Tag: King County Metro

Metro Could Require Reservations for Late-Night Service

King County Metro is asking people who use its late-night bus service to provide feedback on whether the transit agency should require reservations to take the bus between 1am and 5am. The online survey describes the new “concept” this way: “a reservation-based system [in which a]ll passengers boarding buses between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. would book their essential trip in advance using a free reservation system (interpreter and TTY services would be available).” 

Currently, Metro requires riders to wear masks and maintain six feet of separation from others—a requirement that works out to a maximum of 12 riders on a 40-foot bus and 18 on a 60-foot bus. After those limits are reached, drivers are allowed to pass up riders waiting for the bus. The reservation system, according to the survey, would “ensure there is enough space on transit to support essential trips during Night Owl service.”

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Torie Rynning, a spokeswoman for Metro general manager Rob Gannon, said Metro is considering a reservation-based system after hearing “from some riders who are not able to board their desired bus due to our ‘social distancing’ capacity limits.” Rynning said Metro doesn’t have details about what a reservation system might look like, but it would likely require, at minimum, access to a phone. Rynning said requiring reservations is just one option Metro is considering for late-night service; another is “increasing [the] supplemental service] that Metro has already added on the routes with the highest late-night ridership.

According to Metro, ridership has decreased dramatically during the late-night hours, declining between 53 and 57 percent overall between 10pm and 5am.

Both Metro and Sound Transit, the regional rail and bus agency, have struggled with the question of how (and whether) to accommodate so-called “non-destinational riders”—a euphemism, generally speaking, for homeless people who seek warmth and shelter on buses and trains—at a time when space on transit is at a premium and transit is free. Sound Transit has decided to resume charging fares (and fare enforcement) on June 1. Metro has also set a “target date” of May 31 to start charging fares again.

As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders

This article originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It wasn’t so long ago — just 2018 — that Seattle could be proud of its status as the only city in the nation where transit ridership was actually going up, and the number of people commuting to the center city by car was going down. COVID-19 didn’t just reverse this trend; it obliterated it. Ridership on King County Metro buses is down about 73%, while ridership on Sound Transit’s light rail line has shrunk an estimated 70%. In an attempt to protect drivers from riders who might be COVID-positive, both agencies eliminated fares, and Metro implemented back-door-only boarding, in March. Both agencies also cut service, which has led to overcrowding on popular routes, such as the Route 7, that serve essential workers getting to and from the center city.

In response to complaints, Metro added more service in April. But they also limited the number of riders who can be on a bus at one time, which has meant that people waiting at bus stops are sometimes passed up because buses are over capacity. This has created tensions, which have coalesced around so-called “non-destination riders” — people who are not going to work or running essential errands, and who generally happen to be homeless. The number of non-destination riders is higher, proportionally, than it was before. But it’s also higher in absolute terms, because libraries, community centers and day shelters — all the places people experiencing homelessness used to go during the day — are closed. This leaves only a few places for people without homes to sit down, get warm and doze off for a while.

Some riders and drivers began calling on King County Metro to address the problem by barring homeless people from riding. Other suggestions included kicking them off at the end of the line, starting to charge fares again or forcing them to wear masks. Seattle is hardly the only city whose homeless population is using buses as a substitute for shelter during the pandemic. And it’s far from the only city where people have accused homeless riders of crowding the transit system, or making it dirty or putting people at risk by not wearing masks. Leaders of some transit systems have rushed to judgment — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stained his legacy by stating that homeless riders were “disgusting and disrespectful.” But to their credit, Metro, and its general manager, Rob Gannon, have not.

In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Gannon talked about non-destination riders, how Metro will get people back onto buses again, and the agency’s financial future.

Let’s start with what the new normal looks like. How much has ridership fallen off, and where is Metro currently seeing the highest ridership? 

Even though our ridership was down dramatically — between 70 and 75 percent—we’re still seeing about 100,000 boardings each day. If you look out your window and see an empty bus, that is not a guarantee that that bus is going to be empty the entire trip.

The more heavily-used routes are in the South End and southeast King County. On the RapidRide lines — the A, the E, the D Line — we continue to see a level of ridership that makes it difficult to have a coach that is not subject to crowding conditions, which is why we’re trying to add back service.

“We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.”

Farebox revenues are currently nonexistent, and sales taxes, which are always volatile, are likely to take a long-term hit. How have you balanced the need to add more buses with the need to keep Metro’s budget in line with the current revenue reality?

