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.

Morning Crank: Incongruous With Their Fundamental Mission

Image result for futurewise logo

1. For years, environmental advocates who support urban density as a tool against sprawl have grumbled about the fact that the anti-sprawl nonprofit Futurewise has two men on its board who make a living fighting against the foundational principles of the organization—attorneys Jeff Eustis and David Bricklin. Both men were ousted from the Futurewise board last month after the board voted to impose term limits on board members, who will be limited to no more than three successive terms from now on.

Both Eustis and Bricklin are crossways with Futurewise on a number of high-profile local issues, including the question of whether Seattle should allow more people to live in single-family areas, which occupy 75 percent of the city’s residential land but house a shrinking fraction of Seattle’s residents. Eustis is currently representing the Queen Anne Community Council, headed by longtime anti-density activist Marty Kaplan, in its efforts to stop new rules that would make it easier to build backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas. Bricklin represents homeowner activists working to stop the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow townhouses and small apartment buildings in  7 percent of the city’s single-family areas.

To get a sense of how incongruous this work is with Futurewise’s primary mission, consider this: Futurewise is one of the lead organizations behind Seattle For Everyone, the pro-density, pro-MHA, pro-housing group. Bricklin co-wrote an op/ed in the Seattle Times denouncing MHA and calling it a “random” upzone that fails to take the concerns of single-family neighborhoods into account.

Bricklin’s firm also represents the Shorewood Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, a group of homeowners who have protested a plan by Mary’s Place to build housing for homeless families on Ambaum Blvd. in Burien on the grounds that dense housing (as opposed to the existing office buildings) is incompatible with their single-family neighborhood. The Burien City Council approved the upzone, 4-3, after a heated debate this past Monday night at which one council member, Nancy Tosta, suggested that instead of allowing homeless families to live on the site, the city should preserve it as office space, since “part of the way of dealing with homelessness is to have people make more money.”

Bricklin is still on the boards of Climate Solutions, the Washington Environmental Council, and Washington Conservation Voters.

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2. Seattle City Council members reached no resolution this week on a proposal from the mayor’s office to approve the city’s purchase of GrayKey, a technology that enables police to easily (and cheaply) unlock any cell phone and review its contents, including location data, without putting the technology through a privacy assessment under the city’s stringent surveillance ordinance. If the city determines that a technology is a form of surveillance, the city has to prepare a surveillance impact report that “include[s]  an in-depth review of privacy implications, especially relating to equity and community impact,” according to the ordinance. The process includes public meetings, review by a special advisory group, and approval by the council at a meeting open to the public. In contrast, technologies that intrude on privacy but aren’t considered surveillance only require a “privacy impact analysis” that is not subject to formal public process or council approval. Previous examples of technologies the city has deemed to be surveillance include license-plate readers (used to issue traffic tickets) and cameras at emergency scenes.

The city’s IT department, which answers to the mayor, determined that GrayKey is not a “surveillance technology” after the company submitted answers to a list of questions from the city suggesting that the technology would only be used if the Seattle Police Department obtained a warrant to search a person’s phone. In an email appended to that report, Seattle’s chief privacy officer, Ginger Armbruster, wrote, “If phones are acquired either under warrant or with suspect[‘]s knowledge then this is not surveillance by ordinance definition.” In other words, Armbruster is saying that as soon as SPD gets a warrant to break into someone’s phone and scrape their data, the surveillance rules, by definition, no longer apply.

ACLU Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the surveillance law doesn’t include any exemption for warrants. “The ordinance is about the entire question of whether it’s an appropriate technology for an agency to have, and encompasses a much broader set of concerns. If the warrant serves the same function as a surveillance ordinance”—that is, if anything the police do after they get a warrant is de facto not surveillance—”then why do we need a surveillance ordinance? The intent of the council was to put scrutiny on technologies that are invasive—as, clearly, a technology that allows police to open your cell phone and download data about the intimate details of your life is.” It’s the technology, in other words—not how the city claims it will be used—that matters.

