Afternoon Crank: Bike Lanes and Backyard Cottages

A backyard cottage in Ballard

Image via City of Seattle.

1. City council member Abel Pacheco, who is filling out former District 4 representative Rob Johnson’s term,  did some political calculus before deciding to seek the temporary appointment rather than staying in the crowded race for a four-year term, but urbanists are probably wishing they could have him longer.

Yesterday, Pacheco was instrumental in shooting down two amendments from council member Lisa Herbold that would have, respectively, barred homeowners who build accessory dwelling units (such as a basement apartment) from renting them out on a short-term basis through a platform like Airbnb, and required a homeowner to live on the property for at least a year before building a second accessory unit (such as a backyard cottage.)

Herbold said banning Airbnbs in ADUs would prevent the construction of ADUs for the purpose of providing short-term rentals rather than as “rental housing” for Seattle residents. Pacheco countered that in his district (which includes the University of Washington and Children’s Hospital) a high percentage of renters only need housing during the school year or a short-term residency, and that Herbold’s amendment would make it impossible for them to rent their units during off seasons. (City law limits Airbnb operators to two units—one inside their primary residence and one offsite).

“Having lived in two ADUs, I know how great an opportunity it is to provide for folks not just in my district but around the city,” Pacheco said. Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the legislation and has shepherded it through the council through years of legal challenges, added that if Herbold’s amendment passed, it would put ADUs in a separate category from all other types of rentals, so that someone who owned two houses side by side could rent out the second house as a short-term rental, but someone who owned a house and built a garage apartment on the same lot could not. “I don’t think that’s necessarily fair,” O’Brien said.

The legislation, which passed out of committee 5-0 (council member Kshama Sawant, who might have voted with Herbold on her amendments, was excused to go to a labor rally), will move forward to the full council on Monday, July 1.

“We don’t have constructable plans [for a two-way Fourth Ave. bike lane] right now.” — SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe

2. Pacheco also asked some blunt questions of Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe during a committee discussion about the diminished Bicycle Master Plan, which SDOT is now describing as an “accountability document” that only promises what the city can actually pay for. (The bike plan was scaled back in response to higher cost estimates on a number of projects that were supposed to be funded by the Move Seattle Levy. After bike advocates protested that the bulk of the projects that got cut were top-priority projects in Southeast Seattle and downtown, SDOT updated the plan by putting some of those projects back in as areas for “study,” while also scaling back a long-planned, and already delayed, protected bike lane on Fourth Ave. downtown). Pacheco asked Zimbabwe why the latest version of the Fourth Avenue bike lane is only northbound, rather than the two-way bike lane that has been in every previous version of the plan.

Zimbabwe said that SDOT has every intention of “designing a two-way facility, but the traffic impacts of that, and frankly the costs of that, have never been fully studied,” including the cost of signal infrastructure to allow left-hand turns across the bike lanes from Fourth Avenue. “That wasn’t part of the planning process previously,” he said. “We are committed to designing [it] to better understand what the cost implications are.”

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After the meeting, I asked Zimbabwe how it was possible that there was no design yet for Fourth Ave., given that it was originally supposed to open at the beginning of 2018. He said that his understanding was that the two-way bike lane was “designed to about 30 percent [without] a full budget development. … We don’t have constructable plans right now.” SDOT’s previous reasons for delaying the two-way bike lane have included costs, impacts on transit during the “period of maximum constraint” downtown, traffic impacts during major traffic incidents such as when a fish truck overturned on SR 99 in 2015, and (most recently) “parking impacts.”

I also asked Zimbabwe about whether SDOT planned to revisit its decision to eliminate another long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE in light of two recent collisions between drivers and vulnerable users (a cyclist and a motorcyclist, who was killed by a driver in a pickup truck turning left into his path). On Monday, as I first reported on Twitter, council member Sally Bagshaw said she was horrified by videos showing drivers zooming past cyclists at close range, using a newly added turn lane as a passing lane.

