Focus on Affordable Housing, Modest Goals in Mayor’s “City of the Future” Speech

Screen shot from Seattle Channel because the room where Durkan spoke was pitch black inside.

Last year, when she delivered her first State of the City speech after just three months in office, Mayor Jenny Durkan called herself “the Impatient Mayor,” and laid out a laundry list of goals for her first year. On the list: Free college for all high school graduates; “bust[ing] through gridlock” by improving access to transit and making roads and sidewalks safer for cyclists and pedestrians; increasing infrastructure for electric cars and promoting green buildings; and doubling the number of people the city moves from homelessness into permanent housing.

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This year, Durkan hit on similar themes—climate; affordability; transit access; affordable housing—and made her best case that the city has made progress on all those fronts during her first year in office. In the past year, Durkan said, the city has passed the Seattle Promise program to give high school graduates two free years at a Seattle community college; offered free ORCA transit passes to thousands of high school students; “invested over $710 million together with our partners in affordable housing”;  made “the largest shelter increase in our city’s history,” and passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which guarantees new minimum wages and rest breaks to Seattle domestic workers. Durkan also said the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” during her first year in office.

The housing numbers are debatable. The $710 million figure comes mostly from non-city funding, such as the state housing trust fund, and private dollars (see chart above).  And, although Durkan can say that she achieved her goal of 500 new shelter spaces, the majority of these are basic shelter (mats on floors or bunk beds in open dorms in places like Harborview Hall, a new nighttime-only King County shelter, run by the Salvation Army) or spots in authorized encampments and “tiny house villages” where people live in small garden-shed-like structures with heating and doors that lock. Enhanced, low-barrier shelter—shelters that provide services, give people a place to be during the day, and allow residents to stay with their partners and pets—have a much higher success rate than other models at getting people into permanent housing. Last year, for example, the city’s Human Services Department reported that 21 percent of people entering enhanced shelter exited shelter into permanent housing; for basic shelter, that number was 4 percent.

Harborview Hall. Beds were scheduled to be installed shortly after this photo was taken last December.

Durkan’s claim to have moved “more than 7,400 households… out of homelessness” also demands scrutiny. The mayor’s office confirms that that number includes not only people who went from homelessness into housing (the city created 360 new affordable housing units last year, Durkan said in her speech) but those who were at risk of homelessness and managed to stay housed. Durkan’s office has not yet responded to a request for a more detailed breakdown of the 7,400 figure.

State of the City speeches are rarely the vehicle for mayors to announce major new initiatives, and Durkan kept her list of new proposals modest: Requiring all new buildings that have off-street parking, including new duplexes and single-family houses, to include charging infrastructure for electric vehicles; a new $1,000 scholarship to help income-eligible participants in the Seattle Promise program pay for non-tuition college expenses; providing free transit passes to about 1,500 low income Seattle Housing Authority tenants; expanding Ride2, King County Metro’s on-demand van program in West Seattle, to serve commuters in South Seattle. And she said she would issue an “executive order to refocus our work on strategies to prevent displacement and displacement” on Wednesday.

Light Rail Riders Will Have to Switch Trains to Get Through Downtown Tunnel During East Link Construction

Sound Transit light rail riders traveling through the downtown Seattle transit tunnel will have to switch trains on a new, temporary center platform at the Pioneer Square station for ten weeks in early 2020 to accommodate construction to move tracks and install switches for the new East Link train line, which opens in 2023, into the existing rail system. During those ten weeks, people traveling through the tunnel in either direction will stop at Pioneer Square, deboard on a 14-foot-wide platform in the middle of the tunnel, and switch to the train that has just arrived from the opposite direction. After two minutes—an amount of time Sound Transit planners say is necessary to allow passengers on each train to get across the platform and reboard, and for train drivers to get from one end of the train to the other—the trains will continue in the same direction from which they came.

Sound Transit staffers said train doors will not open until another train has arrived from the opposite direction, to prevent riders from succumbing to the “temptation” to rush across the open trackway to the opposite station platform. The temporary center platform will be staffed with security and Sound Transit wayfinding staff during all hours when trains are running.

“This is a necessary inconvenience so we can enjoy the massive convenience of having access to 10 stations on the Eastside in 2023.” – Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff

If you have trouble visualizing how this would work, Sound Transit has created a couple of animations that I found extremely helpful. Essentially, trains that go to the University District station will be traveling to Pioneer Square and turning back, and trains coming from Angle Lake and the airport will be doing the same thing from the south. Four stations will operate with only one platform at a time during construction—Stadium, Chinatown/ID, University, and Westlake.

Additionally, the tunnel will be shut down altogether for three weekends during the construction period; during that time, riders will have to transfer to street-level buses between the Westlake and SoDo stations.

While construction is going on, four-car trains will operate at 12-minute frequencies all day (currently, Sound Transit runs three-car trains more frequently during rush hour and less often when demand is lower.) The result will be more crowding during busy periods—trains will have about 23 percent less capacity during the weekday peak—and less crowding during off hours, when there will be 11 percent more room for riders to spread out. Sound Transit staffers say they’re working on a plan to accommodate bikes and luggage when trains are more crowded than usual.

At a meeting of Sound Transit’s newly christened Rider Experience and Operations Committee meeting Thursday, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff called the 10-week partial closure “a necessary inconvenience so we can enjoy the massive convenience of having access to 10 stations on the Eastside in 2023,” and predicted that riders would “scarcely remember the inconvenience of the 10 weeks in 2020, given the benefits that the whole region will get when East Link is done.”

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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.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Streetcar

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Last week, defying early expectations that she would abandon the planned downtown Seattle streetcar after pausing construction nearly a year ago, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she would ask the city council to proceed with the project. The caveat? The council will need to come up with additional $65 million to help the Seattle Department of Transportation pay for the project, whose price tag has swelled to an estimated $285.8 million from an original estimate of $134.9 million. (The city’s utility departments will have to come up with another $23 million for utility work that the city says is long overdue with or without the streetcar project.)