The city’s initial privacy assessment is brief and unilluminating. GrayKey skipped many of the city’s questions, answered others with perfunctory, one-word answers, and followed up on many of the skipped questions with the same all-purpose sentence: “this solution is used for Police case forensic purposes only. ”

Proponents of GrayKey’s technology (and GrayKey itself) say that the police will limit its use to child sexual abuse cases—the kind of crimes that tend to silence concerns about privacy because of their sheer awfulness. Who could possibly object to breaking into the phones of child molesters? Or terrorists? Or murderers? As council member Bruce Harrell, who said he does not consider GrayKey a surveillance technology, put it Tuesday, “No one has a right to privacy when they are visiting child pornography sites.”

The problem is that in the absence of review under the surveillance ordinance, even if police claim they will only use GrayKey to investigate the worst kinds of crimes, there will be no way of knowing how they are actually using it. (Narayan says police departments frequently claim that they will only use surveillance technology to hunt down child molesters, or terrorists, to create political pressure to approve the technology or risk looking soft on crime.) The council can state its preference that the technology be limited to certain types of especially heinous crimes, but if the phone-cracking technology isn’t subject to the ordinance which allows the city council to place legally binding limits on the use of surveillance tools, the decision facing the city is essentially binary: Approve (and purchase) the technology and hope for the best, or don’t.

This is why privacy advocates consider it so important to look at surveillance technology thoroughly, and to give the public real opportunities to weigh in on granting the city sweeping authority to review people’s movements and access their data.  Harrell said Tuesday that he didn’t want to “jump every time the ACLU says [a technology] raises issues,” and that he was confident that additional review by the executive would resolve any questions the council might have. But, as council member Lisa Herbold pointed out, there’s no requirement that the mayor’s office present the results of any future internal privacy assessment to the council—they can run it through a privacy impact assessment, reach the same conclusions they’ve already reached, and post it on the website with all the others without any additional input from the council or the public. The only way to ensure that concerns are daylighted before the city buys this, or any other, technology that could invade people’s privacy is to determine that GrayKey is surveillance, and put it through the process. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council’s governance, equity, and technology committee had made no decision on whether to subject GrayKey to additional scrutiny or wait to see what the mayor’s office does next. The city currently plans to purchase the phone-cracking technology sometime in the third quarter of next year.

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.

Waterfront Tax Stalled Due to Concerns Over Security, Assessments, and Cost

Image via City of Seattle.

A version of this story first appeared at Seattle magazine’s website.

A controversial one-time tax assessment on commercial and residential property near the downtown waterfront, which was supposed to be approved before the end of this year, has been held up by protests from some of those property owners, who say the proposed $200 million tax assessment, known as a Local Improvement District (LID), is too high and should be scaled back. LIDs allow cities to impose a special tax on properties that will gain value because of improvements paid for with the tax; the city has long planned to use a LID of some size to help fund the $688 million Waterfront Seattle project. Property owners have the right to protest the tax; if owners representing more than 60 percent of the value of the land inside the LID write protest letters to the city, the LID can’t go forward.

The Seattle Times reported last week that high-profile land use attorney Jack McCullough is representing some of the large waterfront property owners in negotiations with the city, and that, according to some condo owners, the city had agreed to lower the LID to $160 million. (Condo owners, who would pay a median assessment of $2,400, payable over 20 years, represent just over 12 percent of the properties along the waterfront, where most of the land is owned by big commercial companies.)

Through conversations with property owners, city officials, and other sources familiar with the negotiations, The C Is for Crank has learned more details about the proposed deal, as well as the remaining sticking points.

The proposed total assessment of $160 million would be supplemented by additional contributions from the city of Seattle and the Friends of the Waterfront, a private nonprofit established in 2012 to raise money for and help operate and maintain the new park. The city will reportedly contribute an additional $30 million, and the Friends another $10 million, to get the total back up to $200 million. (Seattle Office of the Waterfront director Marshall Foster would not confirm the additional contribution from city tax dollars, but added, “What I can say is the strategy here is in no way to pursue funds that would otherwise be used for neighborhood parks or other facilities in the city [but] to really look at funds that are associated with the replacement of the viaduct and the parks district,” a reference to funds dedicated to the waterfront park in the citywide parks district created in 2014. That ballot measure established an annual budget of around $4 million to operate and maintain the park.

“The only discussion right now is that we will build the project, with a LID of a size that the city can complete the whole project,” says Friends executive director Heidi Hughes, “because without a significant portion of that funding, we end up with road and a wider sidewalk.” Current plans for the waterfront call for a grand, terraced “Overlook Walk” staircase leading from the new Marketfront development at Pike Place Market down to the waterfront (and onto the roof of a new Seattle Aquarium expansion); a wide new waterfront promenade flanked by protected bike lanes and hundreds of new street trees; and year-round events, including the return of Concerts at the Pier (at Pier 62).

