Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Wednesday that she’s proposing a 51-cent fee on all Uber and Lyft rides, along with new minimum wage and benefit standards for drivers and a dispute resolution center for drivers who have been unfairly kicked off the platforms or underpaid.
The city estimates that by 2025, the fee will generate enough funding, $56 million, to fully fund the construction of the downtown streetcar, plus $52 million for affordable housing near transit stops and about $18 million for a new dispute resolution center for drivers challenging unwarranted removal from the ride-hailing platforms or unpaid wages.
The streetcar, which Durkan halted last year after the price to build and operate the project ballooned, faced a capital-funding shortfall of about $65 million. Earlier this year, the city council approved a $9 million interfund loan to restart work on the streetcar; that loan will be paid back with the proceeds from the Mercer Megablock sale.
“By creating a high-capacity alternative in the center city, [the streetcar] will provide an alternative for folks who are taking those short trips in and out of downtown.” – Seattle deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan
Durkan’s proposal would also mandate that drivers be paid at least minimum wage, plus compensation for benefits and expenses, for all portions of every trip that begins or ends inside the city of Seattle, and increase the current 24-cent fee that pays for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and regulation of the ride-hailing industry.
After 2025, according to deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan, the fee will “revert to funding transit, bike, and pedestrian projects across the city.”
In a press briefing yesterday, Ranganathan said the city expects that many people taking short trips in Uber and Lyft cars will switch to the streetcar for short trips once the Center City Streetcar is complete, citing a University of Washington survey that found that Amazon employees who use the car services would take transit “if there was quality transit available.”
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Ridership on the existing South Lake Union streetcar has been lackluster, falling 4 percent last year to just over half a million rides in 2018. On the First Hill segment of the line, ridership was up 31 percent last year, to nearly 1.2 million rides.
Ranganathan noted that about half of Uber and Lyft trips in Seattle originate or end inside the center city, which includes South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and downtown. In a University of Washington survey of Amazon employees who take Uber and Lyft, “many of these folks …said that if there was quality transit available, they would take transit.”
“By creating a high-capacity alternative in the center city, [the streetcar] will provide an alternative for folks who are taking those short trips in and out of downtown,” Ranganathan said.
The city’s decision to do a full State Environmental Policy Act analysis of a proposed expansion of its bikesharing pilot program, which I reported earlier this week, was spurred in part by a request for a SEPA analysis by Elizabeth Campbell, a Magnolia activist with a long history of filing legal complaints against the city. Campbell sent a letter demanding a full SEPA review on August 6. Sometime that same month, SDOT decided to do the review—a process that likely added at least couple of months to the timeline for expanding bikeshare. SEPA reviews are typically performed for projects that exceed a certain threshold, in terms of their potential environmental impacts. Projects that are generally subject to SEPA review include things like new apartment buildings and projects that involve significant impacts on city rights-of-way. (To give just one point of comparison, new parking lots for fewer than 40 vehicles are categorically exempt from environmental review under SEPA. The bikeshare program does not include any new permanent structures in city right-of-way.)
The city’s experiment with free-floating bikesharing began in 2017, with a pilot program that allowed companies like Lime, Spin, and Ofo to disperse thousands of rental bikes around the city. The city approved new permanent rules for bike share companies in June, and three companies applied for permits—Uber, Lyft, and Lime. Both Uber and Lyft told me that they had expected to launch their bike share programs in September. However, the city still has not announced a date for the official expansion or granted permanent permits.
In her letter to the city, which was addressed to then-SDOT director Goran Sparrman and bikeshare program director Joel Miller and cc’d to Mayor Jenny Durkan, council member Mike O’Brien, and the heads of the city’s parks and neighborhoods departments, Campbell enumerates what she sees as the likely public costs associated with the program. Then she requests a SEPA analysis.
“The sheer number of pieces of business equipment that are to be unleashed upon Seattle’s streets, up to 24,000 bicycles and cycles, coupled with the fact that the majority of the bike-share business operators’ business equipment is to be placed, stored, and located by a number of means, including by mischief or abandonment, at any one time on the City of Seattle’s right-of-ways, parks, lands, public commons, and/or upon private property has immense environmental implications,” Campbell wrote. “At a minimum a SEPA checklist must be prepared and a threshold determination made before the Free-Floating Bike Share Program proceeds.”
The SEPA review wrapped up earlier this month.