Zimbabwe said there were no plans to revive the protected bike lane—which was included in earlier versions of the Bike Master Plan but killed by Mayor Jenny Durkan after “concerns … from the community” —but that SDOT was “making some tweaks to make sure pedestrian crossings are safe” and adding flexible barriers to create “turn pockets at the intersections to keep [drivers] from overtaking” cyclists. In a statement to KING 5, SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergserson said that the upcoming changes, “as well as any others, should not be viewed as an indication of shortcomings but as part of SDOT’s ongoing data-driven approach to roadway improvements.”

“The Mayor Does Not Care About Bikes”: Advocates United In Opposition to Bike Plan Cuts

Bike advocates Apu Mishra and Tamara Schmautz symbolically shred the city’s bike master plan in council chambers Tuesday.

The fiery debate over Mayor Durkan’s proposal to dramatically reduce the scope of the city’s planned bike network, often in ways that directly contradict the recommendations of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board, showed no signs of abating Wednesday, as bike board members expressed their frustration directly to new Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe and deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan at their monthly meeting.

SDOT released its latest Bike Master Plan update a few minutes after 5:00 last Friday evening. Besides lowering the total number of miles of bike facilities, it de-emphasizes protected bike lanes on arterial streets (the current gold standard for safety and rider usability) in favor of neighborhood greenways (typically sharrows—markings on the shared roadway— and speed bumps on slower streets that are typically several blocks away from destinations). The new plan also eliminates a number of connections between underserved neighborhoods in Southeast and Southwest Seattle and downtown, including a planned protected bike lane between 12th Ave. South between South Charles Street and Yesler, where a cyclist was hit by a car just last week. That project was one of about a dozen that seem to have simply vanished from the plan since its most recent iterationin 2017, without any explanation in the update.

“Simply adding projects back … without saying, ‘Here are the things that we’re willing to give up that are not on the funded list’—right now, it’s not going to help us get to a final list if it’s all adds and no subtracts.” — SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe

Ranganathan and Zimbabwe attempted to reframe the cuts as the mayor’s attempt to rightsize a bloated plan as part of the Move Seattle levy “reset,” which cut back on levy-funded transportation projects of all kinds in response to lower-than-anticipated grant funding and cost estimates that the mayor’s office maintains were unrealistic. “It was really important for her and the department to rebuild public trust [and] to put together what we think is SDOT’s best estimate of what we should build,” Ranganathan said. The deputy mayor, who previously led the Transportation Choices Coalition, also maintained that the Durkan administration wanted to shift the emphasis from “miles” of bike facilities to “connections” between destinations, implying that previous administrations had focused mostly on mileage and that Durkan’s would not. (Insert “hmm” emoji here.) Bike board members have pointed out that many of the projects erroneously marked “SBAB removed” in the bike plan update were actually among the board’s top priorities. “You say you want to listen to the community,” said former bike board chair Casey Gifford, whom Durkan abruptly dismissed last year. “SBAB is designed to advise… but hardly any of the recommendations that were made were incorporated into the plan.” SDOT and the mayor’s office have both apologized for the suggestion that the projects were removed by the bike board, saying it was an oversight. However, this represents a significant shifting of the goalposts—just four days ago, mayoral spokesman Mark Prentice told me that the designation referred to “projects that SBAB opted not to prioritize. This does not mean that SDOT and SBAB do not consider these worthy projects, but just that based on resources and preferred connections, these did not rise to the top of the list.”

“I don’t think there’s a lot of confidence from this board or from the advocacy community generally that when projects are politically challenging …that we are going to keep those commitments.” —Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board co-chair Emily Paine

Zimbabwe said that the bike advocates would have more luck getting their priority projects added back into the plan if they also came up with a list of projects that could be cut.  “Simply adding projects back … without saying, ‘Here are the things that we’re willing to give up that are not on the funded list’—right now, it’s not going to help us get to a final list if it’s all adds and no subtracts,” Zimbabwe said. That comment prompted a round of responses from the board that could be summarized by board member Patrick Taylor’s comment that “we’re being thrown under the bus a bit. When we went through the process we were not told the costs” or that they should keep costs in mind when making their recommendations. “I have in my head a whole bunch of little data points that say the mayor does not care about bikes,” Taylor added, “and the only data point I have that says that she does is and Sam and other people telling me that.”

