Tag: Sound Transit

The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City

Sound Transit Roosevelt Station facade
Image via Sound Transit.

By Katie Wilson

Anyone who’s ever been carless in Seattle knows the feeling that your city wasn’t really built for you. Cars whiz by, spewing exhaust and, if it’s especially wet, plowing up great sprays of dirty water that don’t respect the boundaries of the sidewalk. Biking on most streets is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it takes so long to cobble together a bus trip from here to there, it’s almost faster to walk. Seattle has been making progress on its multimodal infrastructure, and some streets are safe, beautiful and well-designed — but take a wrong turn, and very quickly you can feel like an unwelcome stranger in your own city.

That’s what made the opening of three new light rail stations earlier this month so thrilling. An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I biked and walked past that construction site at NE 43rd St. in the University District so many times over the past few years, it began to feel like a permanent feature of the neighborhood. I almost forgot it was ever going to open. Then, suddenly, it was October 2 .

Now I could leave my Capitol Hill apartment, walk for ten minutes, board the train and be whisked away to the heart of U District in what felt like a heartbeat — no bus transfer, no hike through campus. Wandering the streets around the U District station that afternoon, you could feel the neighborhood being transformed. What had been a dead end was now a hub, a portal. People streamed in and out of the station. They bought lunch, sat at picnic tables, conversed. A new place had been created.

An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I probably wouldn’t have ridden the train on that first day if it weren’t for Pauline Van Senus, also known as the Transit Fairy. While the rest of the Transit Riders Union floated off into the Zoom-o-sphere during the pandemic, Pauline doubled down on the physical world, pulling weeds and picking up trash around transit stops. She wasn’t about to let such a momentous transit occasion slide by without TRU members marking the occasion, so a group of us met at the Capitol Hill station that morning and rode up to Northgate together.

“It’s like 14 minutes to get to Northgate from downtown,” said Pauline. “Even if I-5 was wide open, that would be hard to top. And it very seldom is wide open; it’s usually backed up.”

Train speeds that beat the pants off driving—that’s the kind of transit system that entices people out of their cars. In our era of climate crisis, it’s what we desperately need.

For Jim MacIntosh, who lives in Magnolia with his family, the new light rail extension shaves a good twenty minutes off the trip up to Northgate to visit his mother. That trip used to require traveling all the way downtown. “Now I can take the 31 right to the U-district station, and then just hop on the light rail, and it’s two stops and five minutes later we’re at Northgate,” he said.

We need more funding for transit, and we need changes to zoning and land use regulations that encourage greater housing density, so that neighborhoods near the light rail line can accommodate more people who will actually use late-night runs.

Jim says he’s thrilled that our transit system is starting to feel more and more like a real metropolitan subway system, the kind he remembers from visits to London and Vienna, Washington D.C. and New York City.

“What we have is maybe not quite the level of New York, but it’s a start,” he said with a laugh. “It’s going to add mobility, especially for those that choose not to drive or don’t drive for whatever reason.”

Jim doesn’t drive because he’s visually impaired. He predicts he’ll be making the trip north more often now — and it’s not only about the time savings.

“It’s just a more pleasant run,” he said. “The light rail trains are smooth. You don’t have the up and down motion that you have in a bus, and the swerving where buses have to get around cars or every time they pull into a bus stop. When the bus moves, a person standing there is thrown off balance, so they have to grab onto a pole or something. On the light rail you don’t have the sudden motions back and forth.” Continue reading “The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City”

Sound Transit CEO Rogoff Out Next Year, Labor Council Wades Into Sawant Fray, 43rd Democrats Divided on Dow

1. Learn to trust the Fizz: Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff will leave the agency next spring. On Thursday, Sound Transit board members voted to approve the terms of Rogoff’s departure and queuing up a national search for his replacement.

The announcement came two weeks after the board removed what had seemed to be a standard one-year renewal of Rogoff’s contract from their regular agenda, after a nearly two-hour executive session in which board members discussed his performance as director of the agency. Board members also retreated to a lengthy executive session during Thursday’s meeting before emerging with the news that Rogoff “did not foresee continuing in his role,” in the words of board chair Kent Keel.

