Tag: Sound Transit

Cascading Construction Errors Add New Delays to Light Rail Expansion

Inspectors found gaps between rails and pre-cast concrete plinths on both sides of the I-90 water crossing. They addressed the problem by installing mortar, which subsequently failed. Image: Sound Transit presentation

By Erica C. Barnett

Shoddy workmanship, the concrete workers’ strike, and the collapse of an embankment in Kent will delay the opening of the regional light rail expansion by a year or more, Sound Transit staff told agency board members on Thursday. The board already knew that a light rail extension linking Seattle to the Eastside across Lake Washington was behind schedule because of issues with concrete plinths, or track supports, installed by contractor Kiewit-Hoffman, but learned more details last week about both that construction snafu and other issues that will contribute to delays throughout the project.

The biggest potential delay involves the light-rail extension across I-90, where Sound Transit inspectors discovered problems with the concrete plinths that directly support the rails leading up to the water crossing, pre-cast concrete blocks on the bridge deck, and the nylon inserts that hold bolts in place where the rail is attached to the floating bridge itself.

“I want to be clear that as we talk about challenges and risks, we’re speaking to the ability to meet current schedules and not the ability to deliver light rail across the I-90 floating bridge,” Sound Transit’s interim CEO, Brooke Belman, said during last week’s meeting. “We are 100 percent confident in the design and operability of the segment across the floating bridge and [that we will] complete the entire alignment.”

“It was a very strange working situation for absolutely everybody, including folks who would have been on the ground looking at the work and now were required to work from home. So there were a variety of issues that led to this place where we find ourselves.”—Sound Transit deputy director Kimberly Farley

Sound Transit started unearthing problems with its I-90 crossing in 2019, when inspectors discovered that the top surface of some plinths did not connect with the rails they were supposed to be supporting. To close these gaps, Sound Transit’s Kiewit-Hoffman installed mortar between the blocks and the rails, a solution Sound Transit deputy director Kimberly Farley said the agency believed would fix the problem. Subsequently, though, that mortar failed, and Sound Transit discovered another set of problems, “including concrete placements that were too low, too high, constructed to the wrong geometry, or resulting in voids under rail fasteners,” according to a staff report.

During work to fix those construction problems, the team discovered additional issues, “such that the overall scope of the challenges has increased rather than decreased”; for example, many of the blocks had improperly installed or missing rebar, which strengthens concrete and prevents it from cracking. During this time, Sound Transit also discovered that the nylon bolt holders were stripped and decided to replace all of them. They also noticed that some of the pre-cast concrete blocks that support the rails across the bridge were cracking.

Asked why Sound Transit’s inspectors didn’t discover these problems sooner, Farley noted that much of the construction took place at the height of the pandemic, when “it was just a struggle to get everybody on site, keep the work going, and keep the protocols in place.”

“It was a very strange working situation for absolutely everybody, including folks who would have been on the ground looking at the work and now were required to work from home,” Farley continued. “So there were a variety of issues that led to this place where we find ourselves.” Earlier this year, Sound Transit hired a forensic engineer to evaluate Kiewit-Hoffman’s repairs and keep tabs on construction.

Board member Claudia Balducci told PubliCola  she was glad Sound Transit staff revealed the latest issues to the board at this stage, rather than waiting until they had come up with fixes, noting that the agency has historically had issues with transparency. Former director Peter Rogoff could reportedly be tight-fisted with information, preferring to address issues internally rather than bringing them to the board or discussing them in public. “I want that kind of transparency,” Balducci said. “I don’t want staff to be like, ‘We won’t report to the board or to the public until months later, when we have identified a problem and fully engineered a solution.'”

It could be months before the agency identifies a solution to unstable soil conditions along the alignment between Kent and Federal Way, where a 200-foot section of embankment slid nine feet earlier this year, forcing a partial closure of I-5. Originally, Farley said at last week’s meeting, Sound Transit had hoped to use timber pilings to shore up the slope, but after the slide, they went back to the drawing board. “The reason that you didn’t hear the solution [at the meeting] is because, frankly, we don’t have one yet,” Farley told PubliCola. Continue reading “Cascading Construction Errors Add New Delays to Light Rail Expansion”

JumpStart Comes to the Rescue (Again), Sound Transit Updates on Escalator Outages

The forecast office went with the baseline scenario, but noted that the pessimistic scenario has become more likely than it was three months ago.

1. Next week, Seattle’s budget office will release its budget forecast for next year, which will tell city budget writers exactly how much of a shortfall the city faces in 2023. On Monday, the city’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, which includes city council members and representatives from the mayor’s office, got a look at the revenue side of that equation, which, like the cost of doing city business, is strongly influenced by the economy, inflation, and interest rates set by the Federal Reserve.