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Another sticking point has been the budget for operations, maintenance, and—especially—security.  Friends of the Waterfront plans to supplement Seattle Police Department patrols and the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program with its own version of the Downtown Seattle Association’s Downtown Ambassadors—essentially, private staffers who keep an eye on the park, offer information, and help people in crisis—but property owners want more assurances that the city will enforce the city’s anti-camping laws. Former mayor Charles Royer, who co-chaired the waterfront committee and supports the LID,  says that property owners are worried that “the waterfront could open and the first tents could go up the next day.”

Seattle Office of the Waterfront director Marshall Foster says the city plans to keep the new park secure and inviting through a combination of daily maintenance by parks employees, year-round programming in partnership with the Friends, the ambassadors program, and police. “Our focus is primarily on trained ambassadors and outreach staff who will be backed up as needed by SPD,” Foster says.  “This isn’t about prioritizing exclusions” from the park, he adds. However, Foster said he couldn’t confirm any details about the LID negotiations, including whether the city has committed to spending more money on security in the park.

Ivar’s CEO Bob Donegan, who served on the Central Waterfront Committee that came up with the original waterfront plan, says downtown property owners said that they “would not support the creation of this park if there is not enough budget to do four things: Program, landscape, maintain, and secure the park.” Although Donegan says that ultimately, “I think the security is going to be fine,” others involved in the negotiations say the issue remained a sticking point last week.

Former mayor Charles Royer, who co-chaired the waterfront committee and supports the LID,  says that property owners are worried that “the waterfront could open and the first tents could go up the next day.”

Another issue that has come up in the negotiations is what impact the LID assessments, which were conducted by an independent assessor, will have on their property taxes in the future. Although the LID is a one-time assessment, some property owners have expressed concern that the King County Assessor, which determines individual property values, will look at the higher LID assessments and raise their property values (and thus their annual property taxes) accordingly.  “They wanted assurances that [King County assessor] John Arthur Wilson wasn’t going to bump up their county assessments,” Donegan says. Deputy King County Assessor Al Dams says his office bases assessments on the sales prices of nearby properties, not on independent assessments like those done by Zillow or, in the case of the LID properties, Valbridge Property Advisors. However, Dams notes that “if you put a desirable amenity in a neighborhood or by a piece of property, that may drive up the values. Will the waterfront be really nice? If so, that probably will drive the values up.”

Although some condo owners have joined the protest against the LID, others say they’re happy to pay the tax. Cary Moon, the former mayoral candidate, lives in the assessment area. She says she’s “going to happily pay our assessment, because I know our building is benefiting and I know our property values are benefiting” from what she calls a “really big and ambitious and bold” waterfront proposal. Royer, too, says he’s happy to fork over his share of the LID, which he estimates will be around $24,000—or a little over $1,000 a year. “A thousand dollars a year for me to live next to the beach, with a view of the waterfront … is a fair deal,” Royer says. The negotiations are expected to continue through December, with an announcement on a deal likely sometime next month.

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.

The J is for Judge: The Most Contrarian Power Point in Seattle

Mild-mannered Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Nick Welch doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would pick a fight. But if I was him, I would advise against bringing his recent PowerPoint presentation into a local bar.

Welch confined his presentation to the safety of city council chambers last week, where he ran his slide show in front of the Select Committee on Citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability. There were no fisticuffs, but the MHA presentation did draw scoffs from the neighborhood protectionists in the audience and a challenge from their council ally on the dais, West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold.

Particularly Slide No. 10, which is possibly the most contrarian slide ever presented in Seattle.

MHA is a holdover HALA housing plan from former Mayor Ed Murray that exchanges upzones for affordable housing; HALA is expected to produce 20,000 new housing units over the next  decade, including about 6,000 new affordable units from MHA (compared to just 205, if the city simply let the market status quo play out without MHA). With Murray long gone, the remaining piece of the plan—a narrow, stair-step upzone along the fringes of 27 single-family zones —is being shepherded through City Hall by council YIMBY Rob Johnson, whose term ends next year, and with strong support from first-year urbanist all-star, council member Teresa Mosqueda.