As PubliCola reported in early September, board members have spent the last month discussing whether to renew Rogoff’s contract, raising questions about Rogoff’s leadership style as well as large cost increases—largely for property acquisition—that forced the board to adopt a “realignment” plan for the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 package earlier this year. Mayor Jenny Durkan King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and King County Executive Dow Constantine are among the board members who brought up concerns publicly and internally.

According to a report by an independent consultant, Triunity, the cost increases were worsened by the fact that various divisions of the agency didn’t communicate with each other, thanks to a “siloed” organizational structure and a culture of keeping bad news under wraps. Another issue: Sound Transit, under Rogoff’s leadership, has been slow to make decisions that could reduce costs, such as choosing a single preferred alignment for light rail expansion instead of continuing to study many different options.

Durkan, one of two board members to vote against retaining Rogoff after allegations that he acted inappropriately around female staff, did not join in the round of praise for Rogoff that followed the board vote Thursday. After a round of effusive praise for Rogoff (Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus: “We should be very grateful as a board and a region for his expertise and skills”), Balducci’s comments focused mostly on Rogoff’s early years at the agency, calling him a steady hand when the agency was struggling to get its bearings

“We were trying… to build this incredibly ambitious and future-looking transit plan, to finally meet the promise of what we have needed and wanted in this region for over 50 years,” Balducci said. “Peter stepped in in the middle of that and quickly got his bearings and helped to bring us home.”

Rogoff will receive severance worth one year’s salary, plus unused vacation time and other benefits outlined in his contract. Speaking after the vote, Rogoff said he has found the job “simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting,” sometimes leaning more toward the latter. “I will continue to be the loudest cheerleader for Sound Transit’s staff and all of their accomplishments even after I step to the sidelines next year,” he said.

2. The King County Labor Council, which represents around 150 unions in King County, tweeted on Thursday urging Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant to stop “meddling” and “interfering” in the internal business of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Union, which is currently on strike over a contract that a majority of members rejected over issues including pay, contract length, and parking reimbursements. “Ask how you can support instead of being a nuisance,” the Labor Council said.

Sawant began inserting herself into the debate earlier this month, when she issued statements and held a rally urging union members to vote “no” on the contract. Union leaders, including the head of the anti-Sawant Building Trades Union as well as the Carpenters’ Union itself, have repeatedly asked Sawant to stay out of their negotiations. “[N]o politician should be meddling in a private sector union contract negotiation,” Washington State Building Trades vice president Chris McClaine said. “It only helps those who want to destroy worker unions and take money out of workers’ paychecks.”

This week, Sawant issued a flurry of statements supporting the strike, touting her own promise to contribute $10,000 (up from an initial pledge of $2,000) to the carpenters’ strike fund, and showcasing a letter of support from several dozen carpenters’ union members for “stepp[ing] forward in solidarity” with the strike. The $10,000 pledge will come from the Sawant Solidarity Fund, which supports various political efforts and campaigns.

Sawant also said this week that she will introduce legislation to “require construction contractors to fully pay for workers’ parking costs, strengthen enforcement and penalties for wage theft, and restore [the] right to strike” at sites with a project labor agreement (PLA)—a bargained agreement between the union and contractors that prohibits workers from walking off the job. PLA sites in Seattle include the NHL hockey arena, the downtown convention center, and Sound Transit’s ongoing light rail construction.

It’s unclear when Sawant plans to introduce the legislation or what mechanism it would contain for requiring specific parking reimbursements, which are currently included in union contracts, not dictated by legislation.

3. The 43rd Legislative District Democrats failed to reach an endorsement for King County Executive at their endorsement meeting Tuesday night, a victory of sorts for incumbent Dow Constantine after a series of landslide votes for lefty candidates in other races. Constantine received a little over 43 percent of the vote to his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen’s, 54 percent.

That may not seem like a blowout, but compared to the district’s sweeping support for other progressive candidates—city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas Kennedy, City Council candidate Nikkita Oliver, and mayoral candidate Lorena González all received first-round votes of at least 75 percent—Nguyen’s 54 percent showing looked limp.

