The Koch-Fueled Anti-Transit Crusade Hits Phoenix, Is Seattle Next?

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Phoenix's light rail opened in late 2008 and stretches to Tempe and Mesa. (Credit: Kinkisharyo).

Phoenix, Arizona is about to vote on a ballot measure intended to sabotage light rail expansions. A Valley Metro Rail extension to South Phoenix set to open in 2023 would be the first casualty, but Proposition 105’s ballot language would actually ban new light rail outright, dooming all future expansion efforts. Maricopa County voters will decide on August 27th.

The measure is backed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch through their influential political action committee Americans for Prosperity (AFP). The local anti-transit front group is called Building a Better Phoenix (in true Orwellian fashion) and a Phoenix New Times investigation revealed the campaign’s mastermind Scot Mussi is connected to the Kochs via his employer, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, an AFP-backed right-wing group. Mussi helped draft the proposal, contracted a signature gathering firm, and regularly advised Building a Better Phoenix members, the investigation showed.

As Laura Bliss reported in CityLab, conservative groups seized on some pushback by local business owners and motorists along the transit route. “It began with a seed of frustration among locals along South Central Avenue, which runs through a working-class section of Phoenix that is predominantly Latino and African-American,” Bliss wrote. “There, Valley Metro Rail planned to remove two traffic lanes to build 5.5 miles of light rail track. Worried that construction and a lack of space for cars would deter customers, a small group of business owners organized last year to demand the transit agency adjust their plans for the South Phoenix area.”

The Koch Empire Is Built on Car Dependence

It’s a playbook that the climate-change-denying Kochs have followed to block transit measures in cities like Nashville and Little Rock. Focus on delays to motorists and the hit to taxpayers, exaggerate the truth, and amplify that message with a huge influx of political spending. The Kochs built their corporate empire on the highway industrial complex. They drill the oil, pipe it, refine it, and sell it to you. Their asphalt builds highways and patches potholes. Coincidentally, conservatives can’t stop talking about potholes as soon as a transit project is proposed. Clearly they have a vested interest in ensuring that everybody drives everywhere and that transit languishes. And that’s why they come out ahead even as they spend millions of dollars on local anti-transit campaigns.

Hasan Minhaj made public transit the topic of his show, The Patriot Act, and highlighted the diabolical stunt the Koch Brothers are trying to pull in Arizona by astroturfing an anti-transit campaign just before Phoenix breaks ground on a light rail expansion.

Minhaj points out that by starving transit of funding, billionaires like the Kochs are trying to make the experience of transit-riding miserable and thereby force you to drive (or at least Uber). If you take climate change seriously, it’s an evil ploy, but it’s working. After a wave of negative ads and press, Nashville’s transit measure went down in flames, despite strong polling early on.

The 5.5 mile South Central extension is the southern spur. Phoenix voters approved a 2015 sales tax measure speeding up delivery of the line to 2023. (Credit: Valley Metro)

“Unlike Nashville, Little Rock, and other locales where Koch forces have helped [stop] transit projects from getting off the ground, light rail is well underway in Phoenix,” Bliss wrote. “The city’s ballot initiative will now be a test case for whether transit foes can stop a train that’s already left the station.” Valley Metro Rail has been a success story thus far. Its 26-mile route has exceeded expectations pulling in about 50,000 daily riders, and it has fueled a transit-oriented development boom in a region known for suburban sprawl.

“We’ve had more than $10 billion of public and private investment along the light rail line,” said Greg Stanton, the Arizona congressperson and former mayor of Phoenix. “Transit has made us a more urban environment. It gets us closer to our climate goals than anything will. It’s changed Phoenix in ways that nothing else ever has, and support for it has only grown around the Valley.”

Hopefully Maricopa County voters are not fooled by Koch propaganda and fearmongering and turn out to the polls August 27th to oppose Proposition 105.

I-976: Is Seattle Next?

It can feel like we are safe in Seattle since transit is popular here. Lately, transit measures have passed by a healthy margins here–the $930 million Move Seattle levy passed with 59% in 2015 and the multi-billion-dollar Sound Transit 3 package passed regionwide with 54% in 2016. Recent polling has confirmed that public transit support remains strong in King County.

Still, it’s hard to get too confident when conservative political groups are poised to strike at any sign of weakness and billionaires like the Kochs are ready to funnel millions for them to do their worst. Enter Tim Eyman.

Washington state’s own conservative provocateur in Eyman is seeking to pull a Koch-flavored stunt with Initiative 976, which would strip Sound Transit of billions of dollars in car tab revenue and undermine Sound Transit 3 (ST3) and will be on your ballot in November. The Kochs and other oligarchs like them have funded Eyman and propped up his perennial anti-tax ballot amendments and ignored his embezzling of political action committee funds.

