Tag: Sound Transit

Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery

By Alex Hudson

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

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

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

Here are three steps we can take to get there:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Modes of service | Sound Transit
Image via Sound Transit

Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced this morning that it will resume charging fares on Link Light Rail and Sounder trains on June 1. Fare enforcement officers will begin riding trains again and “educating” riders about the reintroduction of fares and providing information about how to access reduced-fare ORCA Lift cards starting tomorrow, May 19. Starting in June, fare enforcement will begin again. Officers are supposed to “follow social distancing guidelines” when checking fares.

A temporary “recovery fare” of $1 for Link trains and $2 for Sounder will be available through an app called Transit GO Ticket and at fare machines for one month.

According to a press release, “riders taking repetitive trips without apparent destinations” have been “associated in part” with “a dramatic increase in unsanitary conditions, rider complaints and incidents of vandalism after fares were temporarily suspended in March.” In other words: Homeless people riding trains for free have trashed our trains and made other riders uncomfortable.

“Beyond providing money to support transit operations, the resumption of fares will also allow Sound Transit to increase safety and security for essential riders,” the announcement says.

The notion that some riders are “essential” and others are effectively joyriding ignores the fact that, during COVID, most of the places that homeless people are allowed to be during the day, including libraries, community centers, day centers, and even many feeding programs, have shut down. Non-“essential riders” ride buses and trains because they have nowhere else to be, which is a symptom of the unaddressed crisis of homelessness, not the essential maliciousness of people experiencing homelessness.

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In an email following up on today’s announcement, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick emphasized that complaints about, and hygiene issues related to, non-destination riders were among the primary reasons for the decision to reinstitute fares. “For the four week period ending on April 26, we recorded 293 biohazard incidents and 59 vandalism/graffiti incidents on Link. … On a per-passenger basis, biohazard incidents skyrocketed by almost 1700 percent while vandalism/graffiti incidents increased more than 1400 percent.”

Using “per-passenger” numbers as a “skyrocketing” metric is misleading. Because ridership has dropped, according to Sound Transit, by 85 percent, it would be more useful to look at increase in incidents rather than the number per rider. Sound Transit was unable to provide 2019 incident data by the end of the day on Monday. But extrapolating from the numbers that they did provide, a 1700-percent increase in incidents per rider suggests there were about 113 biohazard incidents last April, compared to 293 this year, and about 22 graffiti and vandalism incidents, compared to 59. Both numbers more than doubled, but neither increased anything like 1400 or 1700 percent.

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry.

“The frequency of these incidents are unacceptable by any measure,” Patrick continued. “Our first obligation as the region’s transit provider in these times is to provide a safe, secure, and sanitary trip to passengers who are taking truly essential trips. This includes the many health care workers who are heroically traveling to our health care facilities on light rail to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry. This judgment might seem fair if Sound Transit were comparing nurses to, say, school kids hopping the bus to hang out with their friends across town, but it gets a lot dicier when the people being deemed non-“essential riders” are riding because their other option is sitting on.a sidewalk in the rain. Libraries, community centers, and food courts aren’t homeless shelters either, but they do routinely provide places for people experiencing homelessness to go during the day. Now that those places are closed, people are turning to buses and trains for daytime shelter—and being told they are ruining it for everybody else.

In an ideal world, of course, no one would use public transit (or libraries, or community centers) as shelter, because everyone would have a place to live or at least a place to be. In this less-than-ideal world, there are more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County alone, and no matter where they are, there will be someone complaining that they’re causing problems or just taking up space. King County Metro has also seen an increase in these “nondestination” riders, and a rise in complaints. But while Sound Transit has responded by reinstating fares, reinstituting enforcement, and explicitly trying to drive away riders taking “repetitive trips with no apparent destination,” Metro has acknowledged that homeless people are riding transit in greater numbers because they have nowhere else to be.

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

Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, says the agency “is still evaluating the best time to reintroduce fares and has not yet landed on a date.”