“We cannot wait for the status quo to solve the problems that have been impacting us for decades and they especially won’t be solved by those who helped create them,” Nguyen said before the vote. Constantine responded to this by highlighting the county’s work responding to the COVID pandemic, including the imposition of a countywide vaccine mandate for indoor and large outdoor events. “This is the kind of difficult work that real leaders do. I’ve never been much for bluster,” Constantine said.

Sound Transit CEO’s Contract Renewal Delayed as Board Discusses Job Performance

According to a new report, Sound Transit's decision to keep many alternatives on the table contributed to cost increases for the West Seattle-Ballard light rail expansion.
According to a new report, Sound Transit’s decision to keep many alternatives on the table contributed to cost increases for the West Seattle-Ballard light rail expansion.

By Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, whose three-year contract is up for its first one-year renewal this year, is reportedly facing internal criticism from Sound Transit board members who have felt blindsided by revelations over the past year and a half that the Sound Transit 3 program, which includes light rail to West Seattle and Ballard, will cost far more than originally estimated.

Last week, the board met in executive (closed) session for nearly two hours before returning and, without explanation, removing Rogoff’s contract renewal from the agenda. The board has until the end of September to decide whether to renew Rogoff’s contract, although Rogoff himself can extend that timeline by requesting an additional month for board consideration.

Board members have raised concerns in the past about Rogoff’s on-the-job behavior, including alleged inappropriate behavior toward female employees and an abrasive communications style, and the board agreed in 2018 to pay for a $550-an-hour coach to improve his approach to leading the agency. What’s in question now, though, is his job performance.

For the first several years of Rogoff’s time as CEO, the high-profile elements of his job included passing the ST3 ballot measure and amassing federal funds for the agency during the Trump presidency, a time of great uncertainty for transit agencies. Now, the job is more about planning and implementation—building the system voters adopted on time and on budget (and more quotidian stuff like making sure elevators and escalators are usually in working order).

The report also concludes Sound Transit has a “cultural problem about not wanting to deliver bad news or daylight issues in a timely manner,” keeping board members in the dark and delaying action when things go wrong.

Over the past two years, the cost to build ST3 has ballooned, compromising Sound Transit’s ability to complete the program as planned. Last month, the board adopted a “realignment” strategy that calls for moving ahead with the projects in ST3 on a delayed schedule, but accelerating projects in a predetermined order if there are sufficient revenues to pay for them.

A new report on the agency’s cost estimating practices, which the board received earlier this month, hints at some board members’ concerns. The report, by Denver-based Triunity Inc, concludes that under Rogoff’s leadership, Sound Transit has been slow to make crucial decisions that could reduce costs (such as choosing a preferred alignment for light rail expansion), that “siloed” divisions within the agency failed to talk to each other while developing alignment alternatives, and that staffers are reluctant to share concerns with the board because of Sound Transit’s culture of keeping bad news under wraps.

For example, according to the report, the managers of the West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail Extension division didn’t communicate well the division that acquires property for construction and right-of-way. Ultimately, the report concludes, that lack of communication, as well as understaffing in Sound Transit’s right-of-way division, contributed to higher-than-expected land acquisition costs. 

“We have to figure out how to make a safe space at the staff level, [for staff] to know that they can raise challenges. There’s a lot of work to be done.”—Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci

The report also concludes Sound Transit has a “cultural problem about not wanting to deliver bad news or daylight issues in a timely manner,” keeping board members in the dark and delaying action when things go wrong. “The daylighting issues on [the West Seattle-Ballard extension] have been significant and it is unclear to staff at times how, when, and where to daylight issues to agency leadership when scope, schedule, or budget change,” the report says. “There is a lack of an appropriate forum for communicating these issues with ST leadership on a regular basis and availability of time from leadership is limited due to other priorities or duties. This impacts crucial decision making for ST leadership and the Board.” Continue reading “Sound Transit CEO’s Contract Renewal Delayed as Board Discusses Job Performance”

Court Upholds Firing of Cop Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Sound Transit Board Delays CEO’s Contract Renewal, Debate Continues Over Disarming Suspects with Knives

1. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that the court will not consider former Seattle police officer Adley Shepherd’s appeal of an earlier Court of Appeals decision that upheld his termination from the Seattle Police Department in 2016. The ruling ends a protracted legal battle with the city of Seattle that has loomed over the past half-decade of police accountability reform efforts in the city.