Although Sound Transit has taxing authority over only a limited area within the Seattle metropolitan area, Eyman’s I-976 appeals to the whole state of Washington to block Seattle from taxing itself. And since car tabs are an important source of funding for the Washington State Department of Transportation and local transportation departments across the state, I-976 would also throw transportation systems statewide into turmoil. Many cities big and small would suffer cuts.

It’s a really regressively bad idea, but Washington state voters may be more swayed by anti-tax messaging than by pro-transit messaging. It’s going to be an absolute battle and the stakes are high. One of the biggest complaints about ST3 is that it takes too long to build the transit. I-976 would only add more delays. And climate change is not going to wait while we get it together as a civil society.

Why the City Chose Alexandria for Mercer Megablock Deal

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Prelimanary designs shows trapezoidal and twisting elements to break up the boxyness of the Mercer towers. (Alexandria Real Estate)

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her decision to sell the Mercer Megablock to Maryland-based developer Alexandria Real Estate for $143.5 million earlier this month. At the time, not much was known about the bids that failed to make the cut.

We got a little more information when Erica C. Barnett released the proposals on her website–illuminating at least as much as the City chose not to redact. Six developers participated through the end of competitive design bid contest, with a seventh proposal deemed non-responsive. Some developers included century-long ground lease options as opposed to the standard fee simple transaction where the land changes ownership status permanently. Boosted from inflation adjustments over the course of 99 years, some of the leases amounted to vast sums–more than a billion dollars before applying a discounting rate. Even with a discounting rate, the ground leases had significantly higher value than the cash offers for selling off the land outright.

The problem is the City has high need for housing funding now. Plus, it has $29 million in debt from purchasing the land it’s obligated to close out. Still, a perpetual source of revenue is a tantalizing proposition next to a one-time high. Below are the proposals courtesy of Barnett. I made mention of what seemed the best offer next to it–some developers offered multiple bid options.

  • Alexandria Real Estate– Best offer: $143.5 million, 175 affordable homes, and community center.
  • BioMed Realty – Best offer: $55 million and 175 affordable homes.
  • Kilroy – Best offer: $95.5 million and 184 affordable homes on nearby sites.
  • Tishman Speyer – Best offer: $163 million fee simple offer or ground lease for $70 million upfront plus $4 million annually with 2% annual inflation adjustment.
  • Touchstone – Best offer: $145 million fee simple or 99-year ground lease starting at $7.7 million.
  • Vulcan – Best offer: $50 million plus land transfer to create 440 to 535 affordable homes.

We got more information on the City’s decisionmaking process Friday at a presentation to transportation committee. The City was leaning toward the Alexandria Real Estate offer, a City representative said, and what really sold them was when the developer bumped up the offer after the City made a best and final offer (BAFO) request to the six developers. While Alexandria increased its cash offer almost 40%, the rest of the developers either sat pat or boosted their offer only slightly.

Alexandria made the largest best and final offer (BAFO) but initially Tishman made a larger offer. (Graphic: City of Seattle)

Councilmember Mike O’Brien commended the City’s Mercer Megablock team after their presentation. “We’ll see how it moves forward, but for the moment it feels like you’ve secured a really amazing deal for the people of Seattle,” he said. “A decade ago we were thinking about $40 million for these parcels… Obviously the market in South Lake Union has shifted quite a bit since then.” O’Brien said he would like to close the Mercer Megablock deal as quickly as possible, pointing to the stalled out Civic Square development on the block opposite Seattle City Hall as a cautionary tale.

Councilmember O’Brien did ask for clarity on the daycare center envisioned at the new Megablock campus and whether it would be optional feature or required. He also acknowledged that the sale of the property launches a larger conversation about land ownership and inequality in Seattle.

“We’re selling a really valuable asset, and we want to make sure that we use it acquire other assets that are important assets,” O’Brien added. “We’ve had conversations both public and private with community members who are concerned with the framework of how we think about land and real estate in our city and who gets to control it.”

The Pros and Cons of Ground Leases

Tishman Speyer, Touchstone, and Alexandria made ground lease offers, although we know almost nothing about the Alexandria lease offer since the developer sought to conceal those details and City has played along willingly, redacting nearly everything. One offer from Tishman Speyer that pairs a 100-year ground lease with $70 million upfront could have allowed the city to pay of its debts and still have some money to play around with. But there may have been other aspects of the offer the City didn’t like, despite the fact the lease would have kept revenue flowing to the City for 100 years and the land in public lands indefinitely.