In 2015, the city’s estimated cost for the streetcar was $143 million; in 2017 it went up to $197 million; and last August, the estimate was $252 million.

This streetcar line, known as the Center City Connector, would connect the two existing streetcar lines: one that travels from Pioneer Square to First Hill and the other that goes from Westlake through South Lake Union. In doing so, it would create an almost-complete loop from First Hill to South Lake Union.

The latest budget increase is the result of delays to the project timeline (besides the 10-month pause in the project, the city now estimates that it will take 18 months for the Federal Transit Administration to review the project for funding—see below for more details—pushing the opening date from 2022 to 2025); extra costs that Durkan says SDOT failed to account for under her predecessor, Ed Murray, including a new maintenance facility and bridge reinforcements; and the need for large ongoing operations subsidy, which could swell to $19 million a year by the second full year the center city streetcar is in operation.

“It is clear now that the previous SDOT management in the last administration had failed to do the proper due diligence to account for all the costs,” Durkan said in a statement. “As a result, this project was not set up for future long-term financial success[.]”

So what does last week’s announcement mean, and what happens now? We’ve put together some questions and answers to explain where the streetcar goes from here.

Does last week’s announcement mean the streetcar will actually be built?

The streetcar still faces a number of hurdles, including the need for funding at the city and state levels. In December, the Federal Transit Administration told the city that the project remained in the running for a $75 million federal Small Starts grant, but the federal funding is not yet secure; without it, the total SDOT funding gap will be $140 million.

Even assuming a smaller shortfall, the city will have to come up with at least $65 million in additional funding, possibly by issuing bonds against an existing revenue source such the commercial parking tax, or as part of a future transportation levy. The city council will now have to work with the mayor’s office, and incoming SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, to find a source for the additional funding.

Why was there a delay in the first place?

Durkan halted the streetcar project last March after a preliminary review of the project found that costs had ballooned to more than $200 million. The nine-month pause allowed outside evaluators to analyze the cost to build and operate the system as well as SDOT’s engineering work on the project, which a spokeswoman from Durkan’s office says did not include the cost of reinforcing several bridges in Pioneer Square that will need to be strengthened to carry the heavier new trains—which are already on order and weigh about 12 tons more than the existing streetcars.

Why is a streetcar on First Avenue even necessary? Who will it serve?

Business and community groups that support the streetcar, organized as the Seattle Streetcar Coalition, say the First Avenue trolley will do several things: connect downtown businesses and provide a convenient one-seat ride between downtown destinations; serve thousands of low-income downtown residents; and be a speedier option than buses because it will run in its own dedicated lane on First Avenue. Skeptics, meanwhile, counter that Seattle already has a grade-separated light rail train, which runs in the Downtown Transit Tunnel just two blocks east. And, of course, there’s also plain old nostalgia—for more than two decades, the historic George Benson Trolley ran along the downtown waterfront, until its maintenance barn was demolished to make room for the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Courtesy of Seattle Streetcar Coalition

The existing streetcars seem like they’re always empty. Will anyone ride it?

The mayor’s office acknowledges that ridership on the South Lake Union streetcar, which was built partly with private contributions from major SLU landowner Vulcan Real Estate, has declined in recent years. But, they are quick to add, ridership on the First Hill portion of the streetcar—which was built as a kind of consolation prize after Sound Transit killed a planned First Hill light rail stop—has been going up dramatically.

According to the city, once the full line is open, ridership—which on the two existing lines was about 1.4 million a year in 2017—will rise to 7.4 million in 2027, the Center City Connector’s second full year of operations. The mayor’s office also says that the city has studied alternatives to the streetcar—such as reviving a bus route on First Avenue, which was a replacement for the original waterfront trolleys—but says they don’t perform as well in ridership projections as the streetcar.

What changed Durkan’s mind?

In nine months, Durkan went from being a streetcar skeptic to the kind of mayor who says things like, “As we reconnect downtown with our new Waterfront for All, we have the opportunity to create a downtown with fewer cars and where residents, workers, and visitors can walk, bike, and take transit.” In her statement last week, Durkan continued, “A unified streetcar route provides a unique opportunity to build on our investments for the next generation.”

Perhaps the latest round of overruns was smaller than Durkan expected. But she is also responding to the political reality (reportedly communicated to her by her political advisors) that the streetcar enjoys strong support from many constituents, not just the lefty urbanists and transit advocates who voted for her opponent Cary Moon in 2017, but business leaders, developers, and others she needs to have on board if she wants to get reelected in 2021.

The Seattle Streetcar Coalition, which includes the Washington State Convention Center, Transportation Choices Coalition, Uwajimaya, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Downtown Seattle Association, said in a statement immediately following Durkan’s announcement that they were “thrilled” that the streetcar has been revived. In a press release, the coalition “commend[ed] Mayor Jenny Durkan for her leadership on transportation and her commitment to delivering the critical next piece of Seattle’s streetcar system.”

Streetcar Path Forward Included Nudge from Deputy Mayor, Married to Streetcar Consultant, to Meet with Advocates

Mayor Durkan’s decision to move forward also came after political advisors pointed out the popularity of the project among key constituents.

In announcing yesterday that she planned to re-start the process of building the stalled Center City Connector on First Avenue, Mayor Jenny Durkan was responding to a new report from the Parsons engineering firm showing that the project is feasible if the city can come up with an additional $88 million—the gap between the 2017 cost estimate for the streetcar and an updated estimate of $286 million.

But she was also responding to the political reality (reportedly communicated to her by her political advisors) that the streetcar enjoys strong support not just from the lefty urbanists and transit advocates who voted for her opponent Cary Moon in 2017 but from business leaders, developers, and other constituents who she needs to have on board if she wants to get reelected in 2021.