The big picture: In 2022, the city would face a shortfall of nearly $18 million if not for late payments from the JumpStart payroll tax, assessed on very large local companies with highly paid workers. Those payments should have come in last year but didn’t for a variety of reasons, including the fact that some firms apparently didn’t know they had to pay the tax but “fessed up,” in the words of Office of Economic and Revenue Forecasts director Ben Noble, and paid this year.

Because JumpStart revenues were still going to the general fund in 2021 to address the impacts of the pandemic, the money went into the general fund this year. Next year, though, that won’t be the case—and the office expects other city funding sources, such as taxes, grants, and court fines, to be lower than they predicted back in April.

Overall, the forecast office predicts the city will bring in about $1.5 billion in general-fund revenues next year—down $217 million from the current forecast for 2022.

The decline in revenues can’t all be chalked up to parking ticket refunds. Other factors include lower than anticipated revenues from business and occupation taxes, FEMA reimbursement for COVID expenditures, and a decline in use for some utilities, including telephone service (on the decline for years) and water (Seattle had a rainy spring). The city also expects payroll taxes to decline in the future, as tech companies’ stock value decreases and jobs shift away from Seattle to the Eastside

2. In a presentation to the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board about Sound Transit’s frequent escalator and elevator outages on Wednesday Sound Transit’s vertical conveyance deputy director, John Carini, argued that user error, rather than anything Sound Transit could control, is to blame for the majority of escalator failure. Carini also talked at length about what the light-rail agency is doing to keep riders informed about why outages are happening, and noted that the agency relies mostly on the public, rather than internal systems, to let it know when its equipment is down.

After showing a slide depicting a new sign that read, “This unit is out of service due to vandalism,” Carini said, “what a lot of people don’t understand is, mechanical failures account for about 38 percent of our total outages”; the rest fall into categories like “misuse” (32 percent) and “environmental” (15 percent), which includes debris people drop that gets caught in the equipment.

Overall, Carini said, Sound Transit is actually exceeding its targets for elevators and escalators in service—if you exclude the downtown light rail tunnel, which Sound Transit took over in January 2021. That’s a huge “if”—as anyone who has taken light rail to or from downtown is well aware, the escalators in every downtown tunnel station are often out of service; currently, according to Sound Transit’s performance tracker, one in three tunnel escalators is down.

The presentation did come with some good news for frustrated light rail riders: Sound Transit is currently setting up a schedule for replacing the downtown elevators and escalators, although with the exception of the International District station, where construction is supposed to start in 2024 the schedules are “TBD.”

In the meantime, Sound Transit will keep working to repair the broken-down equipment, and finally upgrading its elevators and escalators with equipment to ping the agency when they break down, rather than relying on security guards and the general public to let them know things aren’t working. That upgrade, too, is in a “pilot” stage; it will be 2024 or later before Sound Transit stops relying on what Carini called “the human factor” to keep them up to date on equipment failures.

 

Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route

Fourth Avenue Viaduct
A 4th Avenue route for the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension is the clear favorite in the Chinatown-International District neighborhood, but requires a costly rebuild of the viaduct over existing train lines in the area.

By Lizz Giordano

UPDATE: Citing missing data in the DEIS, which fails to identify the loss of Alki Beach Academy and the childcare spots, Councilmenber Alex Pedersen is proposing the city not make a recommendation in the segment that runs through the Delridge/ Youngstown area.

The amendment also makes its recommendation for a 17th Ave. W. route in Interbay contingent on the preservation of a proposed Seattle Storm practice facility in the area; former Mayor Jenny Durkan fast-tracked the new building, which contradicts the city’s recently adopted industrial land-use policies, before she left office last year.

The committee is set to vote on this amendment and a few others on Tuesday, July 5.

Original story:

As Sound Transit moves toward a decision about path of its new light rail line to Ballard and West Seattle, the city is preparing to adopt legislation urging the transit agency to bury the track underground, in order to minimize residential and maritime displacements. But the city held off on making a recommendation about the line’s routing and station placement in the Chinatown/International District, citing community concerns about displacement.

The new light rail line, known as the West Seattle/Ballard Link Extension (WSLBE), will connect downtown with West Seattle and Ballard, running through the North Delridge Neighborhood and into the Alaska Junction to the south and through South Lake Union, Seattle Center and Interbay to the north. Regardless of the final route the Sound Transit board chooses next year, businesses and residents will get displaced, and construction will close streets for months or years. 

Residents and businesses in the Chinatown-International District have raised significant concerns about the new line which could take several blocks of the historic area—displacing residents and businesses—while also bringing noise and dust during construction and when trains begin operating. The resolution, drafted by mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and sponsored by council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen, says Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement for the project lacks details about these displacements and potential strategies to mitigate noise, dust, and road closures during construction. The resolution also calls for more community engagement in the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods.