We’re anticipating that the lost revenue associated with the pandemic response — meaning, sales tax being severely depleted and farebox not recovering because we’re operating with free fares right now — will amount to $220 million to $265 million in losses in 2020. That is now offset by about $243 million coming in [from the federal CARES Act], so we are sustainable for the current year.

What we don’t know is what the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the economy — when will sales tax begin to rebound and when will ridership start to come back? So our 2021-‘22 outlook is pretty stark right now. We see a recession coming and we know the Seattle Transit Benefit District [a Seattle tax that adds service inside the city] is set to expire at the end of this year. And we know that the city continues to deliberate about when and how to bring that measure back in front of the voters. I-976 [an initiative that will, if upheld, slash revenues from car taxes and fees] brings uncertainty, generally, to the financing of public transportation. So 2021 and 2022 are going to be a period where we have to consider service reductions, and the where and the how of that is something we’re going to continue to assess.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter. That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

It’s hard to believe that as recently as March, Metro was holding open houses throughout Southeast Seattle on route options for the RapidRide R, which is supposed to replace the Route 7 on Rainier Ave. S. Are this route and the other planned RapidRide lines being put on hold?

The planning is not on hold. In high-level terms, when we identified those RapidRide corridors as places to enhance the service experience and to enhance the way customers can get where they need to go, that was based on some well-founded analysis and community participation. We still think those are all the right areas. The question now becomes: will we have the resources to stay on that investment timeline? We’re still doing planning, we’re still going to figure out how to engage the community, we’re still going to bring those services online. We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.

There have been complaints from drivers and riders about homeless people riding the bus and not wearing masks or taking up seats on buses that are supposed to only be for essential rides. How do you respond to these complaints, and what is Metro currently doing to ensure rider and driver safety? 

First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that our bus system is safe and reliable in this current health crisis. It started very early with daily cleaning of the buses, disinfecting, moving to a free-fare situation to limit the amount of interaction at the front of the coach, putting up a safety strap [between the front and back of the bus], and doing rear-door boarding. We have also been in everyday contact with our employees, trying to understand what conditions they face and how we can make it safer for them, fulfilling requests for PPEs, outfitting operators with sanitation kits and gloves and hand sanitizer and wipes, and, on April 11, bringing masks into the equation [for drivers]. So a lot of that isn’t about the non-destinational rider. It’s about how do we make the system safe for all those who use it?

The rider that is finding shelter on the coach — in one sense, we all find shelter on a coach, because it is the alternative to walking, to being exposed to the elements. What we hope to see is that a rider comes on board, pays a fare, and rides to a specific destination. When they don’t, when they try to use the bus as a shelter, it inevitably presents problems of crowding. It makes it more difficult to keep the buses as clean as possible. There is occasionally conduct inconsistent with the guidance for the transit system, and we have seen an increase in those incidents. Continue reading “As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders”

Driving a Metro Bus Through the Pandemic

The post excerpted here originally ran on Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Driving a city bus has always had its hazards. Until recently, exposure to a deadly pandemic was not among them. But as most workers are staying home to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, bus drivers remain on the front lines, transporting strangers around the city in what one driver referred to as “rolling petri dishes.”

With protective equipment such as masks and gloves in short supply, drivers say they have no way of knowing whether they’ve been exposed. Every interaction with a rider, another driver said, is a potential opportunity for infection: “Everybody’s got a gun now, but we don’t know who has bullets.”

In Seattle, where the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, were detected in February, conversations with nearly a dozen bus drivers revealed widespread anxiety about driver and passenger safety.

While many drivers sympathize with riders who still rely on buses to get to work or the store ― or just have nowhere else to go ―  some drivers said they didn’t understand why so many buses were still on the road. They have no idea how many of their fellow drivers have been infected because the public transit authority, King County Metro, won’t say. And drivers are frustrated with what they see as a lack of clear direction from management about how to protect themselves, when to stay home, and how they will be compensated if they take time off.

Nathan Vass is a veteran Metro driver who recently decided to take unpaid time off because he thinks he may have been exposed to the coronavirus. He said that his route, which is one of the busiest in the city, has remained crowded through the pandemic — an observation confirmed by Metro’s ridership statistics, which show that buses serving lower-income areas, like the one Vass drives, have seen much lower reductions than commuter and suburban routes.