The mayor’s decision to meet with those advocates came shortly after a nudge from one of her deputies with a direct interest in the project’s outcome. Although Durkan was initially reluctant to meet with a group of business leaders and downtown stakeholders who supported the streetcar, she eventually did so—after an email, last June, from her deputy mayor David Moseley, urging her to take the meeting. Moseley  is married to the consultant Durkan hired to do an analysis of the streetcar in July. Previously, Moseley had urged top city officials to accelerate streetcar-related construction that began in 2017, noting that as a property owner along the streetcar route (he and his wife, Anne Fennessy, own a condo in Pioneer Square), he was among those directly impacted by the construction.

Last June, 100 downtown stakeholders, organized as the Seattle Streetcar Coalition, wrote a letter to Durkan urging her to move the streetcar forward, arguing that the 17-block project, which would connect the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars, was “an essential component of our transportation infrastructure, and is currently the only high-capacity transit project planned for the center city before 2035.” At that point, streetcar work had been on hold for several months.

The streetcar advocates, frustrated by what they viewed as a lack of responsiveness from the mayor’s office, asked for a meeting with Durkan herself on June 19, in an email signed by six members of the “Streetcar Steering Committee,” representing the Alliance for Pioneer Square Alliance, Vulcan, and the Downtown Seattle Association, among others. (I obtained this and other emails referenced in this post through a public disclosure request).”We’ve been unsuccessful in obtaining a meeting with you to discuss the future of the Center City Connector Project,” the email said. “Many of the Streetcar coalition members would be willing to help the City revisit a host of cost saving solutions.”

A correspondence assistant from the mayor’s office reached out to the mayor’s staff and the three deputy mayors to ask how to respond. Eight days later, one person did—deputy mayor David Moseley, whose wife, consultant Anne Fennessy, was about to sign a $30,000 contract to “coordinat[e] and integrat[e] the City’s streetcar review.” (Fennessy’s first billing period for this contract began on July 27.) Moseley, who lives with Fennessy in a building located directly on the potential streetcar route, wrote, “Not my area but seems to me the Mayor should meet with proponents of the streetcar. I think it’s worth 30 minutes of her time. Just a thought.”

The email went to members of the mayor’s staff and the two other deputy mayors. A few weeks later, on July 24, the streetcar advocates got a meeting with deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan. One month after that, on August 23, they sat down with the mayor directly—in a meeting that was staffed by the mayor’s then-transportation advisor Ahmed Darrat, and Fennessy.

Moseley, who lives with [his wife, city streetcar consultant] Fennessy in a building located directly on the potential streetcar route, wrote, “Not my area but seems to me the Mayor should meet with proponents of the streetcar. I think it’s worth 30 minutes of her time. Just a thought.” OnJuly 24, the streetcar advocates got a meeting with deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan. One month after that, on August 23, they sat down with the mayor directly—in a meeting that was staffed by the mayor’s then-transportation advisor Ahmed Darrat, and Fennessy.

Moseley has an agreement with the city to recuse himself from “any current or reasonably foreseeable action that to a reasonable person appears to primarily benefit his wife or her firm” and to refrain “from participating in any decisions that pertain to specific matters in which Anne Fennessy or her firm have a financial interest until those matters are concluded; thereby terminating the financial interest.”

Did Moseley’s brief note change the mayor’s mind about meeting with streetcar advocates? Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, says no. “The note from the Deputy Mayor in June did not impact the decision for the Mayor to meet months later with the Streetcar Coalition in late August ahead of the initial release of the independent review of capital and operating costs of the project,” Formas said     Thursday. “Deputy Mayor Raganathan has been overseeing the review and been the lead on any meetings with transit advocates, community members, businesses, stakeholders and SDOT. She had recommended the Mayor meet with the coalition.”  Even if Moseley’s nudge (or subsequent verbal conversations) did influence the mayor’s decision to meet with the group, it was likely just one of many factors that helped turn the tide back in the streetcar’s favor, along with the new, less-terrible-than-anticipated cost estimates and the mayor’s desire not to alienate a key set of constituents who were urging her to move the streetcar forward.

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But in a sense, whether Moseley’s attempt to influence the mayor by urging her to meet with a group of cranky constituents ultimately did influence the mayor’s thinking on the streetcar issue is almost beside the point. The existence of such an email highlights, not for the first time, the tricky dance that becomes necessary when the mayor’s preferred consultant (and longtime friend) keeps getting contracts to work on city issues, including the streetcar and, more recently, coordination between the city and Sound Transit.

And this was hardly the first such email from Moseley. Back in January, before he signed his recusal agreement, the deputy mayor sent a note  to city staffers, including several at the mayor’s office, complaining about streetcar-related construction in Pioneer Square. “Just to bring some urgency to this issue, I live in Pioneer Square and the work is very impactful to the neighborhood,” Moseley wrote. “I know the work is necessary but I hope we are doing all we can to have the work completed as quickly as possible and with as little impact as feasible.”

It’s probable that neither of these emails cross any kind of formal ethical line. But they do raise questions about what “recusal” means, and whether Moseley should be weighing in with city staffers or the mayor about issues Fennessy works on at all. (Whether Moseley’s boss should be granting his wife six-figure, no-bid contracts is another question altogether.)

The ultimate fate of the streetcar remains a somewhat open question. The total funding gap identified in the report is $88 million—$23 million for utility work that would likely have to be done anyway, and a $65 million hole in SDOT’s budget for the project that resulted from factors the mayor’s office says the department failed to consider, including the need for a new maintenance barn to accommodate longer trains, funding to strengthen bridges in Pioneer Square, and modifications to the train platforms and tracks.

