Friday, 22 January, 2021
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Sound Transit 3 Program Realignment Begins at Board Workshop

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On Thursday, the Sound Transit Board began the Sound Transit 3 program realignment process with a workshop that centered on a briefing by agency staff and feedback from boardmembers. Ahead of the meeting, the agency issued a detailed Program Realignment Board Briefing Book outlining the program affordability issues that the agency faces and strategies and initial criteria and project evaluations to be considered for program realignment. The agency is legally required to ensure that its programs remain affordable within available resources and not exceed debt capacity limits. Unfortunately, a combination of tax revenues falling off the cliff from the pandemic and escalating project costs mean that the program could become unaffordable in the next few years.

Based upon board agreement last summer, there are two divergent approaches that will be used to evaluate alternatives for program realignment to inform board decisions: an expanded capacity approach and plan-required approach. The expanded capacity approach is contingent upon new financing resources, such as taxes, grants, and expanded debt limits that the agency would pursue from state and federal governments and possibly from voters. The plan-required approach does not bank on expanded capacity and instead could involve some or all of the following actions to attain program affordability: delay projects, deliver projects in additional phases, reduce project scopes, and suspend or cancel projects.

King County Executive Dow Constantine championed the expanded capacity approach with a successful motion in June. During the meeting, he made his pitch for his approach. “The voters spoke clearly and frankly they spoke quite strongly, overwhelmingly even in support of Sound Transit 3 across the region,” he said. “I intend to tirelessly advocate for the system they approved, a system that will produce thousands of family-wage jobs, connect our main job centers and academic institutions, provide options to get out of traffic and onto reliable high capacity transit for our people.”

Constantine added, “From where I sit, we can’t afford to simply accept an affordability gap; the region needs a high capacity transit system now more than ever.”

Program realignment scope and funding challenges and opportunities

Diagram of the Sound Transit 3 projects that are subject to program realignment. (Sound Transit)

The scope of program realignment essentially encompasses the entire Sound Transit 3 program, leaving in place most of the Sound Transit 2 program for completion though there are some Sound Transit 2 projects caught up in the process. Big ticket projects subject to program realignment include the Ballard, West Seattle, Everett, Tacoma Dome, and South Kirkland-Issaquah light rail extensions as well as the Stride bus rapid transit projects and DuPont commuter rail extension.

Andrew Grant Houston is Running for Mayor of Seattle on a Bold Urbanist Platform

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Photo of Andrew Grant Houston looking glum.
Andrew Grant Houston (AGH4SEA.com)

In an announcement video released last week, Andrew Grant Houston introduced himself as a “queer Black and Latino architect.” He is a regular fixture on Twitter as Ace the Architect where he covered this summer’s protests and meticulously picked apart the city’s budget. He frequently switches hats, currently working as the interim policy director for Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, sitting as a board member for Futurewise, or appearing as a housing advocate on any number of panel discussions. And now he’s running for mayor.

Houston’s top line goals for his first year in office are fairly direct. Fund the creation of 2,500 tiny homes to shelter the most vulnerable. Create a corporate income tax to double the local apprenticeships for green new jobs. Put buses back on the ballot to fully restore lost service and prepare for a bigger expansion in 2024. 

That’s the what-if. Asked for an elevator pitch, Houston offers the why he should be mayor. “It’s going to take someone who has the systems-based thinking and approach to address the complex issues that we have. It is clear the leadership we’ve had in the past–whether it be a lawyer or career politician–has not solved the major crises we deal with. Given the extreme need for a massive shift in way we operate in Seattle for every community here, I believe I’m the person to bring that perspective.”

For a city that’s had its share of extreme shifts over the last few years, that may be a loaded answer. But Houston doesn’t back away from the term. “My aim becoming mayor is to break down the gatekeeping that occurs through process or through the language we use around the resources and opportunities we provide in Seattle.” In his announcement video, Houston put it more succinctly. “Simply delaying action becomes inaction. Inaction is unacceptable.” 

Houston envisions a lot of action. In conversation, he brings up a long term goal of Seattle as a forest city, where walking outside does not risk being overwhelmed by forest fire smoke, but the smell of pine and cedar. He talks about the structural needs of new community centers if we are to have services within a 15-minute walk of all residents.

Earlier this year, Houston released a series of proposals for a light rail and bus system that can only be described as audacious. The Sustainable Seattle Transit Map puts frequent transit within 1/2 mile of every home in the city. It’s a view of an alternate Seattle, one where transit stops replace parking lots and people can get around easily but may not have to go as far as they think. Admittedly, the idea is extra fantastic because it would connect Ballard to Kraken games and Sounders matches without a transfer.