Vass said he’s not sure what’s worse: Failing to serve people who rely on transit by shutting the buses down, or allowing the virus to spread unchecked by keeping them in service.

“If we’re going to continue allowing transit, we have to be OK with the fact that we’re spreading the virus as well,” said Vass, who recently published a book chronicling his experiences as a bus driver. “Transit is just not conducive to restricting the transmission of viruses.”

Metro, like other transit systems across the country, has reduced service dramatically during the pandemic. But drivers in Seattle — unlike, for example, in Vancouver, Canada, where the bus agency recently closed off every second row of seats — have been offered limited official options for enforcing social distance.

A recorded message, which is only in English, instructs riders to sit six feet apart, but that’s an impossible standard to achieve on the more crowded routes. And even if riders do sit six feet apart, the coronavirus lingers on surfaces, so if an infected person sneezes on a handrail or touches a seat with dirty hands, they can still infect the next person who sits there.

At the same time, Metro has officially designated bus drivers “first responders” and instructed all drivers who don’t show COVID-19 symptoms to keep showing up for work, even if they think they’ve been exposed to the virus.

“That is the opposite of everything we’ve been told, from CDC on down,” said Audrey Monroe, who has driven for Metro for almost four years. “It seems wild to me that that’s their policy when we know that you can have no symptoms and still be shedding the virus.”

Metro will not say how many drivers have been infected. According to King County Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer, releasing illness numbers “could lead to individuals being identified and could cause other spaces to be mistakenly seen as being without risk,” and might cause drivers not to seek needed medical care. A driver for Community Transit, an agency that serves the suburbs north of Seattle, died of COVID-19 last month; so far, the agency has confirmed 10 cases among its drivers.

Read the rest of this piece at HuffPost.

Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay

Sound Transit says this distribution of reasons riders said they failed to pay shows that “most riders are able to pay” their fares, which range from $2.25 to $5.75 for a one-way ride.

After a fare-checking incident on the first day of school led to widespread criticism of Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement policies, the agency said it would reconsider how it checks and enforces fare—just as soon as it could complete an in-person rider survey, an onboard rider survey, and a series of focus groups to determine what issues riders were most concerned about and the reasons people engage in “fare evasion” on Sound Transit trains. (“Fare evasion” is a term that suggests intent, or even theft, but it includes many situations where the “evasion” is unintentional, such as when a person buys an unlimited monthly pass but forgets to “tap” her card before boarding; hence the scare quotes)

For the onboard surveys, staffers shadowed fare enforcement officers until they caught someone without proof of payment, then gave them a survey about why they didn’t pay. The most common responses were that the rider forgot to tap their card, that their card didn’t work, or that they “couldn’t find where to tap.” This finding, according to the survey, “provides further support for the finding that most riders are able to pay but occasionally fail to do so for a myriad of reasons.”

The comment seems aimed squarely at advocates who have argued for free or reduced fares on the grounds that people who avoid fares typically do so because they can’t afford them. Those advocates expressed frustration last year after Sound Transit adopted a wait-and-see policy toward any changes to fare or fare enforcement, pointing out that a 2018 audit of King County Metro showed that a large number of riders who failed to pay did so because they couldn’t afford the fare. (In comparing the two surveys, it’s worth noting that Sound Transit’s survey included a bewildering array of 14 possible reasons for nonpayment, plus “other”—nearly twice as many options as King County Metro’s 2018 survey). If it turns out people could pay if they wanted to, but don’t, that would create a new bulwark against calls to make the system more affordable or accessible to low-income people.

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The on-board survey did find that people making between $0 and $50,000 were the least likely to pay, but the report doesn’t break that number down further, making it hard to draw conclusions about different groups within that broad income category. Currently, people making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $25,000 for an individual, are eligible for discount fares through the ORCA Lift program.

The King County Auditor’s independent review of Metro’s fare enforcement policies led to changes such as reduced fines for fare evasion and the creation of new avenues to address fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in ORCA Lift. Sound Transit is considering similar changes, but has rejected proposals to make its service free, and has resolutely defended its fare-enforcement practice of checking all riders on each car for fare, despite the fact that this practice has still resulted in racially lopsided enforcement.

