Tag: light rail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

Sound Transit provided PubliCola a more detailed breakdown of the West Seattle-to-Ballard cost increases. The chart below represents the best-case (lowest-cost) scenario from the range Sound Transit released yesterday, which ranged from the $12,103 shown below to $12,581. The most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment. We’ve asked Sound Transit for more detailed information about these numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?”

Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay

Sound Transit says this distribution of reasons riders said they failed to pay shows that “most riders are able to pay” their fares, which range from $2.25 to $5.75 for a one-way ride.

After a fare-checking incident on the first day of school led to widespread criticism of Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement policies, the agency said it would reconsider how it checks and enforces fare—just as soon as it could complete an in-person rider survey, an onboard rider survey, and a series of focus groups to determine what issues riders were most concerned about and the reasons people engage in “fare evasion” on Sound Transit trains. (“Fare evasion” is a term that suggests intent, or even theft, but it includes many situations where the “evasion” is unintentional, such as when a person buys an unlimited monthly pass but forgets to “tap” her card before boarding; hence the scare quotes)

For the onboard surveys, staffers shadowed fare enforcement officers until they caught someone without proof of payment, then gave them a survey about why they didn’t pay. The most common responses were that the rider forgot to tap their card, that their card didn’t work, or that they “couldn’t find where to tap.” This finding, according to the survey, “provides further support for the finding that most riders are able to pay but occasionally fail to do so for a myriad of reasons.”

The comment seems aimed squarely at advocates who have argued for free or reduced fares on the grounds that people who avoid fares typically do so because they can’t afford them. Those advocates expressed frustration last year after Sound Transit adopted a wait-and-see policy toward any changes to fare or fare enforcement, pointing out that a 2018 audit of King County Metro showed that a large number of riders who failed to pay did so because they couldn’t afford the fare. (In comparing the two surveys, it’s worth noting that Sound Transit’s survey included a bewildering array of 14 possible reasons for nonpayment, plus “other”—nearly twice as many options as King County Metro’s 2018 survey). If it turns out people could pay if they wanted to, but don’t, that would create a new bulwark against calls to make the system more affordable or accessible to low-income people.

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The on-board survey did find that people making between $0 and $50,000 were the least likely to pay, but the report doesn’t break that number down further, making it hard to draw conclusions about different groups within that broad income category. Currently, people making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $25,000 for an individual, are eligible for discount fares through the ORCA Lift program.

The King County Auditor’s independent review of Metro’s fare enforcement policies led to changes such as reduced fines for fare evasion and the creation of new avenues to address fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in ORCA Lift. Sound Transit is considering similar changes, but has rejected proposals to make its service free, and has resolutely defended its fare-enforcement practice of checking all riders on each car for fare, despite the fact that this practice has still resulted in racially lopsided enforcement.

The agency released the results of the surveys and in-person sessions last week, and held a listening session to talk about some of the proposals that emerged from the process at El Centro de la Raza on Wednesday night. The meeting was unusual for a “roundtable” style public meeting in a couple of respects: First, agency staffers kept the initial presentation short. Second, participants got a chance to rotate among six different tables to discuss a total of three separate topics instead of just one. Finally, because the public comment came at the end of the meeting, after everyone had spent an hour throwing out ideas, it was actually informed by the discussion, rather than rehearsed and packaged in advance. Continue reading “Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay”

Light Rail Riders Will Have to Switch Trains to Get Through Downtown Tunnel During East Link Construction

Sound Transit light rail riders traveling through the downtown Seattle transit tunnel will have to switch trains on a new, temporary center platform at the Pioneer Square station for ten weeks in early 2020 to accommodate construction to move tracks and install switches for the new East Link train line, which opens in 2023, into the existing rail system. During those ten weeks, people traveling through the tunnel in either direction will stop at Pioneer Square, deboard on a 14-foot-wide platform in the middle of the tunnel, and switch to the train that has just arrived from the opposite direction. After two minutes—an amount of time Sound Transit planners say is necessary to allow passengers on each train to get across the platform and reboard, and for train drivers to get from one end of the train to the other—the trains will continue in the same direction from which they came.

Sound Transit staffers said train doors will not open until another train has arrived from the opposite direction, to prevent riders from succumbing to the “temptation” to rush across the open trackway to the opposite station platform. The temporary center platform will be staffed with security and Sound Transit wayfinding staff during all hours when trains are running.

