Tag: light rail

The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City

Sound Transit Roosevelt Station facade
Image via Sound Transit.

By Katie Wilson

Anyone who’s ever been carless in Seattle knows the feeling that your city wasn’t really built for you. Cars whiz by, spewing exhaust and, if it’s especially wet, plowing up great sprays of dirty water that don’t respect the boundaries of the sidewalk. Biking on most streets is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it takes so long to cobble together a bus trip from here to there, it’s almost faster to walk. Seattle has been making progress on its multimodal infrastructure, and some streets are safe, beautiful and well-designed — but take a wrong turn, and very quickly you can feel like an unwelcome stranger in your own city.

That’s what made the opening of three new light rail stations earlier this month so thrilling. An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I biked and walked past that construction site at NE 43rd St. in the University District so many times over the past few years, it began to feel like a permanent feature of the neighborhood. I almost forgot it was ever going to open. Then, suddenly, it was October 2 .

Now I could leave my Capitol Hill apartment, walk for ten minutes, board the train and be whisked away to the heart of U District in what felt like a heartbeat — no bus transfer, no hike through campus. Wandering the streets around the U District station that afternoon, you could feel the neighborhood being transformed. What had been a dead end was now a hub, a portal. People streamed in and out of the station. They bought lunch, sat at picnic tables, conversed. A new place had been created.

An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I probably wouldn’t have ridden the train on that first day if it weren’t for Pauline Van Senus, also known as the Transit Fairy. While the rest of the Transit Riders Union floated off into the Zoom-o-sphere during the pandemic, Pauline doubled down on the physical world, pulling weeds and picking up trash around transit stops. She wasn’t about to let such a momentous transit occasion slide by without TRU members marking the occasion, so a group of us met at the Capitol Hill station that morning and rode up to Northgate together.

“It’s like 14 minutes to get to Northgate from downtown,” said Pauline. “Even if I-5 was wide open, that would be hard to top. And it very seldom is wide open; it’s usually backed up.”

Train speeds that beat the pants off driving—that’s the kind of transit system that entices people out of their cars. In our era of climate crisis, it’s what we desperately need.

For Jim MacIntosh, who lives in Magnolia with his family, the new light rail extension shaves a good twenty minutes off the trip up to Northgate to visit his mother. That trip used to require traveling all the way downtown. “Now I can take the 31 right to the U-district station, and then just hop on the light rail, and it’s two stops and five minutes later we’re at Northgate,” he said.

We need more funding for transit, and we need changes to zoning and land use regulations that encourage greater housing density, so that neighborhoods near the light rail line can accommodate more people who will actually use late-night runs.

Jim says he’s thrilled that our transit system is starting to feel more and more like a real metropolitan subway system, the kind he remembers from visits to London and Vienna, Washington D.C. and New York City.

“What we have is maybe not quite the level of New York, but it’s a start,” he said with a laugh. “It’s going to add mobility, especially for those that choose not to drive or don’t drive for whatever reason.”

Jim doesn’t drive because he’s visually impaired. He predicts he’ll be making the trip north more often now — and it’s not only about the time savings.

“It’s just a more pleasant run,” he said. “The light rail trains are smooth. You don’t have the up and down motion that you have in a bus, and the swerving where buses have to get around cars or every time they pull into a bus stop. When the bus moves, a person standing there is thrown off balance, so they have to grab onto a pole or something. On the light rail you don’t have the sudden motions back and forth.” Continue reading “The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City”

Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts

Evolution Block in Vancouver, B.C.—the kind of multistory industrial building that could come to Seattle under a new proposal for industrial areas. Photo via PC Urban.

by Erica C. Barnett

Walk through the stretch of Ballard that runs roughly from 14th to 8th Ave. NW between NW 53rd Street and Leary Way, and you’ll find no shortage of breweries and taprooms selling hoppy IPAs and farmhouse ales to take home or drink onsite, along with an eclectic assortment of food trucks offering everything from dim sum to burgers to Polish food. What you won’t see is housing: No apartments, condos, or artists’ lofts to break up the area’s single-story industrial monoculture.

The breweries have brought some street-level excitement to this part of Ballard, but the vitality is limited: You can drink beer and buy food from a truck here, but you can’t work in an office, browse in a retail store, or dine at a restaurant—and you certainly can’t live here. Tap rooms (and marijuana shops) represent the limit of what’s allowed in an industrial area like this one in Ballard, which will eventually be a short walk away from Sound Transit’s Ballard light-rail station.

The future of Seattle’s industrial land has been a subject of debate for decades, but the idea of integrating non-industrial uses into these areas, which make up about 12 percent of Seattle’s land, has accelerated in recent years as smaller, more human-scale industrial businesses have replaced smoke-belching traditional manufacturing enterprises in Seattle and across the country. Under a new strategy created at the behest of Mayor Jenny Durkan, however, innovation in these areas would be restricted to small edge zones on the outskirts of industrial districts—and housing would continue to be banned altogether.