Campbell says she asked for the review because she considers the bikes “litter” and believes they’re cluttering sidewalks like so much “trash on the streets.” SEPA seemed like an appropriate avenue, she says, because it pertains to business equipment. “I used to run a bakery,” she says. “What if I took all my bakery carts and set them out on the sidewalks [all over the city]? Realistically, it is that kind of a practice. It’s not the same as, say, a taxi business, where you’re going to take your taxis back to your garage” when they aren’t in use, she says.
I asked SDOT and the mayor’s office several times if a citizen complaint had influenced SDOT’s decision to delay the bikeshare program and go forward with a full environmental review. SDOT repeatedly denied there was any such complaint, saying that the city undertook the analysis in response to the results of two surveys (one by EMC Research conducted back in February, the other an unscientific online poll) and the gist of negative feedback from the public. “After continued conversations and community engagement around these concerns, the Department [moved] forward with SEPA in an effort to launch a formal program that not only enhances mobility, but also considers environmental impacts,” Hobson wrote. “I don’t know of any formal complaints.” Later, Hobson added that “the impetus for the SEPA review” was “the final evaluation that included the comments and concerns of community groups about safety.”
That final evaluation, which came out in August, is here. The complaints listed in the evaluation are mostly about bikes being left in places where they don’t belong, as well as the fact that many riders don’t wear helmets—not exactly the type of environmental impacts that the State Environmental Policy Act checklist is intended to address. The checklist, which is standard for all projects, includes questions about the impact a proposed project or development might have on erosion, air and water quality, native plants and animals, shorelines, and environmental health.
On Tuesday, I asked SDOT representatives again whether Campbell’s request was the reason, or a reason, for their decision to do a SEPA analysis. Initially, Hobson responded that this was “the first [she had] heard of” Campbell’s letter and request for SEPA analysis. Later, I heard back from another SDOT spokeswoman, Dawn Schellenberg, who said in an email, “After hearing some concerns, including written correspondence from Elizabeth Campbell … and wanting to do our due diligence, the department decided to complete a SEPA analysis and confirm there were no items of significance we needed to address.”
Conceivably, the city could have decided to do a full SEPA review back in August based solely on survey results and subsequent “concerns” expressed by many citizens, incidentally including Campbell. It’s also possible that there were other specific requests for a SEPA analysis. (I have a records request in to the mayor’s office and SDOT for all communications from the public that contain negative feedback on the program).
But it’s worth noting that Campbell isn’t just any random citizen: She’s a perennial thorn in the city’s side. Over the years, Campbell has filed many complaints against the city, including several that are still working their way through the legal process. For example, the city hearing examiner is currently considering complaints filed by Campbell about a tiny house village on Port of Seattle-owned property in Interbay and a proposal to build affordable housing at the Fort Lawton site near Discovery Park in Magnolia. Campbell, in other words, has been very effective in the past at delaying and deterring projects. This fact alone could give her complaints more weight at the city, which does not typically do full environmental reviews for projects with minimal impact on the natural or built environment, like the addition of a few thousand bikes throughout the city.
The SEPA review concluded with a determination of nonsignificance (DNS), meaning that expanding bikeshare has no significant negative environmental impact. Campbell, who says she was not aware that the city had decided to do a SEPA analysis, says she was disappointed to learn that the window for appealing the DNS closed on October 18; had she known, she says, she might have appealed. “They did a quick and dirty and they didn’t really address the things that I was talking about, which is that [the bikes] are disruptive,” Campbell says.
She says she’s still deciding whether to find another avenue to appeal the bikesharing program. “I’m kind of not known for letting things go,” she says.
When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in April that her administration would study congestion pricing—a catchall term for strategies that place a price on driving a car into congested parts of the city, such as downtown and South Lake Union, in the hope of achieving some positive goal, such as lower emissions or faster transit service—she said she hoped to implement some kind of pricing scheme by the end of her first term, in 2021. Most people took this to mean that she would introduce a plan for cordon tolling—essentially, drawing an invisible ring around the center city and charging vehicles to enter. Because this strategy would require voter approval, Durkan’s team will need to figure out how to get around the obvious objections—creating a plan that doesn’t disproportionately harm low-income workers who rely on cars, for example, and that makes transit seem like a viable alternative to driving to people who choose to commute by car.