Sound Transit is considering several different options for each segment of the route as the project moves through the lengthy planning stage. The next big step in the planning phase will come later this summer, when the Sound Transit board will select alternatives to continue studying while also re-identifying a preferred alternative for each segment, which the agency describes as a statement of preference, not a final decision about what to build.

“All of the alternatives are analyzed equally, but design emphasis and refinements, and mitigation strategy refinement, will be focused on the preferred alternatives,” said Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham. 

Chinatown/International District options

Both potential routes in the Chinatown-International District, along Fourth or Fifth Avenue, have significant potential drawbacks. Running light rail under Fifth Ave. would swallow several blocks of the historic community near the Chinatown Gate and expose the heart of the neighborhood to the brunt of the noise and dust that comes with a large construction project. It has drawn fierce opposition from the neighborhood. 

Fourth Avenue would require a rebuild of the bridge, or viaduct, that runs between S Jackson Street and Airport Way S., and would cost about one-third more than any of the Fifth Avenue alternatives Sound Transit is studying. It would also severely impact King County Metro Transit’s bus base in the area. 

Both CID alternatives would take many years to build—in the case of the shallow Fourth Avenue alternative, more than a decade— and temporarily or permanently shut down the Seattle Streetcar system, which runs from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. Each alternative also has deep and shallow station options; the city’s recommendations mostly avoid the alternatives with deep-tunnel stations that can only be accessed by elevators.

The city doesn’t plan to pick a preferred alternative in the CID, and is asking Sound Transit to refrain from doing so as well. Instead, the city will recommend that Sound Transit extend the study period for another six to nine months to further engage with the community. Seattle leaders also want to see more details about potential displacement in the area, along with mitigation strategies to help the neighborhood deal with construction as well as long-term changes.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, said Betty Lau, a leader in the CID  and member of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association who is pushing for a Fourth Avenue station.

She’s optimistic about this pause.

“I think with the extra time and talking with more community members, they’ll get a better idea of how these things really impact the people who live there, who do business, who depend on the tourism and on the regional draw of the three neighborhoods—Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon,” Lau said. “They also have more time to work on environmental studies.

“It’s also good for community members,” Lau added, “because we’re still getting the word out, we’re still looking for our allies and people to help. We’re still informing the non-English-speaking members of the community. And that does take time.”

Delridge 

In West Seattle, city staff recommend supporting a tunnel route that would cut into the ground after passing the Nucor Steel facility, then go underground near the northwest edge of the West Seattle Golf Course. This medium tunnel alternative is a less costly option than digging a hole all the way from the middle of West Seattle Golf Course and into the Alaska Junction, another proposed route.  Continue reading “Citing Community Concerns, Seattle Makes No Recommendation On Chinatown-ID Light Rail Route”

Sound Transit Board Selects Mystery Candidate to Head Agency After Series of Closed-Door Sessions

File:Sound Transit Type 2 S70 LRV number 202 at SODO OMF.jpg
Image by SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

On Thursday, a Sound Transit committee voted to formally recommend an unidentified “Candidate A” as the new CEO of the regional transit agency and to authorize the chair and vice chairs of the committee to enter contract negotiations with the candidate, whom the board chose from a list of three finalists in a series of closed-door executive sessions.

The process for selecting a new leader for the regional transit agency has been shrouded in secrecy. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said anonymity “helps encourage qualified people who are currently employed to put their hat in the ring. Many of the more than 90 applicants likely wouldn’t have stepped forward if doing so was conditioned on their current bosses, employees and stakeholders potentially learning of their interest to move on.”

Patrick said the agency will reveal the name of the nominee in a press release before the final vote.

“We certainly need to just hold the name in confidence just for a little bit longer,” Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel, a University Place council member, said at Thursday’s meeting. “We need to move forward with a couple more items, contract negotiations and such, and the hope is that once the chair and the two vice chairs can get through significant part of those further your conversations with the candidate a we will be in a place to put that name out.”

“If anything, the Sound Transit board’s public discussion about candidates ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ only breeds more skepticism among citizens. This practice is the opposite of the participatory government that we all aspire to.”—Washington Coalition for Open Government

The state’s Open Public Meetings Act allows agencies to have closed-door deliberations to “evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment” as long as “final action hiring” takes place in public.  The committee’s action is fully consistent with the law,” Patrick said, adding, “our committee’s action recommending a candidate and directing next steps of contract negotiations took place in open session.”

