At a few minutes after eight on election night, November 3, Shafali Ranganathan, deputy director at Transportation Choices Coalition, was a bundle of nerves. Standing behind a pool table set up with computers and a projector in an upstairs room at the Belltown Pub, Ranganathan and about 100 supporters of Move Seattle, the biggest transportation levy in Seattle history, had their eyes glued to the screen at the back of the room, where TCC staffer Carla Chavez was updating the “results” page on King County Elections’ website every few seconds. 0.00. 0.00. 0.00.
TCC and others who had worked for months on Move Seattle considered the measure a tough sell, and many told me they expected to end the night several points in the red. As if to emphasize that point, many in the room had been in the process of getting loaded since earlier that afternoon. But Ranganathan was the quiet, focused center of the room, and when the results came in–57 to 43–the 5-foot-tall deputy director issued a surprisingly fierce roar of victory, then quickly composed herself and went off to face the cameras.
Another winner that night was Rob Johnson, TCC director, Ranganathan’s boss, and, as of next January, council member for Northeast Seattle’s District 4. After the election, I called Ranganathan one of the major victors that Tuesday night, not only because her group prevailed on Move Seattle (a victory that can only help the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure in 2016), but because the win solidified her position as the “heir apparent” to Johnson at TCC.
On November 12, TCC announced that Ranganathan would be the group’s new director. A few days later, I sat down with her to find out what the leadership change will mean for the group, how TCC plans to shift its focus in the future, and what it means when a mainstream transportation organization is run almost entirely by women and people of color.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Rob has been at TCC for more than a decade, and has obviously made his imprint on the organization. How will the organization change under your leadership, in terms of strategy or mission?
Shefali Ranganathan [SR]: Things have been shifting gradually over the years for us. A few years ago, we did some work where we really looked at, what is our theory of change? What are we trying to get at? And it became really clear for us that in order to be really effective, we had to really dial in on the transit element of our work. That’s not to say that we won’t do bike/ped, but it’s sort of a clear recognition that there are other advocacy groups that do that kind of work. If you really want to shape and serve communities, then you have to give people a really great option to get around that’s frequent, that’s fast, that’s reliable–and that’s transit. What you will contain to see is the refinement of that focus.
The other thing that has changed for us in quite a dramatic way is our focus on transit justice and really solidifying these partnerships that we’ve had with Puget Sound Sage and with OneAmerica over the years into what we’re calling our Transit for All coalition. For our movement to be successful, we need to build power, and it’s not just in the environmental communities but in those communities where transit is a lifeline, and that’s where we have focused on building these partnerships. And it’s borne incredible fruit. We’ve been able to really shift the county’s thinking on service guidelines, in terms of: Where are you putting current transit service and future transit service? How are you making sure that we are planning for service that meets the needs of a community and are not just lines on a map?
I’ll give you an example. When the bus cuts were happening, we did some mapping to see where service would be lost. But we didn’t do it in terms of, where do all the poor people live and where are the cuts coming? We asked questions like, How long does it take you to get to a community college on a bus? How long does it take you to get to health care? Where can you get in 30 minutes? And then that was where you started to see some of the disparities emerge in south Seattle and in south King County. These are transit-dependent communities that don’t have great transit service. So our focus is really pushing policy makers who are not the transit nerd, transit planning types to really think of it like, if I care about education, am I inadvertently cutting people off from transit access with cuts in service? That’s actually how ORCA Lift emerged.
ECB: TCC has often focused more on getting measures passed than on overseeing the implementation of those measures, sometimes to the detriment of specific projects. For example, TCC didn’t really intervene when Sound Transit deferred the Graham Street Station, or when Sound Transit decided to build the Federal Way alignment along I-5, or when Asian Counselling and Referral Services convinced Metro to continue investing in bus routes like the 42 which were redundant as soon as light rail opened. Do you think that’s a fair critique, and do you have any plans to focus more of TCC’s efforts on actually getting good projects on the ground?
SR: I think it’s a fair point. The 42 stuff, interestingly enough, was an opportunity to see [the routing issue] from someone else’s vantage point–not from a transit planner’s perceptive or an advocate’s, but as a daily, everyday user who now has to transfer two times. It also allowed us to build some credibility with groups that I think viewed us with, I wouldn’t say suspicion, but at arm’s length.
With Federal Way, here’s the lesson learned. We’re a staff of six and I think our challenges are always around resources. The Federal Way one was a hard one for us. because we were very vocal advocates for 99 and when it became clear that the board decision wasn’t going our way, we had two options. One was, okay, let’s make a real stink about it, which happened. But you know, the other option was to say, how can we make this not-so-great alignment actually work and be functional for Highline [Community College] and the other communities that were using it? The outcome’s not perfect, but it’s a much better outcome compared to what would have happened [if we hadn’t worked on improving the alignment].
“There are parts of MLK that suck to walk on. We have to activate these spaces and create places where people want to be. I think Sound Transit has gotten much better about that, but I think we still have to push the cities on it.”
The lesson learned from that is, with the Federal Way-type issues, can we address them sooner rather than later? I worked on East Link for five years. The Bellevue drama was insane. There were lots of supportive council members, but we had plenty of challenges getting there. So it’s like, can we work with Sound Transit to create some clear expectations so we don’t have those fights around alignment happen so late in the game that it’s too late anyway and it’s exhausting to the advocacy community?
With ST3, we’re setting some expectations, and you’ll see that Sound Transit is looking at what non-motorized access looks like, which allows us to make more informed decisions long before the EIS process, because you see how these different alignments shake out on the ground. That’s also the benefit of having Central Link in operation–how do we make sure that that we’re going good land use planning around it? There are parts of MLK that suck to walk on. We have to activate these spaces and create places where people want to be. I think Sound Transit has gotten much better about that, but I think we still have to push the cities on it.
Read the rest of my interview with Shefali at Seattle Transit Blog.