Tag: Seattle Department of Transportation

Unpaid Tickets from West Seattle Bridge Violations Add Up to Millions

West Seattle and Spokane Street Bridges
Unauthorized drivers who used the lower Spokane Street Bridge (right) when the West Seattle Bridge was closed for repairs racked up more than 130,000 traffic citations in 2021 and 2022. Photo by Lizz Giordano.

By Lizz Giordano

A windfall from traffic tickets during the closure of the West Seattle Bridge could soon reach the Seattle Department of Transportation, as more than 74,000 citations from traffic cameras on the Spokane Street bridge, also known as the “lower” West Seattle Bridge, head to collections next year. 

When the West Seattle Bridge closed for repairs in 2020, the city banned most drivers from using the lower bridge except between late night and early morning to give buses and emergency vehicles a clear path between West Seattle and downtown. The city first relied on police officers to catch scofflaws, then installed automated cameras to issue citations in early 2021. 

As of the end of this October, more than half of those citations remain unpaid. At $75 per citation, that adds up to more than $5.5 million in potential revenue, half of which goes to the city.

Most people used the First Avenue Bridge, located two and half miles south of the high bridge, as their detour route.

City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, noted that most commuters didn’t break the rules during the bridge closure.

However, she added, “It’s sad that over 500 drivers … had such a large number of tickets, [disobeying] policies that were created for everyone’s safety. While an occasional violation is perhaps understandable, this quantity suggests disregard for the need to keep the bridge use at a level that allowed for unimpeded emergency vehicle access.”

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

In 2021, photo enforcement cameras along the Spokane Street Bridge issued 89,041 citations to unauthorized drivers on the low bridge. This accounted for nearly half—46 percent—of the 192,432 camera citations issued citywide that year. In 2022, before the West Seattle Bridge reopened in September, drivers using the lower bridge racked up another 41,535 citations, for a total of more than 130,000 tickets on the bridge.

According to Seattle Municipal Court data, drivers have paid just 32 percent of these tickets. The court suspended late fees and stopped sending outstanding tickets to collections at the beginning of the pandemic. But starting at the end of January, drivers who have failed to pay their fines will be subject to late fees.

The court also plans to start sending unpaid fines to a collections agency, which tacks on a 15 percent fee on each ticket, as soon as the end of April.

“People with unpaid tickets from 2020-2022 should plan to respond to their tickets by January 30, 2023,” said Laura Bet, a spokeswoman for the court. “People can respond to their tickets by setting up a payment plan, setting up a community service plan if they are low-income, or scheduling a hearing.”

A handful of drivers could face some particularly hefty invoices. Two vehicles racked up more than 300 citations for crossing the Spokane Street Bridge without authorization in 2021 alone, according to the data. Another 35 drivers amassed more than 100 tickets each and more than 500 accumulated more than 20 citations that year. 

The city was able to deploy the cameras on the low bridge as part of a pilot program after the state legislature expanded the city’s authority to use automated cameras to enforce traffic laws. The new law also allows camera enforcement when drivers ”block the box” by stopping in intersections at red lights.

State law dictates that half of the revenue for the pilot goes to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to fund bicycle, pedestrian and non-motorized safety projects. SDOT is using its half of the money to add accessible signals that vibrate and chirp to some pedestrian crossings.

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

Before the pandemic, drivers paid 74 percent of citations from photo enforcement cameras issued in 2018 and 2019, according to data from the court.

A spokesperson for SDOT declined to comment on the large number of tickets drivers racked up on the Spokane St. Bridge.

Parking Officers Lose Labor Complaint But Will Return to SPD; Utility Managers’ Union Files Complaint Over Wages

1. On Monday, the state Public Employee Relations Commission rejected an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint by the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG) over changes that took place when the parking officers moved from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation in 2021, ruling that the issues the union raised in its complaint were not mandatory subjects of bargaining.

As PubliCola previously reported, the parking officers argued that they needed access to a database called the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS). The officers can scan a vehicle’s license plate and determine whether it’s on a “hot sheet”—a list of license plates that have law enforcement information attached to them, including stolen vehicles and those whose owners are in a criminal database—and report back to SPD, which can then investigate Without CJIS access, however, they can’t know exactly what issue is associated with a particular vehicle.

In its decision, PERC said the parking enforcement officers could still find out whether a vehicle was stolen or associated with a crime or outstanding warrant; the only information they no longer have access to is detailed information about the issue with a particular vehicle. “SDOT does not require or expect PEOs to issue a citation or remain in the area after dispatch informs them that SPD has an interest in or is responding to a vehicle,” the commission wrote.

The move reverses a change the council made in 2021, at the urging of then-mayor Jenny Durkan, to shift parking enforcement out of SPD in order to “reduce” spending on police; this on-paper reduction, which advocates for more police funding have characterized as “defunding the police” ever since the city made it, was little more than a budgetary sleight of hand

PERC has not yet ruled on a counter-claim that the city filed against the parking officers’ union in July.

Parking enforcement officers who wanted to move back to SPD got their wish on Monday, when the city council voted to return the officers to SPD and use the budget savings to pay for a number of items that would have otherwise been cut. The council decided to move the officers back to SPD in a 6-3 vote as part of the overall 2023-2024 city budget, which we’ll cover in more detail in a separate post.

