Tag: Sound Transit

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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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, check out our Support page. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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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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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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”

Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing

The details of Sound Transit’s plan to lower fares on its Sounder commuter trains, which Mayor Jenny Durkan cast the lone vote against. 

1. Sound Transit’s full board voted unanimously on Thursday to approve a resolution updating the agency’s fare enforcement policies while keeping fare enforcement squarely within the courts and criminal justice system, after a dramatic discussion one week earlier, which PubliCola covered most recently here

Durkan, along with the rest of the board, voted for the fare enforcement motion, after noting that it was only a first step toward decriminalizing fare nonpayment entirely. 

Oddly, Durkan made exactly the opposite argument after casting the lone “no” vote on a proposal to lower fares for low-income, disabled, and elderly Sounder riders. Initially, Durkan cast the vote without comment, but revisited it several minutes later, saying that she wanted to clear up any confusion about why she voted against the fare reduction. (Her staff pays close attention to Twitter). “The reason I voted against that,” she said, “is, I believe that people should have free transit and not pay anything, and we should follow [the lead of] Seattle and give students and low-income people” access to free transit passes.

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. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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 and exclusively 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.

Durkan has not proposed such a measure in her three years on the Sound Transit board. The reasoning Durkan gave for her vote also contradicts her own previous vote in favor of lowering fares on more widely used Sound Transit Express buses, as well as her vote in favor of the fare enforcement resolution just moments earlier, which she justified by saying, essentially, that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Contacted after the vote, mayoral spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said, “The Mayor believes that Sound Transit has the infrastructure and ability to make transit free for youth, low-income, older, and disabled riders, and she will continue to vote according to that belief and principle.”

2. During the same meeting, Durkan voted against an amendment to Sound Transit’s 2021 legislative agenda calling on legislators to “adopt legislation to base vehicle taxes on a more accurate and current value of a vehicle” for purposes of determining the Motor Vehicle Excise tax on which Sound Transit relies. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule was the subject of a lawsuit by vehicle owners who believe it unfairly overvalues more expensive, late-model used cars.

Durkan did not give the depreciation schedule as her reason for voting against the amendment—which county executive Dow Constantine voted for. Instead, she said she believes the MVET itself is inherently “regressive,” because many low-income people have no choice but to drive long distances to get to work, including those who commute to Sound Transit’s park and ride lots.

This claim that taxes on driving are inherently regressive has been made for decades, usually by people who have not owned a cheap used car for many years, if ever. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule may overvalue late-model used cars—the kind people buy for $30,000 at a dealer, for example—but it also appears to undervalue the older used cars that low-income people tend to actually drive. In this sense, it is actually a progressive tax—people who can afford to buy almost-new cars pay more, and those who buy 20-year-old cars for cash pay less. 

3. On Friday morning, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced $1 million in grants for community organizations to “develop alternatives to and address the harms created by incarceration, policing, and other parts of the criminal legal system.”
Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing”

Sound Transit Keeps Punitive Fare Enforcement Options on the Table

Sound Transit board member Joe McDermott, legislating from his basement bunker

by Erica C. Barnett

A committee of the Sound Transit board passed a proposal to temporarily suspend citations for fare nonpayment while it conducts a “fare enforcement ambassador pilot” program, but rejected a proposal to decriminalize nonpayment completely after board chair Kent Keel argued that without criminal charges as a deterrent, some miscreants will avoid paying fares as a way to “get one over” on Sound Transit.

The proposed change was part of a motion from Sound Transit board member Joe McDermott directing Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff to recommend improvements to the agency’s fare enforcement policies by 2022. McDermott’s original motion would have said that the agency “must” recommend some of those changes, which also included lower fines and more warnings before fare officers issue a citation; Keel’s amendment changed the language to say that staff “should” include those recommendations in a list that may also include “alternate approaches resulting from community engagement and pilot program findings.”

Keel’s arguments came out of his own personal experience, but they also echoed an unusual memo Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff wrote at Keel’s request last week, laying out the “staff” case against taking fare nonpayment out of the criminal justice system. The memo reads, in part: “Most importantly, the staff is concerned with directives in section 3 that seek to predetermine the outcome of our community engagement and pilot program by dictating the measures staff “must” recommend to the Board at the conclusion of the process. Rather than specifying details that the future recommended policy must include, staff suggests in section 3 to replace “must” with “should consider.” 

This is extremely similar to the language Keel added to the suggesting close coordination between the Sound Transit board chair and the agency’s director—who has frequently raised objections to proposals that would reduce penalties for nonpayment—on a matter of contentious, hotly disputed policy.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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 and exclusively 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.

