Saturday, 31 October, 2020

MASS Coalition Seeks to Restore Key Transportation Cuts in Mayor’s Budget

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The Move All Sustainably Seattle (MASS) Coalition is backing four budget amendments to undo Mayor Jenny Durkan’s cuts and invest in walking, biking, and transit.

  • Upgrade Rainier Avenue sidewalks in Southeast Seattle ($1 million) — Lead sponsor: Councilmember Tammy Morales
  • Continue work on the Georgetown-to-South Park Trail ($1.8 million) — Sponsors: Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Morales
  • Cancel cuts to the Route 44 Multimodal Project connecting Ballard to the U District ($1 million) — Lead sponsor: Dan Strauss
  • Advance planning and early design for bike network connections in South Seattle, specifically a route through the Rainier Valley (along MLK Way) and a connection between Georgetown and Downtown, via SoDo ($400,000). — Sponsor: Morales

The coalition (of which The Urbanist is a founding member) laid out our case in a press release.

“These priorities by no means reverse all the transportation cuts the Mayor has proposed, which include cutting $21.5 million from planned bike and pedestrian projects and erasing $70 million in local match from multimodal transit corridors,” the coalition wrote. “However, these amendments would restore some of the walking, biking, and transit projects that we believe would have the strongest equity impacts and that communities have been most active in asking and advocating for.”

The Urbanist and the MASS coalition have also endorsed the Solidarity Budget and supports its anti-austerity equity priorities, including funding a staff position within the Office of Sustainability and Environment to support the Green New Deal Oversight Board, and providing stipends for board members to remove barriers to participation for impacted, low income, or young community members. 

The coalition echoed the Solidarity Budget statement in its own: “We are creating a future that is ecologically sustainable and resilient, that eliminates carbon emissions and achieves a just transition with good jobs for workers and communities most impacted by the climate crisis. We believe in mobility for all, a transportation system where people can safely walk, roll, bike and ride affordable or free world-class public transit wherever they need to go. We are building a future where public goods — e.g. libraries and parks — are fully-funded, through a tax system that requires corporations and the wealthy to contribute equitably to the common good.”

Today, the Seattle City Council is expected to consider the MASS amendments at its budget session (watch here) and hear testimony at the start of its 9:30am meeting. You can sign up to give public comment here.

ST4 Should Focus Rail in Densest Areas

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Chinatown-International District Station has an open-air design close to the surface. (Photo by Steve Morgan, Wikimedia Commons)

Urban subways serving dense neighborhoods should be the future of Seattle transit

Transit ridership has been falling for years now. Ever since peaking in 2014, more people than ever are turning their backs to transit and toward cars thanks to cheap gas and aging infrastructure. In cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles, transit ridership was dropping by the double digits annually. But not in Seattle. As transit was dying a slow death nationwide, our ridership increased by 4.1%. And even though that number have begun to flatten, we continued to outperform other American metropolitan areas in terms of growth until the pandemic hit.

But growth is just one piece of the puzzle; cities with high growth don’t always have the most ridership overall, and sadly that’s the category we fall into. Nearly twice as many people ride transit in Greater Boston, a region not much larger than ours, though even that pales in comparison to Vancouver BC, whose ridership is triple ours.

Both Boston and Vancouver’s higher transit ridership can largely be traced back to their extensive rail networks. A single 400-foot train can easily carry 800 more people than an articulated bus and can almost always do so faster. More capacity and faster travel times always means higher ridership–service drives demand.

Interestingly, our rail network is notably small for a city our size and even as it begins to take shape it’s more of a suburban commuting tool than a true urban transit network. That’s good, but it’s far from ideal.

Most people simply don’t make the traditional suburb-to-downtown commute anymore so while building transit specifically geared towards it is good, it’s a missed opportunity on a grander scale. Our currently planned Link expansion plans call for lines that skirt freeways and whose stations are few and far between, not much unlike the commuter buses we have now.

Our region has so many neighborhoods like Belltown, Wallingford, and First Hill that are already dense transit hotspots but which are being held back by limited transit capacity and clogged streets. These are the places our rail needs to go, and it’s time we designed a rail system that went there. 