However, many other governments in the region conduct high-profile hiring processes largely in public, identifying lists of finalists and conducting public interviews for positions as varied as city council member, county sheriff, department director, and law enforcement oversight office director.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government told PubliCola that in keeping the identities of the finalists secret, the board “snubbed the very people—the public—that it serves. … If anything, the Sound Transit board’s public discussion about candidates ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ only breeds more skepticism among citizens. This practice is the opposite of the participatory government that we all aspire to.”

Sound Transit also confirmed that the dozens of community stakeholders who took part in the selection process agreed to sign nondisclosure agreements saying they would not speak about the candidate review process.

Sound Transit is currently facing significant challenges, including a budget shortfall, delays, malfunctioning escalators at its stations, and lagging ridership that will likely be exacerbated as the agency reduces service—increasing the time between train arrivals to 20 minutes—for construction this summer. 

 

Republican Proposes Map of Homeless People’s Tents; We’ve Updated Our City Directory!

1. When Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that he planned to include information about homeless encampments in a public-facing dashboard about the state of homelessness in Seattle, advocates worried that the website would include a map of existing encampments, endangering the privacy of unsheltered people and making them more vulnerable to vigilantes. The dashboard Harrell rolled out this week does not include this information; instead, a map shows encampments that have been removed along with the number of “verified” encampments in each neighborhood.

On Thursday, King County Councilmember (and Republican Congressional candidate) Reagan Dunn proposed legislation asking King County Executive Dow Constantine to direct the Sheriff’s Office, Department of Parks and Natural Resources, and Department of Community and Human Services to identify and map the locations of every encampment in the county, along with the approximate number of people living at each site—a proposal that would put a virtual target on the backs of thousands of homeless people around the county.

The bill also asks Constantine to “develop a comprehensive plan to remove homeless encampments for unincorporated King County” by this October.

During a media briefing on Thursday, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said, “I do not and will not ever support the disclosure of information about where people are living or what the needs of those people are because that is protected information in a number of ways.”

The legislation—which, like Dunn’s vote against a resolution supporting abortion rights, serves largely as a statement of priorities for Dunn’s Congressional campaign, does not come with any cost estimate. The county, like the city of Seattle, is facing down significant budget shortfalls over the next few years. On Wednesday, county budget director Dwight Dively told a council committee that “right now, the [20]25-26 budget is horrendously out of balance.”

2. Earlier this year, responding to the Durkan Administration’s decision to permanently delete the city’s public-facing employee directory offline (a decision that has not been reversed by the Harrell administration), we created our own searchable city directory, with all the same public information that used to be available on the city’s website.

Now, we’ve updated and improved that original directory, adding more detailed contact information and consolidating the whole directory in one searchable database that includes phone and/or email contact information for every city employee. Continue reading “Republican Proposes Map of Homeless People’s Tents; We’ve Updated Our City Directory!”

Sound Transit Removes Threat of Collections, Adds ID Requirement, In New Fare Enforcement Policy

By Erica C. Barnett

The Sound Transit board voted on Thursday to adopt a new fare enforcement policy that will provide more opportunities to resolve unpaid fares and give riders more chances before they incur fines and other penalties.

Under the new rules, which PubliCola covered earlier this month, riders who repeatedly failed to show proof of valid payment would face a gradually increasing set of penalties, culminating on the fifth offense in a $124 fine and the possibility of court action, which could lead to collections and other penalties if a rider fails to pay their fine.

Sound Transit’s outgoing CEO, Peter Rogoff, has argued repeatedly that without fare enforcement, “fare evaders” will take advantage of Sound Transit’s gate-free entrances and ride for free, cutting into agency revenues and producing an unpleasant environment for paying riders.

Farebox recovery—the amount of Sound Transit’s operating budget that comes from fares—has declined during the pandemic, as it has at all of the region’s transit agencies; Rogoff has claimed “fare evasion” is to blame for most of that decline. The new fare enforcement policy is aimed at addressing some equity concerns leveled at Sound Transit in the past—namely, that their fare enforcement efforts have disproportionately targeted Black and low-income riders—while increasing penalties for people who “could” pay and don’t.

An amendment to the new policy, proposed by King County Councilmember Joe McDermott would have taken fare enforcement out of the court system, addressing a major concern advocates have raised for years. That amendment failed, with Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell among the majority voting “no.” Another McDermott amendment, which takes away Sound Transit’s ability to turn people with unpaid fines over to a collections agency, passed.

“Having debts sent to collections can impact someone’s finances for years to come in substantial ways—from wage garnishments that can impact your ability to afford day to day life, to a lower credit score that can negatively impact a person’s ability to find appropriate and affordable housing,” McDermott said.

The new policy rebrands fare enforcement officers as “fare ambassadors,” expanding a pandemic-era pilot program that took fare enforcement in-house at Sound Transit, and and gives fare ambassadors the authority to issue tickets and fines.