Coronavirus Prompts Shelter Expansion, Sound Transit Moves to Amend Fare Enforcement Policies, and More

King County Executive Dow Constantine

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine acknowledged Wednesday that an inmate who was being transferred from the SCORE regional jail in Des Moines to the King County Jail in Seattle was sent to Harborview with concerning symptoms and that the jail shut down intake for a few hours. The inmate did not have the virus. Asked if the jail had a plan for a future outbreak, Constantine said, “We are being very vigilant about any either staff or inmate who would have symptoms, and they would be isolated immediately” within the jail.

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced today that the city will open up 100 new shelter beds, including 20 new units at the existing Lake Union tiny house village, a new 30-unit tiny house village on Cherry Hill, and a former addiction treatment center in Bitter Lake, which can hold another 50 or so people in 28 rooms. All of the new shelter and tiny house spaces will be operated by the Low Income Housing Institute.

LIHI plans to continue operating the new and expanded tiny house villages, and possibly the shelter at the former treatment center (which LIHI owns), after the current crisis passes. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said that the city is “continuing to evaluate the continuation of funding sources,” adding that “once the crisis is under control, the City and County will determine the best use for the infrastructure put in place under the Emergency Declaration.”

“There are 5,000 unsheltered men, women, and children on the street. Why does it take the coronavirus to make people [decide] that something should be done for homeless people? The existing status quo is bad enough. We should be standing these up anyway.”—LIHI director Sharon Lee

The obvious question is: If it was possible to open up this many shelter spaces so quickly, why didn’t the city do it before? (A similar question could be asked of the county, which purchased a hotel in Kent and is standing up modular units in White Center, Interbay, and North Seattle to quarantine and isolate homeless people and others who test positive for the virus.) Sharon Lee, LIHI’s director, is asking it: “There are 5,000 unsheltered men, women, and children on the street” in Seattle, Lee says. “Why does it take the coronavirus to make people [decide] that something should be done for homeless people? The existing status quo is bad enough. We should be standing these up anyway.”

Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said that at the moment, “the City isn’t anticipating that any of these sites will be used for isolation or quarantine. … HSD will take direction from Public Health on operations in relation to COVID-19. Once the crisis is under control, the City and County will determine the best use for the infrastructure put in place under the Emergency Declaration.”

Sound Transit’s favorite slide.

2.Sound Transit staff presented recommendations to improve its controversial fare-enforcement policies on Thursday morning, but the list of proposed changes did not include a number of steps recommended by advocates for low-income people and riders of color, such as allowing riders transferring from the King County Metro bus system to use paper transfers as proof of payment, eliminating fares, and moving the entire ticketing and fine process outside the court system altogether.

Other community-suggested changes that Sound Transit decided not to pursue include: Eliminating fares; adding on-board payment options; setting a maximum amount that riders can pay for transit every month; and replacing fines with ORCA cards of equivalent value.

The changes Sound Transit is making will be familiar to anyone who has been following the fare enforcement discussion, because they haven’t changed substantially since the agency first began floating possible changes win January. The agency says it will cut fines from $124 to $50; increase the number of verbal warnings for nonpayment from one to two in a 12-month period; set official parameters for eliminating fare enforcement during severe weather and around the first day of school; and work with King County to move ticket resolution into community court.

Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci noted the agency could move tickets to community court without continuing to criminalize nonpayment, which can lead to misdemeanor charges. Continue reading “Coronavirus Prompts Shelter Expansion, Sound Transit Moves to Amend Fare Enforcement Policies, and More”

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”

Free Transit Off the Table, Sound Transit Says, Defending Its Fare Enforcement Policies

Sound Transit staffers emphasized that the agency would not consider eliminating fares or fare enforcement in light of recent controversies about its fare enforcement policies, saying that “high fare payment rates and compliance rates” was key to the agency’s financial stability. (Sound Transit has a higher fare recovery rate than many other transit agencies, and fares from Link Light Rail totaled about $41 million last year.) The emphatic rejection of free fare came during a  “process update” on a recent rider survey about fare enforcement at the agency’s executive board meeting this morning. Staffers said they were still analyzing the survey results and couldn’t provide any details yet about the survey findings or how the agency plans to address the fact that black riders are far more likely to receive tickets for nonpayment than other groups.

