Tag: Sound Transit

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

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

By Lizz Giordano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transit Advocates, Light Rail Agency Give State Transportation Package Mixed Reviews

File:3-car Link light rail train in Columbia City, Seattle.jpg
SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By Leo Brine

Democrats unveiled their $16.8 billion, 16-year transportation package to mixed reviews from transit advocates last week.

The package, which includes a bill outlining what projects the Democrats want to fund and a separate funding plan, marks a notable shift in Washington state’s transportation priorities. Transportation committee chairs Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds) included $3 billion in the package for street and highway maintenance, another $1.2 billion for active transportation projects that would create new walking and bike paths statewide, and $2.8 billion for projects that would expand existing transit services. Their plan would also invest roughly $2.6 billion in new highway projects and provide $1.4 billion to incomplete projects from past transportation packages.

Pro-transit groups like Front and Centered have been asking for major investments in maintenance and nonmotorized transportation for years and “feel really validated” by the proposals, spokesperson Paulo Nunes-Ueno said. However, Nunes-Ueno and other transit advocates are still frustrated by Democrats’ decision to spend about $4 billion on highway expansion projects: “If we continue to try and solve congestion by adding highways and ignore those highways’ impacts on communities of color, frontline communities, and the climate in general, then we still have a long way to go,” he said.

The transit grant program leaves out the highest-profile transit agency in the state, Sound Transit, which is currently building the biggest mass transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound regional light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail expansion.

For example, projects like widening State Route 18 east of Issaquah and replacing the US Highway 2 trestle in Snohomish County won’t reduce congestion in those areas, but, studies suggest,  create an incentive for people to drive more often, increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s infrastructure that’s going to guarantee fossil fuel use for a 30, 40, 50-year period,” Andrew Kidde, from climate justice group 350 Washington, said. Kidde is worried that the transportation package is at odds with the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to about 50 million metric tons per year by 2030. As of 2020, the state emitted roughly 90 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year.

To align with the state’s climate goals and reduce emissions, the state should have “invested more in local, existing, regional rail” projects, Kidde said. The package would spend $3 billion funding 25 new transit projects and provide $1.4 billion in grants to local transit authorities, 35 percent of which Liias said will go to King County Metro. The grants will help transit authorities expand service and electrify their vehicles, he said; local transit agencies will have to apply for them and meet new requirements in the package, including letting anyone 18 years or younger ride free.

The transit grant program leaves out the highest-profile transit agency in the state, Sound Transit, which is currently building the biggest mass transit program in state history, the $54 billion Puget Sound regional light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail expansion.

Legislators did include $40 million for Sound Transit Tacoma Dome Link Light Rail extension in the package. CEO Peter Rogoff said the investments were “unprecedented in recent times.” But he also flagged the agency’s disappointment that Sound Transit didn’t qualify for any of the $1.4 billion in transit support grants.

“The proposal falls short,” Rogoff said at the Sound Transit board’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee meeting last week. The legislature passed a motor vehicle excise tax for regional transit authorities in 2015 which gave Sound Transit the ability to develop a ST3 ballot measure with the caveat that they would no longer qualify for state transit grants provided in future transportation packages. Continue reading “Transit Advocates, Light Rail Agency Give State Transportation Package Mixed Reviews”

Sound Transit CEO Blames “Fare Evaders” for Pandemic-Era Budget Crunch

Graph showing Sound Transit's farebox recovery targets for light rail

By Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit is running out of excuses for preserving its punitive fare enforcement policy.

Under current Sound Transit rules, anyone caught riding a Sound Transit bus or train without proof of payment can be fined up to $124, which can lead to ruined credit and criminal charges if a person fails to pay. Although the agency has suspended enforcement of these rules since the beginning of the pandemic, Sound Transit’s outgoing CEO, Peter Rogoff, has argued since well before the pandemic began that the main problem plaguing Sound Transit’s budget isn’t unrealistic financial planning (Sound Transit relies far more heavily than most transit agencies on revenue from fares) but something much simpler: Its riders are selfish.

In a presentation titled “Need for a Comprehensive Fares Strategy” during Sound Transit’s board meeting last week, Rogoff framed the agency’s approach fare enforcement as primarily a budget problem, rather than an issue of equity and access. (Several local media outlets, including the Seattle Times, did Rogoff a favor by dutifully amplifying this spin.) Riders, Rogoff argued have become increasingly brazen about taking the train without paying the $3 fare, putting the financial solvency of the agency at risk. The agency now estimates that between 10 and 30 percent of riders are “fare evaders.”