The move reverses a change the council made in 2021, at the urging of then-mayor Jenny Durkan, to shift parking enforcement out of SPD in order to “reduce” spending on police; this on-paper reduction, which advocates for more police funding have characterized as “defunding the police” ever since the city made it, was little more than a budgetary sleight of hand by Durkan and the council. Nonetheless, because taking on nearly 100 new staff added significantly to SDOT’s overhead, removing the parking enforcement officers freed up millions to spend on other purposes.

Harrell has said he plans to establish a “third department” to oversee public safety, which could be the parking enforcement officers’ ultimate destination if they don’t stay at SPD; last year, the council wanted to move the officers to the newly created Community Safety and Communications Center, which took 911 call response off SPD’s hands, but Durkan and SDOT lobbied hard to put them at SDOT.

2. In other city labor news, the union representing strategic advisors and managers at Seattle Public Utilities has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the city for, according to the union, withholding wage increases it should have provided and imposing a new return-to-office policy in the middle of contract negotiations. The group of 175 SPU managers and strategic advisors was just certified for representation (by the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, Council 2, AFSCME) last year; this is the group’s first contract negotiation.

The primary issue at play in negotiations between the union and the city is the way SPU allocates raises to this group of about 175 workers. Bill Keenan, the organizing director for Council 2, said SPU has “an archaic process” for deciding how much its managers and strategic advisors make, which results in persistent pay disparities between people doing the exact same work.

The result of SPU’s wage increase process, according to the union, is that women in these positions earn $1.20 less per hour than men, and people of color earn 99 cents an hour less than their white counterparts. One 26-year veteran of the department, a woman of color, makes $10 less per hour than a man who has been at SPU for five years, the union’s organizing director said.

Typically, a new city employee starts at the bottom of the “pay band” for their position and proceeds through a series of “steps,” or pay increases, over a set period of time. If the city hires someone as a Strategic Advisor 1, for example, they’re supposed to start at the bottom of the pay range for that position and receive pay bumps according to a set schedule.

At SPU, Keenan said, there’s no such process for managers and strategic advisors; instead, their pay is set by the person who hires them, and “once you get placed on the pay scale where they decide you should be placed, they have another broken process where [future raises] are again up to an individual. … It’s totally subjective.” The result, Keenan said, is that women in these positions earn, on average, $1.20 less per hour than men, and people of color earn 99 cents an hour less than their white counterparts. One 26-year veteran of the department, a woman of color, makes $10 less per hour than a man who has been at SPU for five years, Keenan said.

The city has said the salaries and pay increases the union is seeking would cost as much as $40 million, a number the ULP calls “greatly exaggerated.”

The unfair labor practice complaint doesn’t deal directly with the labor issues Keenan that are at play in the negotiations; instead it accuses SPU of halting the existing annual wage increase process for most of the union’s members and imposing a return-to-office policy that the union had no role in negotiating. “Until we reach a contract, they have to retain the status quo on wages and conditions of employment unless we agree to bargain otherwise,” Keenan said.

Currently, the union and city are in mediation over the underlying contract. A survey of all SPU employees found that a majority of workers enjoyed working with their immediate teams and felt valued, but felt that higher-level management doesn’t care about SPU workers or understand what they do. In an email to employees, SPU general manager Andrew Lee—a Harrell appointee who just started in June—called the results “very humbling” and expressed his “strong commitment to improvement.

SPU’s call center employees—a group of about 85 workers who are among the city’s lowest-paid employees— fought Harrell’s return-to-office mandate earlier this year and won. 

Keenan said he expects the union and city will return to mediation after the holidays.

SDOT Decries Tactical Urbanism While Allowing Eco-Blocks All Over the City

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Department of Transportation forgot the first rule of holes when its social media rep posted a testy defense of SDOT’s decision to swiftly eliminate an unauthorized crosswalk at a dangerous Capitol Hill intersection.

Responding to a person who posted a photo of an SDOT crew power-washing the guerrilla crosswalk away, SDOT wrote, “We are always interested in working with residents and businesses on ways to make walking safer and more comfortable and will evaluate the intersection to see how we might replace the unauthorized crosswalk. In the meantime, it will have to be removed. Improperly painted crosswalks give a false sense of safety which puts pedestrians in danger. There are better ways for people to work w/ us to indicate crossing improvement needs & to make sure changes achieve what is intended—get people to their destinations safely.”

In response, hundreds of Seattle residents piled on with stories about their own often-futile attempts to get SDOT to improve pedestrian safety in their neighborhoods, mocked (and interrogated) the idea that “unofficial” paint makes crosswalks less safe, and questioned why the department leaped into action to remove the guerrilla crosswalk while telling Seattle residents that their requests for safety improvements would need to go through the years-long Seattle Process.

Then, amid the furor, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s new SDOT director jumped in the thread, lashing out at one poster (among many) who suggested that SDOT’s primary mission is to make the city safe for cars (a pretty common charge against city transportation departments nationwide.) “There is not a single person at SDOT who comes to work hoping fewer people cross the street. This is a propagandistic comment that is pure disinformation,” Spotts wrote.

