Tag: Sound Transit

Is It Time for Free Transit?

Image of Metro’s Route 99, a free waterfront bus that ran until 2018, by Atomic Taco

By Katie Wilson

Last week, PubliCola reported a “surprising consensus” among Seattle mayoral candidates on the subject of free public transit. Jessyn Farrell, Lorena González and Andrew Grant Houston have all displayed enthusiasm for pursuing this vision, while Colleen Echohawk and Bruce Harrell have expressed more cautious interest.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when local transit agencies stopped charging fare and implemented back-door boarding, transit riders who kept on riding got a taste of what a fare-free system might be like. No more fumbling for change, no tapping a card, just hop on the bus or the train. But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

On January 1, 2020, Intercity Transit, which serves Olympia and the rest of Thurston County, went fare-free. In the first month, ridership jumped up 20 percent. Bobby Karleton, a community organizer and daily bus rider in Olympia, noticed the change: “More people of color, elderly and disabled people and families with small children appear to be using the system,” he said. “For IT’s most impoverished riders—many who are homeless—free service means saving $1.25 every bus ride. That may not sound much, but it adds up.”

But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

Olympia wasn’t alone. In December 2019, Kansas City, Missouri became the first major U.S. city to dispense with fares. A few months earlier, Lawrence, Massachusetts began a two-year pilot. It was starting to look like a trend, but it wasn’t entirely new—in fact, the Pacific Northwest has long been something of a quiet national leader on free transit. A number of smaller cities and rural areas in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have operated fare-free systems for decades. Visiting Whidbey Island? Put away that wallet. Traveling around Mason County? Welcome aboard.

For Seattle, a city accustomed to being on the leading edge of progressive policy, this is all a little embarrassing. How could we let other parts of our own state—including some that vote Republican!—get so far out ahead? Why are many of us still paying $2.75 to stand, crammed in like sardines, on buses crawling down car-choked streets? Why do we submit to the indignity of fare inspections, with steep fines that punish poverty and disproportionately harm Black riders? In a global climate crisis, why are we still erecting barriers to choosing sustainable transportation? In short, when is fare-free transit coming to Seattle and King County?

Sadly, it’s not quite that simple — but it’s not an impossible dream, either. Let’s take a look.

The transit agencies that have recently hopped on the fare-free bandwagon all have one thing in common: They’re smaller systems, and their revenue from fares is small both absolutely and as a portion of their total budget. Kansas City had to scrape together a modest $9 million per year. In the case of Intercity Transit, fares covered less than 2 percent of operating costs, and the agency was facing an expensive upgrade to the ORCA card system. For some rural systems the calculus is even more extreme: The ancillary costs of collecting fares exceed the fare revenue itself. In both cities, fare-free just makes sense.

The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

By contrast, in a large, dense urban system like ours, fares bring in real money. Pre-pandemic, farebox revenue covered about a quarter of the operating costs for King County Metro’s bus system. Metro’s annual haul from fares was somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 million. Sound Transit, which operates Link light rail, regional Express buses and the Sounder line, brought in another $100 million. While it’s true that collecting and enforcing fares also costs money—a 2018 audit found that Metro spent $1.7 million per year on fare enforcement, for example—the amounts simply aren’t comparable. The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

That’s not the only challenge for fare-free transit. While it’s undeniable that the cost of fares is a hardship for many and a disincentive for many more, the bigger problem for most people—including those with low incomes—is the service itself. Public transit doesn’t come frequently enough or get people where they need to go fast enough. Buses and trains are overcrowded and don’t run at all times of the day and night. So even if the transit agencies found a quarter billion dollars on the doorstep every year, eliminating fares might not be the highest and best use of those funds—especially since people would respond to this change by riding still more, further increasing the demand for service.

Recognizing these realities, over the past decade community organizers, advocates and transit riders have taken a needs-based approach to fare-free transit. Through pressure and work with elected officials and agency staff, they’ve won and expanded a suite of reduced- or no-cost transit programs serving specific populations: the Human Services Ticket program, ORCA LIFT reduced fare program, Seattle Youth ORCA program, and, as of last fall, a no-cost annual transit pass program for people below 80 percent of the federal poverty level. I have been involved in all these efforts through my work with the Transit Riders Union. Continue reading “Is It Time for Free Transit?”