The agency released the results of the surveys and in-person sessions last week, and held a listening session to talk about some of the proposals that emerged from the process at El Centro de la Raza on Wednesday night. The meeting was unusual for a “roundtable” style public meeting in a couple of respects: First, agency staffers kept the initial presentation short. Second, participants got a chance to rotate among six different tables to discuss a total of three separate topics instead of just one. Finally, because the public comment came at the end of the meeting, after everyone had spent an hour throwing out ideas, it was actually informed by the discussion, rather than rehearsed and packaged in advance. Continue reading “Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay”

Sound Transit Tickets Disproportionate Number of Black Riders, New Numbers Show

Sound Transit staffers presented new data on fare enforcement at Thursday’s Rider Experience and Operations meeting, which showed that despite the agency’s purportedly neutral fare-enforcement policy, black riders were far more likely to receive citations and warnings than white or Asian American riders. African Americans made up just 9 percent of riders on Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail and Sounder trains, but represented 21 percent of all tickets and warnings—more than double their representation among Sound Transit’s ridership. White and Asian American riders, conversely, received proportionally fewer tickets than their ridership would suggest.

The race of a rider is determined by fare enforcement officers. Sound Transit public safety director Ken Cummins told me yesterday that if a person’s race “is not obvious,” a fare enforcement officer is supposed to “tactfully” ask the person how they prefer to be identified.

The issue of fare enforcement was in the news last month, when Sound Transit officers were seen checking fares and scanning the IDs of students on their way to collect their free ORCA passes on the first day of school.

Sound Transit frequently touts its use of “equal treatment” in fare enforcement using the following slide, which shows that fare enforcement officers enter trains in a specific pattern and check fares until they come to someone who hasn’t paid:

But the glaring racial disparity in Sound Transit’s new fare enforcement stats led some public commenters to argue that  “equal” treatment doesn’t necessarily lead to equitable outcomes. Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, noted that “communities of color and low-income people have different relationships to policing and enforcement.” What may seem like a friendly interaction with a uniformed officer to a white rider may look entirely different to someone whose community has a history being targeted by police, she said.

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The current fine for failing to pay fare on Sound Transit buses and trains is $124, and failing to pay it can result in criminal charges and cascading debt. In contrast, King County Metro recently reduced fines for nonpayment, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program.

Sound Transit didn’t provide a detailed breakdown of ticketed riders by income or primary language, or detail what percentage of “ticket or warning” actions by fare enforcement were warnings vs. formal citations. However, an audit of Metro fare-evasion infractions showed that low-income riders and people experiencing homelessness were far more likely than other groups to be cited for fare evasion, and that the primary reason people failed to pay for bus rides was because they couldn’t afford the fare. Sound Transit maintains that in order to keep their fare recovery much higher than industry averages, they need to inspect about 8 percent of all riders for proof of payment—”the sweet spot” that keeps evasion below 3 percent, according to Cummins.

Sound Transit is considering a number of strategies for addressing concerns about aggressive fare enforcement and excessive punishment for unpaid fares, including providing “on-the-spot information about ORCA Lift” and allowing people to work off their fines through community service, but getting rid of fines for nonpayment isn’t amongthem. Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez, who sits on the Sound Transit board, seemed to suggest Thursday that maybe it should be. She compared the cascading consequences of fare evasion fines to the city’s old policy of impounding the cars of people whose licenses had been suspended over minor infractions, such as unpaid parking tickets, which often pushed them further into poverty. “When it comes down to the ability to drive, the ability to have transportation, those are basic… rights,” Juarez said.

Sound Transit Board Members Raise Concerns About Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy

Sound Transit board members, including King County Council members Joe McDermott and Claudia Balducci, are raising questions about the agency’s fare enforcement policy, which—unlike King County Metro’s revised fare enforcement rules—can still result in a criminal record and potentially jail time for people who are unable to pay their fares.

During last week’s Sound Transit board meeting, both McDermott and Balducci pointed to Metro’s recent overhaul of its fare enforcement policy, which reduced fines for fare evasion, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges for nonpayment, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program. The last item is important because an audit of Metro fare enforcement last year concluded that the overwhelming majority of “fare evaders” on RapidRide were homeless or low-income; poverty, not disregard for the law, was causing people to attempt to ride for free.

“Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program. Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.” – Talking points developed by Sound Transit’s public safety director

The audit, released last April, found that the most common reason for fare evasion was lack of money to pay fare, and that the overwhelming majority of fines were never paid, despite the threat of criminal charges and the possibility that unpaid fines would be sent to collections. (Sound Transit still has what I dubbed the “Shoreline Rule,” which requires riders who receive tickets for fare evasion to drive or take the bus up to Shoreline if they want to contest their tickets—a significant burden for people who are transit-dependent and those who can’t take off work for several hours to contest a ticket during the work day. King County eliminated the Shoreline Rule back in 2015).

