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.

Durkan Hires a Familiar Face, for $720,000, to Represent the City During Light Rail Planning

Mayor Jenny Durkan has chosen Anne Fennessy,  a public-affairs consultant who has known Durkan for decades, to serve as the city’s single point of contact during the development of a plan for Sound Transit 3, which will extend light rail to Ballard and West Seattle. According to the contract, which was provided by the mayor’s office, Fennessy’s firm, Cocker Fennessy, will be paid $720,000 for the work. Sound Transit will reimburse the city for the full cost of Fennessy’s four-year contract. Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice says the mayor’s office interviewed about five people for the position before selecting Fennessy through a sole-source justification—a noncompetitive process. Prentice notes that Fennessy has a long history of doing  work for Sound Transit, pointing to public opinion research and public outreach work her firm, Cocker Fennessy, did for the agency during and after the unsuccessful “roads and transit” campaign in 2007. Prentice could not immediately say whether Durkan considered designating a (likely less expensive) city employee as the city’s representative before hiring Fennessy for the job.

Cocker Fennessy has received at least two other significant transportation-related city contracts during Durkan’s first year in office—to coordinate the city’s review of the stalled downtown streetcar and to assist in an assessment of the Seattle Department of Transportation. (As I previously reported, Fennessy lives near the streetcar route, which has caused major traffic disruption in Pioneer Square, and is married to Durkan’s Deputy Mayor David Moseley. Her work on the SDOT review, for which Fennessy established a makeshift, closet-sized office inside the agency itself,  is reportedly complete.

According to the partnering agreement between the city and Sound Transit, Fennessy’s job will involve working with the transit agency “to manage the project, to establish a cooperative and communicative platform for reaching early and durable decisions, and to resolve disputes.” As the designated representative for the city, Fennessy “will be located in the Mayor’s Office and will report directly and exclusively to the Mayor or Deputy Mayor,” according to the agreement.  “This is a huge, complex project that requires a great deal of work with individual departments, and someone is needed to help keep that cogently tied together and moving forward,” Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason says.

The agreement, which the city council approved last December, indicates that Durkan was supposed to have appointed a designated representative by January 15 of this year. Fennessy reportedly received the contract within the last month or two. Reason, who directed specific questions about the contract to the mayor’s office, says that in the absence of a designated representative over the last year, Sound Transit has been “working with individuals in various departments” directly, as they have done in the past. Reason couldn’t say whether the lack of a designated representative had slowed down the process of working with the city. “That’s a hypothetical,” she says. “This is a new idea that we are implementing because we are on such a compressed timeline. … We’re changing our processes in real time, so our approach is, let’s do everything we can to work with the city, and now that the designee has been brought on board, we can implement that idea as well.”

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In addition to serving as Sound Transit’s sole point of contact at the city, Fennessy’s role will include coordinating technical input on everything from  “land use/zoning, traffic/parking [and] parks/open space” to “utility, roadway/traffic, drainage, structural/building, fire/life safety, construction staging, property acquisition/right-of-way vacation,” according to the agreement. The designated representative is also charged with assembling and overseeing the city’s project development team (a task that was also supposed to be complete, according to the agreement, by January of this year. Reason did not know whether the city had put together a project team.)

In an email, Fennessy said that Cocker Fennessy “does not speak on behalf our clients – so you should reach out to the Mayor’s office.”

The J is for Judge: It Takes One to Know One

Critics of Seattle’s out-of-whack zoning scheme—two-thirds of the city is zoned exclusively for single-family housing—have been arguing for decades now that Seattle needs to grow up (or build up, actually) and function like an actual city, not a suburb.

This isn’t an argument about aesthetics. It’s an argument for housing affordability and environmental sustainability, both urgent issues given the homelessness crisis and the latest climate change data from the U.N., respectively.

The blunt argument from pro-city urbanists is this: The Magnolia First ideology that single-family zoning stalwarts adhere to  (or Laurelhurst First ideology or Wallingford First ideology or Phinney Ridge First ideology) selfishly defends an unsustainable lifestyle of privilege and exclusion (including the delusion that people have a constitutional right to free parking in front of their houses).

In short: The NIMBYs’ aesthetic position—that we must preserve the “character” of exclusionary neighborhoods—is undermining Seattle’s livability and affordability for the rest of us.

If you think the urbanist critique of single-family zoning lacks credibility because hipster urbanists supposedly don’t have kids or haven’t lived here long enough or are too young or don’t own houses (most people in Seattle are renters, by the way), let me introduce you to the latest critic of Seattle’s refusal to grow up and act like a city: An actual suburbanite, who lives in an actual suburb, state Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1, Maltby).

Palumbo is proposing a bill  that would make Seattle do something it refuses to do on its own: Upzone its suburban-style landscape to take on more density.

The 45-year-old state senator argues that Seattle’s failure to play its designated urban role in our region is undermining the state’s anti-sprawl Growth Management Act.  Palumbo’s point: Seattle’s refusal to accept more growth is causing sprawl, the very opposite of what smart cities are supposedly about. (Maltby is northeast of Kirkland and Woodinville, and due east of Lynnwood.)