In her letter transmitting the new cost estimates to the city council, Durkan placed the blame for these cost increases squarely on former mayor Ed Murray’s administration and the previous management at SDOT, writing, “It is clear now that the previous SDOT management in the last administration had failed to do the proper due diligence to account for all the costs. As a result, this project was not set up for future long term financial success, including with the Federal Transit Administration (which does its own separate review of the project).” The city is counting on a $75 million Small Starts grant from the FTA to complete the project. The additional review, Durkan’s office says, will push the streetcar’s opening date out to 2025—five years later than the original 2020 projection.

Beyond that, SDOT faces an ongoing operating deficit—or, if you prefer, it requires an ongoing operating subsidy. During last year’s budget discussions, Durkan announced she was ending the practice of backfilling revenue shortfalls for the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars after the fact, and would instead include the subsidy in the budget at the beginning of the year. According to the Parsons report, that ongoing subsidy will grow from $4.17 million next year to $6.14 million in 2020, when a $1 million annual subsidy from King County Metro runs out, and grow steadily until it jumps again, to $12.8 million, in 2024, when a similar $5 million annual subsidy from Sound Transit runs its course. The renewal of either of these two subsidies would reduce the cost to the city.

As for the Seattle Streetcar Coalition: They were, in the words of one coalition member, “thrilled” by today’s announcement. In a press release, the coalition “commend[ed] Mayor Jenny Durkan for her leadership on transportation and her commitment to delivering the critical next piece of Seattle’s streetcar system.”

Morning Crank: Period of Maximum Complaint

1. Mayor Jenny Durkan, joined by staffers from the Washington State Department of Transportation, King County Metro, Sound Transit, and the Seattle Department of Transportation, held a press briefing yesterday to lay out the regional plan for dealing with the upcoming three-week closure of SR 99 through downtown. Although the city has presented most of the details before (this PowerPoint provides a lot of useful details), the officials addressed (or, in some cases, dodged) some of the outstanding questions about their plan, including everything from why Metro can’t just make buses free during the closure to why the city is encouraging commuters to take advantage of a promotion that gives Uber and Lyft riders a discount if they use the car service to get to light rail stations.  A few of those questions and answers of particular interest to those who don’t plan on driving downtown (for everyone else, the TV stations and Joel Connelly have got you covered):

• Given that one of the major contributors to congestion is cars “blocking the box”—that is, sticking out into intersections and preventing cyclists, pedestrians, and other vehicle traffic from getting through—why doesn’t the city’s plan include beefed-up police enforcement of laws that make box-blocking illegal?

According to Mayor Durkan, more vigorous real-time enforcement by officers would only make the problem worse. “Normal traffic enforcement can’t help that much, because when you have a police officer pulling traffic over it just blocks traffic more,” Durkan said. The city is hoping that the state legislature will give it the authority to use cameras to enforce the law in the future.

• With the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel becoming light-rail-only on March 23, how does the city plan to ensure that buses move smoothly on surface streets?

A lot of the plans are highlighted in the city’s presentation, but here are a few you may not know about. King County Metro plans to institute off-board payment, and all-door boarding, for all buses on Third Avenue, which will require the agency to install ORCA card readers at bus stops. For bus stops that don’t have readers, Metro will be paying off-duty bus drivers to stand at the back entrance to buses and manually scan passengers’ cards as they board in the back. All-door boarding—standard in many cities—reduces the amount of time buses sit at stops, and is considered a best practice by groups like the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Many cities have instituted both all-door boarding and a proof-of-payment system that doesn’t require the installation of card-tapping machines at single bus stop; although Bryant noted that Metro has to have some way of collecting fare, other cities have systems like this, with fare payment enforced by transit workers. Other cities also have card readers right on board buses; it’s hard to see why Seattle couldn’t install a similar system’s to, say, San Francisco’s, which relies on a combination of trust and enforcement.

• Couldn’t Metro really speed things up by bringing back the Ride-Free Area?

The Ride-Free Area, a zone encompassing most of downtown where riders could board buses for free (if you went outside the zone, you had to pay as you exited the bus) was discontinued on September 29, 2012, to the consternation of advocates for low-income and homeless bus riders and anyone who liked to hop on the bus for short trips downtown but didn’t have an employer-funded transit pass. Metro planner Bill Bryant said yesterday that the Ride-Free Area led to fare evasion and slowed buses down when they got to their destinations downtown, as people lined up to pay when deboarding the bus. If the point of all the changes discussed yesterday is to improve travel times through downtown, though, the ride-free area seems worth revisiting; the passenger-bunching problem, meanwhile, seems fixable—perhaps by installing on-board card readers on buses, as described above.

• Why is the city of Seattle promoting a promotion by ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft to give passengers a $2.75 discount—the amount of a Metro transit ride—if they use one of the companies’ cars to get to a light-rail station or transit center? Durkan has suggested tolling Uber and Lyft trips into downtown on the grounds that the car-hailing companies increase vehicle miles traveled, so promoting their use seems potentially inconsistent with the goal of getting people out of cars, whether those cars are privately owned or operated by a ride-hailing company.

Durkan has apparently been feeling the pushback on this issue, because she gave a heated response to my question about why the city was promoting the companies’ discount program, which began on December 17, almost a month before the viaduct will close. “I think that’s a totally false framework,” she said. “We’re not saying it’s going to remove all these trips; what we’re trying to do is have a range of services [to]… increase the number of people that get to transit. They think that can be one way. It’s their program. If it works, that’s great.” (I did not suggest in my question that Durkan was saying that Uber and Lyft were the only solution.)

Durkan continued:  “Some people will say no one will take the bikes, but we made bikes available at every transit stop. People have to pay for those bikes. It’s not a one-seat ride. I think no one of these pieces is going to fix everything. But by hopefully having a range of choices, we can make sure that people can do what they need to do to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles and driving them into town.”

