Tag: streetcar

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

KCSC_decision

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.

 

Support

 

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.

Support

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.