On Thursday, Fife Mayor Kim Roscoe proposed an amendment that gives fare ambassadors new authority to remove riders from trains and buses if they fail to produce ID—a power board members argued they need in order to see how many times a rider has failed to pay in the past to and ensure that riders can’t exploit the system by giving a fake name or otherwise refusing to identify themselves. That amendment passed, with both Harrell and Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez voting “no” and King County Executive Dow Constantine supporting the requirement.

Riders who are “responsible,” board chairman and University Place City Councilmember Kent Keel said, will “give them the ID.” But “where we find people that don’t want to give them their ID, my opinion is that [they’re] being less than responsible.”

“There’s nothing [in state law] that says you have to have an ID. So it is creating this opportunity for some people to be targeted … where otherwise there isn’t a legal requirement.”—ACLU-WA Senior Attorney Nancy Talner

Harrell argued that the ID requirement is in conflict with Washington state law, which does not require people to carry ID. “We do we know that some people, because of their immigrant status, for example, may be reluctant to carry ID,” Harrell said.

The Washington State Supreme Court is currently considering a case involving a Community Transit rider in Everett who was arrested after he failed to pay his fare and provided a fake name to officers. In that case, the ACLU of Washington argued that people do not give up their legal protections against warrantless search and seizure when they board public transit, and that punitive fare enforcement “exacerbates [the] legacy of racial discrimination” because it disproportionately targets people of color.
Continue reading “Sound Transit Removes Threat of Collections, Adds ID Requirement, In New Fare Enforcement Policy”

Sheriff Finalists Announced; Sound Transit Moves to Reinstate Fare Enforcement, but Staffing Challenges Remain

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine announced three finalists for King County sheriff on Thursday: Charles Kimble, chief of the Killeen, Texas Police Department; Reginald Moorman, a major in the Atlanta Police Department; and King County’s current interim sheriff, Patti Cole-Tindall.

The next sheriff will be the first to be appointed to the office by the county executive since 1996, when voters made the sheriff an elected position. County voters passed a charter amendment reversing that decision in 2020, making the sheriff’s office an appointed position once again—a move supported by many police accountability advocates, who criticized former sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht for her handling of multiple high-profile shootings by sheriff’s deputies. Johanknecht didn’t seek the appointment.

Before joining the sheriff’s office in 2015, Cole-Tindall served as the director of the county’s labor relations unit and as interim director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, an independent agency that investigates misconduct and systemic problems in the sheriff’s office. A graduate of Central Washington University, Cole-Tindall began her career in law enforcement as a special agent with the Washington State Gambling Commission in 1991.

Reginald Moorman joined the Atlanta Police Department as a beat officer in 2001; he later served as the deputy director of a regional drug enforcement task force and as the commander of the department’s community-oriented policing, major crimes and airport security sections. Moorman is currently a precinct commander and adjunct professor in the criminal justice department at his alma mater, Georgia State University.

Charles Kimble spent most of his 25 years in law enforcement in North Carolina, including as the deputy police chief in Fayetteville and as the police chief in the smaller town of Spring Lake, both adjacent to Fort Bragg. He took over as police chief in Killeen, a small city near Fort Hood, in 2017; three years later, his department faced a lawsuit after Killeen police officers shot and killed a man while serving a no-knock warrant. Kimble is a US Army veteran and holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Liberty University, a Christian university in Virginia founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell Sr.

In the final stage of the selection process, the three finalists will meet with community, labor and municipal representatives from King County and take part in a series of public forums. Constantine plans to make a decision by early May, after which the King County Council will begin the confirmation process; the next permanent sheriff will likely take office by this summer.

2. The Sound Transit board’s executive committee approved a new fare enforcement policy on Thursday that brings back fines, court involvement, and the possibility of collections for riders who fail to pay fines for nonpayment. The policy still has to be adopted by the full Sound Transit board; as we reported Wednesday, board member Joe McDermott, a King County Council member, plans to introduce amendments that would take fare nonpayment out of the court system and would remove the possibility of collections.

Board members voted unanimously for the changes, which come after more than two years of debate over how to balance the need to collect fares (which currently fund about 5 percent of Sound Transit’s budget) with pressure to eliminate punitive policies that disproportionately target Black riders. During the pandemic, Sound Transit has experimented with various approaches, ranging from traditional fare enforcement to a pilot “fare ambassador” program in which non-uniformed staffers checked fares and provided information about low-income transit pass options, but did not issue tickets. Currently, according to a Sound Transit staff presentation, about 40 percent of riders do not pay the required fare.