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Durkan, SDOT Get an Earful from Advocates About Proposed Bike Plan Cuts

Dozens of bike safety advocates lined up in city council chambers this afternoon to express their frustration at a Bicycle Master Plan update from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Seattle Department of Transportation that eliminates dozens of projects, replaces planned protected bike lanes with neighborhood greenways on distant, often hilly, parallel streets, and gives especially short shrift to neighborhoods in Southeast Seattle, where two of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s top-priority projects, on Rainier Ave. S and Beacon Ave. S, have been cut. Just prior to the meeting, the advocates held a rally and press conference in the lobby of City Hall, where council members Teresa Mosqueda and Mike O’Brien joined them in condemning the cuts.

Last year, SDOT announced significant cuts to many of the projects included in the $930 million Move Seattle levy, to reflect reduced federal funding and higher cost estimates for some projects.Meg Wade, from the climate action group 350 Seattle, talked about the abuse she has received from drivers as a queer cyclist and pedestrian. “I have been called a cunt; I have been called a bitch taking up too much space on the road; I have stepped into a crosswalk and asked a driver to move their car and been told ‘I am sick of you people’ I have been told ‘Fucking get out of my way.’ What this says is, it is okay for the harassment to continue.” Wade continued, her voice shaking: “It is astonishing to me that the mayor, who comes out of the gay community, would not understand that saying… ‘Go hide out of the public vision; get out of our public spaces’—that she wouldn’t understand the similarities” between anti-LGBT harassment and harassment of cyclists.

“Working-class people, middle-class people, families with little children, elderly individuals, community members—all of them have spoken [against the cuts]. When the mayor says it’s about community engagement, it’s about public feedback—well, whose feedback are you actually listening to?”

Immediately after Wade spoke, two cyclists, Apu Mishra and Tamara Schmautz, stood up to dramatically “mourn the loss” of three plans previously adopted by the city—the Bicycle Master Plan, the Climate Action Plan, and the Complete Streets—by destroying copies of each document in a hand-cranked portable shredder.

Members of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board, including its current co-chair, Emily Paine, expressed dismay that the plan labeled 13 of the eliminated projects “SBAB removed,” implying that the bike board had recommended those projects for removal. Some of those projects, Paine said, were not only “not recommended by SBAB to be removed,” they “were actually given our highest endorsement,” including a protected bike lane on Beacon Hill and a PBL on Rainier Avenue South.

SDOT attempted to walk back the “SBAB removed” designation on Tuesday, calling it an inadvertent error and apologizing for the confusion. (SDOT traffic engineer Monica DeWald said, “We should have rephrased that to ‘SBAB prioritized but funding limited,’ just so we sent the message that it was still an SBAB top priority but we just didn’t have the funding.”) But agency staffers were undoubtedly aware that the list of cuts included some of the bike board’s top priorities when they came up with the list. In an email to bike board members and SDOT staff, including DeWald, from last November, SDOT senior transportation planner Serena Lehman compiled a list of the board’s top priorities, which included both the Beacon Avenue and Rainier Ave. bike lanes. SDOT has not elaborated on why these two top-priority projects have been cut other than to say that the city doesn’t have the money to build them.

Bike board members also expressed concern Tuesday that SDOT has designated about half of all the bike projects that are scheduled for completion between 2019 and 2024 projects as having high levels of “risk,” which they worried might provide cover to remove them from the plan.  “A pattern has emerged in this administration of delaying and eliminating bike lanes that prove challenging or controversial,” bike board member Patrick Taylor said. “When I look at the implementation plan, I see most of the projects listed as ‘risky,’ which in an administration that does not have the gumption to follow through with projects designated as challenging, I view as concerning.”

“Our perception on the Bike Advisory Board is that this administration does not care what we think, and that when we send letters, we might as well send them as a paper airplane.”