Sen. Palumbo’s state legislative district (which largely overlaps with Snohomish County Council Districts 4 and 5 on the charts below) has, in fact, seen  growth on par with Seattle’s, at least as a percentage of population—around 14 percent, including 17.4 percent growth in portions of the district. It’d be one thing if that spike in growth simply represented small-town numbers growing to slightly bigger small-town numbers. But we’re talking an extra 40,000 people added to a population of 285,000. It’s as if everyone on Mercer Island picked up and moved to Palumbo’s district. And then a couple of years later, half of Mercer Island picked up and did it again.

Seattle itself has grown 17.2 percent over the same time (2010 to 2017). But Palumbo isn’t arguing Seattle hasn’t grown significantly; he’s pointing out that it should be growing a lot more than the suburbs if the region is going to grow sustainably.

“They are taking growth,” he says of Seattle. “The problem is the growth they aren’t taking is moving at too high a level to places that aren’t equipped to deal with it and service it. Snohomish is taking the growth that should be in Seattle,” he reasons. “If Seattle only built the types of housing people wanted and needed,” he adds, it would also increase housing supply, slowing the increase in housing prices that are nudging people out to the remote suburbs. Sprawl.

Palumbo condemns Seattle’s rigid zoning because, he says, it’s forcing families who would actually prefer to live in the city to move into his suburban southwest Snohomish County district instead. “Seattle is zoned low-density, single-family,” he says.  As a result, “people can’t even afford one of the few and overpriced houses there, and they have to move. And they move out to the suburbs. ”

Why, there oughta be a law!

Lucky thing Palumbo is a state senator.

According to Palumbo, his draft bill (which the Urbanist first reported earlier this month),  would require increased density within a mile of frequent transit service—areas near light rail stations or near bus stops where buses arrive at least every 15 minutes. Although the details of the bill could change, Palumbo envisions a mandatory density that slopes down as development fans out: 150 dwelling units per acre within a quarter-mile of frequent transit; 45 units per acre within half a mile of transit; and 14 units per acre within a 1 mile radius. (Asked whether cities could build more densely than the minimums required by his bill, Palumbo said he hadn’t thought of that.)

Palumbo tells me his legislation isn’t a one-size-fits-all bill, and those particular numbers are only intended for Seattle. Different numbers would apply to transit-friendly neighborhoods in smaller cities and towns where transit is less frequent and where target densities are lower. (He also acknowledged that his “units per acre” metric was a bit backwards—that is, you can’t logically prescribe units-per acre rules on an individual development without a universal picture of all the proposed developments in the upzoned area.)

He said his metric was simply meant to describe the ultimate density he envisions, and that Seattle could apply units per lot and floor area ratio metrics to achieve the 14 units per acre within his 1-mile radius performance standard, for example.

Seattle is already (sorta) moving in this direction, though as cautiously as a cat burglar tip-toeing up the stairs.

This year, the council is taking up a plan that’s been in play since 2015 to upzone a tiny percentage of the city’s vast single-family neighborhoods. Focusing on the edges of single family zones that are near designated residential urban villages, the city proposal, known as  Mandatory Housing Affordability (it simultaneously makes developers fund affordable housing), would upzone six percent of single family zoned land into slightly denser residential small lot zones, low-rise zones, and Neighborhood Commercial zones. The changes would help create  what pro-housing urbanists call the “Missing Middle.”

The density increase Palumbo’s proposing within a half and quarter mile of frequent transit service—45 and 150 units per acre, respectively—would already be allowed (though not required) under both current Seattle zoning and under MHA changes to Lowrise zones and Neighborhood Commercial zones.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the MHA rezone area  in strict single-family zones (so about four percent of that current zoning)—the   Residential Small Lot upzone—would permit density of about 20 units per acre, according to some back-of-the-envelope math city staffers did after they read about Sen. Palumbo’s proposal for comparison’s sake.

Again, while not required (as it is in Palumbo’s formula), that would actually be slightly more permissive than the density Palumbo is proposing a mile away from transit stops (his 14 units per acre). But that’s only in the sliver of single family areas rezoned under MHA; under Palumbo’s mandate, the larger swath of single family areas left untouched by MHA would face a significant upzone.

In other words, when it comes to the majority of Seattle’s single family zones, Mr. Palumbo of Maltby is far more woke about requiring dense, sustainable land use than Seattle and its leaders—even though today’s leading climate scientists are demanding dramatic action to address pending environmental calamity.

Seattle leaders do not have a good track record when it comes to standing up to the Magnolia First faction and making this change. Back in 2009, former Mayor Greg Nickels initially backed  a Futurewise/Transportation Choices Coalition state bill that would have promoted more density around transit hubs. But when traditional neighborhood activists said the proposal would turn Seattle into Mumbai, intimidating Nickels’ wary deputy mayor Tim Ceis, Nickels stepped away from the bill as his reelection loomed. (The legislation failed.)

And, of course, former Mayor Ed Murray folded on his original proposal to upzone all single family zones in 2015, watering his proposal down to the current six percent plan when the NIMBYs at the Seattle Times protested on behalf of their home-owning readers.

I contacted the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office to see if they supported Palumbo’s urgent push for more density. A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said she hadn’t seen the bill, which is still in early draft form.

