What We’re Reading: Taxing Vacant Homes and Carbon-Free Public Transportation

Pierce Transit is adding Proterra battery buses. (Credit: Proterra)

Threatening cuts: Transit in New York City is facing a dire situation where service could be cut by 40%, but is the threat real or just political?

More than tiny houses: Erica C. Barnett knocks back Danny Westneat’s just-do-some-tiny-houses “solution” to the homelessness crisis. Barnett also has the skinny on other local homelessness news.

Deadly year: Despite the pandemic reducing travel demand, New York City has already surpassed its 2019 traffic fatality levels.

Taxing vacant homes: Vancouver’s vacant homes tax is set to rise significantly next year.

Rising cases: King County Metro has reported a spike in the prevalence of positive workers over the past month ($).

Bad land use policy: Renton is working overtime to try and evict people experiencing homelessness from transitional shelter in a hotel.

Relegalize sixplexes: Sixplexes poll well in Vancouver.

Biz boon: A new study suggests that free transit might not reduce driving, but it does increase financial support of local businesses.

Patriots resist: The Trump administration is trying to deregulate authority from the Environmental Protection Agency, but career staff are openly trying to block last-minute rulemaking changes ($).

Housing justice: Shaun Scott pens a piece on the need to put housing policy front and center to promote affordability and racial justice.

Carbon-free: Arizona has developed and agreed upon a plan to have a carbon-free electricity system by 2050.

True deserts: It looks like ridehailing isn’t supporting the mobility needs of transit deserts overall.

Art in crisis: The social and pandemic crises that America faces has brought about a revolution in public space art.

Flooded: Houstonians aren’t too excited about the Army Corps of Engineers’ latest plans ($) to roll out traditional flood prevention solutions.

Transportation and climate: Regulating and managing transportation is one of the most important bureaucracy tools that the Biden administration will have to meet the Paris Accords.

Columbia River Crossing Freeway Project Is Back

A rendering showing the Columbia River Crossing project at Hayden Island. (WSDOT)

For the second time this century, the states of Washington and Oregon are gearing up to attempt to replace the I-5 bridge over the Columbia river between the two states. The current set of two bridges, one built in 1917 and the other in 1958, has “significant seismic vulnerabilities,” but a previous plan to replace the bridge ended in 2013 when the Washington state legislature failed to include the project in a transportation funding package.

That iteration, called the Columbia River Crossing, was pegged at $3.4 billion and with such a high price tag because the project wasn’t simply a one-for-one replacement, but a doubling of the highway with numerous new interchanges, as well as funding for light rail from Portland to its fast-growing suburb Vancouver, a haven for those seeking to avoid Oregon’s income tax while still living close enough to take advantage of its lack of sales tax. Vancouver is the county seat of Clark County, which has seen its population more than double since 1990, when it was just 238,053 to today when it’s approaching 500,000 residents.

Opponents of the bridge, often at odds with each other, included light rail opponents like then-state senator and later Trump staffer Don Benton, and environmental advocates opposed to highway expansion. It was largely the price tag and lack of desire in Clark County for light rail, though, that caused the project to meet a dead end, with many high profile regional environmental groups staying out of the fight yet cheering its demise.

Current configuration of the two I-5 bridges between Washington and Oregon. (WSDOT)
Proposed configuration for the bridge portion of the Columbia River Crossing. (WSDOT)

The design of the CRC would have taken the current six lanes of I-5 between the states to ten lanes plus four shoulders, and “optimized” seven interchanges on either side of the river. A full 40% of the cost of the project would have been for those interchanges, significantly more than the 30% that would have been for the bridges themselves, showing how much highway expansion was included in the CRC under the guise of replacing aging infrastructure.

Wonkabout Washington: We’ve Got Their Attention


The 2020 legislative session promises to be like nothing we’ve seen before due to the impacts of Covid-19. Legislators will be meeting entirely virtually, providing both new opportunities for constituents to engage on legislation and limitations on the number of bills that will be up for consideration. On top of all this, the legislature is facing down a multi-billion dollar budget hole.