Sound Transit often points to its method of checking riders—from the outside in, checking everyone on the car—as an inherently unbiased model because, in theory, it prevents fare officers from singling anybody out. The agency frequently displays a slide of a train marked with arrows to demonstrate the method during presentations on fare enforcement. They used the slide (below), for example, after advocates raised concerns that fare enforcement officers were intimidating kids on their way to their first day of school. That day, the agency issued (and later voided) more than a dozen formal warnings to kids under 18 for not presenting proof of payment—the precursor to a $124 fine. (Once you get a warning, it starts a 12-month clock; if you get caught without fare again in those 12 months, you get an automatic $124 ticket along with the potential for criminal charges if you fail to pay).

At the time, staffers cautioned behind the scenes that the issue advocates were raising about fare enforcement wasn’t the method officers used, but the outcomes for low-income people and people of color. At the public meeting this morning, however, they focused on the method. “This practice has been cited by Transit Center as a good practice for reducing potential discrimination and profiling in our fare enforcement interactions,” said Rhonda Carter, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff’s chief of staff.

Committee vice chairman Paul Roberts asked whether Sound Transit had looked at other transit systems to see how they dealt with the fact that some people can’t pay their fare. Metro, for example, recently reduced fines for fare evasion, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges for nonpayment, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program. Carter responded that Sound Transit’s “practice for how we check fares is seen as a model for how to do this work equitably,” and that often, “other agencies will come to us” for advice on how to do it right.

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K

ing County Executive and Sound Transit board member Dow Constantine brought up a letter his office received from a parent whose daughter, a Seattle school student, had received two $124 tickets for “fare evasion” despite the fact that she has a free ORCA pass. Fare enforcement officers frequently give “evasion” tickets to people who have simply failed to properly “tap” their cards, have tapped twice, or didn’t tap at all but have fully paid free ORCA passes. Under Sound Transit policy, anyone who fails to show proof of payment four times is referred to the King County Prosecutor’s office for a misdemeanor criminal charge. Policy director Carrie Avila-Mooney said Sound Transit has suspended that policy temporarily while the review is ongoing.

Rogoff said he had responded directly to the child’s parents, “in part because we obviously had great empathy for the child who was very concerned about what happened, but more importantly, the parents really did come forward with some thoughtful proposals. A lot of people complain but have no thoughtful proposals. They really thought about it and, indeed, some of their ideas are on the list.” He did not specify which ones.

While reducing fare enforcement or eliminating fares is off the table, Sound Transit is considering a few other options to address disparity in fare enforcement, including “Expand[ing] and target[ing] communications and marketing about how to access and use valid fare media,” flipping the calendar on warnings at 6 months instead of 12, replacing Securitas fare enforcement officers with in-house staffers, and moving fare enforcement from the trains to station platforms. They’re also considering some of the policies Metro has already adopted, such as reducing fines and giving low-income people alternatives to fines or charges.

Sound Transit will hold an open house at El Centra de La Raza, 2524 16th Ave S, from 6-8 pm on February 19 to provide more information about the survey findings.

 

Sound Transit Emails Show Agency Scrambling to Spin September Fare Enforcement Controversy

Last September, after activist and schoolteacher Jesse Hagopian posted a photo that appeared to show Sound Transit fare enforcement officers ticketing kids on the first day school, the transit agency went on the defensive. First, Sound Transit’s social media manager, Bruce Gray (who is white), issued a tone-deaf tweet suggesting that his kids had no issues with fare enforcement because they used the one-day paper passes distributed to parents before school started. (The passes gave every student a free ride to school, where they would pick up free ORCA transit passes through the new ORCA for All program.)