Sunday Video: Why So Many Suburbs Look The Same

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In this Vox episode of Almanac, Phil Edwards explains why so many suburbs look the same. Principally, the advent of federal financing, the cul-de-sac, cars, and other policies changed the paradigm.

What We’re Reading: Parisian Veloism, Bus Only, and Drinking Water Woes

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On fire: Apparently two Lime bike batteries caught fire this week. Whoops. Is that something we should be worried about?

Safer places: A new Seattle homelessness pilot program will try to help reach those living in cars and vans.

Tolls for transit: A federal court of appeals agrees that interstate tolls in Pennsylvania can be spent on transit.

White House racism: Washington State will lead the fight against the federal regime’s attempt to redefine the application of “public charge” in denying Green Cards to immigrants.

Parisian veloism: Paris has grand plan for cycletracks to reach and crisscross its suburbs.

New leadership: A first-time candidate, Girmay Zahilay, looks poised to unseat lifer King County Councilmember Larry Gossett.

Highway removal: A new federal program would help cities remove highways.

Improving consultation: A Bay Area transportation planner makes the case for rethinking the way government conducts public outreach with diverse communities.

Low levels of salmon: A salmon season begins, their numbers in area rivers are at very concerning low levels.

Fewer service hours: Four Seattle community centers will see hours reduced beginning in September ($).

Bus only: Seattle now has a name to the woman who stepped up to keep motorists of the bus lane last week. This week, fellow advocates went next level in a campaign with red flags ($) waving motorists out of the lanes.

Unfair governance: The federal regime is planning to attack the principle of “disparate impact” in fair housing law, which could negatively affect its enforcement in communities across the country.

Generational divides: How are local demographics changing in Seattle for voting cohorts ($)?

Climate conscious cities: Sightline asks how our different our cities would look like if we took climate change seriously.

Scooter city: Everett is looks poised to keep its Lime electric scooters around ($) on city streets.

New in-need services: A new development in Downtown Seattle will provide the local aging homeless population with housing and healthcare.

Drinking water woes: A new report shows just how challenging safe, affordable, and reliable drinking water access and supply is in many Global South cities.

Disrupting progress: Streetsblog explains how Uber (and Lyft) is a “slow-motion tragedy.”

The greens roof: The world’s largest urban farm is set to open atop a roof in Paris.

Two tiered system: Car2Go has changed its rate structure in Seattle by creating two fare zones.

Environmental terrorism: California is suing the federal regime to stop a rollback of an environmental rule on coal-fired power plants. The Endangered Species Act is also proposed to be substantially weakened ($).

The Veterinarian, Part II of IV: Lonely, But not Alone

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This story happened five minutes after this story.

I woke up with the line. The sentence came to my mind as I lay there, unbidden, and again in the morning shower. I don’t sing in the shower; I think. But today I felt as though the line was thinking me, a slow dance to and fro, and I tried to touch it, testing out different tones, ways of saying it and how, all in silence. It was a simple line, not particularly shocking, but it managed to be a sequence of words I’d not heard before. Even alone it was slightly too powerful to say out loud. 

What did it refer to? 

I wrapped it up in my pocket and kept it to myself, venturing about my duties. These are the tiny thoughts that form most of human existence, the diamond slivers of contemplation we don’t realize form who we are. The shape of your ideas while brushing your teeth. Tying your shoe.

As the hours wore on the day relaxed into itself, and I forgot the sentence. I headed into the evening, into West Seattle, driving an uneventful 21. Isn’t the 21 always uneventful? I picked up commuters and dropped off commuters, not minding the pleasant reverie brought on by such repetition. 

Sort of meditative, this. 

Short Bus Lanes Roll Out on Rainier Avenue This Weekend

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Additional bus lanes will be coming to Rainier Ave S to speed up buses and improve reliability and safety. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) plans to install two short segments on Saturday and Sunday, after having been accelerated for implementation by the department after a dramatic collision. A third bus lane segment will come later this year.

SDOT will restripe the street by converting the outer travel lane in each direction to a business access and transit (BAT) lane, allowing right turns. A center turn pocket will be typical with the street rechannelization. The two segments planned for rechannelization are from S Frontenac St to S Fontanelle St and just north of S Cloverdale St to around the entrance of South Lake High School. Later in the year, a short stretch from S Eddy St to S Bateman St will also be restriped.