Tacoma’s Missing Middle Housing: Planning for Access, Affordability, and Mobility

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A rowhouse with a transit shelter.
Salishan by Tacoma Housing Authority is an example of townhouses. (Photo by Tacoma Housing Authority)

In recent years, cities in the Northwest have responded affirmatively to calls to make housing more available and attainable through zoning reform. Portland, Oregon, adopted wide reforms in August 2020 that are meant to promote infill by making it easier to build “middle housing,” a category that includes smaller and more affordable dwellings, as well as many types of housing that exist extra-legally–accessory dwelling units (ADUs), for example. Just this month, Sacramento joined the party.

Middle housing also addresses disparities in mobility afflicting many people who live and/or work in cities because that middle housing is built nearer jobs and other city amenities, making it so that residents have options beyond driving to get to work, school, restaurants, and retail. Like most Puget Sound cities, Tacoma reserves 75% of its residential land for single family homes, which means middle housing really is mostly missing.

The Olympia City Council passed its own reforms in late 2020, centering the role of middle housing in creating greater access and affordability for housing in the city. Other cities in the region have taken up zoning reform that begin to address pernicious housing inequity and injustice in the region, including Everett, Burien, Bremerton, Kirkland, and Kenmore.

Tacoma is poised to follow up on the easing of restrictions previously put on ADUs that passed in 2019 through its “Home in Tacoma” project, which proposes changes to the city’s growth strategy through, in large part, the adoption of middle housing. The project seeks to create more housing for more people along more of the city’s transit corridors, many of which still serve areas of the city zoned for single-family homes. 

Affordable Housing – Infill Development (Credit: City of Tacoma)

Tacoma’s existing blueprint for growth, One Tacoma Plan, funnels growth Downtown while avoiding most outer neighborhoods. Tacoma’s official growth targets call for about 60,000 new homes by 2040, with about 80% of that growth in to Tacoma’s Centers (e.g., Downtown and the Tacoma Mall). About 20% or 9,300 new dwellings would be in other neighborhoods. Home in Tacoma presents a variety of new housing types that could be added to single family zones including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, townhouses, small multifamily buildings, tiny homes, and cohousing.

Working towards creating missing middle housing in Tacoma is a viable and necessary step towards making the city more affordable, accessible, and inclusive. Housing prices in Tacoma are spiking at an alarming rate. Tacoma’s median home value jumped 42% from 2016 to 2019 and median rents jumped 21% in the same timeframe, the project website notes. The result: “About 40% of Tacomans pay more than they can afford in housing costs,” and one-third of Tacomans report feeling housing insecure, the City added.

Placing this missing middle housing along existing transit corridors is also a necessary step towards the city’s accessibility goals, but only if those transit corridors count as high-quality transit service. Whether or not Tacoma’s transit corridors meet the criteria that would qualify them as high-quality is another question. How many of these existing corridors are actually served by bus service that runs at a frequency of 15 minutes or less during peak commute hours; how many of the city’s transit corridors serve riders who need to move about the city at hours outside of the typical 9-to-5 schedule? Those questions are not the focus of this piece, but I raise the issue to make a larger point: revisions to housing policy and strategy in Tacoma (and really any city who is serious about equity and access) are bound to fall short if these aren’t fully engaged with transit policy and strategy. 

House Ups the Ante with $26 Billion Transportation Package

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WSDOT is studying ultra-high-speed rail, upgrading its existing fleet which tops out at 120mph. (Credit: Washington State Department of Transportation)

On Tuesday, Washington House Democrats revealed an ambitious transportation package exceeding dueling senate proposals by more than $10 billion. The 16-year package would raise $26 billion, with $8 billion set aside for carbon reduction projects–$17 billion, meanwhile, is in a highway-related category.

The bill relies primarily on increases to the gas tax (which would be indexed to inflation) and a carbon fee to fund its investments. The carbon fee would kick in on January 1st, 2023 starting at $15 per ton, rise to $20 after two years, and to $25 by 2027. It is projected to raise $7.5 billion. The gas tax would raise $17 billion, including the diesel tax differential.

The headline of The Seattle Times story yesterday read “Gas taxes and fees could reach $1 per gallon under new Washington state transportation proposal,” adding together existing state and federal taxes, the 18-cent hike, subsequent increases from indexing to inflation, and the expected carbon fee impact: 15 cents. Several Republican lawmakers have already spoken out against any gas tax increases, pointing to the recession as poor timing.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle say the gas tax revenue is strictly restricted by Washington state’s 18th amendment to highway purposes–though they could likely sidestep that requirement if they set their minds to it. The carbon fee would be spent on carbon reduction, at least. The bill would also levy about $2 billion in assorted registration and licensure fees–setting portions aside in the highway safety fund, highway patrol fund, and a flexible multimodal fund.