In addition to those new restrictions, a proposed amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan (the document that governs land use and zoning in Seattle) would make it virtually impossible to take land out of industrial use for any reason—a zoning restriction on par with laws preserving Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones.

In effect, the amendment would bar anyone who owns industrial land from even asking permission to remove it from industrial use—say, to add housing in an area right next to a light rail station. Historically (including this year), individual land owners have asked permission to change their property from industrial to another use as part of the comprehensive plan amendment process, and historically, including this year, the city has rejected such requests.

On Monday, NAIOP Washington, a lobbying organization for commercial real estate developers, wrote a letter to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development asking for more zoning flexibility within a quarter-mile of light rail stations and requesting a more flexible definition of “industrial” to allow a wider range of uses. And they asked the city to reject the proposed comprehensive plan amendment. “[W]e do not believe all 5,000 acres of our City’s industrial lands should be treated the same,” the letter, signed by NAIOP Washington director Peggi Lewis Fu, says.

“We believe in some areas, this work could go further… ensuring that this effort fully considers the billion-dollar taxpayer investment in current and future light-rail transit stations that fall within this study area,” the letter continues.

The new recommendations introduce the concept of “high-density employment” in industrial areas near transit stops—multistory industrial buildings that, in some cases, might include office space. In practice, this type of development would encourage a one-way in-migration to jobs and a one-way out-migration to homes, much as 20th-century transit and highway planning assumed people would commute to cities’ downtown cores from distant residential neighborhoods and suburbs.

Jessica Clawson, an attorney at the firm McCullough Hill Leary in Seattle, asked the city council’s land use committee last month to delay considering the comprehensive plan amendment until next year, when the city will have a better idea of where Sound Transit’s new stations in Interbay and Ballard will go.

“Why would the council docket and study a comp plan amendment now that would make it more difficult to consider these really important transportation decisions when making land use changes [in the future]?” she asked. Clawson’s firm is headed by longtime developer attorney (and political heavy hitter) Jack McCullough, who co-chaired the committee that produced the 2017 proposal.

The Industrial Innovation Network—a group of property owners who want to remove their land from industrial use, allowing them to develop it—has filed an appeal to the city’s determination of [environmental] nonsignificance for the amendment, arguing that the proposal would make it impossible for them to develop housing, including affordable housing, in historically industrial areas near light rail stations “In addition, the Proposal’s restriction of land to only industrial uses will cause some properties to remain vacant or underutilized, with buildings in a state of disrepair, resulting in blight,” the appeal, filed by McCullough Hill Leary, says. 

In a letter to OPCD a week before the IIN filed its appeal, Clawson argued that would take away property owners’ rights to “petition their government” for a land-use change, reduce the usefulness of light rail, and contribute to the housing shortage by taking land out of residential use, potentially “in perpetuity.” 

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter, signed by Clawson, says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

The council voted to move the amendment forward; they haven’t acted on the industrial advisory group’s recommendations, which will face environmental review. The city hearing examiner’s office has the property owners’ appeal on its docket.

Although industrial areas enjoy an enviably low vacancy rate (about 5 percent, compared to an office vacancy rate of 15 percent), the definition of “industrial” continues to shift in ways that have led other cities (notably Portland) to allow some mingling of homes, shops, and restaurants in once walled-off industrial areas. The idea of allowing housing in industrial areas has long been off-limits in Seattle, but the city’s growth—even at the height of COVID, the city grew by 8,400 people, cementing our status as one of the fastest-growing US cities—may force the issue, especially in a city that restricts new apartments to a tiny sliver of its buildable land.

In Seattle, conversations about the future of industrial land have been slow and fitful. In 2016, then-mayor Ed Murray assembled a group of stakeholders—including industrial land owners, planners, developers, and maritime advocacy groups—to come up with a new framework for developing industrial areas in the future. The update was long overdue: Since 2007, when the city dramatically downzoned industrial land by placing strict size limits on office and retail uses, Seattle’s industrial areas have been effectively closed to non-industrial development—a status that keeps land costs lower (no competition with residential and office developers), but can produce dull streetscapes prone to potholes and blight.

“That first [set of meetings] started so contentiously that they couldn’t even have the two sides of the table in the same room for the first three meetings,” SODO Business Improvement Area director Erin Goodman recalled. The argument boiled down to “development version preservation of industrial land—this is a hot button issue down here.” Continue reading “Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts”

Financial Crisis Forces Sound Transit to Consider Tough, Complicated Choices

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the past few months, Sound Transit, the regional agency tasked with building light rail to Ballard and West Seattle lines as well as extending the main light-rail “spine” to Everett and Tacoma, has been dealt a double blow of bad news. Last June, agency staff estimated that total revenues could fall short by $8 billion to $12 billion by 2041, the original end date of the Sound Transit 3 program voters approved in 2016. (More recent projections have adjusted that projection down slightly, to a range of $6.1 billion to $11.5 billion, but the numbers remain grim).

Then, earlier this month, Sound Transit announced that the cost to build the ST3 package, which includes elevated lines to West Seattle and Ballard, had increased by about $8 billion. The combination of the shortfall and cost inflation has created an “affordability gap” of about $11.5 billion.