“This is a necessary inconvenience so we can enjoy the massive convenience of having access to 10 stations on the Eastside in 2023.” – Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff

If you have trouble visualizing how this would work, Sound Transit has created a couple of animations that I found extremely helpful. Essentially, trains that go to the University District station will be traveling to Pioneer Square and turning back, and trains coming from Angle Lake and the airport will be doing the same thing from the south. Four stations will operate with only one platform at a time during construction—Stadium, Chinatown/ID, University, and Westlake.

Additionally, the tunnel will be shut down altogether for three weekends during the construction period; during that time, riders will have to transfer to street-level buses between the Westlake and SoDo stations.

While construction is going on, four-car trains will operate at 12-minute frequencies all day (currently, Sound Transit runs three-car trains more frequently during rush hour and less often when demand is lower.) The result will be more crowding during busy periods—trains will have about 23 percent less capacity during the weekday peak—and less crowding during off hours, when there will be 11 percent more room for riders to spread out. Sound Transit staffers say they’re working on a plan to accommodate bikes and luggage when trains are more crowded than usual.

At a meeting of Sound Transit’s newly christened Rider Experience and Operations Committee meeting Thursday, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff called the 10-week partial closure “a necessary inconvenience so we can enjoy the massive convenience of having access to 10 stations on the Eastside in 2023,” and predicted that riders would “scarcely remember the inconvenience of the 10 weeks in 2020, given the benefits that the whole region will get when East Link is done.”

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Durkan Hires a Familiar Face, for $720,000, to Represent the City During Light Rail Planning

Mayor Jenny Durkan has chosen Anne Fennessy,  a public-affairs consultant who has known Durkan for decades, to serve as the city’s single point of contact during the development of a plan for Sound Transit 3, which will extend light rail to Ballard and West Seattle. According to the contract, which was provided by the mayor’s office, Fennessy’s firm, Cocker Fennessy, will be paid $720,000 for the work. Sound Transit will reimburse the city for the full cost of Fennessy’s four-year contract. Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice says the mayor’s office interviewed about five people for the position before selecting Fennessy through a sole-source justification—a noncompetitive process. Prentice notes that Fennessy has a long history of doing  work for Sound Transit, pointing to public opinion research and public outreach work her firm, Cocker Fennessy, did for the agency during and after the unsuccessful “roads and transit” campaign in 2007. Prentice could not immediately say whether Durkan considered designating a (likely less expensive) city employee as the city’s representative before hiring Fennessy for the job.

Cocker Fennessy has received at least two other significant transportation-related city contracts during Durkan’s first year in office—to coordinate the city’s review of the stalled downtown streetcar and to assist in an assessment of the Seattle Department of Transportation. (As I previously reported, Fennessy lives near the streetcar route, which has caused major traffic disruption in Pioneer Square, and is married to Durkan’s Deputy Mayor David Moseley. Her work on the SDOT review, for which Fennessy established a makeshift, closet-sized office inside the agency itself,  is reportedly complete.

According to the partnering agreement between the city and Sound Transit, Fennessy’s job will involve working with the transit agency “to manage the project, to establish a cooperative and communicative platform for reaching early and durable decisions, and to resolve disputes.” As the designated representative for the city, Fennessy “will be located in the Mayor’s Office and will report directly and exclusively to the Mayor or Deputy Mayor,” according to the agreement.  “This is a huge, complex project that requires a great deal of work with individual departments, and someone is needed to help keep that cogently tied together and moving forward,” Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason says.

The agreement, which the city council approved last December, indicates that Durkan was supposed to have appointed a designated representative by January 15 of this year. Fennessy reportedly received the contract within the last month or two. Reason, who directed specific questions about the contract to the mayor’s office, says that in the absence of a designated representative over the last year, Sound Transit has been “working with individuals in various departments” directly, as they have done in the past. Reason couldn’t say whether the lack of a designated representative had slowed down the process of working with the city. “That’s a hypothetical,” she says. “This is a new idea that we are implementing because we are on such a compressed timeline. … We’re changing our processes in real time, so our approach is, let’s do everything we can to work with the city, and now that the designee has been brought on board, we can implement that idea as well.”

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In addition to serving as Sound Transit’s sole point of contact at the city, Fennessy’s role will include coordinating technical input on everything from  “land use/zoning, traffic/parking [and] parks/open space” to “utility, roadway/traffic, drainage, structural/building, fire/life safety, construction staging, property acquisition/right-of-way vacation,” according to the agreement. The designated representative is also charged with assembling and overseeing the city’s project development team (a task that was also supposed to be complete, according to the agreement, by January of this year. Reason did not know whether the city had put together a project team.)