Before voting for the changes, several board members expressed their opinion that the new fare policy—which provides several opportunities to resolve unpaid fares before fining riders, and eliminates the option of trespassing riders from the system—doesn’t go far enough to punish riders who fail to pay.

“When we’re thinking about equity, I also think about the equity of who’s paying for this system,” said board member (and Everett Mayor) Cassie Franklin. “Riders do need to pay for the system they’re using, because we have a lot of non-riders paying for the system right now. And I think that I fear that compliance will get worse, not better, with this current policy.” Franklin said she would like to change the policy in the future to start fining riders immediately after a second warning, rather than allowing them to avoid fines with alternatives like loading money onto a transit pass or attending a Sound Transit focus group.

Board member (and Pierce County Executive) Bruce Dammeier, who recently called Sound Transit trains “unsanitary and unsafe” and said he would not ride them, called the new policy “a little soft” on nonpaying riders, and said he would like to revisit the policy in six months “to determine what’s worked and what has not.”

3. In a separate meeting Thursday, Sound Transit’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee voted to continue the “fare ambassador” program and expand the fare ambassadors’ role to include fare enforcement, which the agency has renamed “fare compliance.” The proposal the committee adopted adds $1.3 million to the transit agency’s 2022 budget to hire up to 56 fare ambassadors this year.

That number could be optimistic. Sound Transit has struggled to hire fare ambassadors throughout the pilot period, which began in mid-September of last year. According to a Sound Transit spokesman, the agency had hoped to begin the program with 26 ambassadors , “but only 23 stayed on when we launched,”and the number of ambassadors “started declining from there.” Currently, there are 14 fare ambassadors, including supervisors, and 12 vacant positions.

According to a staff presentation at Thursday’s meeting, at current staffing levels, riders encounter a fare ambassador about 3 percent of the time; if the program was fully staffed, riders could expect to have their fare checked on one out of every three trips, the staffer said.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Plan Could Send Riders to Court and Collections

By Erica C. Barnett

This Thursday, Sound Transit’s executive committee will take up a proposed new fare enforcement policy that would reinstate fines of up to $124 and impose legal penalties against riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fares. The new policy, if adopted, will go into effect on September 1.

The transit agency, which operates Link light rail as well as regional buses and Sounder commuter trains, has been working on a new fare enforcement policy since before the pandemic, after an internal review showed that despite its supposedly neutral fare enforcement strategy, the system disproportionately penalized Black riders. < During the pandemic, Sound Transit briefly eliminated fares, then reinstated them along with a new "fare ambassador” program that focused on education and engagement, replacing uniformed security officers with Sound Transit staffers in vests and regular clothes. The program is currently understaffed and has been ineffective at getting riders to pay their fares; during a recent Sound Transit board meeting, staffers said fares account for just 5 percent of the agency’s budget, down from a 2017 high of almost 40 percent.

Riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fare (or “tap” their prepaid transit pass correctly) can still wind up in court facing a civil infraction, and unpaid fines will still go to a collections agency, which can lead to garnished wages and a cycle of debt.

The new policy includes a number of reforms designed to reduce the punitive nature of Sound Transit’s old fare enforcement system. For example, it provides a number of alternatives for resolving an unpaid fare, including reduced-fare cards for very low-income riders, and it ends the policy of suspending people from the system if they have unpaid tickets or multiple infractions. Under the new policy, riders will get two warnings in a 12-month period, followed by a fine of $50; fines will only rise to $124 after the fifth time fare checkers catch a rider without proof of payment, and anyone under 18 will be exempt from legal penalties.

Still, the new policy preserves many of the elements of the old fare enforcement policy many transit advocates found objectionable, starting with the reinstatement of fare enforcement by on-board staff.

According to the policy, fare ambassadors will essentially become plainclothes fare enforcement officers, “issuing fines and citations” to riders who fail to show proof of payment. Riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fare (or “tap” their prepaid transit pass correctly) can still wind up in court facing a civil infraction, and unpaid fines will still go to a collections agency, which can lead to garnished wages and a cycle of debt. And it remains unclear how, or whether, the new policy will address the stark racial disproportionality that plagued the pre-pandemic system.

King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who sits on the Sound Transit board, plans to introduce two amendments Thursday that would take away Sound Transit’s ability to send riders to court and send unpaid fines to collections. McDermott said the changes would address the agency’s “disproportional response” to fare evasion by a very small number of riders—perhaps 100 a year.

“The policy that’s before us now is light years better than what we were doing three years ago, McDermott said. “Removing collections and the courts are the final two pieces.” Continue reading “Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Plan Could Send Riders to Court and Collections”

For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains

Plans show a deep Westlake Station, similar to the new U District Station pictured here.