Council members, including O’Brien, committee chairman Rob Johnson, and Kshama Sawant, expressed frustration that the mayor had rolled the bike plan back so dramatically. Sawant, who has not historically been among the council’s most vocal bike advocates, was particularly vociferous, arguing that it was “meaningless” for SDOT staffers to tout the city’s progress on bike infrastructure “at the same time that the mayor’s office and SDOT leadership has dealt a significant blow to the whole plan. … Working-class people, middle-class people, families with little children, elderly individuals, community members—all of them have spoken [against the cuts], Sawant said. “So I don’t really understand. When the mayor … says it’s about community engagement, it’s about public feedback—well, whose feedback are you actually listening to?” Sawant’s comments were a rebuke to activists who helped defeat a long-planned protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE, who argued that only “privileged” white people ride bikes or care about safe bike infrastructure.

Members of the Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee hit on many of the same themes at their monthly meeting Tuesday night, and discussed issuing formal recommendations to the council in response to the scaled-back plan. Committee  member Joseph Laubach, who noted that the new plan delivers only about 60 percent of the miles of new bike lanes, trails, and greenways included in the original levy, called the new strategy “unfair” even in light of the Move Seattle “reset.” Taylor, who also sits on the Move Seattle committee, noted that the bike board prioritized projects in South Seattle neighborhoods like Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley precisely because they connected those historically neglected neighborhoods to downtown. “All the projects that rose to the top of our list for extra emphasis are in Southeast Seattle… and those were the projects that disappeared without a trace,” he said. [Editor’s note: This paragraph initially said that the new plan eliminates 60 percent of the new bike lane-miles; in fact, it eliminates 40 percent and preserves 60 percent.]

Both O’Brien, who attended Tuesday night’s committee meeting, and Taylor, who noted that the bike board itself will discuss the new plan at its own meeting tomorrow night, urged the committee to consider making a formal recommendation to the council. “Our perception on the Bike Advisory Board is that this administration does not care what we think, and that when we send letters, we might as well send them as a paper airplane,” Taylor said. “Having this board’s letter as well might elevate [the concerns] to a higher level.”

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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: HSD Changes Homeless Contract Requirements; 35th Ave Bike Lane Approaches Resolution

1. The city’s Human Services Department is revising its benchmarks for withholding funds from underperforming homeless service providers after 20 of 46 service providers who received contracts with the city last year failed to meet new standards adopted in 2017. The new benchmarks will reduce the total amount of contracted pay HSD can withhold from 12 percent to 8 percent per year, and will reward providers for improvement over the course of a year, even if providers don’t hit their targets for things like exits to permanent housing and returns to homelessness.

As I reported last month, 20 of 46 city-contracted homeless service programs failed to meet the city’s new performance standards by the end of 2018, and were docked part of their pay under a new contracting system adopted by HSD in 2017. That system, which represented a major shift in how HSD contracts with human-services providers, enables the city to withhold 12 percent of a service provider’s contract if they fail to hit specific numbers on five metrics, including the percentage of clients who exit to permanent housing and the number of clients who end up back in the county’s homelessness system (a metric known colloquially, and somewhat imprecisely, as “returns to homelessness.”) Officials with the city refer to this system as “performance pay,” and say it’s meant as a reward for good results; providers have argued that withholding contracted funds makes it harder for them to meet the city’s ambitious new goals for moving people from homelessness to permanent housing.

A look through the performance improvement plans (PIPs) for the 16 programs that initially failed to receive their full contract pay last year, which I obtained through a records request, shows that many are falling far short of their targets—so far, in some cases, that it’s difficult to see how they will ever catch up.

Lindsey Garrity, with HSD, says the city will provide performance pay in increments of 25 percent, depending on how much progress providers are making toward their goals. “We have room to move around how we structure the performance pay and how we look at rewarding programs as they move toward performance,” as opposed to the previous “all or nothing approach,” Garrity says. “As it was structured, we weren’t rewarding improved performance and that is something we’re going to change in 2019.”  HSD’s Lily Rehrmann adds. The standards, which vary by program type, will remain the same.

Whether the programs that failed to meet HSD’s stringent new standards in 2019 will be able to do so next year remains an open question. A look through the performance improvement plans (PIPs) for the 16 programs that initially failed to receive their full contract pay last year, which I obtained through a records request, shows that many are falling far short of their targets—so far, in some cases, that it’s difficult to see how they will ever catch up.