McDermott told PubliCola he saw the memo over the weekend, but was blindsided by Keel’s introduction of an amendment adopting Rogoff’s recommendations. “I wasn’t surprised to hear [Keel oppose decriminalization]. I understand that he believes civil infractions and possible court involvement are central elements of fare enforcement,” McDermott said yesterday, but “the language, and that it was written as an amendment—I didn’t know about that until today.”

Before the committee voted, Keel said that his own experience “as a young Black male” made him understand that a lot of people will try to “get over” on the system if there are no penalties for doing so. “There is a growing group of people that are just trying to get over,” he said, and other people who would ordinarily pay their fare see that behavior and follow suit. Judges and juries, he continued, could tell the difference between people who truly couldn’t afford to pay and those who are “just trying to get over.” Continue reading “Sound Transit Keeps Punitive Fare Enforcement Options on the Table”

Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened

1. When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last month that the city would repair, rather than replace, the damaged West Seattle Bridge, she made an offhand comment that could have major implications for Sound Transit’s light rail project if it turns into policy: The new light rail bridge connecting downtown to West Seattle, she said, should include crossings for pedestrians and cyclists as well as light rail itself. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said.

Sound Transit is facing a revenue shortfall of $8 billion to $12 billion over the life of the Sound Transit 3 program due to the COVID-fueled economic downturn. Rachelle Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Durkan’s office and Seattle Department of Transportation Staff “informed us of the mayor’s idea prior to her announcement but there were not any substantive discussions” about how the bridge would need to be revamped to accommodate other, non-light rail modes and how much additional time and cost such changes would add to the project.

Sound Transit is scheduled to publish the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project in mid-2021; that document will only include the light-rail-only options that the agency has considered so far, “consistent with the ST3 plan,” Cunningham said. During their conversations with the mayor’s office, “Sound Transit staff noted that the voter-approved ST3 plan only authorizes construction of a light rail bridge. Changing that plan to a multi-modal crossing would require additional funding from alternative sources as well as additional planning time” to accommodate things like supplementary design work and additional environmental review.

The steep grades required for an elevated rail line across the Duwamish River crossing could be an issue for people walking, biking, or rolling as well. Any changes to the current plan would likely require review and action by the Sound Transit board, Cunningham said.

2. In a promotional email sent on Tuesday, Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan wrote that his new podcast could become “an effective tool to push back against the progressive march to socialism.” The first episode of Hold the Line with Mike Solan (rhymes if you say it with a Southern accent!) appeared on YouTube the same day; the featured guest was Victoria Beach, the chair of the Seattle Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council.

Solan opened his debut appearance with a call for unity, then pivoted to denounce a legislative proposal by city council member Lisa Herbold as a “preposterous” attempt to “legalize most crime.” (The legislation he was referring to would not “legalize most crime”; it would create new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder). But, Solan added, he’s open to bringing Herbold on the podcast to “talk it out.”

After a jarring transition involving a clip from the 1996 sci-fi film Independence Day, Solan introduced Beach, a close ally of retired Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best who made periodic appearances at protests on Capitol Hill this summer.

Beach, a lifelong Seattleite, told Solan she “grew up hating police.” Her nephew was beaten bloody more than a decade ago; in 2000, two SPD officers pointed guns at her 5-year-old daughter while responding to an erroneous call from a white college student about a stolen car. Solan interrupted her as she told this story to explain why officers might point guns at children during “high risk felony stop[s],” but Beach forged ahead. “I’ve never had a positive experience,” she said. “Nothing positive?” he asked, sounding hurt.

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. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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 and exclusively 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.

During an hour-long conversation, Solan occasionally ventured toward self-reflection, at one point noting that his hunger as a rookie patrol officer for “action” and car chases in  the Rainier Valley was immature. But he also repeatedly minimized the significance of race in policing: he expressed discomfort with the “social justice term ‘white privilege'” because of his hard-working two-parent upbringing; he dismissed racial profiling by police as the consequence of inexperienced cops with “bad intuition”; and he lamented the public’s tendency to focus on “about 30 cases a year” in which police kill unarmed Black people when “most people killed by police are white.” When Solan commented that “there are racist cops, but there are racist plumbers and racist teachers,” Beach intervened. “But plumbers and teachers don’t carry weapons,” she said.

3. King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin—whose press conferences often feature stark reminders about COVID morbidity and phrases like “unprecedented death and devastation”—said Friday that even if the health department gets access to a vaccine, it may have to lay off the workers who would administer it to low-income and homeless people around the county. Continue reading “Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened”

Morning Fizz: City Will Repair West Seattle Bridge, Won’t Earmark License Fee for Bridge Maintenance

Image via City of Seattle

1. This morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city will repair, rather than replace, the West Seattle Bridge.

According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, repairing the bridge will cost around $47 million, plus an additional $50 million for “traffic mitigation” and ongoing maintenance of several hundred thousand dollars a year. Rebuilding the bridge would have cost between $310 million and $522 million, according to the city’s estimate.

