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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Crank: Potential for Conflicts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Late Morning Crank: New Homelessness Policies and New Streetcar Claims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Crank: Another Interim Head for SDOT, More Streetcar Fallout, A Victory for Burke-Gilman Trail Advocates, and “Tolling to Make Congestion Worse.”

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1. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been headed up by an interim director, Goran Sparrman, for nearly seven months, since controversial director Scott Kubly left the position last December, a month after Jenny Durkan was sworn in as mayor. Durkan extended Sparrman’s tenure as interim SDOT chief by two months at the end of May, when the SDOT director publicly announced that he planned to leave at the end of August. At the time, Durkan’s office announced a national search to replace him, and put out a call for input from the public on what they would like to see in the next SDOT director.

Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle.

Sparrman’s departure date is rapidly approaching, and Durkan has not announced his replacement, nor, apparently, does she plan to any time soon. Instead, The C Is for Crank has learned, will announce yet another interim director—reportedly Genessee Adkins, SDOT’s current chief of staff—and put off hiring a permanent director until this winter, possibly as late as January, according to sources close to the department. The ongoing lack of permanent leadership at the embattled agency, which is dealing with fallout from cost overruns on the delayed downtown streetcar as well as a vocal backlash from bike and pedestrian advocates over Durkan and Sparrman’s decision to delay implementation of the long-planned Fourth Avenue protected bike lane until 2021, has reportedly damaged morale at the agency and contributed to a sense of an agency in turmoil. Compounding the lack of leadership at the top is the fact that all four of SDOT’s deputy directors are also serving on an interim basis, as is the current chief of staff (Adkins is currently on leave), creating an org chart headed up almost entirely by people serving on an impermanent or contingent basis. (The org chart itself, unusually for a Seattle city agency, only includes the names of the seven people at the very top, followed by the general functions each of those people oversee.)

Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle. Sparrman reportedly accepted his new private-sector position several months ago. I asked Durkan’s office whether it was a conflict of interest for Sparrman to be negotiating on behalf of SDOT with agencies that could soon be his clients. Her spokeswoman, Stephanie Formas, responded by referring me to the city’s ethics rules regarding former employees, which restrict current employees’ ability to be involved in their future employers’ “dealings with the city,” and restrict former employees’ ability to participate in certain activities, like bidding for contracts, for the first year or two after they leave the city, depending on the activity.

 

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2. Mayor Durkan issued an “update on the Center City Connector” yesterday that confirmed some of what city council member Lisa Herbold was talking about a full five days ago (when I was on vacation; sorry!): The vehicles the city ordered for the indefinitely postponed First Avenue Streetcar are wider and longer than the existing South Lake Union and First Avenue streetcars, suggesting that they may not be compatible with the existing systems the Center City Connector is supposed to connect.

Durkan, to the consternation of some transit advocates, has been lukewarm on the proposed downtown streetcar ever since initial operations cost estimates turned out to be off by as much as 50 percent and the cost to build the system ballooned by tens of millions. A long-awaited independent financial analysis of the project has been delayed because, according to today’s statement from the mayor’s office, the review “was much more complex than initially expected.” One question that could be deal-breaking is whether the new, larger vehicles are even compatible with the gauge of the existing streetcar lines, which run from Pioneer Square to First Hill and from Westlake to South Lake Union.

Formas, the mayor’s spokeswoman, says that it’s possible the lines will still be able to connect—the existing streetcars, for example, are built to slightly different specifications but can still run on each others’ tracks—but the episode brings to mind what happened with the downtown transit tunnel, whose original train tracks, installed almost as an afterthought in 1993, had to be torn out and replaced in the mid-2000s, resulting in additional costs of more than $45 million.

“We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free. We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.”

3. Advocates for completing the long-delayed “missing link” of the Burke-Gilman multi-use trail in Ballard won a small victory last week, when a King County Superior Court judge dismissed a complaint by the Ballard Coalition, a group of businesses that opposes the completion of the trail as proposed by “missing link” advocates, charging that the city hearing examiner who approved the final environmental statement for the project had a conflict of interest. The Coalition argued, essentially, that because then-deputy commissioner Ryan Vancil was up for a promotion when he determined in January that the city’s environmental analysis of the project, which took five years and cost $2.5 million to complete, was adequate. The decision was a significant victory for trail advocates.