A shelter run by Compass Housing Alliance, for example, is supposed to move a minimum of 40 percent of its clients into permanent housing when they leave. Throughout 2017, and during the first three quarters of 2018, that number never rose above 19 percent. Youthcare’s Catalyst shelter for young adults, from which no more than 20 percent of clients are supposed to return to homelessness, had a homelessness return rate, in one quarter, of 67 percent (and the number never went below the 20 percent target.) Santos Place, a transitional housing program run by Solid Ground, has an average stay in 2017 of 844 days, a number that had declined to 705 by the second quarter of last year. The target length of stay is no more than 150 days.

In some cases, the performance improvement plans, which are largely boilerplate, provide a glimpse at providers’ objections to the one-size-fits-all performance metrics. Catholic Community Services, for example, argued that their nighttime-only shelter for homeless men over 50 lacked funding for the kind of intensive case management that would allow to hit the target of 40 percent exits to permanent housing. Compass Housing Alliance pointed out that their rate of exits to permanent housing at the Peter’s Place shelter was artificially low (between 8 and 19 percent last year, against a goal of 40 percent). because the shelter accepts a high volume of one-night-only referrals from Operation Night Watch—people who stay at the shelter for one night and leave without accessing the services that are provided to regular guests. The Downtown Emergency Service Center raised a similar concern about its downtown night shelter, noting that many overnight clients are one-time-only direct referrals from Harborview and the Seattle Police Department who are “often not interested in engaging with services.” And several organizations cited staffing shortages as a major challenge—a problem that presumably requires  more funding, not less.

Garrity says HSD is committed to making sure its contractors succeed. “The city cannot do the work it does without the providers. Our goal is to always keep it moving forward and keep it a relationship that works for both entities,” she says. “Sometimes performance pay is talked about as if its purpose is very punitive, but we need [providers] to succeed in order for us to be successful.”

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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. Advocates and opponents of a long-planned protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE are meeting Tuesday with new Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe and staff from the mayor’s office to discuss the resolution of the debate over the lane. Bike lane proponents have told me that they anticipate Mayor Jenny Durkan to side with bike lane opponents and agree to eliminate the lane. Neither the mayor’s office nor SDOT provided any details about the meeting, which will reportedly also include the mediator hired by the city last September.

Some background: The city’s official Bike Master Plan has included a separated bike lane on 35th Ave. NE between Wedgwood and Ravenna since it was last updated in 2014. The project has already been both designed and contracted, and was supposed to be completed in 2018. Last year, however, opponents of the bike path began a concerted effort to convince Mayor Jenny Durkan to kill the proposal. Their efforts included both standard-issue arguments (eliminating on-street parking will destroy businesses; cyclists can just shift their route six blocks to the east or west) and more novel approaches, like arguing that bike lanes are only “for the privileged”—a claim that is surely news to groups like Rainier Valley Greenways, which have been begging the city for safe bike infrastructure on or near the most dangerous street in the city, which happens to run through many of Seattle’s least-privileged neighborhoods.

After death threats, vandalism, a bomb scare, and the creation of a single-issue PAC dedicated to supporting to “transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning” (they’ve raised $21,125 so far), the city hired mediator John Howell, at a cost of nearly $14,000, to “explore areas of concern” between opponents and advocates of the bike lane. The result, ultimately, was the creation of a new “compromise” plan that did not include any bike lanes at all, including any kind of alternative path for bike commuters. Strangely, the city’s proposed compromise eliminated just as much parking as the city’s original designed and contracted plan.

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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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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 soutbound 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.

Morning Crank: SDOT Will Help Fund Runner-Up’s Salary; Agency Gets Acting Director During Viaduct Closure

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1. Sam Zimbabwe, the incoming director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (pictured), won’t be able to start for several more weeks, so SDOT is getting another temporary director—current SDOT interim deputy director Kevin O’Neill, who will serve as acting director until Zimbabwe starts, most likely in February. The Alaskan Way Viaduct will be shut down for three weeks, starting this Friday, for the state to reroute SR99 into the new waterfront tunnel.

