Morning Crank: Streetcar Questioned, Sawant Challenged, and Fort Lawton Moves Forward

1. Ever since Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was moving forward with the stalled First Avenue streetcar last month, supporters and skeptics have been honing their arguments. Fans of the project, which a recent report costed out at $286 million, say it will create a critical link between two disconnected streetcars that each stop on the outskirts of downtown, boosting ridership dramatically while traveling swiftly in its own dedicated right-of-way; skeptics point to a $65 million funding gap, the need for ongoing operating subsidies from the city, and past ridership numbers that have been consistently optimistic.

Today, council members on both sides of the streetcar divide got their first chance to respond publicly to the latest numbers, and to question Seattle Department of Transportation and budget staffers about the viability of the project.  I covered some of the basic issues and streetcar background in this FAQ; here are several additional questions council members raised on Tuesday.

Q: Has the city secured the $75 million in federal funding it needs to build the streetcar?

A: No; the Federal Transit Administration has allocated $50 million to the project through its Small Starts grant process (the next best thing to a signed agreement), and the city has not yet secured the additional $25 million.

Q: Will the fact that the new downtown streetcar will parallel an existing light rail line two blocks to the east be good or bad for ridership? (Herbold implied that the two lines might be redundant, and Sally Bagshaw noted that “if I was at Westlake and I wanted to get to Broadway, I would jump on light rail, not the streetcar.” Rob Johnson countered that “redundancy in the transportation system is a good thing,” and suggested the two lines could have “network effects” as people transferred from one to the other.)

A: This is a critical question, because the city’s ridership projections for the two existing streetcar lines were consistently optimistic. (Ridership is important because riders are what justify the cost of a project, and because the more people ride the streetcar, the less the city will have to subsidize its operations budget). The city’s answer, basically, is that it’s hard to say. Lines that are too redundant can compete with each other; on the other hand, the existence of multiple north-south bus lines throughout downtown has probably helped ridership on light rail, and vice versa. SDOT’s Karen Melanson said the city took the existence of light rail (including future light rail lines) into account when coming up with its ridership projections, which predict about 18,000 rides a day on the combined streetcar route, or about 5.7 million rides a year.

Q. Can the city afford to operate the streetcar, especially when subsidies from other transit agencies run out? King County Metro has been paying the city $1.5 million a year to help operate the existing streetcars, and Sound Transit has kicked in another $5 million a year. Those subsidies are set to end in 2019 and 2023, respectively. If both funding sources do dry up (city budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the city could make a case for the Metro funding to continue), the city will have to find some other source that funding as part of an ongoing operating subsidy of between $18 million and $19 million a year.

A: It’s unclear exactly where the additional funding for ongoing streetcar operating costs would come from; options include the commercial parking tax and street use fees. Streetcar supporters cautioned against thinking of the ongoing city contribution as a “subsidy.” Instead, Johnson said, council members should think of it as “an investment in infrastructure that our citizens support,” much like funding for King County Metro through the city’s  Transportation Benefit District—or, as O’Brien chimed in, roads. “Roads are heavily subsidized,” O’Brien said. “When we talk about roads, we don’t talk about farebox recovery, because we don’t have a farebox.”

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2. In response to reporting by Kevin Schofield at SCC Insight, which revealed that the Socialist Alternative party decides how District 3 Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant will vote and makes all the hiring and firing decisions for her council office, an anonymous person has filed an ethics complaint against Sawant at the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

The complaint, signed, “District 3 Resident,” charges that Sawant:

• Violated her obligation to represent her constituents by allowing Socialist Alternative to determine her actions on the council;

• Misused her position as a council member by allowing SA to make employment decisions for her council office;

• Improperly “assisted”  SA in matters involving her office by allowing them to determine her council votes;

• Accepted gifts in exchange for giving SA special access and “consideration,” including extensive travel on the party’s dime; and

• Either disclosed or withheld public information by discussing personnel matters on private email accounts, depending on whether that information turns out to have been disclosable (in which case, the complaint charges, she withheld it from the public by using a private account) or confidential (in which case Sawant violated the law by showing confidential information to outside parties, namely the SA members who, according to SCC Insight’s reporting, decide who she hires and fires.)

