and southeast King County. On the RapidRide lines — the A, the E, the D Line — we continue to see a level of ridership that makes it difficult to have a coach that is not subject to crowding conditions, which is why we’re trying to add back service.

“We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.”

Farebox revenues are currently nonexistent, and sales taxes, which are always volatile, are likely to take a long-term hit. How have you balanced the need to add more buses with the need to keep Metro’s budget in line with the current revenue reality?

We’re anticipating that the lost revenue associated with the pandemic response — meaning, sales tax being severely depleted and farebox not recovering because we’re operating with free fares right now — will amount to $220 million to $265 million in losses in 2020. That is now offset by about $243 million coming in [from the federal CARES Act], so we are sustainable for the current year.

What we don’t know is what the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the economy — when will sales tax begin to rebound and when will ridership start to come back? So our 2021-‘22 outlook is pretty stark right now. We see a recession coming and we know the Seattle Transit Benefit District [a Seattle tax that adds service inside the city] is set to expire at the end of this year. And we know that the city continues to deliberate about when and how to bring that measure back in front of the voters. I-976 [an initiative that will, if upheld, slash revenues from car taxes and fees] brings uncertainty, generally, to the financing of public transportation. So 2021 and 2022 are going to be a period where we have to consider service reductions, and the where and the how of that is something we’re going to continue to assess.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter. That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

It’s hard to believe that as recently as March, Metro was holding open houses throughout Southeast Seattle on route options for the RapidRide R, which is supposed to replace the Route 7 on Rainier Ave. S. Are this route and the other planned RapidRide lines being put on hold?

The planning is not on hold. In high-level terms, when we identified those RapidRide corridors as places to enhance the service experience and to enhance the way customers can get where they need to go, that was based on some well-founded analysis and community participation. We still think those are all the right areas. The question now becomes: will we have the resources to stay on that investment timeline? We’re still doing planning, we’re still going to figure out how to engage the community, we’re still going to bring those services online. We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.

There have been complaints from drivers and riders about homeless people riding the bus and not wearing masks or taking up seats on buses that are supposed to only be for essential rides. How do you respond to these complaints, and what is Metro currently doing to ensure rider and driver safety? 

First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that our bus system is safe and reliable in this current health crisis. It started very early with daily cleaning of the buses, disinfecting, moving to a free-fare situation to limit the amount of interaction at the front of the coach, putting up a safety strap [between the front and back of the bus], and doing rear-door boarding. We have also been in everyday contact with our employees, trying to understand what conditions they face and how we can make it safer for them, fulfilling requests for PPEs, outfitting operators with sanitation kits and gloves and hand sanitizer and wipes, and, on April 11, bringing masks into the equation [for drivers]. So a lot of that isn’t about the non-destinational rider. It’s about how do we make the system safe for all those who use it?

The rider that is finding shelter on the coach — in one sense, we all find shelter on a coach, because it is the alternative to walking, to being exposed to the elements. What we hope to see is that a rider comes on board, pays a fare, and rides to a specific destination. When they don’t, when they try to use the bus as a shelter, it inevitably presents problems of crowding. It makes it more difficult to keep the buses as clean as possible. There is occasionally conduct inconsistent with the guidance for the transit system, and we have seen an increase in those incidents. Continue reading “As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders”

Driving a Metro Bus Through the Pandemic

The post excerpted here originally ran on Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Driving a city bus has always had its hazards. Until recently, exposure to a deadly pandemic was not among them. But as most workers are staying home to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, bus drivers remain on the front lines, transporting strangers around the city in what one driver referred to as “rolling petri dishes.”

With protective equipment such as masks and gloves in short supply, drivers say they have no way of knowing whether they’ve been exposed. Every interaction with a rider, another driver said, is a potential opportunity for infection: “Everybody’s got a gun now, but we don’t know who has bullets.”

In Seattle, where the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, were detected in February, conversations with nearly a dozen bus drivers revealed widespread anxiety about driver and passenger safety.

While many drivers sympathize with riders who still rely on buses to get to work or the store ― or just have nowhere else to go ―  some drivers said they didn’t understand why so many buses were still on the road. They have no idea how many of their fellow drivers have been infected because the public transit authority, King County Metro, won’t say. And drivers are frustrated with what they see as a lack of clear direction from management about how to protect themselves, when to stay home, and how they will be compensated if they take time off.

Nathan Vass is a veteran Metro driver who recently decided to take unpaid time off because he thinks he may have been exposed to the coronavirus. He said that his route, which is one of the busiest in the city, has remained crowded through the pandemic — an observation confirmed by Metro’s ridership statistics, which show that buses serving lower-income areas, like the one Vass drives, have seen much lower reductions than commuter and suburban routes.

Vass said he’s not sure what’s worse: Failing to serve people who rely on transit by shutting the buses down, or allowing the virus to spread unchecked by keeping them in service.

“If we’re going to continue allowing transit, we have to be OK with the fact that we’re spreading the virus as well,” said Vass, who recently published a book chronicling his experiences as a bus driver. “Transit is just not conducive to restricting the transmission of viruses.”

Metro, like other transit systems across the country, has reduced service dramatically during the pandemic. But drivers in Seattle — unlike, for example, in Vancouver, Canada, where the bus agency recently closed off every second row of seats — have been offered limited official options for enforcing social distance.

A recorded message, which is only in English, instructs riders to sit six feet apart, but that’s an impossible standard to achieve on the more crowded routes. And even if riders do sit six feet apart, the coronavirus lingers on surfaces, so if an infected person sneezes on a handrail or touches a seat with dirty hands, they can still infect the next person who sits there.

At the same time, Metro has officially designated bus drivers “first responders” and instructed all drivers who don’t show COVID-19 symptoms to keep showing up for work, even if they think they’ve been exposed to the virus.

“That is the opposite of everything we’ve been told, from CDC on down,” said Audrey Monroe, who has driven for Metro for almost four years. “It seems wild to me that that’s their policy when we know that you can have no symptoms and still be shedding the virus.”

Metro will not say how many drivers have been infected. According to King County Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer, releasing illness numbers “could lead to individuals being identified and could cause other spaces to be mistakenly seen as being without risk,” and might cause drivers not to seek needed medical care. A driver for Community Transit, an agency that serves the suburbs north of Seattle, died of COVID-19 last month; so far, the agency has confirmed 10 cases among its drivers.

Read the rest of this piece at HuffPost.