In an email, Fennessy said that Cocker Fennessy “does not speak on behalf our clients – so you should reach out to the Mayor’s office.”

Afternoon Crank: Bad News for Sound Transit, a Good Idea From Sound Transit, and Grandstanding on Forced “Treatment”

Morning Crank: Needles are a Longstanding Problem

Needles in libraries, a shift in the city’s protectionist industrial-land policies?, and more in today’s Morning Crank.

1. In my piece last month about a library employee who was stuck by a needle while changing the trash in the women’s restroom of the Ballard branch library, Seattle Public Library spokeswoman Andra Addison said that she was unaware of any other instance in which a library staffer had been stuck by a needle and said that the library’s administrative services division had determined that the system “just really [doesn’t] have the need” for sharps containers.

Since then, the library has changed course, and is installing sharps containers at three branches—Capitol Hill, Ballard, and the University District. A review of the “shift logs” (daily logs of notable incidents and interactions with patrons) at the Ballard branch indicates that far from being an anomaly, needle sightings are a regular, even banal, occurrence. Over the course of just six weeks, spanning from late December 2017 to mid-March of this year, Ballard library staff recorded a dozen needle-related incidents, including a man slumped over after shooting up at the library, a needle left unattended in a Pop-Tart box in the lobby, needles found floating in toilets on two different occasions, and an oversized CD case stuffed with needles and empty baggies that had been tossed in the book drop. In one case, an uncapped needle was found lying on the floor in the teen area of the library; in another, a library staffer discovered two needles in the restroom while cleaning up piles of trash and clothes that a patron had left behind.

“We could see the man slumped over and the needle was lying in front of him,” one log report says. “I called 9-11 to report a man shooting up in front of the library. I also called security. I then went back out to check on the man. At this time he was holding the needle in his hand. I told the man that I was excluding him from SPL for 2 weeks. He became very upset and said that he had found the needle on the ground and that the library was putting him at risk. He then came into the library and threw the needle in the garbage in the lobby.”

The logs, which detail many other security incidents as well as a case of mistaken identity (a giant stuffed panda that appeared to be a sleeping patron), make a couple of things clear: First, that improperly discarded syringes, far from being an unusual or notable occurrence, were a well-documented issue at the Ballard library long before the custodian was stuck with a needle and rushed to the hospital. And second, library workers are doing double duty as security guards and hazardous-waste cleanup crew, a situation that has complex causes but that can’t be addressed by merely telling workers to use heavier rubber gloves, or even by installing sharps containers in a couple of branches. As long as the city fails to adequately fund housing and treatment, and delays building safe consumption spaces for people living with active addiction, as a county task force unanimously recommended a year and a half ago, our libraries are going to continue to be de facto safe consumption spaces, crisis clinics, and emergency waiting rooms.

2. Seattle may be known for its rigid rules protecting single-family neighborhoods from incursions by off-brand housing like duplexes, townhomes, and apartments, but when it comes to protected land-use classes, nothing compares to the city’s industrial districts. Since the 1990s, it has been official city policy to wall off industrial areas from other uses by restricting or prohibiting uses (like offices and housing) “that may negatively affect the availability, character, or function of industrial areas.”

That quote is from a presentation Seattle Office of Planning and Community development senior planner Tom Hauger delivered to the Seattle Planning Commission yesterday, and it was meant to show the way the city has viewed industrial lands historically—not necessarily the way they will be viewed in the future. In fact, Hauger said, an industrial lands advisory panel that has been meeting since 2016 to come up with proposed changes to the city’s industrial lands policy is about to release a somewhat radical-by-city-standards) “draft concept” (don’t call it a proposal) that could open much of the industrial land in the SoDo district, around the stadiums and within walking distance of the two south-of-downtown light rail stations, to office uses. This could help reduce the traffic impact of the nearly two million new workers that are expected to move to the region by 2050, and it could provide a bridge to the kind of hybrid office/industrial spaces that are already taking root in other cities as the definition of “industrial” itself evolves.