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2. Linea Laird, the city’s interim SDOT director, sent a letter to scooter-sharing companies, including Lime and Bird, this week requesting that the companies indemnify the city from legal responsibility for any injuries or deaths that result from scooter crashes, and asking the companies to reveal whether they had technology that could prevent scooters from functioning on sidewalks or in bike lanes, suggesting that if scooters are allowed, people will only be able to ride them in vehicle traffic (a situation that would, logically, result in a lot more injuries and deaths.) Portland, which started allowing scooters earlier this year, allows riders to operate them in bike lanes, but not on sidewalks.

Laird’s letter reads, in part:

Thank you for your interest in obtaining the necessary permits to utilize Seattle city right of way for free-floating scooter sharing. Seattle’s successful Free-Floating Bike Share Program has provided new choices for mobility and fun. Key to the program’s success is our commitment to equitable and safe micro mobility policies that ensure Seattle taxpayers get fair value for the use of the public right-of-way.

Although the City of Seattle currently does not allow scooters, we are aware of the positive benefits this mobility option has brought to other cities. We are also aware of the safety challenges and concerns. As we evaluate your interest in deploying scooters in Seattle and weigh the public benefits of doing so, we request that you provide some additional information including the following: […]

How many injuries have occurred related to use of your scooters in each city where you have deployed? For each incident, please provide any information available regarding:

• who was injured (e.g. the scooter rider, somebody else);
• the nature of each injury;
• the cause or causes of the incident; and,
• the location of the scooter during the event (e.g. sidewalk, bike lane, road)

If Seattle permits scooters, would you agree to indemnify the City in any claim, lawsuit or other dispute relating to their deployment or use? […]

Does your company have any technology or other method for preventing or discouraging motorized scooter use on sidewalks, bike lanes, and other areas where they are not permitted under Seattle Municipal Code § 11.46.010? Alternatively, does your business plan envision scooter use on sidewalks or bike lanes?

Durkan has previously indicated that she considers electric scooters a bit of a menace (“Every mayor who’s got ‘em comes up to me and says, ‘Don’t take ‘em,” she said at a recent event), so scooter companies may see the very fact that her transportation department is looking for solid data and asking about compliance plans as a sign of progress—or an opening gambit. The city’s contracts with e-bike companies like Lime and JUMP contain a section that indemnifies the city for damages from crashes (except when a crash results from the city’s own negligence); the version posted online says that the indemnity clause only applies when a rider is not wearing a helmet, but the mayor’s office provided more recent version in which the city is indemnified whether or not a rider is helmeted.

Durkan Names D.C.’s Sam Zimbabwe to Head Seattle Transportation Department

Sam Zimbabwe, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s pick for Seattle Department of Transportation director, will (assuming he’s confirmed by the city council) walk into his new office early next year facing an immense amount of scrutiny: From bike and pedestrian advocates, who are (understandably) skeptical about Durkan’s commitment to the Bike Master Plan; to supporters of the downtown streetcar, which remains on hold; to transportation advocates of all stripes who have criticized the mayor for appointing one interim director after another to replace former SDOT leader Scott Kubly, who stepped down shortly after Durkan was elected. Since Kubly’s departure, SDOT has been led by a series of interim directors.

Zimbabwe’s resume includes a stint as director of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development at Reconnecting America, a D.C.-based smart growth nonprofit, and seven years at the District Department of Transportation as associate director for planning, policy and sustainability. When he took that job in 2011, the urbanist transit nerds at Greater Greater Washington hailed it as  “a very exciting choice.”

Since 2017, he has been the D.C. agency’s chief delivery officer, a new position created under current D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser in 2017. Opinions vary on whether Zimbabwe ultimately delivered for multimodal advocates in D.C., where bus riders have spent years asking for bus lanes on 16th Street, a central thoroughfare.

And, regarding the latest flash point for transit advocates—scooters, which Durkan has said she considers too dangerous and risky unless the city is indemnified from crash-related lawsuits: They are allowed in D.C., but only under conditions that scooter companies have criticized as too onerous.

At a press conference today, both Durkan and Zimbabwe  avoided directly answering questions about how much autonomy Zimbabwe would have as director.  Instead, they both swerved to sound bites about “the city of the future” (Durkan) and “a safe, equitable, multimodal transportation system” (Zimbabwe.)

Observers of Zimbabwe’s time in D.C. describe him as a capable administrator, but more of a “process guy” than a “vision guy,” which raises questions about whether he’s likely to push back when Durkan calls for more process and deliberation on contentious proposals like bike lanes and transit investments that take lanes back from cars. (On the other hand, people who don’t like “vision guys” may be relieved to hear that Zimbabwe doesn’t take after his elbow-throwing predecessor Kubly, who also preceded him at DDOT).

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Durkan said she expects that “when we go to the city council and when the SDOT team members get to know Sam as I’ve been able to do, that they will think that Sam is actually from Seattle.”

But Seattle is different than D.C., in ways that have sometimes confounded outsiders who come here for high-profile jobs in the city. (Kubly, a D.C. transplant, experienced this first hand.) For one thing, the other Washington tends to be a transient place—people come for jobs, stay for a few years, then move on to another place. Seattle is more settled—the people lobbying against bike lanes or or transit-oriented development in 2018 are pretty much the same people who were arguing against those things 20 years ago, and they’ve spent decades honing their arguments against “big-city” ideas (like, say, bikesharing.) As an outsider, Zimbabwe will be subjected to a level of neighborhood processing which he may not be fully prepared for.

Zimbabwe hasn’t witnessed the Seattle Process, wherein leaders and stakeholders debate and focus-group and charrette ideas for years on end, and sometimes to death. Will  he be the kind of leader who will put his foot down when (for example), neighborhood activists delay and stall and file endless appeals to stop a bike project that has been on planning maps for nearly a decade? Or will he follow the lead of his new boss, whom urbanists and bike and transit advocates have criticized for delaying the implementation of projects that would make streets safer for all users?

Asked about his capacity for dealing with pushback from the public, Zimbabwe responded, “I come from a place—Washington, D.C.—where we’ve met a similar set of growth challenges. … It’s something that I relish and that I look forward to.”