Drawing parallels

Our busiest, densest transit corridors are those that need rail, and Metro’s 8 and 44 buses fit that bill perfectly. Both are among Metro’s most popular buses, but are often plagued with delays; Route 44 is almost reliably late, and Route 8 is sometimes slower than walking.

Calls for Mayor Durkan’s Resignation Keep Coming with Recall Blocked by Court

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Mayor Jenny Durkan straps into a Blue Angels jet. (Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Ian Cotter)

Three official advisory commissions have asked Mayor Jenny Durkan to resign due to her mismanagement of crises around police brutality and homelessness and her budget austerity approach to everything but police. The Seattle Immigrant and Refugee Commission was the latest to join the call, as Erica Barnett reported. Three Democratic groups–the 43rd District Democrats, 37th District Democrats, and 36th Districts Democrats–have also called for the Mayor resignation or removal.

The Seattle Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Commission made their request last week, which is particularly remarkable because Durkan is the first lesbian Seattle Mayor and can appoint seven of the commission’s 16 members–although she’s failed to fill two of her seats.

Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court halted a recall effort against Mayor Durkan saying there wasn’t legal standing. More than 43,000 people signed the online recall petition, so it seems quite possible the campaign could have gathered enough official signatures if the court had allowed them to go ahead. Noting the recall had been halted for lack of legal basis rather than the merit of the complaints, the commission said it was with a “heavy heart” that they made their request since “[LGBTQ] representation is important.”

“However, that representation must involve work to protect our community members from very real harm and violence that has been leveraged against Black and brown LGBTQ+ people,” the commission added. “Mayor Durkan’s actions in office have not only failed to create meaningful change for our community, but have indeed undermined other efforts within Seattle to create a more just future.”

The Human Rights Commission issued their own please resign letter on October 7th, and the Women’s Commission has contemplated joining them. The Mayor dispatched Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan to these commissions to dissuade them from their course. The LGBTQ Commission acknowledges Deputy Mayor Ranganathan’s efforts to convince them against issuing a resign request, but characterizes the effort as part of a pattern of crisis management rather than meaningful engagement.

“Our attempts over the past four months to engage and demand accountability from both the Mayor’s Office and the Seattle Police Department were met with insufficient response, despite numerous overtures to the Mayor’s Office requesting data and information,” they write. “Indeed, the most robust engagement we’ve had from the Mayor’s Office was only after voting on writing this letter was put on our meeting agenda.”

“Crisis management cannot be viewed as a substitution for authentic engagement,” the LGBTQ Commission continues. “Apart from a lack of engagement by the Mayor’s Office with our commission, we have also not seen meaningful accountability or engagement between the Mayor’s Office and the people of Seattle on issues of police violence, the epidemic of houselessness, and on equitable and just budgeting processes.”

They highlight the issue of Mayor Durkan’s failure to control the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and bizarre insistence that this isn’t even her job.

“Despite the Mayor’s continued assertions that the Chief of Police is responsible for oversight of SPD, it is clear that the Office of Mayor has the right and obligation to intervene when necessary,” the letter states. “Mayor Durkan exercised her executive authority multiple times In June 2020 by repeatedly instituting citywide curfews by executive order, which would have constituted an emergency. Additionally, in the first few weeks after George Floyd’s murder, Mayor Durkan continued to reiterate the City’s request to the DOJ to initiate the process which would lift the consent decree, despite clear evidence that excessive use of police force continued to be an issue in Seattle and that the compliance issue of the previous year had not been meaningfully resolved.”

They are not alone. To paraphrase former Mayor Mike McGinn, who I interviewed for a retrospective on Seattle’s Consent Decree process, police oversight and public safety is very much the Mayor’s job.

“The Mayor can say to the police stop using tear gas for crowd control. Period. And accept whatever consequences come from that. The Mayor doesn’t need court approval to protect her own constituents from tear gas,” McGinn said. “She’s a weak mayor. When she says when she can’t control the police, she’s saying she’s a weak mayor.”

Light Rail Expansion Is Exactly What Our Region Needs Post-Covid

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Passengers deboard at SeaTac Airport Station. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

An idea is going around, particularly in conservative circles, that the Covid pandemic fundamentally changes transportation needs and behooves Seattle to cancel its transit expansion plans. These ideas are built on a basic misunderstanding of cities, society, and geometry; they should be discarded.