“Political participation is not the same as altering the public right of way yourself. Folks are invited to participate in all sorts of ways and we are listening.”—SDOT director Greg Spotts, responding to tweets supporting a guerrilla crosswalk on Capitol Hill

Down that thread, Spotts responded to a tweet about SDOT’s utter indifference to the illegal placement of “eco blocks” to prevent homeless people from parking in public rights-of-way around the city. “Placing of ecoblocks is not acceptable And “I’m unwilling to pull SDOT crews off important safety projects to remove ecoblocks,” Spotts wrote. (In other words—as SDOT has told this publication before—it is actually acceptable, in the sense that SDOT will continue to accept it.) Even further downthread, Spotts mentioned another issue with unauthorized crosswalks, one not directly related to safety: “Liability.”

In all, Spotts responded to dozens of tweets, defending SDOT’s decision and suggesting that people go through official participation channels rather than engaging in tactical urbanism. “Political participation is not the same as altering the public right of way yourself. Folks are invited to participate in all sorts of ways and we are listening,” Spotts wrote.

In the past, when citizens have altered crosswalks to represent their neighborhood—including a Pride flag on Broadway and a Pan-African black, red, and green crosswalk in the Central District—previous SDOT directors responded much differently, working with communities to paint the crosswalks in ways that make them more durable and visible to drivers. (Until 2017, there was even an official Department of Neighborhoods website for neighbors to apply for non-traditional crosswalks.) This administration, in contrast, seems intent on digging in its heels.

In response to the backlash, SDOT issued a statement that continued in the same chiding tone. “We have heard the message loudly and clearly that the public wants more crossing and safety improvements.  We appreciate the passion which has driven someone to paint their own crosswalk, however this is not the right way to voice your desire for change,” the statement reads. “There are standards which we are legally required to follow when painting a crosswalk. The unauthorized markings at E Olive Way and Harvard Ave E have been removed because they do not comply with city standards.”

Eco-blocks, which also do not comply with city law (and which residents use explicitly to deprive people of places to live), apparently do not rise to the level of urgency created by unauthorized lines on the ground.

New SDOT Director Talks Scooters, Streetcar, and Sweeps; A Closer Look at City Grant to Social Club Harrell Headed

New SDOT director Greg Spotts
New SDOT director Greg Spotts

1. Greg Spotts, the newly confirmed director of Seattle’s transportation department, spoke with reporters Wednesday on a wide range of topics, including scooters, the proposed downtown streetcar connector, and his plan to do a “top to bottom review” of the city’s Vision Zero effort to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, which is currently far off track.

Spotts, who previously headed up StreetsLA, a division of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Street Services, said he was currently agnostic on both the appropriate number of scooters the city should permit and the debate over whether to revive work on the downtown streetcar, which former mayor Jenny Durkan paused during her term. As Spotts noted, scooter sharing proliferated in LA after the city decided to allow any qualified company to operate in the city, but didn’t really serve low-income areas or communities of color.

“What it produced was an overabundance of scooters in the obvious places where there’s a lot of density and a lot of money, and … very few scooters in communities of color,” Spotts said. Even with incentives for placing scooters in underserved areas, they continued to cluster in wealthy, tourist-heavy neighborhoods like Santa Monica, Hollywood, and downtown LA. “So it’s not obvious how to make this public private partnership to produce all the public goods that you want, but maybe we’re in the very, very early stages of figuring that out.”

Similarly, Spotts said he might support expanding the streetcar if there’s evidence it will improve the economic climate in the areas it serves. The new downtown section of streetcar would create a loop connecting two separate streetcar lines, connecting South Lake Union to Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. All three areas are already connected by frequent transit, which—along with low ridership on the existing streetcar—raises questions about whether a new streetcar segment would justify its cost, currently estimated at almost $300 million.

“There’s operational benefits, right? Instead of running two segments, running one big one,” Spotts said. “But what would push it over the top, I think, is it analysis that it could be an important catalyst for our small businesses in downtown, for our tourist economy, for our cultural institutions.”

One issue Spotts declined to address is SDOT’s role in removing homeless encampments from sidewalks; SDOT staffers (including some currently vacant positions) make up more than half the members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 70 staffers who removes encampment. (The UCT also includes six members of the city’s HOPE team, which does outreach and makes shelter offers prior to sweeps).

“At this early stage, I’m really deferring to the mayor’s office to utilize the departments as they want to for the larger policies that they’re pursuing,” Spotts said. “And I’m not looking to introduce some personal opinions into that. I’m just here to here to assist in whatever way they want us to assist.”

2. After we reported on the fact that the city awarded nearly $800,000 to a private men’s social club that Mayor Bruce Harrell chaired until late last year, we took another look at the record to see if there was any precedent for the city awarding Equitable Development Initiative dollars to any similar institution.

Over the five years the city has been making EDI awards, about three dozen organizations have received significant grants from the fund. Many of the groups that have received multiple grants are engaged in low-income housing development, create community spaces that are open to the public, or provide social or health services to particular communities.

For example, the Friends of Little Saigon, Africatown, the Rainier Valley Midwives, Chief Seattle Club, and the Ethiopian Community in Seattle have all received multiple EDI awards over the past five years. Other grant recipients in past years include Cham Refugees Community, the Somali Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and the Filipino Community of Seattle.

A few of the grant recipients provide cultural space and put on events that are open to the ticket-buying public, including Black and Tan Hall and the Wing Luke Museum. None is a private social club—except the Royal Esquire Club.