Under rules adopted in 2007 (and reviled by developers ever since), office buildings in industrial areas are restricted to 10,000 square feet (retail is restricted to 25,000), meaning that in practical terms, there is virtually no office space in the city’s two industrial areas, the Duwamish Manufacturing Industrial Center (which includes SoDo) and theBallard Interbay Northend Manufacturing Industrial Center. The change that’s being contemplated, known as the “SoDo concept,” would allow developers to build office space in the  district if they provide space for industrial businesses on the lower levels, up to a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 1.0, which can be visualized (roughly) as a single story stretching across 100 percent of a lot, two stories that cover half the lot, and so on. In exchange, developers could build up to five times as many stories of  office space, up to the height limit, although Hauger said the task force would probably end up settling on two to four additional office stories (again, roughly) for each full story of industrial space.

This sounds like minor stuff, but in the context of the industrial lands debate in Seattle, it’s a shot across the bow. More radical proposals, such as allowing housing near existing and future light rail stations in SoDo and Interbay, are, for the moment, off the table. “The advisory panel has talked about housing, but it’s been a minority view, and the majority has decided that, especially in the Duwamish area, that housing near the light rail stations is off the table,” Hauger said.

3. King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober gave himself a full week to wrap up his affairs before formally stepping down after his executive board found him guilty on all five charges against him, which included allegations of financial misconduct, conduct unbecoming an officer, and creating a hostile work environment last Sunday. The nearly 14-hour trial ended Stober’s nine-week-long effort to keep his position after an initial investigation concluded that he should step down.

Although it’s unclear why Stober announced his resignation a week in advance instead of stepping down immediately, he did knock out one task right away: Sending an email out to all the precinct committee officers in the county—the same group that would have voted this coming Sunday, April 15, on whether to remove Stober if he had not resigned—thanking them “for the honor and the privilege.” Stober frames the decision to step down as his own voluntary choice—”I have decided to resign,” he writes—and enumerates the Party’s achievements under his leadership before concluding, “Most importantly, we had fun doing all of it. I am so proud of the things we did together – thinking about it brings a smile to my face.” The only hint of an apology to the woman he fired after another woman in the Party who had witnessed his behavior filed a complaint on her behalf? A vague “to those I have let down and disappointed – I am truly sorry,” followed by four sentences of thanks to the people who “have stood by my side.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “Unacceptable By Any Measure”

Image result for escalator broken temporarily stairs

1. At Sound Transit’s board meeting Thursday, agency CEO Peter Rogoff said the 40-minute waits many commuters experiencing when escalators at the University of Washington light rail station stopped working last Friday were “unacceptable by any measure.” Sound Transit wouldn’t let commuters use the stalled escalators as stairs—a common practice in other transit systems across the country—because they said the variable stair height on the escalators could result in people tripping. “This resulted in painfully long lines for our customers and rightly resulted in numerous customer complaints,” Rogoff summarized, adding that Sound Transit staff would come back to the board’s operations and administration committee with a set of “remedies” on April 5.

At the same meeting, board members also approved a set of performance objectives for Rogoff, including the development of a “Leadership Development Plan” for Rogoff in collaboration with a panel consisting of board members Nancy Backus, Paul Roberts, and Ron Lucas—the mayor of Auburn, mayor pro tem of Everett, and mayor of Steilacoom, respectively. The board mandated the plan at its last meeting, after (mildly) chiding Rogoff for his alleged behavior toward agency employees, which included looking women up and down and giving them “elevator eyes,” using racially insensitive language, shoving chairs, and yelling and swearing at employees. At that meeting, the board declined to give Rogoff a $30,000 bonus but did grant him a five-percent “cost-of-living” raise, bringing his salary to more than $328,000.

Several board members, including Seattle city council member Rob Johnson, expressed concern about a potential lack of transparency around the development of the plan, but no one raised any objections over the adequacy of the guidelines themselves, which include vague directives such as “Continue to enhance leadership skills, including the areas of active listening, self-awareness, and relationship building” and “develop specific action plans, performance expectation targets, and measurements to improve leadership abilities in these areas.” Last month, Johnson and Mayor Jenny Durkan were the only votes against the plan for Rogoff’s rehabilitation, which they both deemed inadequate given the seriousness of the allegations against him.

2. A petition to begin the process of removing Bailey Stober as chair of the King County Democrats has enough signatures to move the process to the next step: Holding a meeting of all the precinct committee officers (PCOs) in the county to vote on whether to remove Stober, who is under investigation for allegations of sexual harassment and financial misconduct. However, dozens of PCOs who have been appointed but not yet approved by Stober may be unable to vote, including nearly a dozen “pending” PCOs who have signed an open letter calling on Stober to resign.