“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done in King County on fare evasion, because … it’s unclear that that policy actually increases fare compliance and we know that it has some downstream negative impacts and disparate impacts,” Balducci said, adding that the point of fare enforcement should be to ensure that “people pay when they can, and that [for] people who can’t pay, who rely on our services, that we’ll find a way to address that need other than sending them to court and ultimately collections and, at some point, jail.”

Rogoff, who has argued that Sound Transit’s fare evasion rate is low precisely because people know they may incur substantial ($124) fines, said that while problems like the Shoreline Rule are “low-hanging fruit,” a complete overhaul of the agency’s fare enforcement policy would threaten the agency’s current high compliance rate. “The challenge is, I think, to have a policy that is meaningful and inclusive … but also to make sure that we [preserve] what is currently a high level of fare compliance” compared to cities with “open systems.” Rogoff also noted the current system only “criminalizes” fare evasion after the fourth offense in a calendar year.

Sound Transit’s fare enforcement talking points argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Rogoff’s statements last week are consistent with talking points developed by the agency late last year, which I obtained through a records request. The talking points, which the agency’s Director of Public Safety, Ken Cummins, provided to Rogoff in November, also explicitly connect fare enforcement, which is conducted by uniformed officers, with a sense of “safety” among light rail riders—suggesting that the presence of officers cracking down on fare evaders improves the perception of safety on trains. “Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program,” the talking points say. “Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.”

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Given that, according to Metro’s audit, fare evasion charges disproportionately target low-income riders and people experiencing homelessness, it’s easy to see how “safety” might be conflated with cracking down on certain categories of people. Sound Transit, and Rogoff in particular, have responded to concerns about equity in fare enforcement by pointing out that the agency’s fare enforcement officers check everybody on the train rather than singling out certain riders. This point showed up in both the talking points—which called the policy of universal checks a way to “ensure fairness and equity”—and in communications between Sound Transit’s communications staff and the fare enforcement division after the initial Metro audit was released, in anticipation of criticism or questions about fairness  The talking points, which you can read in full here, go on to argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Balducci says that Sound Transit’s go-to-talking point—”‘We enforce on the whole car; we do it to everybody—therefore you’re not going to see bias in terms of picking on certain types of people'”—misses the point. “That wasn’t entirely the issue we raised,” she says. “The issue we raised was that with the people we do find (evading fares), there could be a better approach.”

Morning Crank: Litmus Tests and Red Meat in West Seattle

The audience at Speak Out Seattle’s council forum in West Seattle (screen shot)

1. Speak Out Seattle, a group that fought against the head tax for homelessness, opposes tiny house villages and encampments, and backed an initiative to ban safe consumption sites in Seattle, kicked off the 2019 local campaign season with a forum last night in West Seattle. All five candidates—attorney Phillip Tavel, popcorn entrepreneur Jesse Greene, police lieutenant Brendan Kolding, and Isaiah Willoughby, plus incumbent Lisa Herbold.

It was probably inevitable that I’d be frustrated with this forum, though not for the reasons you might expect. Sure, I get frustrated with misconceptions about homelessness, and I’ve heard enough people who have never held public office (and never will) call for harsh law-and-order policies for several lifetimes. But my real issues with this forum—the first of several SOS plans to hold this year—were unrelated to the group’s conservative policy prescriptions.

First, many of the questions had little to do with policies the candidates would fight for if they were elected; instead, they were simplistic, red-meat, litmus-test questions, things like “What did you think of the ‘Seattle Is Dying report on KOMO?; “What grade would you give the city council?”; and “Do you support a state income tax?” Not only was there only one “right” answer to these questions (“I agreed with it completely”; “F”; and “no,” respectively), the answers meant very little, beyond giving an audience that came with its mind made up an opportunity to cheer or boo.