Riders on Sound Transit trains are expected to “tap” their fare cards, known as ORCA cards, when they enter fare-paid zones; the light rail system has no physical turnstiles. In response to escalating criticism of racial disparities in enforcement, Sound Transit has replaced its “fare enforcement officers” with “fare ambassadors,” a group of unarmed, vest-wearing workers who issue warnings, but not tickets, to riders who haven’t paid; they also offer reduced-fare cards to riders who make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $27,000 a year. At last week’s board meeting, the agency issued its latest fare enforcement proposal, which would give non-paying riders up to four warnings before imposing the $124 penalty.

According to a Sound Transit spokesperson, the fare ambassador program cost $2.7 million, including $1.9 million for 24 fare ambassadors and two supervisors. The rest goes toward marketing for low-income ORCA passes, uniforms, training, and handout materials, among other costs.

For years, transit advocates have argued that fare enforcement policies are excessively punitive and unfairly target low-income people and people of color. King County Metro, the region’s other large transit agency, responded to these complaints in 2018 by auditing the system. When that audit confirmed that fare enforcement disproportionately harmed low-income riders and riders of color, the agency responded by reducing fines, creating new fine-resolution options, and removing penalties that could destroy a person’s credit or land them in court.

Sound Transit’s response to similar complaints, in contrast, has been to spend years processing the issue and proposing incremental changes, like allowing riders two warnings per year instead of one, while continuing to insist that the real problem is “fare evasion” that prevents Sound Transit from reaching its ambitious farebox recovery goal.

“Put simply,” Rogoff said last week, “our fare collection system relies overwhelmingly on an honor system. And our increasingly acute problem is that our riders aren’t honoring the system.” Because fare ambassadors spend “even more time with each passenger” than fare enforcement officers, Rogoff said, they’re only able to check 2 percent of riders for compliance. Sound Transit needs to “at least double” that rate, Rogoff continued, “because when you’ve got a situation when you have a 98 percent chance of [not being asked to show proof of payment] it just lends itself to further noncompliance. We need to get back to a place where our passengers are honoring the honor system that we’re using.”

As an example, Rogoff said he had recently been at a Mariners game and observed, to his growing horror, people who had no problem paying “80, $100 for tickets to a Mariners game, buying beers at $13 a pop, and then at the end of the game all descending on to our Stadium Station and almost no one was tapping on or buying tickets. It was troubling, and it’s something we need to rectify.”
Graph showing Sound Transit Fare recovery assumptions

Rogoff’s anecdote was designed to be noncontroversial: Who wouldn’t agree that people who can afford hundreds of dollars for sports tickets and beer should cough up $3 for the train? It also neatly sidestepped advocates’ consistent, clearly expressed problem with Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy, which is that the supposedly “neutral” process overwhelmingly targets Black and brown riders—not affluent, mostly white baseball fans.

When board member Claudia Balducci asked Rogoff whether a less punitive approach to fare enforcement might lead people to see Sound Transit as a less intimidating, more welcoming transit system, Rogoff offered a brief, rambling answer about immigration enforcement before returning to his complaints about passenger behavior.

“Forty percent of the people that the fare ambassadors are encountering are refusing to even identify themselves,” he said. “You need to monitor that see how we can improve on it. Because you can’t have a first, second, third, fourth or fifth warning if we don’t know who you are. And 40 percent of the folks won’t even cooperate at that level. That’s going to make this a very, very tough slog.” Continue reading “Sound Transit CEO Blames “Fare Evaders” for Pandemic-Era Budget Crunch”

After Years of Debate, Still No Fix for Sound Transit’s Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy

By Erica C. Barnett

Going back to at least 2019 (and, really, 2015 or earlier), Sound Transit—the region’s light-rail agency—has been under pressure to end its punitive and racially biased fare enforcement policy, which subjects riders who fail to show proof of payment to fines and potential criminal charges. (The policy has effectively been suspended since the beginning of the COVID pandemic last year).

Instead of rejecting the punitive policy outright—something the legislature gave the agency explicit authority to do earlier this year—Sound Transit has spent the last two years conducting surveys, doing community outreach, and launching a pilot program that replaced uniformed security officers issuing fines with T-shirt-wearing “fare ambassadors” who give information and issue warnings to passengers who fail to pay their fare.