It’s unclear whether the Royal Esquire Club has sought public funding from the city in the past; we’ve requested a list of all previous EDI grant applicants through a public records request. The club, which was at the center of another controversy involving Harrell while he was City Council president, has never received an EDI award in the program’s history; the $782,000 the club will receive is more than twice its annual revenues for 2019, according to the group’s most recent tax filing.

Anti-Election Reform Campaign Emerges, Next Year’s Election Starts Shaping Up, New SDOT Director Says He’ll Take Vision Zero Down to the Studs

Map of fatal and serious crashes in Seattle from June 2022 SDOT presentation.
Map of fatal and serious crashes in Seattle from June 2022 SDOT presentation.

1. Next year, all seven district-based city council positions will be on the ballot, and several names have already begun to circulate as potential contenders.

In District 1 (West Seattle), Meta (and former Microsoft) attorney Rob Saka, who served on the King County Council redistricting committee, is reportedly considering a bid against incumbent Lisa Herbold if she runs again next year.

Saka told PubliCola he hasn’t decided yet whether he will run, but confirmed he has met with Harrell as well as “fellow daycare and public school parents, early childhood education providers, leaders in the Black community I used to work with when I served on the boards of the Urban League and the Loren Miller Bar Association (civil rights organization of Black lawyers in Washington State), through my work in policing and legal reforms, and with current and former elected leaders throughout the region.

“I have nothing to announce or confirm, and I remain 100% focused on current obligations — from my legal practice in a new role in my ‘day job’ to the Police Chief search, to helping my kids get back to school,” Saka continued. “That said, I am grateful for the initial discussions—and strong encouragement—from so many as I think about potential longer term next steps in my career and public service.”

In District 2, Tammy Morales (who filled Harrell’s council position when he declined to run for reelection in 2019) could see a challenge from community advocate Chukundi Salisbury, who ran for state representative in the 37th District and was defeated by Kirsten Harris-Talley in 2020; Salisbury did not return an email seeking comment.

In District 3 (Central Seattle), represented since 2015 by socialist Kshama Sawant, cannabis entrepreneur and Jackson Place Community Council leader Alex Cooley told PubliCola he’s “strongly considering” a run against Sawant, who he says has “never been interested in so the problems of the district or the city.” Cooley owns the SoDo-based company Solstice, which grows and processes cannabis that’s sold in stores across the region; he said that it’s “kind of a neighborhood joke [in the district] that you will never hear back from Councilmember Sawant.”

“The city has been on a pretty long decline for at least the past five years—really about 10—and I don’t see Councilmember Sawant solving the problems that the city’s dealing with, [and] is actually part of that decline and lack of progress,” Cooley said.

As a business owner in SoDo, Cooley said he’s seen his share of half-implemented solutions to the problem of homelessness, which in industrial areas often means people living in RVs. Seattle has “fits and starts of good ideas” but fails to commit to them, Cooley said. “We  tried to do the experiment of an RV safe lot, which I’m a huge proponent of, but no one managed it, no one ran it, and so it evolved into chaos.”

Cooley said he’ll take the next few months to make a decision before filing for council races starts in January. Including her first citywide race in 2013, Sawant has won three elections by increasingly narrow margins; she narrowly beat back a recall effort last year.

This item has been corrected to reflect the fact that Chukundi Salisbury lives in District 2, not District 3, and updated with comments from Rob Saka.

2. In November, voters will get to decide whether and how to replace the city’s current first-past-the-post primary elections by saying yes to ranked choice voting or approval voting or no to both. Ranked-choice voting gives voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference, while approval voting allows voters to “approve” as many candidates that they like, with the top two candidates moving forward to the general election.

Advocates for both proposals say their system would result in elected officials who better represent the views and interests of voters, by allowing them to choose a whole slate of acceptable candidates instead of betting their entire vote on a single person. Advocates for the status quo say the alternatives are confusing and open the system to new forms of gamemanship.

Now, a group of business owners, organized as Seattle for Election Simplicity, has formed to make the case for the status quo. Campaign filings show the group has raised around $35,000 in contributions, all of it (so far) from people who represent business and banking interests in and around Seattle. Among the contributors are HomeStreet Bank and its CEO, Mark Mason ($5,000 total), Costco co-founder and former CEO Jim Sinegal ($5,000), telecom billionaire and Mariners co-owner John Stanton ($5,000), developer Jon Runstad ($5,000), Space Needle chairman Jeffrey Wright ($5,000), and former Starbucks president Howard Behar ($2,500).

So far, almost half of the contributions to Seattle for Election Simplicity, over $15,000, come from outside Seattle. This actually compares favorably to Seattle Approves, which has obtained 87 percent of its almost $500,000 in contributions from outside city limits. The campaign for ranked-choice voting has only reported one contribution so far.

Spotts said he would start work on Vision Zero by doing a detailed assessment of which “interventions” (a category that might include protected and unprotected bike lanes, bus bulbs, road diets, and pedestrian-first stop lights) are working to reduce casualties and which ones aren’t. “We know we have some corridors that are very vehicular-oriented,” Spotts said.