Meanwhile, Seattle City Council Member Rob Johnson, who’s leading the city’s limited MHA upzone effort, responded. Johnson, who was the director of TCC back in 2009 when the pro-transit  group went to the mat for the state upzone legislation, cautioned: “Been there done that.” He did note, though, that Palumbo was starting “an interesting conversation.”

Ultimately, Johnson argued that Palumbo’s statewide approach isn’t likely to succeed, pointing out that some suburban cities, such as Sammamish, Issaquah, and Federal Way, have gone so far as to impose moratoria on new development. (After a year, the Sammamish City Council effectively lifted the moratorium  as did the Issaquah City Council. )

However, Johnson has a point. Several Puget Sound cities have enacted development bans, making it clear that A) they’re queasy about more density and B) they’re not going to take kindly to some dude from the state legislature telling them how to manage growth.

Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

Johnson says the local approach he’s now heading up as a Seattle City Council member is more likely to work, although—recalling how Nickels backed away from the Futurewise/TCC bill—he acknowledged there’s dedicated resistance to new development in Seattle as well.  For example, he lamented the fact that single-family home owners are currently funding a legal effort to tie up the MHA upzone in a  battle in front of the City Hearing Examiner.

Resistance to development in Seattle has already undermined the rezones Johnson passed in 2016 and 2017 as part of MHA Part 1, when the city upzoned five (already) densely populated commercial/residential Urban Centers,  including downtown, plus one Residential Urban Village at 23rd & Union-Jackson.

To wit: After unanimously passing the downtown upzone, the city council halted one of the first proposed developments proposed under the new zoning (even drafting talking points for the opposition) when a developer wanted to tear down the talismanic  Showbox music venue to build more housing.

Johnson does have a point about state legislation: The merits of Palumbo’s bill are likely to be overshadowed by a meta question of governance that could stall the state senate legislation: Should the state have the right to micromanage local land use issues?

But Palumbo has a point too. When local policies spill over legislators’ borders to threaten a green and progressive state law like the Growth Management Act, which was intended to combat regional problems like sprawl, then yes, the state has a role to play.

It takes one to know one. Suburbanite Palumbo is telling it like it is: Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

Durkan’s Proposed Budget Adds Funding for Cops, Congestion Pricing, and Buses, But Not for Safe Consumption or New Spending on Homelessness

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $5.9 billion budget proposes hiring 40 net new police officers, funds shelter and rental-assistance programs that had been at risk of being cut while keeping overall homeless funding basically flat, and dramatically increases transportation spending, at least on paper—the $130 million in new funding consists primarily of unspent funds from the Move Seattle levy, which is currently undergoing a “reset” because the city can’t pay for everything it promised when voters passed the levy in 2015. The new transportation funding includes funding 100,000 new Metro service hours, including “microtransit” shuttles to bring riders to the ends of the existing RapidRide lines and to the water taxi in West Seattle. Those additional hours will require Metro to  work overtime to add buses, drivers, and bus parking capacity, but Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the 100,000 hours were also included in the King County budget that County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted yesterday, as part of a total increase of 177,000 hours of bus service over the next two years.

City budget director Ben Noble said that if the city wanted to significantly increase spending on homelessness, “that is going to have to happen through reprioritizing [funding] or some as-yet-unidentified source of revenues.” Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that, given the ongoing homelessness crisis, “it is unconscionable to put forward a biennial budget … without additional resources for housing.”

The budget would also eliminate about 150 mostly vacant positions, eliminate funding for 217 basic shelter beds provided by the group SHARE after June of next year, fund a new city “ombud” independent from the Human Resources Department, to help employees in city department navigate the process of filing harassment or discrimination claims, and pay police officers $65 million in retroactive pay and benefits from the four years when they were working without a union contract. Officers, Durkan said, have “gone without even a raise but also [without] a [cost of living adjustment]. There hasn’t been pay raise since the beginning of 2014, so that’s four years of pay increases. …  You can get to seemingly large sums really quickly.”

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In contrast, the budget proposes making an “inflationary increase adjustment” to what it pays front-line homeless service providers of just 2 percent—less than the actual inflation rate.. Earlier this year, the Downtown Emergency Center sought more than $6 million for salaries and benefits—enough to raise an entry-level counselor’s wages from $15.45 an hour to $19.53 and to boost case managers’ salaries from a high of about $38,000 to $44,550 a year. (Currently, the lowest-paying job listed on DESC’s job board pays $16.32 an hour.) “Even a non-police officer, just a clerical position in a city department, is earning more money in salary—let alone salary plus benefits—than somebody whom we are asking to go out under bridges and work with people who have had years of being brutalized in this world,” Eisinger says.

I’ll have a lot more to say about specific budget proposals over the coming weeks as the city council digs into the details in a series of budget briefings that start on Wednesday, but for now, here are a few more highlights from the mayor’s proposal:

• Durkan’s proposed budget does not include any additional funding for a supervised consumption site (mobile or permanent); instead, it simply pushes $1.3 million that was supposed to fund a place for users to consume their drug of choice under medical supervision, with access to wound care, treatment, and case management forward into this year’s budget. Durkan said Monday that the city would not move forward with supervised consumption site until Durkan is “sure [that King County is] still willing to step up and fund the treatment portion of” a supervised consumption site. Activists, including at least one mother who had lost her son to a heroin overdose, stood outside the Pioneer Square fire station, where Durkan delivered her budget speech, protesting the fact that Durkan’s budget calls for continued inaction on safe consumption sites. It has been more than two years now since a King County task force unanimously recommended supervised consumption as part of a holistic strategy for tackling addiction to heroin and other drugs, the rest of which is slowly being implemented and funded. 