Second, facts didn’t seem to matter very much. (I know, I know—but wouldn’t it be nice if they sometimes did?) Herbold, who is not just the incumbent but a 20-year city hall veteran with a deep understanding of a vast range of city issues, had no opportunity to respond to false or misleading claims—like when her opponents referred to former mayoral staffer Scott Lindsay’s alarmist spreadsheet detailing crimes by 100 hand-picked offenders as a “study” that proved the need for harsher policies, or when Greene claimed that police can’t arrest people who have fewer than 30 “hits of methamphetamine or heroin” on their person. The one time Herbold did get a chance to respond directly to a piece of misinformation, it came from the moderator, KOMO’s Mike Lewis, who asked why, when the city council “radically increased business license fees” a few years back, didn’t they spend any of that money hiring new police officers. (Answer: They did.) Herbold also pushed back on an irrelevant question about whether she would support a “safe injection site” in West Seattle, pointing out that no one had ever suggested or even brought up such a proposal, and brandishing a fake flyer advertising an injection site in Pigeon Point—a sleepy area north of Delridge—as an example of how false rumors create panic.

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The result wasn’t a shitshow, exactly (the crowd only shouted Herbold down once, when she gave the city council a B-minus grade), but neither was it an opportunity for undecided voters to find out what the candidates would actually do if they were elected. Knowing what challengers think of a head tax that was defeated last year might provide some information about their views on taxes (though not much, since all of Herbold’s challengers said they hated it), and questions like “Why does Seattle have such a high property crime rate?” might give candidates a chance to pontificate for 60 seconds on that very broad issue, but to what end? Speak Out Seattle is a relatively new group, still struggling to escape its association with Safe Seattle, the volatile online group that recently claimed—falsely—that the Seattle Police Department was trying to cover up a grisly “beheading” at a homeless encampment in South Seattle. One way to accomplish that would be to ask, “Is the premise of this question true?” before posing it to candidates. Another would be to treat candidate forums not as an opportunity to quiz candidates on their top-five general issues (What causes homelessness? Is property crime getting worse?) but to find out what specific policies they would fight for on the council, and how they would work with other council members to make them happen. Elections aren’t about ideas; they’re about people. Candidate forums should be too.

2. With Rob Johnson leaving the city council on April 5 (sooner than I predicted here, since Johnson has apparently decided he does not need to stick around until Sound Transit’s Elected Leadership Group makes its Ballard-to-West-Seattle route recommendations), the council will need to pick a new member—and King County Executive Dow Constantine will need to pick a new Sound Transit board member.

The council’s process, outlined by council president Bruce Harrell here, will likely result in the appointment of a “caretaker”—someone who will serve out the rest of Johnson’s single term through the budget in November, and agree not to run for the position. Constantine’s process is more of a wild card. Under state law, the county executive must appoint a representative from North King County to Johnson’s position; historically, this has been a member of the Seattle City Council, and it would be unusual for Constantine to break from this tradition for a short-term appointment.

Currently, the two most likely candidates appear to be council member Lorena Gonzalez and council member Debora Juarez—Gonzalez because she’s a council veteran who represents the whole city (and, not for nothing, a West Seattleite like Constantine), Juarez because of her enthusiasm for getting into the weeds of the project in her North Seattle district, which includes two future light rail stations. Two other factors: Gonzalez, who heads up the council’s public safety committee, may have too much on her plate to take over a big new transportation job; Juarez, meanwhile, is up for reelection, and will be spending much of her time over the next few months on the campaign trail. Mike O’Brien, who was displaced from the board by Johnson in 2016, could be a dark-horse candidate, but given his previous conflict with Constantine over the proposed new King County juvenile jail, his appointment looks like the longest of long shots.

3. Leaders of the Seattle Department of Transportation, Sound Transit, and King County Metro watched as workers carefully lowered a new gunmetal-colored bus shelter into place on Fifth Avenue on Thursday, one of the final touches on a new northbound transit priority lane that will open this coming Saturday, when all bus routes come out of the downtown transit tunnel and 15 routes are redirected onto different streets. Northbound and souhtbound transit lanes on Fifth Avenue will pair with southbound lane a northbound transit priority lane on Sixth Ave. (Info on Metro services changes here, and Sound Transit service changes here.)

Also Thursday, the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition called for the immediate implementation of a temporary bus priority lane on Third Avenue between Stewart and Denny Streets to meet transit demand in Belltown and South Lake Union when the buses come out of the tunnel. MASS formed last year to push for more city investments in safe nonmotorized transportation infrastructure (including the completion of the downtown bike network.) In a statement, the coalition noted that 100,000 riders use that section of Third Avenue every day, yet “this section of 3rd Avenue still prioritizes single-occupant vehicles and parking — even though it carries only 7300 cars a day.