City council member Rob Johnson, who chairs the planning and land use committee, says he “really likes” Durkan’s pick. “His pedigree and work experience and track record lead me to think he’s going to be very strong on the multimodal investments that we want to continue to make as a city,” Johnson says.  “I think about Sam as the kind of person who has a good, strong set of values but isn’t going to try to be in your face about them or spend a lot of time trying to convince you of the righteousness of those arguments—he’s going to use data and expertise to make those arguments.” That assumes, of course, Durkan lets him.

One final note on today’s SDOT announcement: The three finalists for the position, whose names were first reported by Crosscut, were all white men. (One, Sound Transit north corridor development director Kameron Gurol, apparently dropped out of the process before Durkan made her pick). SDOT has only had one female director in its history—Grace Crunican, who served under former mayor Greg Nickels between 2002 and 2009.

Morning Crank: Details Emerge About Megablock Sale

1. Yesterday, six months after the city put the largest remaining piece of publicly owned land in South Lake Union on the market, the city council got its first look at the bids for the property. The conjoined parcel, which some affordable housing advocates have argued the city should hold onto and develop as public housing, is worth upwards of $90 million on the open market.  Although the city budget office wasn’t willing to say much about the bids in open session (for fear, according to city budget office director Ben Noble, of weakening the city’s bargaining position), a few details did emerge during the public discussion.

First, budget staffers revealed that seven teams presented proposals to either purchase or lease and develop the property, and that the city determined that six were responsive. After a team made up of city staffers and one private citizen—former Downtown Seattle Association director  and deputy mayor Kate Joncas—reviewed the applications and interviewed the candidates, they decided to move all six forward to the “best and final offer” stage of the process rather than eliminating any of them right away. Noble said that most, but not all, of the proposals included the 175 units of affordable housing suggested in the request for proposals, and that some of the bidders proposed developing the land under a long-term ground lease, rather than buying it outright. Some of the bidders apparently proposed two different offers—one price with affordable housing, and another, higher price without—and staffers said that one goal of the negotiations will be reducing the difference between those two numbers. If the city decided to keep the property and develop it in cooperation with a nonprofit housing provider, budget office staffer Steven Shain said, the cost to the city would be about $100,000 a unit, or about $100 million for 1,000 units of affordable housing.

City council members questioned why Joncas was the only non-city employee on the committee reviewing the bids for the Megablock property. “I was unaware until very recently that it is even possible to have somebody not of the city family to participate in a process like this,” council member Lisa Herbold said. “It would have been really helpful, knowing now  that we could have external stakeholders participate… having somebody participate with expertise in nonprofit affordable housing production.” Shain said the executive reached out to other people and organizations, including Capitol Hill Housing, but they weren’t able to commit the amount of time the job required without any kind of compensation from the city.

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“As the issues facing our city become more critical and more complicated, we are as elected leaders… pursuing the expertise of subject matter experts within the community more and more often,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said, but there isn’t a clear policy about how and when to pay people who work for nonprofits, rather than for-profit consulting firms. “That’s an inherent inequity in how we engage subject matter experts in a variety of areas. We tend to not monetarily value nonprofits, but we will monetarily value people who are literally in the business of providing expert consultant opinions.”

Gonzalez also suggested that the council think about whether they’re overusing executive sessions and invoking confidentiality provisions when they don’t have to. “My frustration is that we just assume that everything is confidential, and we don’t afford ourselves the opportunity to take a scalpel approach to the issues related to confidentiality,” Gonzalez said. “So, yes, while the details of the transactions and the proposals mightbe subject to confidentiality, there are several details around the transactions… that could have been daylighted in a more transparent way that could, at a minimum, contribute to a higher level of public confidence in whatever deal that we’re going to be judged for approving or not approving.”

Then the council went into executive session.

2.  After the council approves Mayor Jenny Durkan’s appointment of two more Transportation Choices Coalition staffers to the city’s bike and transit boards next week, there will, by my count, be just one person on TCC’s entire full-time staff who Mayor Durkan has not appointed to a city board, commission, or advisory committee during her first year in office. This year, Durkan has appointed TCC staffers to serve on the advisory committee overseeing the selection of a new Seattle Department of Transportation director; the Bicycle Advisory Board; the Transit Advisory Board; and the Levy to Move Seattle Oversight Committee. And, of course, her deputy mayor is Shefali Ranganathan, who left her job as TCC director to join the Durkan administration last year.

Honestly, there are worse things than a takeover by the IlluminaTCC. As I wrote back in November, the group is a strong, effective voice for alternatives to driving, especially transit, in a city that too often takes a windshield perspective on transportation planning. (New director Alex Hudson, who ran the uber-YIMBY First Hill Improvement Association, was an especially inspired hire.) Still, it’s worth asking whether other voices—the voices of groups that did not support Durkan’s election campaign, as TCC did, for example—are being displaced. As advocates from advocacy groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways worry that they’re being shut out of official city appointments, TCC’s presence inside the city’s power structure appears to only be growing.

Morning Crank: “Not On Track” for “Even Seattle’s Insufficient Climate Action Plan”

1. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s legal counsel, Ian Warner, has left the mayor’s office for a job as public policy director  at Zillow, the  mayor’s office confirms. His replacement, who started Monday, is Michelle Chen, most recently a deputy city attorney who worked on land use. With Warner out, the mayor’s office retains just two high-level staffers from the Ed Murray era—legislative affairs director Anthony Auriemma and deputy mayor Mike Fong.