Marlys McConnell, whose son Andrew died of an accidental heroin overdose in January 2015, was wearing a “Silence=Death” t-shirt and holding up the right side of a large banner that read, “Overdose is killing a generation. Is it time to act yet, Mayor Durkan?” She said a safe consumption site could have helped diminish the shame her son felt about his own addiction, which he tried to hide from his family. “Had there been a space available for him, I would very much hope that he could have gone and taken advantage of it and been treated with love and respect and dignity. That could have been a bridge to treatment and other services early on.” McConnell is aware of the argument that safe consumption sites enable drug users to continue in their active addiction, but says, “You don’t get [recovery] ’til you get it.”

• Durkan said she would not support selling off more public land to pay for city budget priorities, as the city has done in the past. (The sale of land in South Lake Union funded new shelter beds and “tiny house village” encampments, as well as a rental-assistance program—all part of the nearly $20 million in services that this year’s budget proposal makes permanent.) The city has put its largest remaining property in South Lake Union, the so-called “Mercer Megablock,” on the market, but Durkan said the city would strongly prefer leasing the property long-term under a master lease to selling it outright. Affordable housing advocates have suggested that the city hang on to the property and use it to build high-rise affordable housing. Noble told me that nothing technically bars the city from using at least some of the land for affordable housing (either city-owned or built by a nonprofit housing provider); however, he noted that because the Seattle Department of Transportation used restricted gas-tax funds to pay for some of the Mercer Corridor Project, which used part of the megablock for construction staging, the city has to pay back SDOT (a cost that could account for about 40 percent of the proceeds from the property) before it can start building anything or funding other projects on the property. The city also has taken out significant debt on the future proceeds from the sale of the megablock site, which would also have to be repaid. Finally, high-rise housing is generally much more expensive (and therefore less appropriate for affordable housing) than low-rise, because it involves glass and steel, although advances in technology are slowly making high-rise affordable housing more feasible.

• Durkan’s budget is mostly silent on the question of the over-budget Center City Streetcar (currently stalled so city consultants can determine whether the city should finish building the downtown connector or cut its losses), but it does include about $9 million in funds over two years to help operate the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars. Previously, the city had backfilled streetcar revenue shortfalls periodically as revenues consistently fell short of projections. The new budget pays for those anticipated shortfalls up front. “We’re trying to be more upfront and honest about what it’s costing for the streetcar so that we won’t continue to run in the red and having to incur the debts that we’ve seen” in the past, Durkan said.

• The transportation budget is otherwise a mixed bag for transit proponents. It includes $1 million to pay for an expanded study of congestion pricing (as currently conceived, a toll for people who want to drive into the center city during certain hours); funds new investments in adaptive signal technology, which Durkan touted as a solution for slow and delayed buses but which the National Association of City Transportation Officials says “can result in a longer cycle length that degrades multi-modal conditions” and is best for moving cars in suburban areas; and proposes asking the legislature to change state law barring the city from using traffic cameras to enforce rules against blocking bike and bus lanes. “Right now, you have to have an actual officer come over and pull them over,” Durkan said—an expensive proposition. The budget also eliminates funding for the “Play Streets” pilot program, which permanently activated some street right-of-way for active (non-car) use, and cuts funding for any new “Pavement to Parks” projects, “takes underused streets and creates public spaces for community use on a year-round, daily basis,” according to the budget.

• The proposed budget moves almost half a million dollars from parks department spending on the city’s four golf courses into the separate capital budget as a “bridge solution” for an ongoing revenue shortfall. Although the city recently invested in improvements to its golf courses—hoping that better facilities, along with higher fees, would bring in more revenue—that hasn’t panned out, and the city has hired a consultant to evaluate the program. Asked why the golf courses aren’t penciling out the way the city had hoped, Noble said that it may be that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least some of the city’s golf courses and using them as sites for affordable housing.

The city council begins hearings on the mayor’s budget this week; a full schedule of budget meetings is available on the city’s website.

Morning Crank: Taxing Uber and Lyft; Stalling Safe Consumption

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Image by PraiseLightMedia via Wikimedia Commons

 When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in April that her administration would study congestion pricing—a catchall term for strategies that place a price on driving a car into congested parts of the city, such as downtown and South Lake Union, in the hope of achieving some positive goal, such as lower emissions or faster transit service—she said she hoped to implement some kind of pricing scheme by the end of her first term, in 2021. Most people took this to mean that she would introduce a plan for cordon tolling—essentially, drawing an invisible ring around the center city and charging vehicles to enter. Because this strategy would require voter approval, Durkan’s team will need to figure out how to get around the obvious objections—creating a plan that doesn’t disproportionately harm low-income workers who rely on cars, for example, and that makes transit seem like a viable alternative to driving to people who choose to commute by car.