In the carbon reduction plan, the package allocates $5 billion dollars for bike, pedestrian, and transit projects, which would be unprecedented investment from the state, as Ryan Packer detailed in Seattle Bike Blog. Much of that is various transit grant programs; plus, Amtrak Cascades gets $721 million operations funding and $143 million in capital investment. Additionally, $569 million is specifically for ferry system electrification and $2.5 billion goes into a general carbon reduction fund.

The highway-related spending plan invests $3.5 billion in fish-friendly culverts (which is a court-mandated intervention to meet Steven Treaties made with Northwest tribes), maintenance and preservation composes $4.6 billion, the ferry system get an additional $1 billion for capital improvements and operations, and $6.7 billion in a general highway slush fund dubbed “freight projects.” Among the few projects definitively funded is $1 billion for the Columbia River Crossing which supercharges freeway infrastructure in Vancouver, Washington and provides a new earthquake-resilient bridge to Portland–now rechristened “Interstate Bridge Replacement.”

“We’re proposing $6.7 billion in new road-related investments, $1 billion for the Interstate Replacement Bridge connecting Washington and Oregon, and fully funding fish passages,” said Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-Vancouver) in a statement. “There are also significant investments to reduce carbon. We do so using a wide range of strategies, including alternative fuels, the electrification of vehicle fleets, and increased spending for multi-modal services such as transit and special needs transportation along with bike and pedestrian projects.” 

Rep. Wylie said the Columbia River bridge should be “adaptable” to rail use, but avoided promising rail would go on it when it opened. Backlash over light rail was one factor that sunk the Columbia Crossing the first go around, with many in Clark County suburbia opposed to a light rail connection to Portland. Since then, high-speed rail talks have heated up and got a federal champion in President Joe Biden, suggesting the bridge really should be designed to facilitate the Portland to Seattle high speed rail line hoping to cut travel times to one hour.

During the press event unveiling the package, House Transportation Chair Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) said the highway projects (beyond Columbia River Crossing) weren’t pinned down yet because sponsors intended that negotiation to happen as the bill advanced. He pitched the effort as a climate effort and a job creation one, too.

“Our proposal is much more substantial than any in state history because the needs and challenges are so much bigger,” Fey said in a statement. “Those needs include long-overdue investments in preserving and maintaining our current transportation system, help for frontline communities, and carbon reduction to fight climate change. Our proposal will also mean a boom in construction jobs in every corner of the state.”

Hackney Bill Offers Seattle a Path to Fund Rail Priorities

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Roosevelt light rail station entrance with a 6-story apartment building in the background.
The colorful facade of Vida Apartments will be the first thing light rail riders see arriving in Roosevelt for years to come. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

On Tuesday, State Representative David Hackney (D-11th Legislative District) introduced an exciting bill that could provide Seattle a path to extend rail expansions beyond Sound Transit 3 (ST3) and help avert severe delays in ST3 timelines threatened due to cost escalations and dips in revenue due to the pandemic.

House Bill 1304 amends existing City Transportation Authority (CTA), which was intended for Seattle’s monorail expansion ambitions, to fund grade-separated rail transit instead. The idea is that if the whole Sound Transit Taxing District, which extends from Everett to DuPont, is not prepared to go from ST3 to ST4 in the near future, Seattle should be ready to forge on and plan for the long-term. Fellow Democratic Representatives Liz Berry (36th Legislative District), Joe Fitzgibbon (34th Legislative District), Frank Chopp (43rd Legislative District), Nicole Macri (43rd Legislative District), Steve Bergquist (11th Legislative District), and Gerry Pollet (46th Legislative District) signed on as co-sponsors.

“It’s clear that Seattleites support smart, well-planned transit expansion,” Rep. Berry said. “HB 1304 makes it possible to plan for the long-term, ensure we have resources to build Ballard to West Seattle expeditiously, and expand these lines into other parts of our city.”

Seattle Subway has been pushing the bill behind the scenes, and has been a big proponent of planning ST3 for expansion and passing a ST4 package to keep building momentum. They have floated using the CTA as a funding source in the past, and this bill would clear the legal obstacles to doing so.

“Our district has some of the worst air quality in the state due to multiple highways cutting through our neighborhoods,” said Rep. Hackney said. ”South Seattle and South King County have the largest gaps in the region between transit service needs and transit provided, making life harder on essential workers still going to work in person. If we are going to solve these issues, make transit more equitable, and avert the worst of climate change, then we need to plan future rapid transit expansion now and find every opportunity to build rapid transit faster. HB 1304 is a key tool to do this.”