As the blowback continued, Sound Transit kept tweeting, explaining first that the agency’s fare enforcement officers were “not issuing formal warnings or citations,” then adding, in a more exasperated tone, that although “[n]o riders of any age are ever ticketed without getting a warning within the previous 12 months[,] today we are not even issuing the formal warnings to students.” The next day, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff went further, saying in a statement that fare officers had been told to issue only “informal warnings,” which “were not recorded and will not affect the student’s enforcement record in the future.”

After a day of negative press, it’s understandable that the agency would want to set the record straight: No tickets, no warnings, no documentation.

However, documents obtained through a records request reveal that fare enforcement officers actually did issue more than a dozen formal warnings to school-aged kids throughout the day, including nine during and immediately before and after school hours. Moreover, there was considerable internal debate at Sound Transit over what “informal warnings” were (staffers appeared to be hearing the term for the first time as the story blew up), as well as pushback over Rogoff’s public response, which some within the agency appeared to regard as tone-deaf to concerns about the racial impact of fare enforcement.

Sound Transit issued more than a dozen formal warnings to kids on the first day of school despite insisting that fare enforcement officers were told to give only “informal warnings.” Formal warnings are the precursor to citations, which come with a $124 fine and the potential for a criminal record if the fine isn’t paid.

Sound Transit says a verbal notice went out to officers in the morning that they should not ticket or give warnings to students on the first day of school. However, it wasn’t until almost 2:30 in the afternoon‚ shortly before school let out, that fare enforcement manager Michael Patricelli sent an email to fare enforcement officers directing them to “simply educate … juveniles [without fare] and move on” rather than recording their information in Sound Transit’s system. “If you documented a warning or infraction for a juvenile today during school times (0600-1800/Sept. 4th) I need you to submit at void form stating ‘voiding juvenile contact per management,” Patricelli wrote.

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And it wasn’t until seven hours later, at 9:30 on the night of the September 4, that a Sound Transit staffer, Ann Snell McNeil, suggested that the agency start using the term “informal warning” to describe the warnings students received from fare fare enforcement officers that day. “[I] suggest adding reference to ‘informal warning’ when talking about the education effort and that the informal warning might have been mistaken for a formal warning [by riders]….since the same steps were taken by the FOE (ie, photographing the ID which could result in the perception by students of being entered into our tracking system),” McNeil wrote. The term elicited a confused response from Office of Equal Employment Opportunity director Jackie Martinez-Vasquez, who responded, “As I stated earlier, this is the first time I [have] hear[d] of this term/process.” Continue reading “Sound Transit Emails Show Agency Scrambling to Spin September Fare Enforcement Controversy”

Seattle’s Newest Council Member, Alex Pedersen, In Three Meetings

Seattle’s “urban forest,” complete with single-family-only zoning and private driveways for private cars.

1. On Monday, new District 4 city council member Alex Pedersen cast the lone “no” vote against legislation transferring a small piece of land in Wallingford (or, as Pedersen called it, “East Fremont”) from the Finance and Administrative Services department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The land transfer will allow SDOT to extend a bus lane on N. 45th St. and speed travel times on Metro’s Route 44, which is one of the only east-west bus routes north of the Ship Canal. The Urbanist first reported on the proposed changes back in June. SDOT told the Urbanist that the spot changes, which also involve moving an intersection and converting a short stretch of 45th to one-way traffic, will improve travel times for nearly half of all Route 44 riders.

Pedersen said Monday that he was voting against the transfer because he had “gotten some feedback from residents of East Fremont” involving “access and traffic calming for residents.”

“East Fremont,” for those unfamiliar with fights over neighborhood nomenclature, is a part of Wallingford that the Fremont Neighborhood Council has long insisted is part of Fremont. Toby Thaler, the longtime head of the FNC, is now Pedersen’s advisor on land use and transportation.