By Lizz Giordano

The massive draft environmental impact statement  (DEIS) for the West Seattle-Ballard light rail extension landed on Sound Transit’s website in late January. It lays out the pros and cons of a variety of elevated and tunnel routes as the agency tries to weave light rail tracks through some of the densest parts of Seattle.

This second Seattle light rail line will start at the current SoDo station and cross the Duwamish Waterway before skirting the north edge of the West Seattle Golf Course on its way to the Alaska Junction. The Ballard spur will start in the Chinatown-International District (CID), then head north through a new tunnel under downtown toward Seattle Center, through Interbay, and over or under Salmon Bay to its terminus in Ballard.

This extension will add a second transit tunnel through downtown to handle increased train volumes (including the new extension to Everett, also part of Sound Transit 3) and new stations near existing ones at Westlake, the CID and SoDo, which will become transfer points between the two light rail lines.

Some options offer better bus connections or more potential for transit-oriented development. Other alternatives lessen construction impacts by moving stations to the fringes of the neighborhood or deep below ground.

While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

As the Sound Transit board makes a final decision on the route, expected in 2023, board members will be weighing short-term construction impacts against building a system that’s easy and seamless for riders to use for decades. Those decisions might be a little easier now that the costs of elevated routes is similar to that of tunneling. But underground stations don’t always equal a better experience for riders.

To keep certain tunnel routes on the table for West Seattle and Ballard, as requested by many in those neighborhoods, Sound Transit board members representing King County proposed a last-minute compromise in 2019. It stipulated that while the agency staff would continue to study the more expensive tunnel routes, they would not move forward without third-party (non-Sound Transit) funding.

A few years later, the relentless increase in property values has made it just as expensive to build above ground as to tunnel beneath the city for third-party funding.

In Ballard, where there are basically four options—an elevated or underground station at NW Market Street and either 14th or 15th Ave. NW—the price tag for the elevated options is now almost identical to the estimated cost to tunnel: Between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion, compared to $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion for the tunnel alternatives.

As the cost difference has evaporated, Seattle Subway, a transit advocacy group, hopes to persuade the agency to revive an old proposed route along 20th Avenue Northwest that would deliver riders closer to the core of the neighborhood rather than several blocks east. Serving dense neighborhoods (rather than more car-centric areas on their periphery) is a core urbanist tenet: High-capacity transit works best when it serves a dense core of riders, and easy access to transit can spur more density in urban areas.

To fully resurrect this option, however, Sound Transit would have to create an entirely new environmental impact statement, which is no easy task and could add time to the project.

If that doesn’t happen, routes along 14th Avenue NW might offer the best combination of transit connections and development potential. The 14th Avenue location provides better transfers between buses and trains than alternatives on 15th Avenue, while also avoiding the need to build a moveable bridge over Salmon Bay.

A buried route along 14th would also create opportunities for transit-oriented development on Sound Transit-owned land after construction—up to 450 housing units and 70,000 gross square feet of retail space. While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

A similar price convergence is also occurring between above and below ground options in West Seattle, where stations are planned for the Junction, the Avalon area and North Delridge.

While a long-requested tunnel route to preserve views and “neighborhood character” from the West Seattle Golf Course to the Alaska Junction—estimated cost: $1.7 billion—is still much more expensive than the two elevated options, which are priced at $900 million and $1.3 billion, respectively. But a shorter tunnel route that would head below ground after the Avalon Station is now estimated to cost $1.1 billion, less than even one of the above ground routes.

Locating a station here at Alaska Avenue and Fauntleroy, one of two preferred alternatives identified in the DEIS, offers less potential for transit-oriented development than building at 41st or 42nd, while also displacing a Safeway.

At the Alaska Junction, future transit-oriented development hinges more on the location of the station than on whether the line is elevated or buried. Stations at 41st or 42nd Avenues SW have the potential to create slightly more residential units and commercial space on leftover Sound Transit land than if the station is further east. Any kind of station on 41st Ave.  offers the best bus connection for what will become a terminus station, according to the DEIS.

While laying tracks underground minimizes construction impacts on the surface and usually displaces the fewest businesses and residents, it doesn’t always lead to a better experience for future riders. This is especially true if the journey out of these deep stations or between lines becomes its own leg of the commute.

At the new Westlake Station downtown, Sound Transit plans to bury the train platform 135 feet below the surface regardless of which alternative the board chooses—more than twice the depth of the existing station. The agency estimates it would take most riders three to six minutes to get from the street to the train platform —two escalators or two elevator rides, or a mix of both (plus a stair option on the last leg), according to the agency.