Since Durkan asked for the resignation of the last permanent transportation director, Scott Kubly, in December 2017, the department has had two interim directors—Goran Sparrman, who left the city for a job with the engineering firm HNTB, and Linea Laird, the former administrator for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project at the state department of transportation.

2. Last week, Durkan announced that she was hiring the runner-up for the SDOT position, retired Air Force general Mike Worden, to a “cabinet-level position” in her office, from which he will coordinate operations between city departments during the coming “period of maximum constraint,” when traffic into and through downtown will be impacted by a number of construction projects as well as the permanent viaduct closure.

When reporters asked Durkan last week whether Worden risked stepping on Zimbabwe’s toes (in addition to the new director, who Durkan has said will be in town this month to “help with the planning” for the viaduct closure, SDOT has a director of downtown mobility whose job encompasses “traffic management, transit investments, transportation demand management, right-of-way management, coordinated regional communications, planned infrastructure investments, strategic data, and metrics”), Durkan reiterated that Worden’s job involved many other agencies, not just SDOT.

But although the mayor’s office is trying to distance Worden from the department he originally applied to direct, his $195,000 salary will be paid, at least in part, by SDOT. Given that the mayor’s office is wedded to its talking point that Worden is not part of SDOT, the fact that SDOT dollars will fund his position in the mayor’s office seems a bit like adding an insult to a snub.

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Asked to confirm reports from several sources that SDOT would be footing the bill for Worden’s salary, mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg said the money would come from “braided funding” and that the exact dollar amounts that would come from various city departments hadn’t been determined yet.  Still, it hasn’t escaped notice inside city hall that the transportation department will be paying the salary of the man who didn’t get the top job, but got hired anyway, and who the mayor insists will not be looking over the new director’s shoulder.

3. Worden, who worked for defense contractor Lockheed Martin from 2010 to 2016 after retiring from the US Air Force, has reportedly instructed all city staffers to address him as “General,” which helps explain why not only Durkan but all her communications staffers consistently refer to him as “the general” or, in writing, as “the General.” City staffers say that Worden’s executive assistant has been meeting with employees to let them know that they should use the honorific when addressing or referring to him.

UPDATE: Late this morning, senior staff were reportedly told to tell their employees to begin addressing Worden as “Mike,” a reversal of the previous directive. I have a message out to the mayor’s office to find out when this decision was made, and why. In an email chain about Worden that began yesterday, a spokeswoman for the mayor shifted from referring to Worden as “the General” (last night) to “Mike” (this afternoon).

There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule on whether retired military officials should use their rank in a professional setting. They’re certainly allowed do so so (except in federal civil service jobs)‚ but many of the protocol and etiquette guides I found online caution against it, for obvious reasons: 1) It’s weird (and potentially intimidating) to pull rank in a non-military setting; and 2) no one wants to be that guy who got a Ph.D and now insists that everyone address him as “doctor.”

 

Morning Crank: If It Isn’t Anybody’s Job It Isn’t Anybody’s Job

Friends of the Waterfront Seattle chair Maggie Walker gives Mayor Jenny Durkan a medal at a press conference announcing an agreement on the waterfront funding plan yesterday.

1. Waterfront property owners have reached a deal with the city in a longstanding dispute over how much they will pay for improvements that are expected to dramatically increase their property values over time. The deal, which Mayor Jenny Durkan announced at the Seattle Aquarium yesterday, is essentially the one I described back in December: Property owners impacted by the one-time assessment, known as a Local Improvement District, will pay about 20 percent less than the city originally proposed—a total of $160 million, rather than $200 million, total—and, in exchange, will agree not to challenge their assessments. A nonprofit established to help fund and operate the waterfront, Friends of the Waterfront, will contribute $110 million to the project ($10 million more than originally planned), while the city will kick in an extra $25 million from commercial parking tax revenues, for a total city contribution of $249 million. The total waterfront budget will be reduced very slightly, from $717 million under the old plan to $712 million under the new one.