Many Top Mayoral Candidates Support Free Transit. Here’s What Corporations Would Save.

Image by Atomic Taco, via Creative Commons

As the leading mayoral candidates establish (and sometimes alter) their positions on major campaign questions, including homelessness, growth, and transportation, a surprising consensus has emerged around an issue that wasn’t even on the table four years ago: Free public transit.

The city has slowly expanded programs subsidizing transit passes for students and low-income residents, providing free or reduced-cost passes to thousands of riders. But elected officials, as well as the leaders of Sound Transit and King County Metro, have balked at making transit free for everyone, arguing that free transit would punch a huge hole in their agencies’ budgets. About a quarter of both agencies’ budgets come from revenue collected at the farebox.

Current city council president Lorena González and former council member Bruce Harrell both said they support free fares, at least in concept, although González has been more enthusiastic in her support. At a forum sponsored by the MASS Coalition last month, González said she “would be committed to making sure that we initiate every effort we can to accomplish the goal of free public transit,” looking to US cities and cities in Europe that have made transit free, such as Talinn, Estonia, as examples.

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Jessyn Farrell, a former state legislator who directed the Transportation Choices Coalition, was more effusive, saying at the same forum that she “absolutely and with a great amount of enthusiasm” supported eliminating transit fares. “Free transit is a core component to getting us to net zero [carbon emissions],” she said. “And it is a core component to racial equity in our system and access and decriminalizing the use of our transit system.”

People who pay full price for public transit would benefit from fare-free transit, obviously. So would large and small businesses, which provide a substantial chunk of transit agencies’ revenue through free or subsidized transit passes for employees, including highly compensated tech workers who could easily afford to pay full fare. This raises potential equity questions, because free transit would shift the cost burden for these workers’ free transit from corporations like Amazon and Microsoft onto taxpayers. Continue reading “Many Top Mayoral Candidates Support Free Transit. Here’s What Corporations Would Save.”

Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process

Anna Zivarts, Disability Rights Washington

by Leo Brine

Transportation advocates were actually pleased when lawmakers ended the most recent legislative session without passing a new transportation package.

After the transportation committees released their proposed revenue packages late in the session, transportation accessibility groups and environmentalists were disappointed by the outdated investment priorities. Wanting a more equitable transportation package, advocates repeated a line of critique they’ve been making for years: The state needs to find new transportation revenue sources and free up revenue that is otherwise restricted to highway spending.

However, and perhaps because their recommendations have gone unheeded for a decade, a new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

Anna Zivarts, Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative for Disability Rights Washington, said the current system is a “pork model,” where legislators pick projects for their districts rather than investing in projects that make the whole state transportation system function better.

“A transportation system has to work across the state,” she said. “If you have everyone competing, that’s not going to create the best system overall.”

Advocates say lawmakers have too much power over which projects get funded and have political incentivizes to fund major highway expansion projects rather than expand transit services or improve pedestrian infrastructure. Featuring friction over projects, funding, regionalism, mode split, and maintenance versus new construction, the legislative ritual, akin to passing a kidney stone, played out in 2003, 2005, and 2015.

A new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

In April, during the last weeks of the session, the House and Senate transportation committee chairs, Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), shared their transportation revenue proposals. The House proposal would have spent $22 billion over 16 years, earmarking the majority of the dollars for highway projects, with about 20 percent going to multimodal projects. The Senate’s proposal would have spent $18 billion over the same period, with less than 10 percent going to multimodal projects.

Leah Missik, transportation policy manager for Climate Solutions, said lawmakers’ proposed investments in multimodal projects were a major step up from previous packages, but “continuously investing in road expansions is certainly not the way we want to go.”