Pedersen’s office responded to a request for comment by directing me to the video of the meeting. In a letter to a constituent, he went into slightly more detail, saying that his “concern with this project was the public engagement process, which could have benefited from more time to craft community-informed win-win solutions.” He added: “The ordinance was approved and my vote signaled to SDOT that it’s important for them to work to resolve issues from more than one angle.”

2. Pedersen took what seemed to be the opposite position on a different transportation project in his district‚ the redesign of Brooklyn Ave—arguing in favor of buses over a planned “green street” that will be too narrow to accommodate buses in the future. The redesign is part of the new University District light rail station.

At a briefing on the city’s Transportation Benefit District last Thursday, Pedersen asked two SDOT staffers if they had “heard about the bus lanes on Brooklyn issue,” then explained: “Brooklyn Avenue is going to be built too narrow to accommodate buses, and Sound Transit [is] worried if there are going to be any changes, if we try to widen it so it can accommodate buses, it’ll screw up Sound Transit’ schedule. … I don’t know if that’s something on the agenda to talk with Sound Transit about—to assure them that SDOT is able to get things done on Brooklyn.”

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Sound Transit’s plans for the new station include a “Green Street” on Brooklyn designed primarily for pedestrian traffic, with narrow lanes, a 20mph speed limit, and pedestrian improvements designed to drive car traffic away from the street and encourage bike and pedestrian traffic. Brooklyn is not currently a bus corridor. A group called U District Mobility, which includes a number of transit advocacy groups, has asked Sound Transit to widen Brooklyn to accommodate buses in the future.

In a joint statement, Sound Transit and SDOT told The C Is for Crank that the planning for the Brooklyn street design has been going on since at least 2014, when the city published the U District Green Street Concept Plan, and “the public clearly expressed that access to the station was a top priority.”

“Significant modifications to Brooklyn Ave NE would be needed to accommodate buses. While future revisions to the street may be a possibility after light rail opens, there is neither the time nor the funding for such revisions to be in place by the time the U District station is scheduled to open in 2021.”

The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.”

3. Most council committee chairs have canceled their regularly scheduled meetings through the holidays, but Pedersen is making the most of his status as temporary chair of the land use committee, holding a special meeting to discuss the future of Seattle’s tree protection ordinance—a document that has galvanized activists ever since it first passed in 2001. (Pedersen inherited his chairmanship from temporary council member Abel Pacheco, who inherited it from Rob Johnson, who left the council in April. New committees and chairmanships will be announced in January).

The meeting  was billed as a briefing by “outside expert[s]” on the “need for and status of activity to implement Resolution 31902 concerning development of an updated Seattle Tree Ordinance.” The nonbinding resolution talks about the need to protect trees on single-family properties and to increase Seattle’s tree canopy to 30 percent of the city’s land area. (The advocacy group American Forests no longer recommends adopting percentage-based canopy cover goals and suggests providing density bonuses to developers who agree to plant trees.)

The meeting doubled as an impromptu rally for tree activists, who condemned developers for “scraping [single-family] lots” and have accused the city of trying to “clearcut Seattle.” One speaker called for a “moratorium on development” based on “primacy for trees,” and suggested “rewild[ing] areas too dense now for climate justice.” Another suggested that Seattle model itself after Cleveland, Ohio, which is “lapping Seattle” in terms of adding trees. This is true: Cleveland is “rewilding” the city—because the city is in decline; in order to cut down on blight, the hollowed-out city is tearing down thousands of houses abandoned by people who moved away. Continue reading “Seattle’s Newest Council Member, Alex Pedersen, In Three Meetings”

Confirming the Chamber’s Colossal Loss, the “Innovative Affordable Portal” That Suggested Low-Income Bus Passes for My Nonexistent Kids, and More

1. Seattle council member-elect Alex Pedersen, whose campaign received about $70,000 in independent backing from the Seattle Metro Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC, has reportedly made his first hire—neighborhood activist and longtime anti-density crusader Toby Thaler. Thaler, a fixture on the Fremont Neighborhood Council, was a leader of SCALE, a group that spent two years appealing the Mandatory Housing Affordability on the grounds that increased density in the city’s urban villages would destroy neighborhood character, trample the neighborhood plans of the ’90s, and harm the environment.