Former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Shepherd for punching a woman while she was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car during a late-night arrest in June 2014. Shepherd and his union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), appealed her decision to an arbitrator, who sided with Shepherd, directing SPD to re-hire him and offer back pay.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes stood by Shepherd’s firing, asking the King County Superior Court to vacate the arbitrator’s decision—a rare challenge to the authority of arbitrators in police disciplinary cases, whose decisions are typically final. The city prevailed in both superior Court and the Court of Appeals, setting the stage for a longer-term struggle with the city’s police unions to limit arbitrators’ power to overturn disciplinary decisions made by police department leaders.

2. In an unusual move, the executive committee of the Sound Transit board decided to delay approving a one-year contract extension for agency CEO Peter Rogoff Thursday. The committee went into closed executive session for more than an hour before coming back into public session and bumping Rogoff’s contract renewal from the agenda. Rogoff makes a base salary of around $380,000 a year.

Sound Transit has spent the past 17 months debating the best way to cut costs in response to budget shortfalls and higher-than-anticipated cost estimates for key components of Sound Transit 3, the regional light rail and bus system expansion voters approved in 2016. After a number of tense public meetings, which included Rogoff, the board ultimately adopted a compromise plan spearheaded by King County Council member Claudia Balducci that would accelerate projects in order of priority if more funds become available in the future.

Because the discussion happened in executive session, no one is talking about what the committee discussed. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick, speaking on behalf of board chair (and a University Place council member ) Kent Keel, said, “following the committee’s discussion in executive session today, the full Sound Transit Board will continue discussion of the contract at its September meeting,” on September 23.

“Chair Keel emphasized his responsibility to honor the confidentiality that always surrounds the contract review process prior to when the Board discusses its action in open session, and that nothing further can be shared at this time,” Patrick said.

3. Mark Mullens, the only police officer on Seattle’s Community Police Commission, was unusually vocal during a question-and-answer with Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg during Wednesday’s commission meeting. Myerberg came to the meeting to address the OPA’s investigation into the fatal shooting of 57-year-old Terry Caver by Seattle police officer Christopher Gregorio last May. After the OPA concluded that Gregorio failed to de-escalate during his confrontation with Caver, Interim Seattle Police Chief suspended Gregorio for 20 days and transferred him out of the department’s K9 unit—a rare outcome for police shootings in Seattle, which typically end without discipline. Continue reading “Court Upholds Firing of Cop Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Sound Transit Board Delays CEO’s Contract Renewal, Debate Continues Over Disarming Suspects with Knives”

Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts

Evolution Block in Vancouver, B.C.—the kind of multistory industrial building that could come to Seattle under a new proposal for industrial areas. Photo via PC Urban.

by Erica C. Barnett

Walk through the stretch of Ballard that runs roughly from 14th to 8th Ave. NW between NW 53rd Street and Leary Way, and you’ll find no shortage of breweries and taprooms selling hoppy IPAs and farmhouse ales to take home or drink onsite, along with an eclectic assortment of food trucks offering everything from dim sum to burgers to Polish food. What you won’t see is housing: No apartments, condos, or artists’ lofts to break up the area’s single-story industrial monoculture.

The breweries have brought some street-level excitement to this part of Ballard, but the vitality is limited: You can drink beer and buy food from a truck here, but you can’t work in an office, browse in a retail store, or dine at a restaurant—and you certainly can’t live here. Tap rooms (and marijuana shops) represent the limit of what’s allowed in an industrial area like this one in Ballard, which will eventually be a short walk away from Sound Transit’s Ballard light-rail station.

The future of Seattle’s industrial land has been a subject of debate for decades, but the idea of integrating non-industrial uses into these areas, which make up about 12 percent of Seattle’s land, has accelerated in recent years as smaller, more human-scale industrial businesses have replaced smoke-belching traditional manufacturing enterprises in Seattle and across the country. Under a new strategy created at the behest of Mayor Jenny Durkan, however, innovation in these areas would be restricted to small edge zones on the outskirts of industrial districts—and housing would continue to be banned altogether.