In the meantime, the mayor is considering another option: Charging Uber and Lyft riders a special tax that will increase the cost to use the car-hire platforms by a few bucks a trip—just enough, perhaps, to nudge some commuters onto buses or trains. According to the mayor’s office, half of all Uber and Lyft trips in Seattle include a trip through the center city. In addition, ride-hailing cars often circle around downtown waiting for the signal that someone needs a ride; this contributes to both congestion and pollution, and makes it harder for buses to move quickly through the area. City council member Mike O’Brien, who supports congestion pricing, says, “There seems to be pretty clear evidence that [Uber and Lyft are] causing congestion and that people are converting from transit to a lesser mode, which is riding in these [vehicles].” O’Brien says he has heard reports of companies in South Lake Union giving free Uber and Lyft shared-ride passes to employees, which creates an incentive to use those services instead of less-convenient transit. “There’s an argument, from my perspective at least, that Uber and Lyft are living in an unequitable world to their favor,” O’Brien says.
The Downtown Seattle Association’s annual commute numbers, which do not distinguish between calling an Uber for a ride and carpooling with a group of colleagues, and their annual commute survey does not indicate a major shift from transit to ride-hailing—yet. A University of California-Davis study last year showed that, in general, urban commuters are switching from transit to ride-hailing companies in record numbers. On average, people who live in major American cities use transit 6 percent less after they start using a ride-hailing service, according to the study. Surprisingly, perhaps, ride-hailing service users who also take transit are more likely to own cars, and to own slightly more cars, than people who just commute by transit; and non-transit users who use ride-hailing services are no less likely to own cars than non-transit users who don’t use ride-hailing platforms. According to the study, “The majority of ride-hailing users (91%) have not made any changes with regards to whether or not they own a vehicle.” As for those who have reduced their personal driving, the study concludes, “[They] have substituted those trips with increased ride-hailing use.”
2. Plans to open the nation’s first safe consumption site in Seattle appear to have foundered. According to multiple people familiar with discussions at the city about whether to fund a new safe consumption site, Mayor Jenny Durkan has not committed to fund the project in her upcoming budget proposal.
In 2016, a county task force on heroin and prescription opiate addiction unanimously recommended the creation of at least two safe consumption sites in King County—one in Seattle, the other somewhere else in the county. (Safe consumption sites allow drug users to consume substances by non-injection methods such as inhalation, which is generally safer and allows people who use drugs that are traditionally smoked or snorted to do so under medical supervision). Those plans stalled under political pressure, as city after city (including Auburn, whose mayor Nancy Backus was on the opiate task force) adopted laws preemptively barring safe consumption sites inside their borders. Last year, the Seattle city council appropriated $1.3 million to establish and operate a safe consumption site; in June, however, the council indicated it would opt for a mobile injection-only van, which would likely preclude consumption by means other than injection but would be cheaper and potentially easier than siting a permanent facility. The mayor’s office says the $1.3 million will be in its 2019 budget.
Running a safe consumption site would require a new financial commitment of about $2 million a year. Durkan has already asked city departments to come up with budget cuts of between 2 and 5 percent in anticipation of a funding shortfall for 2019. In addition, the city budget office and council have to come up with around $10 million a year to pay for programs related to homelessness that Durkan paid for this year with one-time funding. In that climate, it’s hardly surprising that Durkan—who did not make safe consumption or reducing overdoses a campaign issue and has not made the proposal one of her legislative priorities—would be inclined to let it fall through the cracks, at least for now. On August 27, three days before Seattle advocates commemorated International Overdose Awareness Day with balloons and overdose prevention trainings in Westlake Park, deputy US attorney general Rod Rosenstein wrote an op/ed for the New York Times railing against safe injection sites, and specifically calling out Seattle’s plans to build a mobile injection van. “Injection sites destroy the surrounding community, creating “war zone[s]” with “drug-addled, glassy-eyed people strewn about.”
Seventeen years ago, a county task force on heroin and opiate addiction recommended many of the same measures the city and county are discussing today, including overdose response training, greater access to syringes, and other harm reduction methods, including (potentially) safe injection sites and encouraging drug users to use safer consumption methods. The report, and its recommendations, sat on a shelf for 14 years, with predictable consequences. The consequences of ignoring the recommendations of the 2016 task force will be equally predictable.
3. It’s been nine months since Scott Kubly, the former director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, resigned and was replaced on an interim basis by his deputy, Geron Sparrman. It’s been more than two weeks since Sparrman left to take a job at HNTB, a consulting firm that had numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle when Sparrman agreed to take the position, and Durkan announced that former Alaskan Way tunnel project director Linea Laird would take over as his replacement, also on an interim basis. And it’s been one week since the city finally posted the SDOT director position on the city’s official job bulletin, along with a brief description of the position and desired qualifications. According to the notice, interested candidates should contact Reffett Associates, an executive search firm with offices in Bellevue, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.
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