At Thursday’s press conference, Durkan said the city would pay for the additional $25 million by issuing additional bonds against the city’s existing commercial parking tax as existing bonds are retired. Besides requiring the Friends to come up with $110 million, the legislation Durkan will transmit to the city council tomorrow commits the city to spending $4.8 million a year (adjusted upward annually for inflation) on park operations and maintenance for the park, a catch-all term that includes the city’s contribution to security. That money would come from the existing parks levy (passed in 2014), the parking tax, and the city’s general fund. The legislation includes an emergency clause that allows the city to spend less on maintenance and security if general fund revenues decline in a future financial downturn.

2. The press conference included an awkward moment, when the mayor introduced Pike Place Market Public Development Authority council chair Rico Quirindongo (pictured, clapping, above), as Brian Surratt, the head of the city’s Office of Economic Development under former mayor Ed Murray, who also happens to be black but does not look like Quirindongo. After Quirindongo introduced himself and said a few words, Durkan returned to the mic and, without missing a beat, spelled his (actual) last name out loud for the press.

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3. Durkan also answered several questions about her decision to hire retired Air Force general Mike Worden, who was a runner-up for the Seattle Department of Transportation director position, as “mobility operations coordinator” during the “period of maximum constraint,” when mobility downtown will be pinched by several major projects around the center city, including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the construction of the Washington State Convention Center expansion, and the closure of the downtown transit tunnel to buses. Worden, whose career spans more than 30 years in the Air Force and six years as a director at defense contractor Lockheed Martin, has little direct experience in transportation planning.

Durkan announced her selection of Sam Zimbabwe, most recently the chief project delivery officer for Washington, D.C.’s transportation department, as SDOT  director last month. By choosing Worden for the newly created $195,000-a-year position, Durkan was effectively able to hire both of the remaining SDOT finalists—one for the position that both men originally sought, and one for a position created specifically for him. (A third finalist, Sound Transit division manager Kamuron Gurol, reportedly dropped out of the running late in the process). A similar scenario played out in Durkan’s selection of a new police chief, a drawn-out process in which she rejected, then reconsidered, then appointed then-deputy chief Carmen Best to the position, while also hiring one of the finalists, former Philadelphia police chief Cameron McLay, as a senior policy advisor.

The mayor said yesterday that she made the decision to hire Worden with Zimbabwe’s full collaboration and support. “He was very much in favor of having a person who would coordinate across all departments, because this isn’t just [about] the Seattle Department of Transportation. It’s much [bigger] than that,” Durkan said. For example, the city might need to redirect fire trucks to go around a traffic jam downtown, or offer flexible hours for people to file permit applications. “If it’s nobody’s job, it’s nobody’s job,” Durkan said. Currently, though, coordinating the city’s response to the so-called “Seattle squeeze” is somebody’s job—SDOT’s own Heather Marx, whose job title is “director of downtown mobility.” Marx did not play a role during yesterday’s press conference, and I didn’t see her in the crowd.

4. Also conspicuously absent: Deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan, the former Transportation Choices Coalition director who oversees “major transportation-related policy” for the mayor’s office and who would seem to be the natural choice to oversee Worden’s work in the mayor’s office. Instead, that role will go to deputy mayor Mike Fong, who also oversees almost a dozen city departments. Asked why she decided to have Worden report to Fong instead of transportation expert Ranganathan, Durkan said, “Again, this isn’t just about transportation. Senior deputy mayor Fong is the senior deputy mayor so [Worden] actually reports to me [and] coordinates with senior deputy mayor Fong.”

In October, when Ranganathan’s portfolio was reduced in a reorganization of the mayor’s office, she told me the changes would give her time to focus on “major initiatives” like congestion pricing downtown. Yesterday, both she and Fong echoed Durkan’s line that Worden’s job will mostly involve coordinating between departments like police, fire, and utilities—a point everyone at the mayor’s office hammered home so consistently that I started to wonder if traffic coordination had anything to do with transportation at all. SDOT—the agency everyone was so keen to de-emphasize—is, of course, the primary agency that will have to deal with traffic backups, transportation construction, transit access, illegal parking, bikesharing, enforcing new restrictions on Uber and Lyft, and any number of other initiatives related to center-city mobility.

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.