Thaler has also argued against density on the grounds that development only benefits wealthy interests. Neither Thaler nor Pedersen returned emails seeking confirmation and comment.

The hire confirms the sheer magnitude of CASE’s defeat in the November 5 election. Not only did all but one other Chamber-backed candidate lose to a more progressive opponent (Debora Juarez, an incumbent whose opponent was a firebrand conservative, was the highly unusual exception), the one winner they backed, Pedersen, is more likely to align with the dread socialist Sawant on anti-development measures like impact fees than to vote the Chamber’s interests.

Pedersen is also opposed to the downtown streetcar, which CASE supports, referred to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda as a “backroom deal for real estate developer upzones,” and opposed the most recent Sound Transit ballot measure on the grounds that the “biggest businesses” should pay their “fair share.” Sound familiar?

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office sent out a press release Thursday touting a new “Affordable Seattle” portal that will “Help Residents Easily Determine If They Qualify for City of Seattle Discount Programs.” (Believe it or not, that’s less wordy than a typical Durkan press release subject line). The portal, which replaces a website Durkan rolled out in 2018 in at the same URL, is the first project to come out of the mayor’s much-touted Innovation Advisory Council, a group of local tech leaders brought together the summer before last to suggest tech- and data-based approaches to addressing problems such as homelessness and traffic.

I went to the portal (created by Expedia), plugged in my income (above the qualifying income for any assistance programs other than homeownership help), my household size (one) and a Southeast Seattle ZIP code and pressed the button marked “find services.”

My children can’t take advantage of free bus fare because they don’t exist. I’m not low-income and I don’t own a car, so I don’t qualify for the low-income RPZ program, which isn’t available where I live anyway. And even if I did qualify for Comcast’s low-income discount (I don’t), the company doesn’t serve the ZIP code that I provided at the beginning of my search.

The next page, titled “Your Program Eligibility,” suggested I might be interested in four programs: A low-income restricted parking zone permit for my car; college assistance for the graduating high-school seniors in my household; a low-income Internet assistance program from Comcast; and the ORCA Opportunity program, which is open to middle- and high-school students as well as certain public housing residents. When I entered an income of $120,000 a year, I got the same results.

As a household of one, my children can’t take advantage of free bus fare because they don’t exist. I’m not low-income and I don’t own a car, so I don’t qualify for the low-income RPZ program. If I had qualified, additional links provided on internal pages inside the portal (one of which is broken) would have reminded me that the permits are limited to specific areas, and that my neighborhood is not among them. And even if I did qualify for Comcast’s low-income discount (I don’t), the company doesn’t serve the ZIP code that I provided at the beginning of my search.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

I asked mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower why this portal—the very first deliverable from the IAC since it was announced to great fanfare well over a year ago—produced such unhelpful results.

Hightower says the system is programmed to tell everyone about all four of the programs recommended to me on the grounds that they might be eligible, and that it’s up to users to then follow the links to read more about the eligibility requirements for each individual program. Put a different way, it sounds like Expedia didn’t include income-based exclusions from certain programs, didn’t account for people who live alone (about 40 percent of all Seattle residents, as of the most recent American Community Survey), and didn’t bother linking services to the ZIP codes, much less street addresses, where they are actually available. They also don’t ask if users own a car, although several of the potential benefits are linked to car ownership. Continue reading “Confirming the Chamber’s Colossal Loss, the “Innovative Affordable Portal” That Suggested Low-Income Bus Passes for My Nonexistent Kids, and More”

Sound Transit CEO Takes Election Vacation, Amazon’s Revisionist History, Stranger May Lease from ICE Landlord, and More

1. Tuesday night’s election was a major blow to cities like Seattle and transit agencies like King County Metro and Sound Transit, which will have to drastically cut back on long-planned capital projects and eliminate bus service if the statewide Initiative 976, which eliminated funding for transportation projects across the state, hold up in court.