In addition to those new restrictions, a proposed amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan (the document that governs land use and zoning in Seattle) would make it virtually impossible to take land out of industrial use for any reason—a zoning restriction on par with laws preserving Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones.

In effect, the amendment would bar anyone who owns industrial land from even asking permission to remove it from industrial use—say, to add housing in an area right next to a light rail station. Historically (including this year), individual land owners have asked permission to change their property from industrial to another use as part of the comprehensive plan amendment process, and historically, including this year, the city has rejected such requests.

On Monday, NAIOP Washington, a lobbying organization for commercial real estate developers, wrote a letter to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development asking for more zoning flexibility within a quarter-mile of light rail stations and requesting a more flexible definition of “industrial” to allow a wider range of uses. And they asked the city to reject the proposed comprehensive plan amendment. “[W]e do not believe all 5,000 acres of our City’s industrial lands should be treated the same,” the letter, signed by NAIOP Washington director Peggi Lewis Fu, says.

“We believe in some areas, this work could go further… ensuring that this effort fully considers the billion-dollar taxpayer investment in current and future light-rail transit stations that fall within this study area,” the letter continues.

The new recommendations introduce the concept of “high-density employment” in industrial areas near transit stops—multistory industrial buildings that, in some cases, might include office space. In practice, this type of development would encourage a one-way in-migration to jobs and a one-way out-migration to homes, much as 20th-century transit and highway planning assumed people would commute to cities’ downtown cores from distant residential neighborhoods and suburbs.

Jessica Clawson, an attorney at the firm McCullough Hill Leary in Seattle, asked the city council’s land use committee last month to delay considering the comprehensive plan amendment until next year, when the city will have a better idea of where Sound Transit’s new stations in Interbay and Ballard will go.

“Why would the council docket and study a comp plan amendment now that would make it more difficult to consider these really important transportation decisions when making land use changes [in the future]?” she asked. Clawson’s firm is headed by longtime developer attorney (and political heavy hitter) Jack McCullough, who co-chaired the committee that produced the 2017 proposal.

The Industrial Innovation Network—a group of property owners who want to remove their land from industrial use, allowing them to develop it—has filed an appeal to the city’s determination of [environmental] nonsignificance for the amendment, arguing that the proposal would make it impossible for them to develop housing, including affordable housing, in historically industrial areas near light rail stations “In addition, the Proposal’s restriction of land to only industrial uses will cause some properties to remain vacant or underutilized, with buildings in a state of disrepair, resulting in blight,” the appeal, filed by McCullough Hill Leary, says. 

In a letter to OPCD a week before the IIN filed its appeal, Clawson argued that would take away property owners’ rights to “petition their government” for a land-use change, reduce the usefulness of light rail, and contribute to the housing shortage by taking land out of residential use, potentially “in perpetuity.” 

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter, signed by Clawson, says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

The council voted to move the amendment forward; they haven’t acted on the industrial advisory group’s recommendations, which will face environmental review. The city hearing examiner’s office has the property owners’ appeal on its docket.

Although industrial areas enjoy an enviably low vacancy rate (about 5 percent, compared to an office vacancy rate of 15 percent), the definition of “industrial” continues to shift in ways that have led other cities (notably Portland) to allow some mingling of homes, shops, and restaurants in once walled-off industrial areas. The idea of allowing housing in industrial areas has long been off-limits in Seattle, but the city’s growth—even at the height of COVID, the city grew by 8,400 people, cementing our status as one of the fastest-growing US cities—may force the issue, especially in a city that restricts new apartments to a tiny sliver of its buildable land.

In Seattle, conversations about the future of industrial land have been slow and fitful. In 2016, then-mayor Ed Murray assembled a group of stakeholders—including industrial land owners, planners, developers, and maritime advocacy groups—to come up with a new framework for developing industrial areas in the future. The update was long overdue: Since 2007, when the city dramatically downzoned industrial land by placing strict size limits on office and retail uses, Seattle’s industrial areas have been effectively closed to non-industrial development—a status that keeps land costs lower (no competition with residential and office developers), but can produce dull streetscapes prone to potholes and blight.