3. The city council’s transportation committee unanimously recommended approving Mayor Bruce Harrell’s nominee to direct the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) on Tuesday, after a brief volley of questions focusing on issues like pedestrian safety and tree canopy in South Seattle, bridge maintenance, and Seattle’s lack of progress on Vision Zero, a plan to end all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

Spotts said he would start work on Vision Zero by doing a detailed assessment of which “interventions” (a category that might include protected and unprotected bike lanes, bus bulbs, road diets, and pedestrian-first stop lights) are working to reduce casualties and which ones aren’t. “We know we have some corridors that are very vehicular-oriented,” Spotts said.

Later, after District 2 Councilmember Tammy Morales noted that 56 percent of traffic fatalities happened in Southeast Seattle, Spotts added, “I want to spend some more time out on Rainier. I did do some walking and there are places where there’s a very wide crossing distance to get across unsignalized freeway on-ramps and off-ramps, which is a scary thing to get across.”

The safety problems with areas like Aurora Ave. N and Rainier Ave. S have been well-documented for decades (hell, I’ve been covering them myself since at least 2006), and the solutions that will work to address them are no mystery, either: When the city narrowed a portion of Rainier that runs through now-chichi Columbia City, people stopped driving their cars into businesses and there were fewer traffic collisions, because people could no longer drive at freeway speeds through the neighborhood.

North of Columbia City, where Seattle has continued to do almost nothing to slow traffic or provide opportunities for pedestrian to cross the street safely, the crashes, injuries, and deaths continued. Notably, the city has made almost no major changes to calm traffic along the speed-inducing corridor since approving the “road diet” (after almost a decade of opposition, including from then-council member Harrell) in 2015. Cutesy signs, “empowering” billboards, and slightly lower speed limits won’t cut it; more stoplights, signaled crosswalks, and a narrower travel path for people in cars can and will.

Ban on Narcan Continues Amid Overdoses at Libraries; Harrell’s Pick for SDOT Director Answers Council Questions

1. Last month, we reported on the Seattle Public Library’s directive telling staff not to carry or use Narcan, or naloxone—a nasal spray that can restore breathing in people overdosing on opioids—because of potential liability issues.

The state’s Good Samaritan law exempts people who provide emergency care from civil liability, but a library spokeswoman said City Attorney Ann Davison’s office advised the library that library staffers were “likely” not covered by the law. King County Public Libraries, which operates outside Seattle, also bars staff from using Narcan.

Public libraries are among the only indoor places where people experiencing homelessness can go during the day without being expected to make a purchase or explain why they’re there. They’ve also been the location for dozens of fatal and nonfatal overdoses in recent years. According to data provided by the King County Department of Public Health, there have been at least 42 likely overdoses in or outside public libraries in King County since 2019, including 16 inside library branches. Since 2017, at least eight people have died of drug-related causes at libraries in King County, half of them in Seattle, including at least four involving opiates like heroin and fentanyl.

Bans on using Narcan force library staffers to call 911 and wait for emergency responders to arrive, adding several potentially fatal minutes to the time an overdosing person is unconscious and not receiving oxygen to their brain.

A review of recent fire department reports for overdoses at Seattle Public Library branches shows that it takes emergency responders between three and five minutes to arrive on the scene of an overdose and start administering aid. These reports also show that on at least one occasion, back in April, someone at the downtown Seattle library revived a patron with Narcan, the drug library staffers were formally barred from using just three months later.

The ban on using Narcan is based on the belief that library staffers, unlike other Washington state residents, are not protected under the state’s Good Samaritan laws when they administer aid. By that standard, library staffers shouldn’t be able to offer first aid to patrons experiencing minor medical emergencies, or attempt to assist people experiencing heat stroke when they come to the library to cool off in the summer. And yet they manage to do both. Why are overdoses categorically different?

2. Greg Spotts, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s nominee to lead the Seattle Department of Transportation, submitted detailed answers this week to a list of questions from the city council’s transportation committee about his goals for his first year, plan to get Vision Zero back on track, and ideas about how to create a more equitable transportation system. Spotts’ responses t check off a lot of boxes for people who support urbanism and alternatives to driving alone.

For example, in response to a question about creating “connected safe spaces for people to move throughout the city” without a car, Spotts noted that in many cases, “pressure to preserve just a few curbside parking spaces stands in the way of conveying cyclists safely across a busy intersection. Too many of our bike and pedestrian routes have discontinuities that render the route significantly less safe, useful and attractive than it could have been.” In 2019, former mayor Jenny Durkan killed plans to build a protected bike lane along a dangerous stretch of 35th Ave. NE after neighborhood and business groups argued that removing a few curbside parking spaces would devastate businesses in Wedgwood and Ravenna.

However, Spotts also hedged a bit when talking about commitments to new bike infrastructure, responding to a question about whether he would support creating new protected bike lanes as part of road resurfacing projects with an artful dodge. “I fully intend to support projects and routes as called for in the Council-approved Bicycle Master Plan; and will be engaging with staff, subject matter experts, and community as these projects are developed and constructed,” he wrote. As the Urbanist has reported, the city is currently working to integrate all its transportation related “master plans” into a single mega-plan, a move that some advocates worry could further reduce the city’s commitments to nonmotorized transportation.

He also ducked questions about whether parking enforcement officers belong at SDOT and if he would commit to removing the large concrete “eco-blocks” that business owners place illegally in the public right-of-way to keep people living in oversize vehicles from having a place to park. (Councilmember Sara Nelson, whose own business, Fremont Brewing, continues to flagrantly violate this law, is not on the transportation committee).