In the meantime, the mayor is considering another option: Charging Uber and Lyft riders a special tax that will increase the cost to use the car-hire platforms by a few bucks a trip—just enough, perhaps, to nudge some commuters onto buses or trains. According to the mayor’s office, half of all Uber and Lyft trips in Seattle include a trip through the center city. In addition, ride-hailing cars often circle around downtown waiting for the signal that someone needs a ride; this contributes to both congestion and pollution, and makes it harder for buses to move quickly through the area. City council member Mike O’Brien, who supports congestion pricing, says, “There seems to be pretty clear evidence that [Uber and Lyft are] causing congestion and that people are converting from transit to a lesser mode, which is riding in these [vehicles].” O’Brien says he has heard reports of companies in South Lake Union giving free Uber and Lyft shared-ride passes to employees, which creates an incentive to use those services instead of less-convenient transit. “There’s an argument, from my perspective at least, that Uber and Lyft are living in an unequitable world to their favor,” O’Brien says.

The Downtown Seattle Association’s annual commute numbers, which do not distinguish between calling an Uber for a ride and carpooling with a group of colleagues, and their annual commute survey does not indicate a major shift from transit to ride-hailing—yet. A University of California-Davis study last year showed that, in general, urban commuters are switching from transit to ride-hailing companies in record numbers. On average, people who live in major American cities use transit 6 percent less after they start using a ride-hailing service, according to the study. Surprisingly, perhaps, ride-hailing service users who also take transit are more likely to own cars, and to own slightly more cars, than people who just commute by transit; and non-transit users who use ride-hailing services are no less likely to own cars than non-transit users who don’t use ride-hailing platforms. According to the study, “The majority of ride-hailing users (91%) have not made any changes with regards to whether or not they own a vehicle.” As for those who have reduced their personal driving, the study concludes, “[They] have substituted those trips with increased ride-hailing use.”

2. Plans to open the nation’s first safe consumption site in Seattle appear to have foundered. According to multiple people familiar with discussions at the city about whether to fund a new safe consumption site, Mayor Jenny Durkan has not committed to fund the project in her upcoming budget proposal.

In 2016, a county task force on heroin and prescription opiate addiction unanimously recommended the creation of at least two safe consumption sites in King County—one in Seattle, the other somewhere else in the county. (Safe consumption sites allow drug users to consume substances by non-injection methods such as inhalation, which is generally safer and allows people who use drugs that are traditionally smoked or snorted to do so under medical supervision). Those plans stalled under political pressure, as city after city (including Auburn, whose mayor Nancy Backus was on the opiate task force) adopted laws preemptively barring safe consumption sites inside their borders. Last year, the Seattle city council appropriated $1.3 million to establish and operate a safe consumption site; in June, however, the council indicated it would opt for a mobile injection-only van, which would likely preclude consumption by means other than injection but would be cheaper and potentially easier than siting a permanent facility. The mayor’s office says the $1.3 million will be in its 2019 budget.

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Running a safe consumption site would require a new financial commitment of about $2 million a year. Durkan has already asked city departments to come up with budget cuts of between 2 and 5 percent in anticipation of a funding shortfall for 2019. In addition, the city budget office and council have to come up with around $10 million a year to pay for programs related to homelessness that Durkan paid for this year with one-time funding. In that climate, it’s hardly surprising that Durkan—who did not make safe consumption or reducing overdoses a campaign issue and has not made the proposal one of her legislative priorities—would be inclined to let it fall through the cracks, at least for now. On August 27, three days before Seattle advocates commemorated International Overdose Awareness Day with balloons and overdose prevention trainings in Westlake Park, deputy US attorney general Rod Rosenstein wrote an op/ed for the New York Times railing against safe injection sites, and specifically calling out Seattle’s plans to build a mobile injection van. “Injection sites destroy the surrounding community, creating “war zone[s]” with “drug-addled, glassy-eyed people strewn about.”

Seventeen years ago, a county task force on heroin and opiate addiction recommended many of the same measures the city and county are discussing today, including overdose response training, greater access to syringes, and other harm reduction methods, including (potentially) safe injection sites and encouraging drug users to use safer consumption methods. The report, and its recommendations, sat on a shelf for 14 years, with predictable consequences. The consequences of ignoring the recommendations of the 2016 task force will be equally predictable.

3.  It’s been  nine months since Scott Kubly, the former director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, resigned and was replaced on an interim basis by his deputy, Geron Sparrman. It’s been more than two weeks since Sparrman left to take a job at HNTB, a consulting firm that had numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle when Sparrman agreed to take the position, and Durkan announced that former Alaskan Way tunnel project director Linea Laird would take over as his replacement, also on an interim basis. And it’s been one week since the city finally posted the SDOT director position on the city’s official job bulletin, along with a brief description of the position and desired qualifications. According to the notice, interested candidates should contact Reffett Associates, an executive search firm with offices in Bellevue, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.

In Another Blow to Downtown Streetcar, New Cost Estimate Adds Another $55 Million In Overruns

The proposed downtown Seattle streetcar, which has been plagued by cost overruns, the potential loss of $75 million in anticipated federal funds, and news that the streetcars the city ordered are 10 feet longer than the existing vehicles, will now cost as much as $252 million, according to a new report from outside consultant KPMG—an increase of $55 million from the previous estimate of $197 million. (The $197 million figure, released in May, was already $37 million higher than the original estimate of $167 million for the 15-block line connecting the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars.)