On Monday, the group’s executive board agreed to hold a meeting to discuss the financial misconduct allegations against Stober; the petition will be presented at that meeting. On Tuesday, Stober said he planned to make an “announcement pertinent to our organization” during his report at the beginning of the meeting. Some in the group have speculated that he may attempt to present “evidence” in a separate harassment case against him that would cast his alleged victim—a former employee whom Stober fired—and her supporters in an unflattering light, and then resign.

One hundred twenty-two appointed PCOs remain in “pending” status waiting for Stober to sign off on their appointments, which is one of the duties of the King County party chair. Some have been waiting for more than a year for Stober’s approval.

3. Meanwhile, Stober has lost his legal representation in a separate case stemming from alleged campaign-finance violations in his 2015 run for Kent City Council.  The firm that was representing him, Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzen & Lavitt, filed a petition formally removing themselves from the case on March 8. The state Attorney General’s Office (AGO) has been attempting to get documents from Stober for nearly a year in a case related to two citizen actions filed by conservative activist Glen Morgan; the first accuses Stober of using campaign funds for personal use and other campaign-finance violations, and the second alleges that Stober campaigned for other candidates on public time (in his role as King County Dems chair) while on the clock as spokesman for King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson. Last June, the AGO issued a press release announcing it was seeking an order forcing Stober to hand over the documents; although that request was granted, subsequent court records reveal that the AGO was (at least initially) unable to serve Stober at his home (where the lights were on and a car was in the driveway but no one answered) or his office (where the process server was told Stober was on vacation.)

Dmitri Iglitzen, a partner at the firm, declined to comment on why his firm decided to stop representing Stober, citing attorney-client privilege, but did say that the firm has “at no time billed King County Democrats (or any other entity) for legal services related to our representation of Mr. Stober” and “at no time has provided legal services to Mr. Stober on a pro bono basis.” In other words, Stober was (or was supposed to be) paying them for their services. Iglitzen declined to say whether nonpayment was an issue in his firm’s decision to cut ties with Stober.

Stober, who ran for the Kent Council three times, has already been fined $4,000 for campaign disclosure violations related to his 2011 and 2013 campaigns for the position.

4. On Wednesday, the city council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning committee finally approved legislation that will lift parking mandates, require more bike parking at new buildings, and require developers of large buildings to “unbundle” the cost of parking and rent by charging separately for each, on Wednesday, although one controversial provision will be back on the docket at Monday’s full council meeting.

Council member Lisa Herbold raised objections to several changes made by the legislation, including the unbundling provision (she worried that renters would choose not to rent parking and just park on the street); a new definition of “frequent transit service” that allows apartments without parking within a quarter-mile of bus routes that run, on average, every 15 minutes; and a provision removing parking mandates for affordable housing and one lowering the mandate for senior housing.

Most of Herbold’s amendments were unsuccessful, although she did manage to pass one that will impose a special parking mandate on new buildings near the Fauntleroy ferry dock. (Council member Mike O’Brien voted against that proposal, arguing that that there were ways to prevent ferry riders from parking in the neighborhood that did not involve requiring developers to build one parking space for every unit so close to a frequent bus line, the RapidRide C). When the full council takes up the legislation Monday, Herbold said she plans to reintroduce just one amendment: A proposal that would allow the city to impose “mitigation” requirements under the State Environmental Policy Act on new developments in neighborhoods where more than 85 percent of parking spaces are routinely occupied. Those measures could include site-specific parking mandates or provisions barring renters at a new development from obtaining residential parking zone permits to park on the street (currently, RPZ permits are available to all city residents.)

Both Johnson and O’Brien objected that the purpose of environmental mitigation under SEPA is to mitigate against the negative environmental impacts of projects, not build new parking lots for cars. O’Brien pointed to the well-documented phenomenon of induced demand—the principle that adding more parking spaces or highway lanes simply leads people to drive more. Herbold countered that driving around searching for parking has an environmental impact, an argument that equates the minuscule climate impact of circling the block for a minute to that of purchasing and driving a car because your neighborhood has plenty of free parking. “We should be reverse engineering” our existing urban landscape, Johnson argued, “and requiring more green space instead of more asphalt.”

The council will take up the parking reform legislation, and Herbold’s amendment, on Monday at 2pm.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.