“That first [set of meetings] started so contentiously that they couldn’t even have the two sides of the table in the same room for the first three meetings,” SODO Business Improvement Area director Erin Goodman recalled. The argument boiled down to “development version preservation of industrial land—this is a hot button issue down here.” Continue reading “Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts”

Maskless Cop Gets One-Day Suspension, Stalled Tiny House Village Moves Forward

1. The Seattle police officer whose refusal to wear a mask inside Harborview Medical Center in January prompted public outcry and a misconduct investigation received a one-day suspension for the incident.

According to a investigation report released by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) on Tuesday, Officer Eric Whitehead violated SPD’s professionalism policies when he brushed off requests that he put on a face mask. Whitehead was part of a team of officers stationed at the hospital to escort a person who had been detained.

But because Whitehead believed he had obtained an exemption from SPD’s mask mandate, the OPA did not determine that his refusal to wear a mask constituted a violation of department policy.

In a letter sent to SPD’s Human Resources division last June, Whitehead requested an exemption on medical grounds, including “mental and physical strain, as well as increased respiratory distress”; he added that requiring him to wear a mask violated his civil liberties. Though Whitehead did not include medical records in his request for an exemption, he later provided OPA investigators with letters from two medical practitioners detailing a “dermatological condition in and around his face that was exacerbated by facemask wearing and shaving.” Whitehead did not, however, object to wearing other types of masks—during last summer’s protests, for instance, Whitehead confirmed that he wore a gas mask.

Though SPD’s Human Resources lieutenant never expressly approved or denied Whitehead’s request, OPA investigators concluded that he could have reasonably believed that he was exempt based on an email from the lieutenant confirming that SPD allowed for medical exemptions to the mask mandate.

However, the investigators also pointed out inconsistencies in Whitehead’s stated reasons for refusing to put on a mask. While at the hospital, Whitehead told nurses that he could not wear a face covering because it would present a safety risk if the detainee attacked him—”I don’t want to be choked with this fucking thing,” he told a nurse after she handed him a mask. He did not mention his medical condition to hospital staff, though he later told OPA investigators that his initial confrontation with the nurse left him “less willing” to explain his behavior. Investigators also pointed out that the letters from Whitehead’s medical providers don’t mention any mask-related respiratory problems, contrary to his claims in the letter to SPD’s human resources lieutenant.

OPS Director Andrew Myerberg wrote in the investigative report that the case demonstrated the risks of SPD’s lax approach to medical exemptions for its mask mandate. “While SPD is required to approve exemptions when supported by evidence and when warranted,” he wrote, “this does not mean that SPD must continue to allow officers to engage in duties where they have close contact with the public.”

As a remedy, Myerberg recommended that the department keep records of any officers who request exemptions from the mask policy, as well as department supervisors’ reasoning for approving or denying the request. He added that SPD should not allow officers with exemptions to work in close proximity with members of the public, which would involve re-assigning officers to non-patrol positions. The department has already moved Whitehead to a non-patrol position.

2. A long-delayed tiny house village in the University District that was originally supposed to open in April could start moving forward again this month, city council members said this week. Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis walked on legislation Monday approving a lease between Sound Transit, which owns the land where the village will go, and the city, which will hold the lease. The council had to pass legislation approving the lease because Sound Transit increased the size of the property the city will take over. Both Sound Transit and the city still have to sign the lease.

For months, Sound Transit and the city have been mired in negotiations over the extent of the city’s legal liability if anything goes wrong at the site. Sound Transit (which has declined to discuss the negotiations and didn’t immediately return a call for comment Tuesday) sought and received indemnity from any injury, death, or property damage that takes place at the encampment, which is basically what the lease provides.

Although Seattle is supposed to hand all its homeless service contracts over to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority at the end of 2021, the lease is for up to three years, meaning that the city could be responsible for a tiny house village even when it no longer has a homelessness division.

As we reported last week, KCRHA director Marc Dones has expressed hesitation about funding tiny house villages as part of a comprehensive solution to homelessness.

Is It Time for Free Transit?

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

By Katie Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Atomic Taco, via Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Zivarts, Disability Rights Washington

by Leo Brine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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