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Front and Centered, a BIPOC environmental group, said, “this package process needs to go.”  Transportation packages never meet people’s needs and are a hodgepodge of project ideas from legislators, he said. Instead, Nunes-Ueno says lawmakers should establish climate, infrastructure, and safety goals, and allocate funding to state and local agencies that would decide how to allocate funding on projects.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, said politics play too great a role when lawmakers craft transportation packages. She said lawmakers are more likely to invest in large projects, like highway expansions or major road repairs, because they garner more attention than smaller multimodal projects. “This process doesn’t incentivize … projects that help people travel between places,” Serebrin said. “Instead it incentivizes larger, geographically isolated projects.”

Other advocates agree that politics should play less of a role in the state’s transportation system. Vlad Gutman, Climate Solutions’ Washington director, like Nunes-Ueno, wants legislators to devise a set of goals and values for Washington’s transportation infrastructure and allocate funding to state agencies who can come up with projects and programs to accomplish the goals.

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno said, “this package process needs to go.”  Instead, Nunes-Ueno wants lawmakers to set climate, infrastructure, and safety goals and allocate funding to state and local agencies.

“We need to be selecting projects and investing and designing our transportation system in a sort of objective, metric-based way that also recognizes and inputs the needs of communities and people who are impacted and stakeholders of transportation,” he said.

To do so, he argued, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) should study the needs of the state and select projects based on those needs, “instead of [lawmakers] sort of piecemealing it by selecting projects one at a time,” Gutman said.

This participatory approach to transportation planning doesn’t make sense to Senate Transportation Chair Hobbs. “We’re in a democracy and legislators have a right to say how their districts should be supported by government,” he said.

Continue reading “Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process”

Oly Fizz: Wealth Tax Dies, State Could Re-Criminalize Drug Possession, Sound Transit Gets Green Light to Fix Fare Enforcement

1. A proposed 1 percent tax on the wealth of 100 or so very rich Washington state residents is dead for this year. The cause of death: The House Appropriations Committee did not include the wealth tax (HB 1406) on this week’s committee agenda, which means the bill will not move forward. The bill had detractors in both parties and never advanced past the House, where it has languished since early April. The session ends next Sunday, April 25.

The chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane) said the committee was prioritizing bills that have gone through the legislative process. The committee is hearing only four Senate bills this week, including the cap-and-trade bill (SB 5126) and a bill addressing the State v. Blake decision, which effectively decriminalized simple drug possession in Washington state (SB 5476).

Tax reform bills arguably had a better chance of passing this year than any time in recent memory, with Democrats firmly in control of both houses and the pandemic exposing the economic gulf between the very wealthy and everyone else.

While legislators did pass some progressive legislation that had been in the works for years, including the working families tax exemption (HB 1297), and the capital gains tax (included in the budget), the wealth tax stalled.

Tax reform advocates say because the wealth tax is the first legislation of its kind in the nation, it will take some time before legislators start pushing the policy forward. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing about the legislative process,” Misha Werschkul, executive director of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, said. “If there’s a good idea, there’s no reason not to pass it the first year it’s introduced.” However, Werschkul and other advocates said they think the wealth tax has enough momentum to move faster than previous tax bills.

2. The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would re-establish a criminal penalty for drug possession in response to the state supreme court’s landmark ruling in February that effectively decriminalized drug possession.

In that decision, State of Washington v. Blake, the court ruled that Washington’s so-called “strict liability” drug possession laws—which made no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug possession—were incompatible with the due process rights enshrined in both the state and federal constitutions. The court’s decision rendered Washington’s existing drug possession laws toothless, sending lawmakers, prosecutors and attorneys statewide scrambling to adjust to the sudden end of decades of harsh drug policies.

In the legislature, a group of lawmakers saw an opportunity to cement de-criminalization in Washington law by rewriting the state’s drug possession statutes. Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue) led the charge in the state senate, drafting a bill that would have removed all criminal penalties for possessing a “personal use amount” of an illegal drug—up to one gram of heroin or two grams of methamphetamine, for example. The bill also proposed a system in which law enforcement could pass the names and contact information of drug users to a “care coordinator,” who would then reach out to the drug user to offer treatment and recovery resources.