Locations for BAT rechannelization along Rainier Ave S in 2019. (City of Seattle)
Locations for BAT rechannelization along Rainier Ave S in 2019. (City of Seattle)

The rechannelization for BAT lanes will benefit Route 7, a busy trolleybus route that operates from Rainier Beach to the Denny Triangle, primarily along Rainier Ave S. The project should help improve safety on Rainier Ave S, the city’s deadliest street based on collisions per mile. “Reducing the number of general-purpose travel lanes has been proven to reduce speeding–a key factor in the frequency and severity of crashes,” SDOT wrote. If motorists respect the BAT lanes that seems quite plausible, but as we’ve seen with the case of Erin the bus lane hero, it sometimes takes extraordinary measures (e.g., human shields) for motorists respect bus lanes rather than cheat.

SDOT has already made some improvements on Rainier Ave S, with the most substantial implemented in 2015. The corridor is slated to get an upgrade with the Rainier RapidRide Line in 2024, which means much more than just paint. That means queue jumps, off-board payment, new bus platforms, and other RapidRide features are due to be rolled out. But SDOT will make ongoing improvements through 2022 ahead of full RapidRide upgrade.

The Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition has been pushing the City to add bus lanes more aggressively, including the proposition in its MASS Transportation Package. This is a step in that direction, but with plenty more work to be done to keep buses from getting swallowed up in Seattle’s worsening congestion and hemorrhaging riders.

Seattle Design Festival 2019 Takes to the Streets

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A Design Block installation from the 2016 Seattle Design Festival. (Credit: Trevor Dykstra)

With neighborhood crawls in Capitol Hill and Georgetown included in a packed schedule of events, the Seattle Design Festival is breaking out of the Downtown core.

Today is the kickoff for Design in Public’s 2019 Seattle Design Festival (SDF). Now in its ninth year, SDF is the largest design-related event in the Pacific Northwest, gathering 120+ partners and over 30,000 attendees to more than 80 citywide events, many of which are devoted to topics that are near and dear to readers of The Urbanist.

SDF kicks off with an opening party today, August 16th, followed by a design crawl on Capitol Hill this weekend. This year SDF has intentionally set up exhibits and activities outside of the Downtown core to give the festival more a citywide presence.

Each Seattle Design Festival has a theme. For 2019 the theme is Balance, with an emphasis on how us humans can better achieve balance with the natural world, as well as what we can learn as designers from how balance exists in nature.

Here’s an overview of the 2019 festival, along with some recommendations on design crawl and partner events focused on topics related to urban design.

Key Festival Dates – August 16–25

Opening Party, International District – August 16
Capitol Hill Neighborhood Crawl – August 17
Georgetown Neighborhood Crawl – August 22
Design Discussions:
Living in Harmony with the Things We Create – August 19
Creating Thriving Cities – August 23
Partner Events – August 16-25
and ending this year with a Block Party at Lake Union Park – August 24 & 25

Metro Proposes Bus Route Restructures for Kent, Renton, and Auburn, Wants Feedback

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Route 101 is poised to get a service boost in Metro's restructure. (Credit: King County Metro)

In conjunction with the RapidRide I Line planning process, King County Metro is developing a mobility plan to be implemented in September 2020 for the Kent, Renton, and Auburn areas. The RapidRide I Line will thread all three cities together. The mobility plan will result in some long-needed bus restructures and new flexible services to address local community mobility needs. Feedback on the proposals is open through August 25th through an online survey. A final plan is due this winter.

Among the bus restructuring, Metro has proposed deletion of at least eight routes, additional frequency for five routes, and routing changes for a further 11 routes. Routes on the chopping block primarily are peak-hour express routes and low-performing dial-a-ride (DART) routes. These include:

  • Express Routes 102 (Downtown Renton-Seattle), 157 (Lake Meridian-Seattle), 158 (Lake Meridian-Seattle), 159 (Timberlane-Seattle), and 192 (Star Lake-Seattle); and
  • DART Routes 908 (Renton Highlands-Renton Transit Center), 910 (North Auburn-Auburn Outlet Mall), and 913 (Kent Station-Riverside).

The express routes in Kent and Covington all compete with the Sounder and two of them pass through Kent Station. Light rail will open in 2024 to serve the Star Lake and West Hill areas, and Renton already has ample regular bus routes to Downtown Seattle that are equally competitive. In short, many of the routes are duplicative and may be better served by reinvesting service hours into more frequent local routes and improving span of service and coverage.

In terms of added frequency, Metro has proposed increasing trips on Routes 101 (Downtown Renton-Seattle), 105 (Downtown Renton-Renton Highlands), 164 (Kent Station-Green River College), 166 (Kent Station-Burien), and 186 (Enumclaw-Auburn Station).

The 11 routes up for notable routing changes include Routes 148, 166, 168, 169, 180, 181, 183, 906, 914, 916, and 917.

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