“Sawant is not independent, not impartial, and not responsible to her constituents,” the complaint concludes. “Her decisions are not made through the proper channels, and due to her actions, the public does not have confidence in the integrity of its government.”

It’s unclear when the ethics commission will take up the complaint, which was filed on January 8. The agenda for their committee meeting tomorrow, which includes a discussion of the rule requiring candidates who participate in the “democracy voucher” public-financing program to participate in at least one debate to which every candidate is invited, does not include any discussion of the complaint against Sawant.

According to the Seattle Ethics and Elections website, “Seattle’s Ethics Code is a statement of our shared values — integrity, impartiality, independence, transparency. It is our pledge to the people of Seattle that our only allegiance is to them when we conduct City business.”

3. On Monday, the city’s Office of Housing published a draft of the redevelopment plan for Fort Lawton, a decommissioned Army base next to Discovery Park in Magnolia, moving the long-delayed project one step closer to completion. For years, the project, which will include about 200 units of affordable housing, has stagnated, stymied first by a lawsuit, from Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell, and then by the recession. In 2017, when the latest version of the plan started moving forward, I called the debate over Fort Lawton “a tipping point in Seattle’s affordable housing crisis,” predicting, perhaps optimistically, that Seattle residents, including Fort Lawton’s neighbors in Magnolia, were more likely to support the project than oppose it, in part because the scale of the housing crisis had grown so immensely in the last ten years.

The plan is far more modest than the lengthy debate might lead you to expect—85 studio apartments for homeless seniors, including veterans, at a total cost of $28.3 million; 100 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments for people making up to 60 percent of the Seattle median income, at a cost of $40.2 million; and 52 row homes and townhouses for purchase, at a total cost of $18.4 million. Overall, about $21.5 million of the total cost would come from the city. Construction would start, if all goes according to the latest schedule, in 2021, with the first apartments opening in 2026—exactly 20 years, coincidentally, after the city council adopted legislation designating the city of Seattle as the local redevelopment authority for the property.

5 thoughts on “Morning Crank: Streetcar Questioned, Sawant Challenged, and Fort Lawton Moves Forward

  1. The ethics complaint is poorly worded and constructed, and will likely be dismissed because of it. The author, like Sawant, is ideologically motivated, and displays the same weakness in not seeing what real conflicts of interests are in play, as they relate to how the rules are written. Sawant (SA) has access to quality legal advice, and those attorneys will deal with this effortlessly.

  2. Objective analyses are the province of City Council staff, who provide those analyses to Councilmembers. How the CMs use that information is up to them individually.

  3. Two words re: Lawton:. TOO SMALL.

    If we have the ‘dirt’, we should buil UP and build some *real* housing capacity.

    I know that it’s tempting to blame the city’s NIMBYs (who are of course, partially to blame) but to me – it’s a more an indictment of city leadership’s failure to sell the vision and needs of the city to accommodate growth

    All this fighting, municipal “political capital” and lawyer $$ for 200 units? (yawn) a lot of effort for a number that is, for all practical purposes, relatively insignificant given the overall shortage of hoousing supply.

    I would say the same thing for theseemingly never-ending DADU debate. Look at the actual # of incremental units forecasted by the city’s own numbers and it’s a pretty minimal increase in terms of marginal supply.

    By comparison, the Westin Towers contain ~900 rooms – which could conceivably be converted to small/simple studio apartments for low(er) income residents.

    If SCC can rezone one chunk of dirt in this town to accommodate the equivalent of the current Westin, we would outpace these Lawton/DADU supplysupply aspir by orders of magnitude.

    (or even better – rezrea need for at least 1 ”Westin” per district = THOUSANDS of units of supply. Strong preference to include bylaws to ensure = owner occupied)

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  5. In regards to the City Council members comments on the streetcar, is it possible that Herbold’s, Bagshaw’s, and Johnson’s comments are just a personal opinion like any other resident of Seattle might have and add no real value to help with a decision to spend additional $’s on this project? Bagshaw’s comment seems like a personal choice, Johnson’s and Herbold’s comments seem to justify their current position on the matter. Is the City Council really able to perform an objective analysis on this project?

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