Expect another long ride to the platform at the Midtown Station at Fifth or Sixth Avenue at Madison St. downtown, which is likely to be buried even deeper: Between 140 and 205 feet. Continue reading “For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains”

Sound Transit Leaders Call Trains Dirty, Dangerous; San Francisco’s Experience with Sanctioned Camps; New Poll Tests Harrell Priorities

This graph is a metaphor: With no “Y” axis, an incomplete color key, and no definition of the three “issues” that are listed, it’s impossible to know whether these wavy lines represent an alarming increase in incidents or a modest pandemic-era increase.

1. Sound Transit board and staff members, including outgoing CEO Peter Rogoff, used an update on “current operating challenges” as an opportunity to portray the central light-rail system as a dirty and dangerous way to get around, especially during non-“conventional” hours, when fewer riders are on board. Only board member (and King County Councilmember) Claudia Balducci, of Bellevue, pushed back on her colleagues’ “unduly bleak” description of the system, saying, “it doesn’t match my own personal experience as a regular rider of our service.”

Almost since the beginning of the pandemic, Rogoff has argued relentlessly for increasing security and fare enforcement on trains, both to increase revenues and to punish people who fail to pay fare or behave in ways that make other riders feel unwelcome or unsafe. On Thursday, Sound Transit’s executive director of operations, Suraj Shetty, said the agency has had trouble retaining  private security and “fare ambassadors,” vest-clad staffers who check to see if riders have paid but do not issue tickets.

When the agency’s main private security provider, Securitas, failed to provide as many guards as they agreed to, Sound Transit contracted with two additional firms, both non-union—a fact that prompted a number of public commenters to accuse the agency of being anti-union. Sound Transit is also facing a shortage of drivers, cleaning staff, and maintenance crews.

Board member (and Pierce County Executive) Bruce Dammeier, a former Republican state senator, said he considered the system “unsanitary and unsafe,” adding, “I wouldn’t ride it,” and suggested stricter fare enforcement as a solution to problems like drug use and unclean conditions on trains. “We don’t want to stop running the trains at certain hours, but that is one of the solutions” to problems that become worse late at night, he continued. “Or maybe we put security guards on every train.”

Nancy Backus, the mayor of Auburn, chimed in, suggesting that the problems on trains are made worse by “some of the laws surrounding drug use, what police officers can and cannot do with low level property crimes and other issues.”

Responding to those comments, Balducci said that in her own “anecdotal experience” riding the system over the last two years, “this narrative that our system is falling apart just does not ring true to me. And we have to ask the staff and leadership of the staff to help us paint a truly accurate picture of what’s going on that we need to address.”

2. As PubliCola reported exclusively earlier this week, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office have been discussing a plan to relocate as many as 600 people living unsheltered in downtown Seattle into up to 10 sanctioned encampment sites. Lewis described the proposal as a humane way to transition people from unsheltered homelessness to housing as more permanent housing units become available this year.

The plan is also explicitly an attempt to make downtown more appealing to companies that want to bring workers back to the office this year—including the companies that funded a separate plan to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness” downtown by navigating people to shelter and services elsewhere.

Seattle would hardly be the first West Coast city to create fenced tent encampments as a response to increased homelessness. San Francisco began opening sanctioned encampments in 2021 in response to an increase in unsanctioned encampments during the pandemic.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, said unsheltered people in San Francisco said they preferred encampments to congregate shelter because, among other reasons, they offer more privacy and don’t have strict curfews or other rules common in mass shelters.

The drawbacks, Friedenbach said, are that the encampments are cold, tend to be expensive—around $70,000 per tent, per year—and are, obviously, not housing permanent housing. “Rental assistance with support services runs less than half” the cost of sheltering a person in a sanctioned encampment, she said. “So instead of sheltering you can just have housing for the people at half the cost.”

And, Friedenbach noted, San Francisco’s encampments are “used as a placement option in sweeps.” The Coalition did a report last year on San Francisco’s geographically focused efforts to eradicate (or “resolve”) encampments in specific neighborhoods, which found that most people who are displaced from one location end up unsheltered elsewhere, often after losing their possessions to sweeps. As in Seattle, there are typically only a handful of shelter beds available citywide for thousands of unsheltered people across the city.

3. A poll in the field this week was already taking Seattle voters’ temperature about new Mayor Bruce Harrell, interspersing favorability questions about the mayor with questions about his political priorities. For example, the poll asked recipients to rank priorities such as “expedit[ing] removal of homeless encampments from sidewalks and parks, with those of need of assistance being redirected into housing and services, with a minimum of 2,000 units brought into use this year”—a description of the Compassion Seattle initiative, which Harrell integrated into his campaign platform.

Continue reading “Sound Transit Leaders Call Trains Dirty, Dangerous; San Francisco’s Experience with Sanctioned Camps; New Poll Tests Harrell Priorities”