This strange context is why Futurewise’s Washington Can’t Wait campaign is off to an early start. We know we have to pass updates to the Growth Management Act (GMA) in 2021 if we want to have an impact on the Central Puget Sound counties comprehensive planning process. Specifically, we’re looking to add a climate element to the GMA, update the housing element and incorporate environmental justice principles throughout the Act. But given the constraints on legislators listed above, we also know that we’re going to organize extra hard to keep their attention.

November 16th – 20th marked a Week of Action hosted by Futurewise to inspire people across the state to engage their legislators on these critical GMA updates. More than 400 land use activists from Benton to Whatcom counties sent emails, made calls and mailed postcards to their legislators asking them to take action next year to update the GMA to respond to the crises of climate change, housing affordability and environmental injustice. Some superstar volunteers hosted their own organizing parties from a poetry reading to a Zoom blast with local electeds. Others submitted letters to the editor and op-eds in local papers outlining the urgency of the campaign.

Here’s what people are saying:

“The next set of Comprehensive Plans are in 2023 for the City of Seattle, and 2024 for King County. 2023 and 2024 may sound like a long time from now, but the planning and community engagement will start soon so it’s critical the GMA updates are in place before they do. These plans will determine the next 10+ years of growth in our community, impacting the air that we breathe, the homes where we live, and the sidewalks where we walk.” – Serene Chen in the International Examiner

“The pandemic laid bare the risks of housing insecurity and demonstrated the increased risks of mortality from Covid-19 in areas subject to higher rates of pollution. July saw a peak in infection rates and then, in late August and early September, out-of-control wildfires across the state resulted in weeks of lethally unhealthy air and hundreds of thousands of acres of burned land. As the summer made clear, Washington cannot wait to mitigate climate change and increase community resilience. Nor can it wait to address decades of state policies negatively affecting communities of color, or resolve the growing crisis of housing insecurity.” – Jennifer Calkins in The Urbanist

Snohomish County Light Rail Planning Turns toward Housing

Snohomish County is gathering feedback on housing strategies to be deployed near its future light rail stations at Ash Way and Mariner Way. (Graphic by Snohomish County)

Approaching the halfway mark of their Fall 2020 Light Rail Communities workshop, Snohomish County has opened up part two of the workshop to address and solicit community feedback on their current and future housing affordability situation. This workshop is a part of the County’s Light Rail Communities program, whose scope covers urban unincorporated Snohomish County in between Lynnwood and Everett–referred to as the subarea within the program. When The Urbanist last reported on the program, the County had selected its preferred station locations for Ash Way and Mariner Stations.

Promising Housing preferences for the Subarea

On November 6th, part one of the workshop first shared and solicited reaction to community feedback from the county’s Community Preferences Survey and Residential Housing Type Virtual Workshop. On housing, the last workshop and survey results uncovered mixed but overall promising housing density acceptance by survey participants. Overall, three- to six-story buildings were rated highest for importance to accommodate with townhouses as a close second, and duplexes and three-story walk-ups as strong third and fourth place. Single-family homes were the most divisive with the highest share of greatest importance votes and second highest share of lowest importance votes. Towers of 20+ and 10+ stories were rated as the least important to accommodate, but overall 10+ story buildings were not that far behind single-family homes. Space is made available to comment on these results.

Rated on a scale of one to seven, with 1 lowest importance to accommodate and 7 highest importance to accommodate -(Courtesy of Snohomish County Planning & Development Services)

The County also has since taken the liberty to construct three themes for housing density for the subarea. All three themes share similar overall density, but as their numerical designations ascend their density becomes more distributed across urban unincorporated Snohomish. While the themes will not reflect actual or proposed changes to future zoning, they’re an attempt to reflect the survey results. Perhaps theme three reflects public input the best with its plentiful midrise and townhouse usage, and limited 10-20 story buildings restricted to urban cores. Part one of the workshop ends with space for public comment on the themes.

Sunday Video: Marijuana Legalization and Drug Decriminalization Did Well This Year


Marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization took a big leap forward this year. Arrests and prosecution of drug possession and sale has been disproportionate, but decriminalization can go a long way to undoing this paradigm. So far, politicians have not caught up with public opinion, Vox explains.

Names Nathan Gets Been Called: 4th Edition!