In its complaint, the business coalition argued that Vancil violated the appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires public officials to conduct business in a way that appears fair, by applying for and obtaining a promotion from deputy hearing examiner to chief hearing examiner while the city of Seattle had a case in front of him—specifically, the “long-running [Burke-Gilman] dispute.” In his ruling rejecting that argument, Judge Samuel Chung noted that if he were to assume that anyone who applied for a promotion within the hearing examiner’s office was biased in favor of the city, it “would impose a presumption that would taint all virtually all decision making by that body. Every hearing examiner is presumed to be fair and impartial, and an advancement within that office under these facts do not form a basis for an appearance of fairness violation.”

4. Deadlines prevented me from giving my full attention to a resolution the city council passed last week vowing to build out as much of the planned downtown bike network as possible while the Fourth Avenue protected bike lane remains in limbo, but I didn’t want to let one comment from council member Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the resolution, slip by. O’Brien made the remark while we were discussing the “period of maximum constraint” between now and roughly 2021, when construction projects and the closure of the downtown bus tunnel and the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct are expected to jam traffic downtown.

O’Brien, who opposed the Alaskan Way tunnel project, pointed out that everyone who now uses the viaduct to get to points downtown will drive instead on surface streets, and even people going through downtown will use surface streets to avoid the tunnel, contributing to traffic jams during the “period of maximum constraint” from roughly now until 2021, when construction and demolition projects are expected to make downtown traffic worse than at any time in recent history. The day before we talked, O’Brien said, the Washington State Transportation Commission had approved tunnel tolls ranging from $1 to $2.25. “We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free,” O’Brien told me. “We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.” Instead, O’Brien said, Seattle is going to have “anti-congestion pricing—pricing to make congestion worse.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Reminiscences

File:Seattle Streetcar 301 leaving Pacific Place Station.jpg

Streetcar image by Steve Morgan.

1. Earlier this month, 100 representatives from Seattle neighborhood groups, downtown businesses, and advocacy groups—including the interim director of the Transportation Choices Coalition and the head of the Compass Housing Alliance—wrote a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan urging her to move forward with the delayed, over-budget downtown streetcar line, which would connect the two existing streetcars (which go from Chinatown to First Hill and from Westlake to South Lake Union) via a “Center City Connector” running on First Avenue downtown. Durkan pressed pause on the project in March,  directing the city to do its own investigation, and hired a consultant to do an outside review of the $200 million project, setting a self-imposed deadline of June 19 that came and went without a report from the consultant. (According to the Seattle Times, the results of the internal review are expected to be released on Friday).

The letter, which urges Durkan to think of all the small minority-and family-owned businesses that would benefit from the streetcar, is in many ways reminiscent of the public pressure that came to bear on Durkan in two other recent debates: The head tax (a $250-per-employee tax on about 500 high-grossing businesses) and the appointment of a new police chief. In both cases, Durkan took a controversial position, then changed her mind. With the head tax, she opposed the version the city council initially proposed, then reversed course to support it after ostensibly getting Amazon on board, then flipped again to oppose it after a coalition of businesses and developers created a campaign to defeat it at the polls. In the case of the police chief, Durkan initially eliminated interim Chief Carmen Best from the running, citing the recommendation of her appointed search committee, whose chairman, Tim Burgess, said the group agreed “it was best at this point for an outsider to be brought in as the next chief.” Yesterday, in a stunning turnaround, Durkan appointed Best, saying by way of explanation that the thing that had changed between Best’s elimination from the running and her appointment as chief was that “she got on the list of three finalists.”

So will Durkan flip-flop on the streetcar as well—approving the over-budget link between two slow, underutilized lines in response to pressure from community groups that argue the streetcar is the best way to provide “much-needed transit access and enhanced mobility” to people traveling through downtown? Look back in this space after Friday, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the streetcar turns out to be Durkan’s third 180 in as many months.

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2. Late Monday night, the Bellevue City Council approved a process for siting permanent shelters in the city, which is a first step toward the lengthy process of approving a permanent shelter in Bellevue—a process that could still take another several years. Currently, the only shelters in Bellevue are temporary; the land use code amendment adopted Monday creates a land use code designation for a permanent shelter. The arguments for and against the shelter were reminiscent of the debate over shelter in Seattle, writ small—what’s at stake in Bellevue are 100 potential permanent shelter beds, compared to the more than 3,100 shelter beds that currently exist in Seattle.