Slide #10 is a direct response to what Welch and other OPCD staffers have heard over and over in Seattle neighborhoods (where, in fact, Welch has been gathering input in countless MHA community forums over the last few years): New market-rate housing is a threat to overall housing affordability because it’s more expensive than existing options. It’s a seemingly intuitive take on gentrification that defines the local anti-development storyline and unites everyone from Magnolia First NIMBYs to social justice socialists, from dudes at the Wedgwood Broiler to queer working artists at Kremwerk.

The ubiquity of Seattle’s anecdotal anti-development refrain convinced OPCD to see if that narrative was actually true. So the department looked at the germane historical data—market-rate housing production between 2000 and 2015 in all of Seattle’s census tracts, overlaid with the change in low-income households in the same census tracts over the same period. The finding was definitive. The text to Slide #10 spelled it out for council members: “No correlation between market-rate housing growth and loss of low-income households.”

If anything, the trend line shows the exact opposite: Affordable housing stock increased as market rate housing production increased.

A potential criticism of Slide #10? It defined affordable housing as housing that people making less than 50 percent of the Seattle Area Median Income (AMI) can afford. Affordable housing advocates could certainly contend that people making 60, 70, and 80 percent of AMI are part of the working class too, and are losing ground as more market development comes on line to serve tech bros. But, voila: Slide #11.

This slide overlaid the same snapshots of affordable households  and market-rate housing production, this time defining affordable housing as housing affordable to people making up to 80 percent of AMI. The conclusion was the same. No correlation between new production and economic displacement.

The data didn’t lead OPCD to go as far as saying more market rate housing production actually led to the creation of more affordable housing, but they did present another contrarian slide illustrating their research on another bit of conventional wisdom—that the MHA upzones will lead to physical demolition of existing affordable housing at a rate that neutralizes any new affordable housing production from MHA. Again: Nope. Gaming out future physical displacement based on historic trends of production and teardowns, the data shows that teardowns remain roughly consistent whether the city enacts MHA or not. Without MHA, about 520 households would be  physically displaced by demolition, with no mandatory affordable housing to replace them. Under the city’s preferred MHA alternative, about 574 would be displaced—and those demolitions would be dwarfed by an estimated 5,633 new affordable units created under MHA.

One other bit of conventional wisdom that OPCD tried to fact-check is the notion that new development displaces people and businesses that share a common culture, a phenomenon known as cultural displacement. Perhaps even more than economic displacement, cultural displacement is at the emotional core of anger about gentrification. OPCD couldn’t confirm or disprove this observation. The data—the change in housing production overlaid on change in racial population—was all over the map. The population of some groups, including African-Americans, declined in some census tracts where market-rate housing increased and stayed put in tracts where market-rate housing increased.

Of course, one factor that could have mitigated displacement was missing from that historical data: MHA’s mandate that affordable housing be part of new development.

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.”

The Case for Scooters

File:Lime Scooter - LimeBike App (31454588488).jpg

Image via Tony Webster on Flickr

Bike shares have found a welcome home in Seattle, but don’t expect to see another form of shared transportation– electric scooters–in Seattle any time soon. Mayor Jenny Durkan is on record saying she considers the zippy, candy-colored contraptions—which travel up to 15 miles an hour and are as ubiquitous in some US cities as bicycles are in Copenhagen—too dangerous for Seattle streets. At a recent CityClub Civic Cocktail event, Durkan enumerated the many reasons she thinks scooters are a bad idea. Too dangerous: “Every mayor who’s got ‘em comes up to me and says, ‘Don’t take ‘em and, the reason is … every city that has scooters has significant traumatic injuries.” Too frivolous: “I know some people think scooters can be fun, but… ” Too likely to lead to lawsuits: “A couple of cities now are paying out millions of dollars in judgments for people who are hurt.”

Let me offer some counterarguments: Scooters get people from point A to point B really quickly, without firing up a carbon-spewing engine or breaking a sweat. Scooters are easy to ride—if you can walk, you can probably ride a scooter—and have the lowest barrier to entry of any shared mode of transit. Mock if you want, but not everyone wants a workout on their way from one meeting to the next. Previously, people who prefer a cardio-free commute would have jumped in their cars. Now, they can make those short trips on their zero-emission scooters instead.