What will we call each other sixty years from now? Sixty years ago we thought we knew. We didn’t. Some of it won’t be the same, and some of it will. The delirious human project will continue forth, and from time to time we’ll look back on today. These were the names we used to use, that have been said and will be said again–sweet nothings of love and hate and everything in between. 

Which works for me. 

This latest list (same the earlier three below) are culled from the last two years, and include many of my personal favorites. Here goes~

Dream Machine
Big man
Little man
Young Man
My favorite millennial
The famous one
Time and a half
Doogie (this one just won’t go away…)
The Ghetto Tour Guide
Could I Get a Transfer
King Bus Driver
Captain of the Ship
Number 7
White Woman
Bubble Tea
Mr Kind Hearted
Mr Friendly
The Old Guy Who Looks Really Young
The Young Father of Metro
Nigger (as an epithet, on the 5)
Nigger (as a term of endearment, on the 7)
My Son
Korean Bus Driver
Lil Bro
Objectively the best bus driver in the city
The personification of the movie Amelie
The Natalie Portman of bus drivers
The Ernest Hemingway of bus drivers
The Studs Terkel of bus drivers
The Mister Rogers of bus drivers

I’ll see you out there.

Other names Nathan gets called! A list in three parts: 123.

An Urbanist Case for Small Nuclear Power Reactors

An artist’s rendering of NuScale Power’s small modular nuclear reactor plant. (Courtesy of NuScale)

Nuclear power accounts for nearly 20% of American electricity generation, which still outpaces renewable power generation by a few points. That output is done at legacy facilities since the United States has not completed a new nuclear power plant in three decades. However that appears likely to change soon, and nuclear power can be a key part of decarbonizing our energy mix and reducing air pollution.

On October 16th, the Department of Energy approved a multi-year cost share award of up $1.355 billion to a new entity, the Carbon Free Power Project, to demonstrate and deploy a 12-module small modular reactor (SMR) power plant. This news follows the first ever SMR design to receive U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Design Approval in August. NuScale Power’s design is forecasted to be built by and start operation in the Carbon Free Power Project plant in 2029.

The 720 megawatt (MWe) fission plant will be located at the Idaho National Laboratory and be composed of NuScale’s 60 MWe nuclear power modules. If the process goes well, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), which owns the Carbon Free Power Project, hopes to begin construction of the plant in 2025. Applications for construction and operation are set to be applied for in 2023. UAMPS will be distributing energy from the plant to their participating public power utility customers in Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. UAMPS CEO noted that this project will complement and enable additional intermittent renewable energy, wind and solar that are a growing part of the agency’s portfolio.

Idaho National Laboratory, where the the CFPP plant will be built. (Courtesy of the Department of Energy)

The SMR power plant will be the first of its kind in the United States, whose fleet of fission reactors has begun a slow string of retirements. Nuscale’s small form factor fission reactor technology is a part of a newer family of Generation III/III+ reactors, which have better economics and safety features compared to the Generation II reactors that are stereotypical of the American fleet and public perception.

Supposed benefits of SMRs and their improvement in fission energy may make them compelling options for growing urban communities in search of non-carbon energy sources. If the technology proves to live up to its promises, it could revive America’s nuclear industry and help provide our cities with fossil free power. Local fission and climate advocates at Seattle Friends of Fission (FoF) see great hope in this form factor of advanced nuclear.

Where SMRs depart from conventional nuclear

As defined by the World Nuclear Association, small modular reactors are nuclear fission reactors generally 300 MWe equivalent or less, designed with modular technology using module factory fabrication, pursuing economies of series production and short construction times. These properties and modern reactor design potentially allow SMRs to avoid the older and prototypical reactors’ baggage, namely safety, cost overrun, and construction delay concerns.

Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima meltdowns immediately come to mind when thinking of safety and nuclear. Products of a combination of negligence, human error, and design, these incidents greatly reduced the favorability of nuclear energy at the time. These systems required active cooling systems, which ended up failing in spectacular meltdown and radiation contamination.

Holiday Video: How Big Can Cities Get?


Davos Amos ask how big cities can get. Many megacities, largely defined as over 10 million people, are rapidly growing in industrialized countries. But cities over 100 million–gigacities–could be possible this century as megacities grow and merge.

Happy Thanksgiving Day to you and your family from all of us at The Urbanist. Take care and be Covid safe.