Mayor Jenny Durkan did not say Friday whether she planned to terminate the streetcar project, although the report makes that outcome appear much more likely. Last week, the Seattle Times reported that Durkan had hired Anne Fennessy, a longtime friend of the mayor’s who lives on the streetcar route with her husband, Durkan’s deputy mayor David Moseley, to oversee the streetcar review. Fennessy’s firm, Cocker Fennessy, is a public relations firm, not an engineering company.

The cost increase, according to today’s report, is being driven primarily by the escalating cost of construction materials and labor, higher costs for utility work, much of which will be  necessary with or without the streetcar; and extra contingency funding “to account for risks such as SDOT civil and facility costs to accommodate new CAF vehicles.”

Last month, Durkan announced that the new streetcar vehicles the city ordered under the previous mayoral administration were longer 10 feet longer than the existing streetcars, which the city says could necessitate alterations to the existing streetcar maintenance barn and changes to the route and existing tracks themselves, to accommodate the wider turning radius of the longer cars. These apparent engineering errors, along with the earlier cost overruns, prompted Durkan’s decision to put the streetcar “on pause” in late March, and to order the independent review.

In addition, according to the report, the city has outstanding debts totaling $17.9 million for the existing First Hill and South Lake Union streetcar lines, which the city has considered paying off with funds from the sale of city property.

The report projects that the current plan could result in an operating deficit of up to $9.9 million a year if ridership is low and external funding from other (non-city) sources, including Sound Transit ($5 million), the Federal Transportation Administration ($430,000) and ads and sponsorships ($980,000) all fails to come through. If ridership is high and all the anticipated external funding does come through, the system could have as much as a $1.9 million annual operating surplus. The report also presents a scenario where the streetcar would run less frequently during off-peak hours (the current proposal assumes it would arrive at stations every 15 minutes for most of the day, and every 10 minutes at rush hour); under that scenario, the streetcar could see an annual surplus of up to $2.7 million with all the external funding, or an annual deficit of up to $4.7 million without it.

The streetcar plan assumes that the Federal Transportation Administration will come through with a $75 million grant; however, the city has not signed an agreement for that funding and the Trump Administration has shown a persistent reluctance to fund transit projects in cities. The administration has already withheld funding for $1.4 billion for shovel-ready transit projects—like the extension of Sound Transit’s Link light rail to Lynnwood—for which federal agreements have been signed, so the $75 million in streetcar funding is far from a done deal.

The report does include a couple of bright spots for streetcar supporters. First, the report estimates that the streetcar will cost between $16.6 million and $19.6 million a year to operate—lower than King County Metro’s estimate of $24 million a year. Second, the report predicts that building the downtown streetcar connector will boost ridership significantly by 2026, to almost four times what it would be on just the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars combined if the downtown streetcar does not open.

Ridership on both existing streetcar lines has consistently fallen short of estimates. Proponents of the downtown streetcar have argued that linking the two lines with a  downtown connector in dedicated right-of-way, separated from auto traffic, will dramatically boost sagging ridership as people choose the streetcar over buses to travel through an increasingly congested downtown core. They also say that a continuous loop connecting First Hill, South Lake Union, and downtown will create a convenient, predictable one-seat route between those destinations.

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If Durkan decides to kill the streetcar, the utility work currently underway on First Avenue downtown will continue. The report estimates that that work would account for about $16.5 million of the $55 million cost estimate for the “no build” option, $31 million of which has already been spent. The remainder of that figure would come largely from spending that has already occurred, including design work ($17.3 million), vehicles ($5.8 million) and construction ($8.7 million, although that includes some work SDOT would have to do anyway because of the ongoing utility work, according to the report.)

The report says that if the city decides to move forward with the project, it should immediately start engineering work to figure out how to integrate the new, longer vehicles into the existing system, coordinate with the federal government to start the additional reviews the FTA has said will be needed “to confirm that the Project can continue with the changes” in order for the city to receive a full funding grant agreement for the $75 million in federal funding, and ask the city’s attorneys to weigh in on any liability the city may incur by either restarting or terminating the streetcar project.

Read KPMG’s 23-page summary of its report here. 

Morning Crank: Potential for Conflicts

1. The Seattle Times ran a story this weekend about the Move Seattle Levy shortfall, including the latest on “recalibrated expectations” for what the $930 million, voter-approved plan will cover. (I broke the news about the Move Seattle Levy “reset” at the beginning of April.) The story, by David Gutman, includes the news that the firm Cocker Fennessy will be paid about $34,000 to do an assessment of SDOT, on top of about $30,000 to “coordinate the city’s next steps” on the streetcar project. Anne Fennessy, one of two partners in the firm, has known Durkan for decades.

There are a few details about Fennessy that Gutman didn’t mention. First: Fennessy is married to David Moseley, one of Durkan’s three deputy mayors . The contracts thus constitute a potential conflict of interest: Not only is Fennessy an old friend and colleague of Durkan’s, she is married to Durkan’s second-in-command. (Both Cocker Fennessy and Moseley maxed out to Durkan’s campaign last year, giving $500 each.)