Among other amendments, the council narrowly rejected a proposal to require a 1,000-foot buffer between the shelter and any residential areas or K-12 schools (the amendment would have also allowed shelters to be located up to one mile away from a transit stop, rather than within a half-mile, which would effectively limit shelters to industrial areas inaccessible by transit. The council also considered, and rejected, the idea of making homeless shelters a temporary, rather than a permanent, use.

The city of Bellevue has been embroiled in debate for years over a proposed men’s shelter in the Eastgate neighborhood, near Bellevue college and a Sound Transit park-and-ride. According to the most recent one-night count of King County’s homeless population, there were at least 393 people living unsheltered in East King County.

Former city council member Kevin Wallace and recently elected council member Jared Nieuwenhaus have suggested that the shelter could be located in an industrial area near Sound Transit’s light rail station in the Bel-Red neighborhood, which would require Sound Transit to create new plans incorporating a shelter into its light rail station. (When he was on the council, Wallace, a developer, frequently tried to delay or alter Sound Transit’s plans to build light rail to Bellevue.)

Council member Jennifer Robertson, an opponent of the changes adopted Monday, claimed she had seen crime statistics that showed that the majority (55 percent) of the property crime in the city of Portland was committed by the 3 percent of its population who are homeless, along with 39 percent of the violent crime. I was unable to track down this statistic; Portland’s crime dashboard, like Seattle’s, does not track crime rates based on a perpetrator’s housing situation.

Deputy mayor Lynnne Robinson, who voted for the land use amendments, said she had never seen a process drag out this long. “We made a commitment to site a permanent men’s shelter, and there [has been] more public process  in this [land use code amendment] than I’ve ever seen in anything else in my five years on the council that we’ve permitted or created a permitting process for,” Robinson said.

The first temporary winter shelter in Bellevue opened in 2008; the city first committed to opening a permanent shelter for men in 2012.

Morning Crank: The “Unique Problem” That Separates Us from Salt Lake City and Houston

1. A line of people and pets snaked along the eastern perimeter of CenturyLink Field yesterday morning as the United Way’s annual Community Resource Exchange, an annual event where volunteers and service providers offer resources, food, dental care, and other services to people experiencing homelessness. Upstairs, in the stadium’s event center, a decidedly more well-heeled crowd gathered for an event called the Changemakers Rally—a series of short speeches, actually, followed by a panel discussion with leaders from Amazon, Starbucks, and Zillow, along with All Home, the Chief Seattle Club, and United Way. The highlight of the odd event wasn’t the anodyne address by Mayor Jenny Durkan, who skirted substance in her speech and during the brief Q&A with remarks like, “We need to commit over time to make this change in people’s lives for every day of their lives” and “We know what works, we just need to do it and have the collective will to do it.” Nor was it an awkward onstage back-and-forth between United Way board chair Kathy Surace-Smith and Justin Butler, a formerly homeless Metropolitan Improvement District Ambassador who moved here from Phoenix and couldn’t be prodded to say much more about the Community Resource Exchange beyond, “Well, it got me a job.”

No, the highlight was when Starbucks VP John Kelly took the mic and used his time to blast the Seattle City Council for considering an employee hours tax to fund investments in homelessness at a cost of up to $75 million a year, a proposal he called an example of the way “our government keeps on targeting [businesses] as a  source of funds rather than innovators and problem solvers.” Starbucks has focused its homelessness spending on family homelessness, as has Ohio homelessness consultant Barb Poppe, whose famous/infamous “Poppe Report” is the blueprint for Seattle’s Pathways Home initiative. Kelly highlighted that report, which calls on the city to move funding away from service-rich transitional housing toward “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers to help people rent apartments on the private market. “We know the decisions, we’ve got the Poppe Report with all the solutions, the blueprint is there—we just need to act on reform,” Kelly said. “Barbara Poppe has worked with Salt Lake City and Houston and seen demonstrable progress.”

The “unique problem” that differentiates  Seattle from those two cities, Kelly continued, is that only Seattle has a large number of families living on the streets and in cars. The other difference, of course, is that Seattle apartments cost about twice as much as apartments in either of those cities, thanks in no small part to a housing shortage that is also unlike anything Houston or Salt Lake City is experiencing.

2. A curious addendum to the saga of former mayor Ed Murray, who resigned last year amid accusations that he had sexually abused several minors in the past: Last April, as the scandal was breaking, Murray filed a financial disclosure report showing that he owned just one property—his Seattle house on Capitol Hill, valued at $876,000. (I came across Murray’s financial documents while I was looking into an item related to current Mayor Jenny Durkan’s own investments). That was odd, because a previous financial disclosure report, from 2016, showed that he owned another house—a three-bedroom, two-bath vacation home in the coastal community of Seabrook, which Murray and his husband Michael Shiosaki bought in November 2015 for $470,000.