As the end of the legislative session approached, senate Democrats rushed to adjust the bill to reach an agreement with some of their Republican counterparts. The resulting amendments, Dhingra wrote in a press release last week, no longer reflected a “treatment-first approach” to drug use. Instead, the revised bill would impose a gross misdemeanor charge for drug possession—making no distinction between a “personal use amount” and larger quantities.

While the re-worked bill would require prosecutors to divert people charged with drug possession to addiction treatment for their first and second violations, it would grant prosecutors leeway to decide whether a person is eligible for treatment after their third violation, re-introducing the possibility of fines or jail time.

Dhingra, still listed as the bill’s sponsor, chose not to vote in support of her bill when it passed the senate last week. “I understand the importance of keeping a statewide policy response moving, and this compromise was the only way to do that,” she wrote in the press release. “Too many lives, especially Black and brown lives, will continue to be shattered by a criminal justice approach to what is fundamentally a public health problem.”

The legislation is now one of two bills written in response to the Blake decision before the House Appropriations Committee. The other, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Woodinville) and Rep. Tara Simmons (D-23, Bainbridge Island), would make possession of a “personal use amount” of illegal drugs a civil infraction.

3. Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation last week (HB 1301) that authorizes Sound Transit to create an “alternate fare enforcement system,” removing what the agency called the primary legal obstacle preventing it from decriminalizing fare nonpayment on buses and trains. Unlike King County Metro, Sound Transit has resisted calls to end its punitive approach to fare enforcement, arguing that a more lenient policy would lead to revenue loss as people realize they can get away with riding for free.

Under existing policy (which Sound Transit is not currently enforcing), people who fail to show proof of payment more than once in a year receive a ticket and $124 fine; if they fail to pay the fine, they can face criminal charges.

Advocates for low-income transit riders have long argued that this policy is too punitive and disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color; in 2019; King County Metro revised its own, similar rules to take fare enforcement out of the courts and give riders multiple alternatives to paying fines. Sound Transit said it would like to consider decriminalizing fare enforcement, but its enabling legislation required the fines.

For the next year, as part of a pilot program aimed at testing out potential long-term changes, Sound Transit isn’t issuing citations and has replaced private security guards with “fare enforcement ambassadors” who work to educate people about how and when to pay their fare and how to access low-income ORCA cards, among other changes.

Legislation Eliminates One Objection to Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Reform

Image by SeattleDude via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

Legislation that would make it easier for Sound Transit to adopt a fare enforcement system that does not involve the court or criminal justice system is coasting through the state senate after passing the house on a near-unanimous bipartisan vote.

House Bill 1301, originally sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle), gives Sound Transit the authority to create an “alternative fare enforcement system” that could include resolutions other than fines for people who fail to pay their fare. The state senate transportation committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to move the bill to the rules committee, the final step before a floor vote.

Sound Transit director Peter Rogoff and some Sound Transit board members have resisted reforming the agency’s fare enforcement procedures, arguing that removing penalties—which include steep fines that, if unpaid, can lead to criminal charges—would lead to revenue shortfalls as people simply stop paying fares. And although the agency has instituted some reforms in the wake of the pandemic, negative press, and data showing that fare enforcement disproportionately impacts Black riders, the changes it has made so far fall far short of King County Metro’s proactive approach, which focuses more on harm reduction and access than punishment and fines.

“There’s a law-and-order mentality that’s more pervasive in Sound Transit than at Metro, both among agency staff and the board.”—Transit Riders Union general secretary Katie Wilson

Advocates, who have pointed to King County Metro’s far-reaching fare reforms as a local best practice, have long been skeptical of the claim that Sound Transit is powerless to keep fare enforcement out of the court system, but say they’re happy to see the issue resolved beyond any doubt.