There are ways to address this kind of potential conflict. Previously, when Moseley was director of Washington State Ferries, Cocker Fennessy simply agreed not to represent the ferry system. However, as deputy mayor, Moseley’s duties are broader than they were at WSF, making potential conflicts of interest harder to track. Moseley has taken the lead for the mayor’s office on a few specific issues—homelessness and issues related to utilities, such as the appointment of a new City Light director—but has met with city council members about other issues, including transportation. (And, of course, utilities make up a huge part of the streetcar construction project, which is already underway on First Avenue).

Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s spokeswoman, says Moseley “has not participated in any aspect of the streetcar review nor the broader review of SDOT. Deputy Mayor Moseley and Anne Fennessy have also previously consulted with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.”

Second: Fennessy is a board member at the Transportation Choices Coalition, whose former director, Shefali Ranganathan, is another one of Durkan’s deputy mayors. Transportation for Washington, TCC’s political arm, maxed out to Durkan last year and endorsed her over her opponent Cary Moon. (TCC signed a letter supporting the streetcar earlier this year.) Ranganathan is the key point of contact for the streetcar project, according to Formas.

And third: Fennessy and Moseley live directly on the streetcar route, where the street has already been ripped up for construction.

None of these connections, on its own, necessarily constitutes an insurmountable ethical issue. But the fact that the mayor has given two high-profile contracts to an old friend and colleague who also has deep ties to two of her deputy mayors—an old friend who happens to live right next one of the projects she is being paid to help review, a project of which Durkan herself has been critical—certainly reads like a throwback to the cozy, insular governance of old Seattle. Tim Ceis, anyone?

2. The Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library—which, as I reported last week, excludes a larger number of people for sleeping or lying down on library property than most other branches—has installed a series of bent metal pipes to deter people from sitting on flat surfaces outside the library. The pipes, according to library spokeswoman Andra Addison, cost about $10,000 for “fabrication and installation” and were installed after “patrons and neighbors …  expressed concern about security and hygiene issues, citing unattended items left overnight in those areas, smoking, food and beverage waste, feces, urine and discarded needles, which fall through the grates into the parking garage below.

“The purpose of the metal work is to limit access to those areas to ensure an outdoor environment that is safe, clean and welcoming to patrons and passersby,” Addison said.

Hostile architecture is a type of urban design in which public spaces are constructed or altered to make them uncomfortable or unpleasant places for people to sit, lie down, or linger. It includes things like armrests in the middle of benches, spikes on windowsills, bike racks where homeless people used to camp, and “metalwork” that prevents anyone, homeless and housed alike, from perching on flat surfaces outside public buildings.

3. The search to find a permanent replacement for former Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly, who resigned last December, continues to creak forward, with the appointment earlier this month of a panel of experts to help Mayor Jenny Durkan select a new SDOT leader. The committee reportedly includes: Former Washington State Department of Transportation director Paula Hammond, Transportation Choices Coalition policy director Hester Serebrin, Seattle Metro Chamber director Marilyn Strickland, King County Metro general manager Rob Gannon, and Port of Seattle regional transportation manager Geri Poor.

Durkan has not announced a new interim director to replace Sparrman, who will leave at the end of August to take a job at HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large engineering contract with Sound Transit as well as numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle. Meanwhile, Andrew Glass Hastings—who, as SDOT’s transit and mobility director, has been an advocate for multimodal transportation, including pedestrian and bike infrastructure as well as the controversial downtown streetcar—is out. His deputy, Christina Van Valkenburgh, will reportedly replace him.

 

Afternoon Crank: Bad News for Sound Transit, a Good Idea From Sound Transit, and Grandstanding on Forced “Treatment”

Late Morning Crank: New Homelessness Policies and New Streetcar Claims

1. Update: The mayor’s office says they have been briefing council members on the four elements of its homelessness strategy (spending and accountability, crisis response/creating safer spaces, regional coordination, and affordable housing) but is not rolling out any major new policies. Mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas says rumors around ramped-up enforcement could be related to the previously announced additional $500,000 the city plans to spend on its Navigation Teams. As for the idea that the city plans to implement involuntary commitment to detox for addicted people who decline assistance from Navigation Team members, Formas pointed to a letter to the co-chairs of the One Table task force signed by the mayors of Auburn, Renton, Kent, Bellevue, and Kirkland suggesting that the leaders of the regional initiative (which has been dormant for months but is meeting again next week), should consider “involuntary treatment for those presenting an imminent likelihood of serious harm to self or others, or who are gravely disabled as a result of substance use disorder” and who refuse to go to treatment. Should this become an element of the One Table implementation strategy, it would mean forcing people into short-term detox, which has not been shown to be effective for treating severe addiction.

Original item: Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has reportedly been briefing city council members on a new policy related to homelessness that, rumor has it, involves more strenuous enforcement of the city’s anti-trespassing and no-camping laws. Conversations with folks on the second floor and advocates working on homelessness-related issues indicate that the new policy could involve involuntary commitments for people suffering from addiction under Ricky’s Law, which allows adults to beheld for up to 17 days in “secure withdrawal management and stabilization facilities,” AKA secure detox, if they are available; since the state and King County would ultimately be responsible for actually funding detox beds, this could be a way of putting pressure on the county for ramping up detox funding. Currently, there are only a few dozen detox beds available in all of King County, including a recently opened facility on Beacon Hill that filled an existing gap in care left by the closure of Recovery Centers of King County; that facility has 32 beds for patients needing detox. Formas said they would be “doing some action items on homelessness and affordability next week.”