Asked about the proposal, Zimbabwe said it was the first he’d heard of it. “We’re looking at all sort of things as we continue to monitor the situation, he said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen right away.” Heather Marx, the director of downtown mobility for the city, said after the press conference that the city’s transportation operations center, which opened last year in anticipation of a Viadoom that never came, has remained open on a 24-7 basis ever since it opened, and would continue to stay open on a constant basis indefinitely, or at least through 2019, when the current budget cycle ends. Marx said the city still has some tricks up its sleeve if the buses get stuck in traffic, including adding more bus lanes, signal timing to give buses priority, and rerouting buses again.

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.

Buses May Leave Downtown Tunnel for Surface Streets As Soon as March 2019

Dozens of buses per hour may move from downtown transit tunnel and onto surface streets as soon as next March, thanks to an amendment  adopted by the city council’s transportation committee on Tuesday. The amendment, proposed by council member Rob Johnson, alters legislation vacating several public alleys for the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center,  which will require buses to move from the tunnel onto surface streets sometime next year. Johnson’s amendment, which passed 4-3, struck language that would have barred the convention center  from kicking buses out of the tunnel until September 2019, which bill sponsor Mike O’Brien said was intended to give the city and King County Metro more time to implement transit improvements downtown. The amended legislation would allow the developers to evict buses from the tunnel as early as March 2019,  adding 40 more buses  to downtown streets in each direction during rush hour. (March and September were the two possibilities because those are the months when Metro implements its service updates.)

Although a group of Seattle Department of Transportation and council staffers warned committee members that the city and  county might not be able to implement all the improvements they need to make by March, Johnson countered that it was time to “hold SDOT’s feet to the fire on getting some of these transit pathways up and running in a more aggressive timeline.” If the council gives SDOT an additional six months, he added, they are likely to take it. Johnson also echoed comments made earlier by convention center developer Matt Griffin about the need to avoid unnecessary delays that could increase the cost of the project and forestall job creation and affordable housing construction.

On Tuesday, O’Brien argued that adding so many buses to surface streets in March will result in unnecessary traffic chaos at a time—known as the “period of maximum constraint”—when downtown streets will be most impacted by various downtown construction projects, including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the opening of the new  tunnel on the downtown waterfront. March 2019, he added, may be an unrealistic deadline for the city and county to coordinate and complete all the improvements planned as part of the delayed One Center City project, including the implementation of off-board payment for all buses that travel on Third Avenue and the reconfiguration of Fifth and Sixth Avenues for buses, which will require new bus lanes and tricky signal timing changes.

“Next March, I think we’re all going to wish we had six more months of buses operating in the tunnel,” O’Brien said. “Even with buses operating in the tunnel, we’re going to have some major chaos on the streets downtown. … We’ll survive. The city won’t end. But I think it’s going to be a real mess.”

Contacted after the vote, Johnson said he isn’t convinced that the “period of maximum constraint” will be as cataclysmic as some of his colleagues, and SDOT, seem to think. As evidence, he points to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carried 120,000 cars a day as recently as 2009, when the city, county, and state signed an agreement to build a four-lane bypass tunnel and a wide surface Alaskan Way to replace the aging bridge that spans the downtown waterfront. At the time, advocates for building a bigger tunnel or rebuilding the viaduct said the number of cars driving through downtown would only grow. Instead, the number has steadily shrunk—to just over 90,000 in 2016, according to Johnson.

“I’m cognizant of the doomsday period of maximum constraint that everyone’s talking about, but also, I look at downtown, with its 24-plus lanes going north-south, and I think, that’s plenty of capacity, if we could just do a better job at managing that capacity,” Johnson said. “I get frustrated by the delay of projects that could have real benefits for transit pathways. I  really want to light a fire under SDOT to make some of these projects happen and not just take as long as we give them to do it.”

O’Brien says it’s unfair to lay every delay at SDOT’s feet; in the case of implementing off-board payment for buses on Third Avenue, for example, King County Metro is equally responsible.  “The frustrating thing for me is that Rob is just saying, ‘We think SDOT needs to work harder,’ and I’m like, Our experts just showed up and said we can’t do it in six months. And Rob is just saying, ‘You better.’

“This is all in the context of the new tunnel and tolling and rebuilding Alaskan Way. It’s not like SDOT just has nothing going on,” O’Brien says.