Last Thursday, the Sound Transit board got another update on its ongoing outreach and engagement work that reiterated similar conclusions as previous presentations: Riders want Sound Transit to advance racial equity, build trust with communities, and listen to what they have to say. Like earlier staff presentations, this one also included a timeline: The board should be prepared to adopt a new fare enforcement policy next March, and to implement a “permanent program” by June.

The presentation did not include information about what such a program might look like. In an interview with PubliCola, Sound Transit regional government and community relations director Carrie Avila-Mooney said the decision wasn’t as simple as whether to punish fare evasion or not. For example, “if you don’t do a civil infraction, we have to develop a whole different process or policy,” Avila-Mooney said. “The engagement that we’re doing right now is also different than the engagement we’ve done in the past, because we’re really trying to talk to people who have been most impacted by our past fare enforcement policy. So that takes time.”

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In addition, Avila-Mooney said, “We do have farebox recovery considerations.” In August, Sound Transit staff projected that the amount of revenue the agency receives from fares would be around $34 million short of what the agency budgeted. However, Sound Transit’s assumptions about “farebox recovery”—the percentage of its budget that comes directly from rider fares—are higher than comparable agencies; Sound Transit assumes, for example, that fares will fund 40 percent of the cost of running Link Light rail, compared to King County Metro’s target of 25 percent.

Rogoff and Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel have repeatedly raised concerns about what will happen if people no longer feel compelled to pay their fare by the threat of enforcement. According to the fare ambassadors’ data, 31 percent of riders had no proof of payment in September, a number that decreased to 11 percent by October, after the ambassadors started issuing warnings for nonpayment. Continue reading “After Years of Debate, Still No Fix for Sound Transit’s Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy”

Afternoon Fizz: New Sheriff In Town, Council Adopts $7 Billion City Budget

1. Starting January 1, King County will a new interim sheriff: Patti Cole-Tindall, previously an undersheriff in the King County Sheriff’s Office, will assume the role until County Executive Dow Constantine appoints a permanent sheriff in mid-2022.

Last year, county voters approved a charter amendment that sets up a process for appointing, rather than electing, the King County sheriff. Tindall will be King County’s first appointed sheriff in more than two decades.

Before joining the sheriff’s office in 2015, Tindall served as both the director of the county’s labor relations unit and interim director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, an independent agency that investigates misconduct and systemic problems in the sheriff’s office.

At a press conference Tuesday, Tindall said that she doesn’t plan to apply for the permanent sheriff or for permanent chief of the Seattle Police Department, the two most prominent law enforcement job openings in the county. “I see my value in this appointed process as being there to help the permanent sheriff be successful,” she said. The county council, with input from a panel of sheriff’s staff, community members and local government representatives, is still reviewing candidates to become the permanent sheriff.

Constantine also debuted his proposal to provide hiring and retention incentives for sworn sheriff’s officers, which county council budget chair Jeanne Kohl-Welles introduces as an emergency amendment to the county’s 2022 budget today. The proposal would provide $15,000 to officers who transfer from other departments, $7,500 to new hires, and a one-time $4,000 bonus to every officer in the department. Constantine argued that while the sheriff’s office, which has 60 vacant officer positions, isn’t currently struggling to meet demand, the incentives might help attract and retain officers as a growing number of officers reach retirement age.

King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG) President Mike Mansanarez told reporters he supports the hiring and retention incentives. His counterpart at the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, Mike Solan, voiced his skepticism about a similar hiring incentive program introduced by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in October.

2. On Monday, the Seattle City Council approved a $7.1 billion 2022 city budget that provides new funding for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, preserves the JumpStart payroll tax spending plan while restoring the city’s depleted reserves, and keeps Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget for the Seattle Police Department largely intact, shaving about $10 million off the mayor’s initial $365.4 million proposal.

As budget chair Teresa Mosqueda emphasized twice on Monday, the budget the council adopted doesn’t require SPD to lay off any officers, nor does it eliminate any officers’ salaries. Instead, the council saved $2.7 million by assuming SPD will lose more officers next year than Durkan’s budget projected—125, instead of 91—and moving their unspent salaries out of SPD’s budget. Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: New Sheriff In Town, Council Adopts $7 Billion City Budget”

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”