2. Speaking of departures: Moxie Media, the political consulting firm that ran Cary Moon’s unsuccessful (and costly) campaign for mayor in 2017, just lost four of its key staffers, including two veteran local political consultants who are striking (back) out on their own: John Wyble, whose firm, Winpower Strategies, merged with Moxie almost exactly one year ago, and Heather Weiner, who has been with the firm since 2016. Wyble was a partner at Moxie for most of the 2000s; when he rejoined the firm, which was founded by Lisa MacLean, last year, I wrote that “A look at Winpower’s local electoral record suggests this is not a merger of two equal partners—as does the fact that the firm will retain the Moxie name.” Wyble’s clients have included include two-time city council candidate Jon Grant and former mayor Mike McGinn, and numerous campaigns for Democratic state legislators, who run in even years. Weiner previously did work for Honest Elections Seattle (the pro-public campaign financing campaign) and several union-backed statewide campaigns.

Asked about the mass departure, both Weiner and Wyble gave versions of the same response: Campaigns are cyclical, it was time to make a change, consulting firms sometimes split up and sometimes come back together. “For me personally, I ran my own company, and I liked that better. That’s what I learned this year,” Wyble said. Weiner put it this way: “Political firms are kind of like boy bands, where they break up and get back together. It makes more sense for me to [go into the slow 2019 campaign season] as an independent consultant.”

Other possible reasons for the breakup: Personality conflicts (MacLean: “I’m not going to get into all of that in this conversation”), or financial difficulties, which MacLean denies. In fact, MacLean said Moxie had “an incredible cycle,” financially speaking, in 2018—”probably our biggest ever”—and explained the split as “typical end-of-cycle, shuffling the deck, musical chairs kind of stuff—people moving on.” The departures—which also include account executive Maria Leininger, who is going to work for Congresswoman-elect Kim Schrier, and Delana Jones, another partner at the firm—will leave Moxie at about half the size it was during the 2017 and 2018 campaigns.

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3. The city council will reportedly get its first look at the bids for the Mercer Megablock redevelopment in executive session on Monday morning, with the possibility for some public discussion before the closed-door meeting. The three-acre site is the largest remaining piece of city-owned land in South Lake Union; the city put it on the market earlier this year, in a request for proposals (RFP) that asks potential buyers to include at least 175 rent-restricted apartments in their bid. Affordable housing advocates have suggested that the city hang on to the property and build affordable housing on the site. On the open market, the combined megablock property is likely worth in the range of $90 million; but because the land was purchased, in part, with gas and commercial parking taxes, more than half of the proceeds of any sale or long-term lease will, under state law, have to go to the city’s transportation department.

4. Move All Seattle Sustainably, a new coalition made up of transit, bike, and pedestrian advocates—including the Cascade Bicycle Club, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, and the Transit Riders Union—is demanding that Mayor Jenny Durkan take concrete actions before the end of 2018 to prioritize transit, biking, and walking during the upcoming “period of maximum constraint,” when construction projects and the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct are expected to create gridlock downtown. The coalition’s list of priorities includes completing the stalled Basic Bike Network downtown; implementing transit speed and reliability improvements (like bus bulbs, longer hours for bus-only lanes, and queue jumps) on 20 transit corridors across the city; and keeping sidewalks open for pedestrians during construction.

In recent weeks, advocates have expressed concern that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office is shutting members of Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways out of positions on advisory groups like the Seattle Bike Advisory board, whose former chair, Cascade board member Casey Gifford, was abruptly replaced by Durkan last month.  The mayor’s office denies this (in an email to a group of advocates late last month, deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan said there was “no truth” to the rumor and asked for help in “quashing” it) and notes that Cascade director Richard Smith was on the committee that is helping to select the new Seattle Department of Transportation director. In any case, it’s clear that the transit, bike, and environmental activists on the coalition don’t see eye to eye with the mayor’s office on transportation. On the new MASS website, the group declares the city “off track” and unprepared not only for the upcoming traffic crunch, but “to achieve Vision Zero”—the goal of reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries from traffic violence to zero— “or even Seattle’s insufficient Climate Action Plan.”

Can We Toll Our Way Out of Congestion?

This story originally appeared in the print and online editions of Seattle magazine.

Downtown Seattle rush hour traffic

Image credit: Alex Crook, Seattle magazine

January 2020: The downtown Convention Center is under construction, kicking almost 600 buses out of the downtown transit tunnel and closing down the ramps that now give buses direct access to the Interstate 5 express lanes. Those buses now share city streets with more cars than ever, as hundreds of drivers divert to the street grid, avoiding the new Alaskan Way tunnel, which has a $2.50 toll (during nonpeak hours) and no downtown exits. Meanwhile, the old Alaskan Way Viaduct is still being demolished, KeyArena reconstruction is creating traffic chaos in South Lake Union, and a growing number of commuters are choosing Uber and Lyft over buses that are often off schedule or full, adding to congestion.

But what if there was a way to alleviate all this predicted chaos—a period the city refers to, drily, as the “period of maximum constraint”—without forcing people to get up at 4 a.m. to beat traffic, or work from home? Some city leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, think they may have found a solution in a concept called congestion pricing. The idea is simple: Charge people to drive into the center city during the times when congestion is worst, and use the revenues to fund alternatives to driving, such as increased bus service. Voilà: fewer vehicles, faster transit, improved air quality (car and truck trips account for half of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions), and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“Most people have already made the decision [not to commute downtown by car],” says City Council member Mike O’Brien, referring to the fact that the majority of those who work downtown don’t get there by driving alone. O’Brien, with the mayor, is leading the congestion-pricing charge. “For those who haven’t [decided], this will give you more options, and for those who want to keep driving, you can keep driving, and your commute’s going to be faster—it’s just going to cost you more.”

In practice, of course, it isn’t so simple. In 2017, the Seattle City Council authorized $200,000 for a study on the effects of tolling downtown streets—an idea that will require voter approval to move forward—as well as other options, such as taxing Uber and Lyft rides, that would not require a public vote. In September, Durkan released a budget that provides another $1 million for the city to study congestion-pricing options in more detail and to conduct outreach to community members and businesses, with the goal of implementing congestion pricing by 2021, when the mayor’s first term ends.