On Monday, Puget Sound Business Journal published an op-ed from Mariya Frost plying the “let’s abandon transit” case. Frost works at the conservative think-tank Washington Policy Center and has long been grinding an axe against light rail projects. Her critiques are easily refuted.

Pre-Covid, mid-Covid, or post-Covid, transit is the backbone of our transportation system. Seattle’s ambitions of growth and high quality of life–things the Puget Sound Business Journal normally champions–only work if transit lays the groundwork. Highways can’t be widened fast enough even if we did want to waste all that money and lock in all those climate emissions and sprawl. Autonomous vehicles don’t change the basic geometry of cities. If you want the city to be dominated by places rather than parking lots, private vehicles and ridehailing cannot be your focal point, autonomous or otherwise.

“Four years ago, transportation experts predicted Sound Transit’s light rail expansion would be obsolete before it’s built,” Frost begins her piece, with “experts” referring primarily to her own think-tank and Republican leaders. Already granting herself victory in re-litigating her failed Sound Transit 3 (ST3) argument, she adds Covid only “accelerated trends that were already happening.”

Claiming voters only passed ST3 out of desperation to improve their commute–heaven forbid–Frost launches in the central transportation argument: let them eat buses. “Officials plan to spend billions to send light rail to low-density suburban areas despite better alternatives like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which is more flexible and less expensive.”

Never mind that ST3 funded 54 miles of BRT along with 64 additional miles of light rail. How would buses better serve Ballard and Uptown? Those neighborhoods already RapidRide D, a version of BRT-lite, and don’t actually seem satiated by it. Likewise, Tacoma wanted a light rail connection to the airport beyond the express buses they already have, the same goes for Everett.

Seattle Extends Cafe Streets Program through October 2021

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A Columbia City cafe street on Ferdinand. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

After a long delay to start the program, the City of Seattle announced an even longer extension for restaurants and businesses to continue using public spaces for outdoor dining and retail. Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT’s) temporary street use permits will be extended through October 31, 2021. 

The program to allow small businesses to expand operations outside is designed to ease the impact of pandemic restrictions. The city started offering free permits for restaurants and businesses in late summer after several months of dithering. Now these permits will remain in effect for an entire year.

Outdoor spaces have more flexibility than indoor spaces. Dining by members of different households at the same table is permitted outside. Using the outdoor space is a relief valve for indoor areas that simply cannot approach their capacity with social distancing. 

While other jurisdictions got their programs up and running before Seattle, the city’s adoption has been widespread. Businesses can receive one of two types of permits. Either they can extend seating and merchandise into parking spaces and sidewalks in front of the restaurant, or they can work with neighbors to completely open the street for exclusively pedestrian and outdoor uses. As of the extension announcement, 151 permits were issued for some street use and 11 blocks have been fully opened.

Of most importance during the coming fall and winter months, the extension includes two initiatives from the Seattle Fire Department: free tent permits and free outdoor heating permits. There is no waiver of the fire code and tent permits continue to last 90 days with regular SFD inspections. But the shelter from winter weather is hoped to extend the utility of the outdoor seating. Businesses that paid for tent or heating permits prior to this announcement will receive refunds.

Something’s Missing from West Seattle Bridge Study: Climate Change

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West Seattle Bridge. (City of Seattle)

Today the West Seattle Community Bridge Taskforce will meet, inching the city further toward a decision that will impact everyone who uses transportation in Seattle, particularly in the southwest quadrant. Will the West Seattle high-rise bridge be repaired or replaced with a new bridge? Last week, SDOT released a cost-benefit analysis that analyzed six alternatives; Shaun Kuo broke those down here on Friday.

A few of the options studied, like shoring the structure or replacing with a tunnel, were all but ruled out by the data in the report. Still the final decision isn’t clear. The study, which will be the primary public-facing document backing Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision, only provides a basic surface level examination of the impact of each choice on the City’s climate commitments and goals, and it doesn’t show its work.