 

Previous SDOT directors learned the hard way that specific commitments can be tough to implement if they conflict with what their boss, the mayor, wants—which is probably why, when asked about equity in transportation investments, Spotts said only that Seattle’s most deadly streets for cyclists and pedestrians, Rainier Ave. S and Aurora Ave. N., “can potentially be reenvisioned to meet community needs.” Harrell has made it clear that his top transportation priorities include maintaining and repairing basic infrastructure like streets and bridges, not big-reach projects like protected bike paths connecting every part of the city.

Seattle will hear more from Spotts next month, when the transportation committee considers his nomination again after the council returns from summer recess.

Fremont Brewing Is Still Using Concrete Blocks to Prevent RV Parking. So Are the City of Seattle and the US Postal Service.

Ecology blocks outside Seattle City Light's substation in Ballard
Ecology blocks outside Seattle City Light’s substation in Ballard

By Erica C. Barnett

After at least one formal complaint, the Seattle Department of Transportation has issued a warning—but no penalty—to Fremont Brewing, the company co-owned by city council member-elect Sara Nelson, for obstructing the public right-of-way around its Ballard brewing facility with massive concrete “ecology blocks.”

As PubliCola reported last summer, eco blocks—so called because they are a byproduct of concrete production that uses waste that would otherwise occupy landfills—are an inexpensive way for business owners to prevent people living in their vehicles from parking on the street next to their properties.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, when the city stopped enforcing a law requiring people to move their vehicles every three days, the blocks have proliferated throughout Seattle’s industrial areas, which are the only places where people living in oversized vehicles can legally park. Business owners say that the presence of RVs and other types of large vehicles, such as box trucks, discourages patrons, and that large concentrations of RVs can lead to health and safety problems that impact their customers and employees.

Obstructing public streets is illegal, but SDOT has treated eco-blocks differently than other street obstructions; instead of penalizing business owners for taking over public space that belongs to everyone, as they might if a random person set up a tire fort or craft fair in the middle of the street, the department has responded to the proliferation of eco-blocks by essentially throwing up its hands.

Eco-blocks line the street next to Fremont Brewing's production facility in Ballard.
Eco-blocks line the street next to Fremont Brewing’s production facility in Ballard.

This is true not just of Fremont Brewing, which received a written warning, but of many other businesses around the city’s industrial areas as well as the US Postal Service, which surrounded its Ballard sorting facility with eco blocks way back in August 2020.

At the time, USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson told PubliCola that “USPS got the OK from the city to put in the concrete barriers” in response to a proliferation of RVs in the area. The Seattle Department of Transportation disputed this, calling the road-blocking barricades “unpermitted,” but took no action. They’re still there today, graffiti-covered and looking dingy compared to their more recently installed counterparts in front of a Bevmo!-anchored strip mall across the street. 

Contacted for information about why the blocks are still in place more than a year later, Swanson said, “The concrete blocks were placed in front of the Ballard PO as well as other neighboring businesses as a response to a proliferation of needles, human waste and other hazardous materials being discarded on the property. As of this date, the blocks remain not only in front of the PO but also other businesses in the area. We have no knowledge that a permit was ever required.”

"Eco-blox matta": Graffiti on an ecology block in Ballard.

The city’s process for dealing with Fremont Brewing’s ecology blocks was typical. After someone filed an anonymous complaint about the blocks in September, SDOT performed an inspection “and observed ecology blocks” in the street around Fremont Brewing, according to a notice SDOT sent to the company September 17. “We do not allow this type of use in public right-of-way due to traffic safety concerns as well as transportation and utility access needs. Please remove these unpermitted encroachments from public right-of-way by the compliance date indicated below”—November 10.

November 10 came and went; the blocks remained. About a week later, the case was closed.

SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson told PubliCola the department followed “standard procedure” in responding to the complaint. “The first step in the enforcement process is to mail a letter to the adjacent businesses or property owners notifying them of their responsibilities to remove the concrete blocks,” Bergerson said. “The purpose of this letter is to initiate a conversation with the responsible party so that we can find a path forward leading to their removal of the unpermitted concrete blocks. To date, we have sent letters of this nature to property owners and businesses adjacent to concrete blocks left in about a dozen locations around Ballard, SoDo, and Georgetown. … Our approach [with Fremont Brewing] has been consistent with the other locations.”

A reminder for dog walkers is visible behind a fence that blocks sidewalk access next to City Light's Canal substation.
A reminder for dog walkers is visible behind a fence that blocks sidewalk access next to City Light’s Canal substation.

Fremont Brewing owner (and Nelson’s husband) Matt Lincecum, who runs the company day to day, declined to comment for this story, as did Nelson.

SDOT has the authority to take enforcement action against any business (or government entity) that obstructs the public street with eco blocks or other objects that make it impossible for the public to access streets, sidewalks, or parking strips. To date, it has not done so, beyond warnings like the one it issued to Fremont Brewing.

As if to emphasize the city’s lackadaisical approach to enforcement, Seattle City Light has installed its own anti-RV fortifications at its Canal Substation, located two blocks away from Fremont Brewing and the rest of the eco-block-littered Ballard brewery district. In addition to eco-blocks in the street, the north side of the substation is walled off by two layers of fencing that completely obstruct the public sidewalk. A review of historical Google Maps reveals that the eco-blocks were installed sometime after this past August, when several RVs were parked along the south side of the substation. The fence, too, is new; as of June 2021, per Google Maps, several RVs were parked on that side of the substation, too. Since then, the RVs appear to have moved around the corner, to a narrower residential street on the east side of the building.