On Tuesday, the developer, Griffin, suggested that if the city allows buses to stay in the tunnel until September, it will result in costly delays, the elimination of tens of thousands of “bed hours” in affordable housing his firm has agreed to build as part of its deal with the city, and could potentially scuttle the project. O’Brien says that when Griffin made that last claim, he thought, “we’re outside [the realm of] rational thought—now you’re just making threats.”  He added: “Matt’s a powerful guy who has some influence about other things that other people care about.”

Griffin gave the maximum contribution, $700, to Johnson’s 2015 campaign, and contributed $10,000 that year to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC, which was the largest contributor (at $46,500) to an independent expenditure campaign supporting Johnson. Griffin did not contribute to O’Brien’s campaign.

There’s still another situation, by the way, in which the convention center could be forced to let buses stay in the tunnel until September of next year: The legislation the committee adopted requires the convention center developer to obtain all its construction permits by July 1 of this year; if that doesn’t happen, buses must stay in the tunnel until September 2019.

The full council is scheduled to vote on the convention center street vacation agreement today at 2:00.

 

Should Amazon Cover Costs of Intern Bus Crowding?

This story originally ran in Seattle Magazine.

Last month the Seattle Times reported that hundreds of new Amazon interns, each wearing identical company-issued black backpacks, are crowding out other commuters on King County Metro’s Route 70. The overcrowded buses, which forced drivers to skip some stops when full, led Metro to take the unusual step of adding service to the route for the rest of the summer without the extensive public process that typically informs long-term service increases.

Metro service development manager Bill Bryant says the bus agency routinely provides extra service for special events, like Pride or the Women’s March, and temporary disruption such as the periodic closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. “We really do not want to see any situation where specific trips on a route are passing customers by on a regular basis,” he says. “We received multiple reports that people were getting passed by [on Route 70], and we decided to pull the trigger.”

According to Metro spokesman Scott Gutierrez, about 400 more people than usual were riding Route 70 when Metro decided to add service. The current uptick in service during morning rush hour—two extra buses between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m.—is costing Metro about $3,600 a week.

Shefali Ranganathan, director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition, says the “bottom-line question is, should Metro explore a broader partnership with Amazon where Amazon buys service hours from Metro” to mitigate their impact on the system. “Maybe this is something [Metro] should approach not just as a one-off [service improvement] but as a broader partnership that would benefit Amazon and the broader community, which is what Microsoft does,” Ranganathan says.

There’s precedent for this: Back in 2012, Amazon paid for the South Lake Union streetcar to run more frequently, although that money was compensation for land the city gave Amazon to expand its South Lake Union campus.

Microsoft, somewhat controversially, has given its workers a way to opt out of the public transit system entirely by creating a private option, the Microsoft Connector, which has grown into the largest private regional bus system in the nation. Since last year, Amazon has offered its own limited shuttle service, called Amazon Ride, which runs four shuttle buses between the company’s two main campuses in South Lake Union and the University District. The company also spends $12 million on ORCA transit passes for its employees.

Of course, Amazon’s expansion in the city isn’t limited to a few hundred summer interns. Earlier this year, the company announced that it was hiring 100,000 new U.S. employees by mid-2018, and advertised more than 9,000 new job openings in Seattle. Most of those new jobs will be in South Lake Union, meaning that the pressure on Metro service will only grow. “The growth in South Lake Union, just across the board, continues,” Bryant says. “The choice to add service to keep customers moving and to prevent pass-bys is not a hard choice for us.”

As a transit agency charged with getting cars off the roads, Metro wants to make sure all those new customers keep coming back to use its service, rather than giving up and driving to work alone. But Metro has also made a commitment, through its service guidelines, to serve low-income and minority communities, such as Southeast Seattle. When Metro decides where to add service during its twice-annual service adjustment process, it looks not just at demand but at how well the system is serving the goal of racial equity.

A few tens of thousands of dollars shifted over to South Lake Union over the summer may not sound like much. But if Amazon’s growth creates the demand for permanent shifts in service, that could put Metro in the position of choosing between racial equity and full buses passing people by.

Amazon, which provided information on its existing shuttle service through a spokesman, did not respond to a request for information about any plans to expand its shuttle service. Although the company confirmed that it is actively working with Metro to plan for increased ridership from the UW to South Lake Union, Bryant says “we haven’t had any significant conversations with Amazon about significantly increasing their shuttle service.”