“They [Sound Transit] kept insisting that they couldn’t do what Metro was doing [to decriminalize fare nonpayment], and one of the excuses they started giving us was they were bound by Sound Transit’s authorizing legislation to use the court system for citations,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. “So that’s what this legislation takes care of.” Continue reading “Legislation Eliminates One Objection to Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Reform”

Customer-Only Rail Restrooms, Women’s Groups Denounce Fain Appointment, and WHEEL Shelter Finds a Home

1. The leaders of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, Washington State Democrats, and several other statewide organizations have signed a letter calling for former state senator Joe Fain’s resignation from the Washington State Redistricting Commission.

Fain was appointed to the five-member commission, which will redraw Washington’s congressional and legislative boundaries, by senate minority leader John Braun of Centralia. 

In 2018, a former city of Seattle employee, Candace Faber, said that Fain had raped her after a reception in Washington, D.C. several years earlier. Although the allegations eventually led to a state senate investigation, the investigation was dropped after Fain lost his reelection bid to Democrat Mona Das. Two months after leaving office, Fain was hired as head of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce.

Calling these new restrooms “public” would be a bit of a misnomer, since Sound Transit plans to sequester the new toilets inside the fare-paid area, and could require riders to scan their ORCA card or a QR code on a valid ticket in order to access them.

In the letter, the women’s groups decry Fain’s elevation to yet another position of power, noting that he has never been subject to a formal investigation nor responded publicly to the allegations against him. If Fain remains on the commission, they say, he should have no in-person access to staff, other commissioners, or members of the public, and all his communications should be supervised by an outside party.

“Lack of action on behalf of the Commission would normalize sexually predatory behavior and set a dangerous precedent that sexual assault accusations are not taken seriously by Washington State officials, further discouraging others who may experience similar incidents from bringing forth their own experiences,” the letter concludes.

2. Last week, Sound Transit’s ridership experience committee agreed to a new public-restroom policy that will, if implemented, add a total of seven new restrooms to the agency’s commuter and light rail system once it is fully built out decades from now. Three of those would be in Seattle—in Ballard, the Chinatown/International District, and Seattle Center.

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The new criteria the board will use to determine which stations get restrooms were based on what’s in place in other systems, but it’s important to note that these criteria are a decision, not an inevitability. Stations with restrooms will be those that have more than 10,000 boardings a day and where five or more different transit routes converge; additionally, Sound Transit staff has recommended, every rider should be able to access a restroom within a 20-minute ride from any point within the system. This set of rules leads to restrooms outside the downtown Seattle core, where there happen to be a large number of people living unsheltered without easy access to public restrooms, and at the new suburban hubs.

In the letter, the women’s groups decry Fain’s elevation to yet another position of power, noting that he has never been subject to a formal investigation nor responded publicly to the allegations against him.

Calling these new restrooms “public” would be a bit of a misnomer, since Sound Transit plans to sequester the new toilets inside the fare-paid area, and could require riders to scan their ORCA card or a QR code on a valid ticket in order to access them. Calling them “paid toilets” might be more accurate.  One can easily imagine a scenario in which a rider who is just outside the two-hour window when tickets or passes are valid finds herself locked out of the restroom at her destination.

3. The women’s homeless shelter provider WHEEL, whose request to open a nighttime-only shelter at City Hall was rejected last month, will have a new home starting this week: First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has also housed the city’s navigation center and other shelter providers over many years. The new space, which WHEEL is opening with city support, will have space for up to 60 women.

As PubliCola reported last month, WHEEL’s women’s shelter is low-barrier, meaning that the group accepts women in any condition and those who don’t do well in structured programs. The group had been trying to find a space since November to supplement its existing shelter at Trinity Episcopal Church near downtown, whose nightly capacity has been cut in half by COVID bed spacing requirements.

Financial Crisis Forces Sound Transit to Consider Tough, Complicated Choices

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

Sound Transit provided PubliCola a more detailed breakdown of the West Seattle-to-Ballard cost increases. The chart below represents the best-case (lowest-cost) scenario from the range Sound Transit released yesterday. The most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment, which Sound Transit attributed to the higher cost of property in quickly densifying West Seattle.

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

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

Support PubliCola

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

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

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

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

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

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

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

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”