The Puget Sound’s regional transit agency, Sound Transit, stands to lose up to $20 billion in future funding for light rail and other projects through 2041, forcing the agency to dramatically scale back its plans to extend light rail to West Seattle, Ballard, Tacoma and Everett.

So where was Sound Transit’s director, Peter Rogoff, as the election results rolled in?

On vacation in Provence, then at a conference on global health in Rwanda, which his wife, Washington Global Health Alliance CEO Dena Morris, is attending.

Rogoff posted on social media about his trip, which began while votes were being cast in late October and is still ongoing (Rogoff will return to work on Monday).

Screen shots from Rogoff’s Facebook page. On the right: The Sound Transit CEO displays Washington Nationals regalia in Provence.

 

Geoff Patrick, a spokesman for Sound Transit, said Rogoff took the trip to France because “he has not vacationed for a while,” and said the agency was in the “very capable” hands of deputy CEO Kimberly Farley. As for the women in health conference in Rwanda, Patrick said, “this is a conference that he wanted to attend with his wife and it’s an important conference,” adding that Rogoff was “attending the conference with every confidence that the agency is being well run” in his absence.

Asked what Farley, the deputy CEO, has done to reassure Sound Transit employees about the future of the agency in light of an election that could gut its funding, eliminating many jobs, Patrick said Farley emailed everyone on staff and told them to keep focusing on their work. “There’s no impact whatsoever [from Rogoff’s absence] to the agency’s operations,” Patrick said.

Rob Gannon, the general manager of King County Metro, reportedly visited all of Metro’s work sites in person to answer employee questions; I have a call out to Metro to confirm this.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. Amazon, the company that either did or did not buy Tuesday night’s election (or tried, only to have it backfire), has a sponsored article in the Seattle Times extolling the “revitalization” of South Lake Union. It began as follows:

In the late 19th century, Washington state was still largely untapped wilderness and the area surrounding Lake Union was modest and sparsely populated. Immigrants from Scandinavia, Greece and Russia, as well as East Coast Americans, traveled west to live in humble workers cottages as they sought their fortunes in coal, the new railway system, and a mill.

Amazon’s characterization of Washington as “largely untapped wilderness” waiting to be civilized by immigrants from Europe is jarring in 2019, when tribal-land acknowledgements are customary at public meetings and when most people living in Seattle are at least dimly aware that the West wasn’t actually vacant when “settlers” moved in.

I have reached out to Amazon and the Seattle Times and will update this post if I get more information about who wrote the sponsored piece.

For those who want to learn more about the past and present of the tribes that existed in what is now Washington state when Europeans arrived in the mid-19th century and are still here, here are a couple of helpful articles. One is from HistoryLink. The other is from the Seattle Times.

3. Council member Mike O’Brien, who raised his hand to co-sponsor council president Bruce Harrell’s proposal to fund an app-based homeless donation system created by a for-profit company called Samaritan, now says he’s “almost certain that [a $75,000 add to fund the company] will not be in the final budget.”

Amazon’s characterization of Washington as “largely untapped wilderness” waiting to be civilized by immigrants from Europe is jarring in 2019, when tribal-land acknowledgements are customary at public meetings and when most people living in Seattle are at least dimly aware that the West wasn’t actually vacant when “settlers” moved in.

The app equips people experiencing homelessness with Bluetooth-equipped “beacons” that send out a signal notifying people with the app where the person is. An app user can then read the person’s story—along with details of their mandatory visits with caseworkers, which may include medical and other personal information—and decide whether to “invest in” the person by adding funds to an account that can be used at a list of approved businesses. People can get “needed nutrition and goods” (tech-speak for groceries, apparently) at Grocery Outlet, for example, or “coffee and treats”  at the Chocolati Cafe in the downtown library. Continue reading “Sound Transit CEO Takes Election Vacation, Amazon’s Revisionist History, Stranger May Lease from ICE Landlord, and More”