Critics point out that many of the environmental claims from scooter proponents (usually focused on the reduction of carbon emissions) remain unproven. Fair enough—it’s possible that a significant number of the thousands of people using scooters to get around Austin, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. would have otherwise used public transportation, walked or ridden bikes to their destinations. But it’s almost certain that scooters take at least some vehicles off the road—and doesn’t every little reduction in emissions help, particularly in a region where transportation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions?

You know what else we don’t know about scooters? Whether they’re actually as dangerous as opponents claim. Durkan cited unspecified mayors and cities that are turning against scooters, but the truth is, no city has had scooters on its streets long enough to have any real idea whether they’re more dangerous than walking, or biking, or—for that matter—driving a car. Anecdotal evidence suggests a rise in emergency room visits for injuries sustained by people riding e-scooters, but that’s not the same as statistical proof of danger: The rate of injuries on e-scooters used to be zero, because they weren’t legal in any city, and now it has risen. Similarly, a few people have died riding shared e-scooters. That represents an increase in deaths of hundreds of percentage points, because the previous number—when scooter-sharing didn’t exist—was zero. One frequently cited Washington Post story claims that there has been a “161 percent spike in [ER] visits involving electric scooters.” Buried in the story is the fact that the increase, at a single hospital in Salt Lake City, was from eight injuries to 21. Cyclists sustain a lot more injuries, and are more likely to be killed while riding, than scooter riders. That isn’t an argument to ban bikes. It’s an argument to make roads safer. 

And speaking of that: You know what the common denominator is in most of those deaths and injuries? Cars. Cars hit cyclists, and pedestrians, and people on scooters, far more often than those people get into accidents on their own. Pedestrians and cyclists accounted for 22 percent of traffic deaths in Washington State last year; a report from the Washington State Department of Transportation blamed speeding drivers, not inattentive pedestrians and cyclists, for most of those deaths. So far, three people have been killed riding scooters—all by people driving cars. There’s certainly a safety argument for regulating the speed scooters can go, but that’s a problem with an easy fix: Lime and Bird, the two biggest scooter-sharing companies, have regulators that limit their scooters to 15 miles an hour, and some cities have proposed lowering that limit further, to 12 mph, or even eight. Meanwhile, cars continue to be allowed on city streets, driving 30, 40, even 50 miles an hour, despite the fact that they cause more than 40,000 fatalities every year.

Durkan is right about one thing: Scooters are fun. Recently, I was in Portland, where scooters are allowed in bike lanes and on city streets, and I warily agreed to try using the Lime scooter my housemate brought home with him one afternoon. After a shaky start, I got the hang of it, and before long, I was zipping all around the city—from the conference venue, to my Airbnb, and to meetups everywhere in between. When there wasn’t a scooter around, I used one of the many bikesharing services. My rental car—which I’d driven down from Seattle and planned to use when I needed to get across town fast—sat in its spot on the street for four straight days. Why drive when there are so many better alternatives?

Morning Crank: Bike Board Chair Abruptly Dismissed; Safe Seattle Sues; and More

Photo from 2015 Seattle Bike Master Plan Implementation Plan

1. Last month, about an hour before the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting, board chair Casey Gifford got a call from Evan Philip, the boards and commissions administrator for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. Philip told Gifford that he was calling  to let her know that the meeting she was about to chair would be her final meeting—the mayor had decided not to reappoint her for a second term.  Then, Gifford recalls, he asked her if she had any questions.

Gifford, who works as a  planner with King County Metro and serves on the Cascade Bicycle Club board, was in shock. “I said that I was surprised to be receiving that information so close to the meeting and that I would need some time to process it,” she says. A few days later, she recounts, “I called him and left several voice mails” requesting a meeting or a phone call to discuss some questions she had about Durkan’s decision. Philip responded on November 16 with a terse email, explaining that “other Seattle residents had expressed interest in serving on this Commission and in the spirit of expanding civic engagement, we offered the position to another applicant.” In a subsequent email, he elaborated—sort of. “As mentioned earlier, the Mayor is committed to bringing in new voices and appoint those that have a lived experience to our Boards. As you may be aware, reappointment to a Board or Commission is not guaranteed.”