Referring to the chart above, which shows a green line marked “ending balance” plummeting below zero beginning in 2029, Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel said last week, “I’ve never seen a chart where the budget dropped off the chart … so that’s pretty sobering for me.”

Keel made his comments during a board workshop on Sound Transit 3 “realignment” last Thursday, where the general outlines of two broad options emerged.

The first, which staff have dubbed the “expanded capacity” approach, would involve finding additional resources, such as grants, federal dollars, or new taxes, to boost Sound Transit’s revenues and make the newly inflated project possible. The second, called the “plan-required” approach, would involve some combination of delaying elements of the project, permanently reducing the scope of projects, and eliminating some projects altogether. According to a lengthy report on the options, this alternative would only come into play “in the event that new financial resources are not secured.”

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Presented with these conflicting options, several board members insisted that the solution was doing “both.” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, for example, said, “We have to be working hard at what the resources we have, but [we also] have to look at what are other potential sources of revenues,” she said, adding, “Every time we pull the covers over ourselves, we fail ourselves. We have to be thinking of the future.”

To that end, the options Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff presented last week included: New federal funding; direct grants from the state; increasing the agency’s debt capacity; raising the rental car tax rate; purchasing lower-cost debt through federal loan programs; and increasing fares.

Most of these options come with significant caveats and downsides. For example, Sound Transit is already the nation’s largest Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act borrower, making it less likely the agency will be approved for additional debt. Rental-car tax revenues are currently negligible because of the COVID-related decline in travel. And any increase to the agency’s debt capacity would require either 60 percent voter approval or a change to the Washington State Constitution (and would lower the agency’s credit rating, resulting in higher interest payments.)

Finally, Rogoff said, the likelihood of more federal grant funding is dampened somewhat by the fact that Sound Transit already receives one-tenth of the Federal Transit Agency’s grant funding nationwide; “We would certainly love to get a higher percentage of that program, and we certainly would love to get an additional program funded, but there is certainly a limit to what one transit agency can call on from that program, or at least there has been to date,” Rogoff said on Thursday.

Complicating matters are some of the six factors the board will use to decide how to prioritize voter-approved projects in light of the budget gap. For Seattle residents, two factors could end up working against the city’s projects, including light rail to Ballard and West Seattle.

The first is whether a project serves to “complete the spine” of regional light rail, meaning the central line that will eventually extend from Tacoma to Everett.  This portion of the plan requires the construction of a second downtown transit tunnel, but Sound Transit does not consider that tunnel part of the “spine.” Instead, the tunnel—which will also connect downtown to West Seattle and Ballard—is considered a Seattle-only project for planning purposes. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the tunnel is funded regionally, the costs split between the three “subareas” within the Sound Transit taxing district). The upshot could be that when Sound Transit gets around to picking projects to delay or cut, West Seattle and Ballard could be first in line because Seattle already got a “Seattle” project in the form of a second downtown tunnel.

The second issue is equity—defined, for Sound Transit’s purposes, as how well a project serves low-income people, people of color, and people with disabilities within a one-mile radius of a project, such as a station. Although many ST3 projects scored low on equity, some of the worst were in Seattle. They included the West Seattle line (which scored medium-low), the downtown tunnel (medium-low) and the Ballard extension (low). This could bump these projects lower down the priority list.

Some board members argued that the definition of “equity” Sound Transit uses is narrow and self-defeating, since stations tend to raise property values (and prompt gentrification) in their immediate vicinity, driving down their equity scores even if they serve people from less-affluent, more diverse parts of town. For example, an infill station at NE 130th Street, in board member Debora Juarez’s Seattle City Council district, ranked low on the list, despite the fact that the station will serve people commuting into the area from elsewhere.

“I have a real problem with the equity” metric, because of the way it narrowly defines a station’s service area, Juarez said. “The whole point of having these stations is to get people to work, to the hospital,” Juarez said, referring to the UW Medical Center hospital near the station. “Taking three buses to get to the north end is ridiculous.”

The board isn’t expected to adopt a realignment plan until next summer, at the soonest. Although board chair Keel began a blue-sky discussion last week about how Sound Transit could cut costs or raise money—beginning with the rental-car tax, which would raise a negligible amount—board member Claudia Balducci, a King County Council member from Bellevue, cautioned against coming up with lists of cuts or new taxes before a thorough discussion.

“When we did this ten-plus years ago”—in the wake of the 2008-2010 recession—”we had a very deeply researched piece of documentation that was given to us with a lot of backup behind it,” Balducci, who first joined the Sound Transit board as Bellevue mayor in 2020, said. “I feel like we’re at that early stage of maybe trying to provide high-level feedback about the parameters around additional study that we want to see. … It feels like we’re rushing toward a solution when we haven’t identified the problems.”

 

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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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely 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.

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. The most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment, which Sound Transit attributed to the higher cost of property in quickly densifying West Seattle.

The main reason for the cost increases in general, 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.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely 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.

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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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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.”