We’ve reached out to City Light as well as SDOT about the obstructions around the Canal Substation and will update this post when we hear back.

Old and new ecology blocks next to the Ballard postal sorting facility, which installed blocks on parking strips and (around the corner) on the street itself last year.
Old and newer ecology blocks next to the Ballard postal sorting facility, which installed blocks on parking strips and (around the corner) on the street itself last year.

From the point of view of a property owner, ecology blocks solve an immediate problem—people living in RVs or parking large vehicles indefinitely in front of their business—that the city has failed to address. But the fact remains that even if the city continues to turn a blind eye to vigilante street obstructions, nothing will really change until the region stops ignoring the needs of people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of King County’s homeless population. In the absence of “safe lots,” social services, and affordable, permanent housing, people sleeping in their vehicles will continue to take up space in public,

But no amount of semi-sanctioned street and sidewalk obstruction will fix the underlying problem: The city and county have dedicated virtually no resources to people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of the region’s unsheltered homeless population.

 

Durkan Revisits Push to Move Parking Enforcement from Police to SDOT

Seattle Parking Enforcement Vehicle (Creative Commons License)

By Paul Kiefer

Six months after the Seattle City Council voted to move the city’s parking enforcement officers from the police department to a new Community Safety and Communications Center by June, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Sam Zimbabwe hope the council will revisit their decision. On Tuesday, Durkan’s office transmitted legislation to the council that would move the roughly 100 parking enforcement officers to SDOT instead, arguing that SDOT is better equipped to manage parking enforcement.

But the proposal is an unwanted case of déjà vu for the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild (SPEOG), the union that represents the officers. When the council was considering opportunities to shift some positions and responsibilities away from the Seattle Police Department as part of the larger conversation about defunding SPD last fall, SPEOG leadership lobbied the council to move them into the Community Safety and Communications Center, arguing that the placement would signal the parking officers’ role in the city’s re-imagined approach to public safety.

SPEOG’s lobbying efforts worked on the council, which passed legislation in November creating the Community Safety and Communications Center to house both the city’s 911 call center and the parking enforcement unit. But they didn’t convince Durkan or SDOT, which maintained that SDOT would be a more appropriate home for parking enforcement and assembled a team of staff members to prepare for the “technical, operational and human resource” challenges involved in absorbing the parking enforcement unit into their own department.

In a letter to council members on Tuesday, Zimbabwe reiterated his arguments from last year, arguing that SDOT can offer its existing human resources staff, safety office, and budget staff to the parking enforcement unit, as well as the department’s “fleet management infrastructure,” including electric car charging stations that could serve parking enforcement vehicles. “No comparable resources will be as readily available to Parking Enforcement should they not come to SDOT,” he wrote.

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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.

 

But convenience is not the main reason Zimbabwe says he wants to move the parking enforcement unit to SDOT, he told PubliCola. “First and foremost, I think the most important thing is the alignment of our policymaking about curbside management and the enforcement of those policies,” he said—in other words, the people who create the policies should also be in charge of enforcing them. Housing the two functions in separate departments, he added, “leaves a lot more gray areas about who is supposed to be doing what.”

In his letter, Zimbabwe wrote that consolidating parking enforcement into SDOT is a matter of conforming with “national best practices,” citing nearly a dozen examples of cities that successfully shifted parking enforcement from police to their transportation departments.

Though conversations within SDOT about renewing the push to absorb parking enforcement began months ago, SPEOG president Nanette Toyoshima told PubliCola that her union was caught off-guard when they learned about Zimbabwe and Durkan’s intentions. “We didn’t know until maybe a week and a half ago,” she said. “It came as a shock, but maybe it shouldn’t have. We got an ordinance that said, ‘set up parking enforcement in the Community Safety Communication Center,’ and then we saw not one bit of work done towards moving that plan forward.”

Continue reading “Durkan Revisits Push to Move Parking Enforcement from Police to SDOT”

Former SRO Gets Landmark Status, Council Considers Cell-Phone Tracking Tech

1. Plans to build a 14-story hotel across the street from the north First Avenue entrance to Pike Place Market are now in limbo after the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board voted 6-1 to designate the three-story Hahn Building a historic landmark last week. The board previously rejected applications to landmark the building twice, in 1999 and 2014, and commission staff recommended against a landmark designation this time, “as it does not appear to have the integrity or the ability to convey its significance as required.”

The Hahn Building, which served as a single-room occupancy hotel for low-income workers, was completed in its current, three-story form in 1907, making it one of the older buildings in the area and one of dozens of SROs that used to operate downtown. (The original one-story building was finished in 1897.) One At last week’s landmarks board meeting, landmarking proponents argued that its history and proximity to Pike Place Market qualified it for historic status.

Photographer and writer Jean Sherrard called the building a “vital hinge in the market’s front door” and “a transitional step down from the tall buildings that fill the downtown core behind it.” Landmarks commissioner Jordan Kiel, who cast the lone vote against landmark status, countered that “being landmark-adjacent does not make you a landmark,” calling the heavily altered Hahn a “background” without “a significant impact to the city as an SRO.”