Like every mayor, Durkan is remaking the city’s bureaucracy, including the volunteer boards and commissions, in her own image.  But several advocates told me they’re worried that Durkan is pushing bike advocates affiliated with activist groups like Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways aside as part of a transportation agenda that prioritizes transit (and driving) over cycling. The mayor’s office denies this, and points out that Durkan appointed Cascade’s executive director, Richard Smith, to serve on the committee advising the mayor’s office on the Seattle Department of Transportation director selection.

Durkan’s new appointee, Selina Urena, is a former fundraiser for BikeWorks who now works for the Transportation Choices Coalition, a group whose former executive director, Shefali Ranganathan, is now deputy mayor. Urena was nominated by Durkan directly, without going through the usual application process, which includes one-on-one interviews with members of a bike board committee established explicitly for that purpose.  In an email responding to my questions about the mayor’s decision not to appoint Gifford, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said, of Urena (who uses they/them pronouns), “they are a multimodal transportation user and enjoys exploring the City by bike” and referred me to Urena’s TCC bio.

 “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.” – Casey Gifford, former Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board chair

Gifford says Philip never explained why Durkan did not reappoint her to the board, nor what he meant by “lived experience.” (Gifford is a young woman of color who uses a bike as her primary form of transportation.) She adds that in her experience, it’s unusual for the mayor’s office to take such a direct role in the appointment process, which usually involves an application and interview process with members of the board itself. “I know that the mayor’s office was more involved in the process than they ever have been in the past, and that they they knew who they wanted and pushed those people forward even without the recommendation of the board members who were reviewing apps with a set criteria and a set process,” Gifford said. “It didn’t sound like the mayor’s office was using those criteria, and it wasn’t really clear what criteria they were using.”

Gifford’s departure means that the bike board will be made up almost entirely of newcomers at a time when the fate of the city’s planned bicycle infrastructure is very much up in the air. Just one member, city council appointee Amanda Barnett, is continuing into a second term.  “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success,” Gifford says. “There are now seven of 12 [board members] that are brand new, and it takes a while to get up to speed on how the board works and how to be effective. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.”

Gifford may have another opportunity to serve on the board yet. City Council member Mike O’Brien, who says he considered the way Gifford was informed her term was ending “kind of unprofessional and not worthy of someone [Gifford] who’s doing really good work,” says he’ll nominate her himself if she wants to continue to serve. “It’s important to have new perspectives and new energy, but it’s also important to have some people who have been around,” O’Brien says. Gifford says she has talked to O’Brien about the possibility and that “it is something that I am considering.”

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2 .Safe Seattle, an online group that recently filed paperwork to become a 501(c)4 political nonprofit (via), is suing the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute to force the closure of a LIHI-operated “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, using many of the same arguments that a statewide anti-labor group, the Freedom Foundation, made when it filed a land use petition to to prevent the facility from opening back in June. (That case is still ongoing, although the Freedom Foundation itself is no longer a named plaintiff). The Freedom Foundation’s attorney, Richard Stephens, is representing Safe Seattle in the new lawsuit, which—like the earlier complaint—charges that LIHI does not have the correct permits to operate its encampment. Unlike the earlier, dismissed complaint, which claimed that LIHI’s encampment violated the city’s self-imposed limit of three transitional encampments at at time, this complaint claims that LIHI lacks both residential permits (on the grounds that the tiny houses are residences) and  a required encampment operations plan. The complaint also claims that the encampment constitutes an “assisted living facility” (on the grounds that LIHI provides housing and services to vulnerable people) for which it lacks a permit.

The amount of scrutiny that has landed on this one encampment—as well as the Freedom Foundation’s motivation for focusing on a single encampment in South Lake Union—is hard to explain. In addition to the lawsuits by the Freedom Foundation, Safe Seattle, and the individual plaintiffs (all represented by Stephens), a group called Unified Seattle has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads opposing tiny-house encampments, with an emphasis on the South Lake Union encampment.

3. A recent email from Queen Anne neighborhood activist Marty Kaplan, who has spent years locked in a legal battle to keep backyard and basement apartments out of single-family areas, included a telling line. After lavishing praise on the Seattle Times and its anti-density columnist Danny Westneat for joining him in the fight against missing-middle housing, Kaplan concluded: “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners.” Left out of Kaplan’s (and the Times’) equation? The majority of Seattle’s population, who rent their homes and are probably less concerned with “meeting the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners” than they are with being able to stay in a city where laws designed to boost homeowners’ property values are making the city unaffordable for everyone else.

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.