While tolling may be controversial—a 2015 poll by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that 54 percent of King County residents opposed the idea of universal highway tolls—Durkan pointed out that in other cities that have implemented tolling, such as London and Stockholm, “People who have to drive [found] that it’s actually more efficient and more effective” than the previous free-for-all system. However, Durkan warned that before the city puts a tolling plan on the ballot, “We have to engage people deeply…and make sure that it is paired up with meaningful transit, because we can’t ask people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles until there are meaningful alternatives.”

Technologically, congestion tolling is pretty simple: The city would create a cordon of virtual checkpoints at the edges of the tolling area and charge drivers, using special car-mounted transponders, whenever they enter the area during the times when tolls are in effect. This is exactly the system most states, including Washington, already use to toll state highways, such as the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

Where it gets more complicated, according to Mark Hallenbeck, director of the University of Washington–affiliated Washington State Transportation Center, is when the city starts making choices about who to charge, and when, and where. If South Lake Union is included in the tolling area, should people who live on Queen Anne get a free pass because they need to go through the neighborhood to get to I-5? If some low-income workers have no choice but to drive downtown, should the city create a low-income or nighttime exemption to the pricing scheme? All of these choices have consequences, and costs.

“The question is really, what do they want to achieve and how will they design the system to achieve it,” Hallenbeck says. “Pricing is a wonderful mechanism, but you have to design the system correctly, and you have to understand where the pain points are and apply money to those pain points. And they have to be the pain points that matter.”

Currently, only about 25 percent of people who work downtown get to and from their jobs by driving alone. That number has declined steadily in recent years, according to the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), thanks to improved transit downtown and incentives for employees to commute by bike or bus, such as free transit passes and showers in office buildings. DSA CEO Jon Scholes points to this improvement as evidence that the “carrot” approach to reducing congestion can be as effective as the “stick.”

“It’s not clear to me what problem we’re trying to solve here,” Scholes says. “[Durkan’s announcement] feels a little divorced from any clear strategy or plan. The constraints we have are the need for more transit capacity—more buses are driving by full, and the light rail system is taking longer to build than anyone wants—and the need for more housing. Generally speaking, we think we should focus our efforts there,” not on tolls, Scholes says.

Other skeptics of congestion pricing have expressed concern that tolls will disproportionately harm low-income people who have no choice but to drive to work, often from homes far outside Seattle city limits. “The suburbanization of poverty is real,” says City Council member Rob Johnson, who supports creating a program to reduce costs for low-income drivers, similar to the existing ORCA LIFT low-income transit pass. “We’re pushing people out of the city and we’re not going to be able to build transit” fast enough to serve all the low-income workers who would be impacted by congestion pricing, Johnson says.

It’s unclear exactly how many low-income workers would actually be impacted by congestion pricing. In 2017, a Puget Sound Regional Council report concluded that low-income commuters “were much more likely to walk and take transit than the overall population”—a finding that corroborates a 2009 Washington State Department of Transportation report that found that “The poor are less likely than the non-poor to commute in a personal vehicle and more likely to commute using public transportation or other modes that would not be subject to tolls.” According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, just 37 percent of Seattle residents under the poverty line drove to work alone, compared to 48 percent of those making more than 150 percent of the poverty level.

“One of the things you hear whenever you talk about a congestion-pricing scheme is, ‘This will be unfair to low-income people,’ and there are a lot of anecdotes that get brought up that are certainly real,” O’Brien says. “But in a city like Seattle, where parking’s pretty expensive”—as much as $4.50 an hour for on-street parking downtown, and $10 an hour or more in private garages—“my sense is the majority of people who drive downtown are people who have a lot of options.” The way to address the needs of lower-income people who must drive downtown isn’t to reject congestion pricing altogether, O’Brien says, it’s to “design the system around their needs” so they won’t be burdened by extra costs; for example, by making it free to drive downtown at off-peak hours, when many shift workers start their jobs.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition, says she sees no inherent contradiction between promoting alternatives to driving alone and creating an equitable, affordable transportation system. “[Congestion pricing] is a big, bold idea, so let’s go big with our policy asks,” she says. “If the goal is building a more equitable transportation system, that will inherently include a lot of things around transit speed and reliability and safe bike and pedestrian access.”

For now, the city remains in study mode, with more reports focusing on equity, race and social justice, and priorities for spending toll revenues due out later this year. Then it will have to sell the idea to the public, which could be a heavy lift, and not just because Seattle would be blazing a trail on congestion pricing for the rest of the country. People tend to hate the idea of paying for things that used to be free unless they can see concrete benefits. In Stockholm, leaders actually put tolls in place about seven months before seeking voter approval. Once voters saw how a $2.15 toll to drive downtown impacted the city—reducing traffic in the city center by 20 percent and cutting childhood asthma cases in half—they approved the plan by a majority of 53 percent. In London, where drivers pay about $15 to drive into the center city on weekdays, congestion went down by 30 percent, and public transit gained tens of thousands of new riders.

Could something similar happen in Seattle? O’Brien, the council member who started pushing for congestion pricing back in 2017, says he’s “feeling a lot more optimistic” now that Durkan “has shown that she is very interested in moving forward” with the concept. The trick, he says, will be demonstrating that people won’t get stuck in even worse traffic if they let go of their steering wheels. “Part of it is on [city leaders] to say, ‘We’re going to provide buses that have more space and aren’t stuck in traffic,’” O’Brien says. “If, in this new system, you can see that driving is more expensive and the bus will get you downtown faster, you’re going to see
the benefits.”

Editor’s note: The opening of this story, set in 2020, depicts a hypothetical situation. The Washington State Department of Transportation says that when the tunnel opens early in 2019, time-of-day tolls will vary from $1 on weekends to $2.25 during the afternoon peak. Currently, the Viaduct demolition is scheduled for completion mid-year 2019.