Residents of the Newmark condo tower, which sits directly to the east of the Hahn, have heavily supported the landmark effort, creating an online petition and GoFundMe to support their efforts. If the hotel is built, many of these condo owners would lose their views of Puget Sound to the west. Newmark residents also supported efforts to “save the Showbox,” which sits on the same block and was going to be developed as an even taller condo building.

Landmark status does not prevent a building from being demolished, but it’s one factor that a city hearing examiner will consider when deciding whether to approve a master use permit for the proposed new hotel. The developer can also appeal the landmark’s board decision to the hearing examiner.

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.

2. Over the next year, the Seattle Department of Transportation plans to replace all its license-plate readers—cameras that track cars and buses through traffic, producing data that SDOT uses to determine real-time travel times and improve things like signal timing—with cell-phone-tracking censors made by a company called Acyclica. The sensors, which will be embedded in utility cabinets along a handful of major arterial streets, track people’s location by identifying a specific code, or address, associated with their cell phones.

Although the city has been using Acyclica’s technology on a smaller scale since 2014, the 2017 surveillance ordinance requires the city to periodically review surveillance technologies for compliance with the ordinance. Last week, the city council’s transportation and utilities committee discussed Acyclica in the context of a city audit on license-plate readers. Several council members brought up concerns about the new technology, including the possibility that it can be used to track individual Seattle residents or by law enforcement. Continue reading “Former SRO Gets Landmark Status, Council Considers Cell-Phone Tracking Tech”

Public Restroom Closures Coincide With Shigella Outbreak Among Seattle’s Homeless

Plus election speculation and news from City Hall.

1. As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches the one-year mark, the city of Seattle has decided to keep some restrooms in parks and other public spaces open over the winter so that people who might ordinarily use restrooms in fast-food restaurants or libraries can have more places to go.

As PubliCola reported last month, the city’s Parks Department says it has no choice but to close certain parks restrooms down during the winter months because their plumbing can’t withstand freezing temperatures. The department provided PubliCola with a list of all the restrooms that are currently closed, either for winterization or for other reasons, such as fires, vandalism, or structural damage.

The upshot: Of more than 130 restrooms operated directly by the city, and not counting restrooms in library buildings or shelters operated by nonprofit providers, more than 60 are currently closed. Of those, fewer than half have been replaced by what the city euphemistically calls “sanicans,” better known as portable toilets, and only a relative handful of which include a place for people to wash their hands after doing their business.

In Judkins Park, near PubliCola HQ, a lonely pair of portable toilets that replaced two multi-stall restrooms looked the worse for wear this weekend, as did toilets placed in nearby Sam Smith Park. The official restroom map maintained by the city’s Human Services Department lists two open restroom buildings and a 24-hour “sanican.” Other restrooms that only have portable toilets, according the Parks Department’s list, show up on HSD’s list of open restrooms, as do many non-city restrooms that are open limited hours, such as Immanuel Community Services (open from 8 to 2 on weekdays) or are only accessible to certain groups, such as the women-only day center at Mary’s Place.

The result is that—like last year—the city’s list of “open” restrooms overstates the actual number of restrooms that are open, accessible, and safe, not to mention clean.

2. Limited-access day centers, the five library branches (of 27) that allow walk-in restroom use, and portable toilets with handwashing stations are certainly better than nothing. But during a pandemic, when people experiencing homelessness have less access than usual to basic hygiene, portable toilets without toilet paper or a sink invite the spread of disease. Last month, King County Public Health issued a warning about an outbreak of Shigella, a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. According to the county, “the [Shigella] germs can spread when someone with Shigella does not wash their hands well after using the toilet then contaminates objects, food or water.”

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.

Since the end of October, Public Health has received 61 reports of Shigella, 46 of those after December 14. Of that total, the vast majority—47—occurred among “people who reported experiencing homelessness or unstable housing or who accessed homeless services,” a spokeswoman for Public Health told PubliCola. Because these numbers only reflect reported cases, the true number is undoubtedly higher.

According to King County’s info page, simple “handwashing with soap and water is the best way to protect yourself and others against Shigella infections.” Many homeless people lack this option, and we’re seeing the results.

3. Lorelei Williams, the deputy director overseeing capital projects for the Seattle Department of Transportation, is leaving the city after more than 16 years to take a job with WSP, a mega-engineering firm that has many current contracts with the city, including a contract to monitor the structural integrity of the West Seattle Bridge. Williams will be WSP’s Pacific Northwest Transportation Business Line Leader.

According to an SDOT spokesman, Williams “has not had any role in selecting WSP or overseeing their contracts” for SDOT. She’ll be the second high-ranking SDOT staffer to make the jump to the engineering firm in recent years, after Mike Terrell left his position as deputy director in charge of capital projects and roadway structures to take a job at WSP in 2018. Although city rules bar certain high-ranking employees from lobbying elected officials for three years after leaving the city, there are no rules prohibiting city employees from taking jobs at firms that compete for city contracts.

4. Although conventional wisdom has it that King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is running for reelection this year, has a lock on the position, one name keeps coming up as a potential challenger: Washington State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34). Nguyen won his senate seat in 2018, defeating Constantine’s deputy executive, Shannon Braddock. He did not return a call seeking comment about whether he’s running.