The decision to repair the bridge doesn’t mean the city won’t have to replace it eventually. Instead, the repairs could extend the useful life of the bridge by up to 40 years—essentially, the length of time the bridge was expected to last until city crews discovered significant cracks in the structure and took the bridge out of commission earlier this year.

There is a possibility that the bridge could fail sooner than that—about 5 percent, according to a cost-benefit analysis by the engineering firm WSP that the city released last month. (For a detailed look at that analysis, which also includes higher long-term estimates that “monetize” certain risk factors and include inflation-adjusted maintenance costs over the remaining life of the bridge, I recommend Mike Lindblom’s October 20 piece in the Seattle Times.) SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said Tuesday that SDOT’s own experts “anticipate that we can get 15 years out of the bridge,” but added, “We can’t give a date certain on the point when the repairs will stop working.”

Durkan said Wednesday that she had been leaning toward replacing the bridge, but that a realistic timeline for what SDOT calls the “rapid replacement” option—”perhaps five years,” once time for environmental review and permitting is factored in—was just too long. “It became clear that the amount of money and the time it would take were not feasible options,” Durkan said. The city believes they can repair the bridge by mid-2022. Maintaining a repaired bridge will cost significantly more than maintaining a brand-new one, because engineers will have to inspect the bridge frequently to make sure that it isn’t showing signs of failure.

“It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing… so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan

Meanwhile, Sound Transit still plans to build its own light rail bridge connecting West Seattle to downtown parallel to the existing bridge. Durkan, who sits on the Sound Transit board, suggested that the new bridge should include bike lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said. “I think we need more transit capacity, more pedestrian capacity, and more bike capacity, so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”

Image via WSP

2. While Durkan and SDOT staffers were discussing the West Seattle bridge with press yesterday, West Seattle’s representative on the city council, Lisa Herbold, was making the case for a proposal she co-sponsored, along with Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, to use the proceeds from a $20 increase in the city’s vehicle license fee to pay for bridge maintenance, including on the West Seattle Bridge.

The vehicle license fee moved forward to a final vote on Wednesday, but it won’t be dedicated to bridges; instead, under a substitute offered by council president Lorena González, the city will adopt a spending plan for the proceeds from the fee— around $3.6 million next year, and $7.2 million a year after that—after a process to identify stakeholder priorities.

“I support a $20 increase to the vehicle license fee because I believe it is necessary to support ongoing operations of our city’s transit services and the maintenance of our transportation infrastructure and networks,” González said. “I do feel, however, that more work and stakeholder engagement must be done before we can decide how to appropriate this additional revenue.”

Herbold countered that the bridge maintenance proposal was an attempt to address problems identified last year by the city auditor, who found that “the City is not spending enough to keep its bridges in good condition and avoid costly future repairs,” particularly given the high number of bridges that are near the end of their useful lifespan. The city spends about $6.6 million each year on bridge maintenance, the audit found—”far below SDOT’s most conservative estimate of what is needed—$34 million.”

Under the plan adopted Tuesday and headed to final approval next week, the city will hold a three-month process to get input from stakeholders on how to spend the $20 fee, and adopt a plan by the middle of next year.

3. Next year’s King County budget will be almost 7 percent smaller than in 2020, thanks to cuts that fell heavily on the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) and the King County Sheriff’s Office. The council opted for slightly smaller cuts to both departments’ budgets than County Executive Dow Constantine proposed in September: instead of an $8 million cut to the sheriff’s office, the council only cut around $6 million, amounting to less than 2 percent of the department’s 2019-2020 budget; the cut to the DAJD’s budget likewise totaled less than two percent of its budget.

The council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past.

The largest portion of the cut to the sheriff’s budget is $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue that the council voted to redirect toward anti-marijuana programming for youth and programs that help clear marijuana convictions from clients’ records. When Constantine proposed shifting marijuana tax revenue away from the sheriff’s office in September, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht publicly claimed that the move would cost the county as many as 30 officers, largely affecting residents of unincorporated King County. KCSO did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment.

However, the council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past. Several of the council members who voted to provide funding for the patrols expressed hesitation about their votes; when casting her vote in support, Council Chair Claudia Balducci commented that the county will eventually need to “back off and let Seattle patrol Seattle’s streets.”

The council’s budget package also included an array of provisos (spending restrictions) put forward by council members Girmay Zahilay and Dembowski intended to lay out a roadmap for downsizing the county’s law enforcement and detention operations. The provisos included directives for Constantine to assemble reports on the county’s juvenile detention center, fare enforcement officers, and school resource officers, and to provide the council with a plan to meet the goal of zero youth detention set by Constantine himself in July.