So far, according to council log-in sheets, the mayor’s office has met with council public safety committee chair Lorena Gonzalez, council president Bruce Harrell (both yesterday), and council members Mike O’Brien  and Sally Bagshaw (this morning). I will update as I learn more.

2. I reported last week on the Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit challenging a tiny house village” encampment in South Lake Union on the grounds that it violates state environmental rules. One thing I didn’t discuss in detail is the fact that the reason the city has been able to authorize so many tiny house villages—seven, at the moment, or four more than are allowed under a city ordinance limiting the total number of authorized encampments to three—is that each of the new authorized camps has been approved on a rolling conditional basis under what’s known as a “type 1 permit.” Such permits, which must be renewed every four weeks, are meant for temporary uses such as temporary fire and police station relocations or farmers’ markets, as well as any other temporary use that’s meant to last four weeks or less. Type 1 permits can be approved administratively, meaning that they don’t have to go through a lengthy public hearing process or the usual environmental review. (The Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit challenges this premise, and also argues that temporary encampments should be Type 2 decisions, which require more process and are more involved.)

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This struck me as a peculiar way of permitting encampments, given that the city has decided as a matter of policy and law that only three encampments should be allowed citywide. I’m no lawyer, but it also seems like an area where the city could be legally vulnerable—if the city wants to allow more than three encampments, then why not do so through the legislative process, by changing the law, instead of using this workaround? The city attorney’s office had no comment on the legal ramifications of using Type 1 four-week permits to allow tiny house villages.  Wendy Shark, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, says temporary permits are only for “encampments that are also in the process of applying for the 6-month temporary use permit.  In every case, encampments needing temporary use permits are applying for the 6-month permit or will soon apply.  Since the 6-month permit is a ‘Type II’ application involving public notice and opportunity to appeal to the City’s Hearing Examiner, the Type I four-week permit is a means to establish an encampment in the short term while the longer public process occurs.”

However, since city law currently restricts the total number of longer-term encampments to three, Shark adds that “legislation will be needed to change the current number of interim use encampments that are permitted.”

3. Local transportation Twitter was buzzing this week over a couple of articles about Seattle projects aimed at improving mobility for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders. I covered the first, a Crosscut editorial claiming that bike lanes are only for rich white people,  on Wednesday. The second, an article by Times reporter David Gutman, repeated claims from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that the delayed downtown streetcar may be too bulky, and use the wrong track gauge, to connect to the existing South Lake Union and First Hill lines. I reported on the same claims in a brief item Wednesday morning, noting that if the claims turned out to be true, it would represent a significant embarrassment for the city along the lines of the time when Sound Transit had to go in and remove tracks installed by King County Metro in the downtown transit tunnel because they were the wrong size for light rail.

Yesterday, however, transit advocates began to dispute the mayor’s claims, and Gutman’s story, pointing out that both of the two types of streetcar bodies that would run along the connected line use the same standard gauge (1435-millimeter) track, and that the difference in the car widths is relatively trivial. The new cars, built by CAF USA, would be about ten feet longer than existing streetcars, which were manufactured by Inekon. The print and current online editions of Gutman’s story include context about the likely actual size of the vehicles and the fact that the gauge of the tracks is compatible with both cars, contrary to what Durkan implied in her statement, which suggested that the city does not even know if “the new vehicles [are] compatible with the current track gauge.”

However, the story that the  Times initially ran online did not include any of that information. After it went up, both FOX News and local conservative radio host Dori Monson latched on to what FOX calls the “streetcar fiasco,” which FOX described, in typical FOX fashion, as the latest setback for a left-wing mayor trying to raise her national profile with “fervent attacks against the Trump administration over immigration, climate change and abortion.”  Monson, meanwhile, suggested that former SDOT director Scott Kubly “should be in prison” and that former King County executive Ron Sims is a fake “man of God” who is destined for hell.

When I asked mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas about the mayor’s statement Tuesday night, she said, “we do know that the cars are heavier, wider, and longer than the current cars, but engineers are looking at all the facts in the context of these cars running on the full system.” On Wednesday, Formas followed up with more details, acknowledging that the tracks are technically compatible with the new cars and that the new vehicles are actually slightly narrower than the existing streetcars, but adding that “evaluation of the existing conditions related to track gauge is necessary to provide accurate data to CAF so that they can account for these differences in the design of the track and wheel profile for the CAF vehicle.”

In addition to concerns about whether the new streetcars would fit into the existing maintenance barn, Formas said that the “dynamic envelope” of the streetcar, which includes both width and length, raised concerns about the vehicles “hit[ting] other elements in the ROW, such as trees, signage, curbs, and poles as they travel along the track.” The streetcar will be still about six inches narrower than a typical King County Metro bus, which are eight and a half feet wide (compared to eight feet, .038 inches for the new streetcars and eight feet, .085 inches for the existing ones.)