Murray amended the report to include his second home six weeks after filing the initial report without it. However, those six weeks—from April 14, when he filed the initial report, to May 31, when he corrected it—were critical ones. During April and May, while the press was all over the story, Murray repeatedly pleaded poverty—claiming, for example, that he needed a special dispensation from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission allowing him to raise money from supporters for his own legal defense because as “a lifelong public servant, [he] does not have the personal resources needed to fund his own legal defense.” Murray also told Q13 Fox that he had “no assets.” Referring to his house in Seattle, he said,  “Michael owns the house.” In fact, both Shiosaki and Murray, who are married, are listed as the owners of both houses.

The mis-filed report could have been a simple oversight, and the addition of the house didn’t change Murray’s total assets, which he listed in 2017 as $1.8 million. Murray and Shiosaki still own the Seabrook house, which can be rented for between $148 and $335, depending on the season. One other bit of historical trivia: In 2013, when he was still a state senator, Murray earmarked $437,000 in the state budget for a new bike and pedestrian connection between Pacific Beach and Seabrook—at the time a brand-new planned community—at the request of a longtime friend who owned a house there. Not long afterward, the friend maxed out to Murray’s first campaign. And about two years after that, Murray himself bought a vacation house in the town.

3. After the Seattle Times reported last week that, according to King County Metro, the downtown Seattle streetcar will cost 50 percent more to operate than the Seattle Department of Transportation previously claimed, Mayor Durkan requested an independent review of the $177 million megaproject, which is already under construction. On Tuesday, city budget director Ben Noble told the council’s transportation committee that the mayor’s office is concerned about “whether we have accurate information about the operating costs and… potentially the capital costs as well.” That prompted council member Lisa Herbold, a longtime opponent of the streetcar, to suggest “pressing pause” on the project until the city could get a handle on how much it will cost to operate and build (and how the city will pay for any overruns). Goran Sparrman, SDOT’s interim director, suggested that putting the project on ice, even temporarily, could put federal funds at risk and lead to higher costs in the future, since the cost of labor and materials tends to escalate while projects are idle.

Fans of the downtown streetcar, which will link the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars, will conclude from today’s discussion that it makes sense to keep plowing ahead with the project; even if the thing is over budget, the costs will only get worse if we wait. Detractors, meanwhile, will see that argument as an example of the sunk-cost fallacy—the idea that because the city has already invested so much in the project, the only option is to keep building, when in fact, there’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Just the Highlights

1. The HIGHLIGHT of last night’s mayoral debate at Seattle University, which I live-tweeted (Storify here): When “establishment” candidate Jenny Durkan, an activist for LGBT rights before she became a US Attorney under Obama, turned to her opponent Cary Moon and said, “Part of me wants to say, when did you get woke, because I’ve been working on these issues for 20 to 30 years in this city.” Durkan was responding to Moon’s sound bite about sharing power with all races and genders to create an racially and socially equitable city government.

2. The HIGHLIGHT of King County Superior Court judge Veronica Alicea Galván’s ruling against proponents of Initiative 27, which would have barred safe consumption sites throughout King County: The section explaining exactly why restricting the county’s spending power by banning safe consumption sites “impinges on the legislative authority of the county,” goes beyond the authority of local initiatives by attempting “usurp state law,” and conflicts with a state supreme court ruling that upheld the right of local public health authorities to respond to public health crises like the opiate epidemic. “Accordingly, I-27 in its entirety extends beyond the scope of local initiative power,” the ruling concludes.

3. The HIGHLIGHT of my conversation about the proposed First Avenue Streetcar with former Transportation Choices Coalition director-turned council land use chair Rob Johnson yesterday was his exasperated response to streetcar critics who say the city should return $50 million in federal money because it’s unclear where ongoing funding for streetcar operations will come from:

“All these capital projects come with a level of risk. … How come we’re not having those same discussions about Lander Street [a $123 million overpass project that was planned long before it received full funding]? We always pick on transit projects to ask these fundamental structural questions, but we never do that for road projects. We didn’t spend 25  minutes talking about Lander today. Instead, we spent 25 minutes talking about the streetcar. … It feels like this project is being singled out unfairly. So if my colleagues are going to continue down that path, we need to do it for all these other major capital projects.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! 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 substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.