The Durkan administration has always underplayed the impact that transportation projects have on emissions, so this is not a huge surprise, but for a project that could end up having an impact of a billion dollars or more on the city’s transportation budget in the long-term, we must demand a more rigorous analysis of the climate impacts of any path forward.

The cost-benefit analysis only looked at the emissions impacts for each option in terms of the direct impact coming from vehicles detouring around the closed bridge. Particularly notable was the fact that not adding back the vehicle capacity was not even considered as a baseline. From the study: “We measured air quality by evaluating the additional tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions emitted because of increased vehicle miles traveled (VMT) from detour routes while the bridge is closed, as compared to the VMT if the bridge were open to traffic.”

These Races Could Cement Progressive Majorities in Olympia

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Steven O'Ban in a suit and tie and T'wina Nobles in a blazer.
Steve O'Ban reign may be approaching its end as T'wina Noble (right) is leading him. (Photos courtesy of campaigns)

With seven house pick-ups and three in the senate, 2018 was a really good year for Democrats in Washington state. While some speculated Democrats had neared their ceiling, 2020 could continue the onslaught and ensure a path forward for big progressive priorities: major housing investment, a clean fuels standard, a state Green New Deal, and a capital gains tax.

As it stands, the state senate sits at 28-21 advantage for Democrats and the state house is 57-41. The tipping point is 25 votes in the senate and 50 is the house. Thus, Democrats can withstand losing seven votes from its caucus and still pass legislation, but just four defections doom bills in the senate, which explains the failure to pass those aforementioned priorities during the last few sessions. The state senate will likely be where progressive legislation either lives or dies, but fortunately a further leftward swing seems inbound.

In the 28th District, The Urbanist endorsed T’wina Nobles, who appears poised to defeat Steve O’Ban, a Republican obsessed with dismantling Sound Transit. Nobles edged out O’Ban in the primary and has pulled in big name endorsements like Joe Biden’s and massive fundraising hauls.

The Urbanist endorsed T’wina Nobles. (Graphic by Lizzy Jessup)

Beyond the scope of our endorsements–which require legislative candidates to complete our questionnaire to guarantee eligibility–a handful more races could swing in progressives’ favor. With a weekend until Election Day, turnout out is already very high (already surpassing 50% in some counties) in our accessible mail-in ballot based system in Washington state. High turnout could be an X-factor this election, either propelling a Blue wave or actually helping Republicans hold on in some swing districts.

In the 10th District–which includes Whidbey Island and Mount Vernon–Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson is running a close race against incumbent Republican Ron Muzzall. The race seems a little under the radar compared to Nobles’ challenge to O’Ban, but Price Johnson is outraising Muzzall and trailed him by less than two points in the primary.

What We’re Reading: PDX BRT, Preserving Affordable Housing, and E-Scooter Crashes

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Electoral politics: Crosscut dispels misinformation on voting in Washington and Oregon and explains how Washington can finally do away with gerrymandering.

Environmental terrorism administration: The New York Times lays out a long list of rules that the Trump administration is undoing to worsen environmental outcomes ($) in America.

Highways damage climate: The head of Oregon’s transportation department climate office says that the agency is heading the entirely wrong direction.

PDX BRT: Bike Portland highlights nearly $560 million in bus rapid transit projects that Portland area voters will weigh in on next week at the ballot box.

Playground battles: Parents in New York City are beginning to express frustration that playgrounds are increasingly used by fitness enthusiasts due to the pandemic.

Access to transit: Streetsblog Massachusetts asks who’s allowed to live near transit through the lens of a Boston area community.

Poverty and democracy: Katie Wilson argues that the growing poverty in our communities is hurting democracy and that the social safety net needs to be expanded.

Decriminalize jaywalking: Safety experts argue that (jay)walking should be decriminalized.

Designing better communities: Route Fifty explains how geolocation data could be used by planners to design communities that require less driving.

Old Biketown bikes: What happens to the old Portland Biketown bikes is now in the hands of the state.

Preserving affordable housing: Bloomberg CityLab highlights how a new affordable housing partnership could give nonprofit housing providers $1 billion in funding to preserve affordable housing.

Scammer: As if it’s any surprise, Elon Musk’s Boring Company “Loop” project is on track to only provide a small fraction of passenger capacity for the Las Vegas Convention Center.