Having a voter-approved funding source for further expansion would allow Sound Transit to build ST3 with expandability in mind, Jonathan Hopkins, political director at Seattle Subway, said. As an example, Seattle’s second downtown transit tunnel could be planned to include a track turnoff toward Aurora Avenue for a future light rail line. Doing so would save a lot of future expense and the need to shut down service during construction, as we saw with 10 weeks of single tracking during East Link construction–dubbed Connect 2020.

“One of the inspirations for this bill was Connect 2020,” Hopkins said. “To shut down the system after you have it operating for 10 years is wholly unnecessary. They should have added a junction in 2009 when the light rail line wasn’t in operation when we shut down the tunnel. We knew we wanted to connect to Bellevue and Redmond. We knew we wanted to go across the floating bridge. We knew exactly where we wanted to do it. There just hadn’t been voter approval to connect there so Sound Transit couldn’t spend a dime because of a quirk in state law and their authorizing legislation.”

Hopkins said the bill would help rectify the issue. Moreover, a voter-approved expansion plan would also allow (and legally permit) Sound Transit to begin acquiring properties for stations and staging areas sooner, Seattle Subway said. Rapid jumps in property values are the biggest factor driving up costs over initial estimates, so acquiring land sooner could save hundreds of millions of dollars. The bill would not provide enough revenue to singlehandedly close the ST3 budget shortfall that has climbed to nearly $5 billion, but it would provide tools to control costs and promote better system planning going forward.

“[Sound Transit builds] what the voters tell them to, and not a penny more,” he added. “It’s all they’re allowed to do. It creates a bias that they extend rather than densify the system.”

Getting into the legislation

Chapter 35.95A RCW of state law governs City Transportation Authorities. The existing law only allows the performance of monorail functions by city transportation authorities—namely in Seattle. However, the bill would broaden that performance to grade-separated transportation function, and allow for the function of grade-separated transportation facilities to transport passengers. The bill defines those facilities as:

[L]ight, heavy, or rapid rail facility, monorail, inclined plane, funicular, trolley, or other fixed rail guideway component of a transportation system operating principally on exclusive rights-of-way that is not regulated by the federal railroad administration or its successor that utilizes train cars running on a guideway, together with the necessary passenger stations, terminals, parking facilities, related facilities, any lands, interest in land, or air rights over lands, or other properties, and facilities necessary and appropriate for passenger and vehicular access to and from people-moving systems.

From Section 1(7) of House Bill 1304

Existing language in Chapter 35.95A RCW distinctly excludes fixed guideway light rail system. This expansion is important because a CTA is a municipal corporation and an independent taxing authority. It would be an additional avenue for Washington cities to generate funding for light rail and other rail projects–potentially high speed rail— as long as the electors within the authority area approve of the taxation. Sorry gondola advocates, permitted use would be limited to station access in this bill and is prohibited in existing CTA law.

However, an important change is the increase of the population requirement of a city to have these powers. The language in the bill raises that threshold to 500,000 residents, up from 300,000. This would pull it even farther out of reach for Washington’s mid-sized cities like Spokane, Vancouver, and Tacoma. Those cities have populations that are all around 200,000, and could feasibly hit the existing text’s 300,000-resident requirement in the foreseeable future. If Spokane and Tacoma continue to grow at a more leisurely 7% per decade (like they did this past decade), it would be more than 40 years before they hit 300,000. Considering how fast Bellevue is growing (21% in the past decade), even it could be in play with the existing threshold–though much rides on zoning decisions.

Hopkins said upping the population threshold was intended to increase the bill’s chance of passing, but that he supports lowering the threshold if local legislators back it. This could be done in a future bill if they’re not ready to get onboard at this juncture.

Congressional Redistricting Should Tilt a Bit More Power Toward Urban Areas

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270toWin's House projection map showed likely Democrat, Republican, and tossup seats ahead of the 2020 election.
270toWin's House projection map showed likely Democrat, Republican, and tossup seats ahead of the 2020 election. Republicans outperformed expectations, meaning Democrats ended up at 222 when the dust settled. (Credit: 270toWin)

On Monday, I looked at what redistricting will mean for the Washington state legislature. Redistricting will also have a big effect on U.S. House districts. The 2020 Census will shift the allotment of House seats (and thus Electoral College votes) toward faster-growing states and away from stagnating ones.

The effect on the Electoral College will likely be slight, but it’s likely to tilt a few House seats toward the Democrats as newly drawn seats are pulled toward fast-growing metropolitan areas, barring gerrymandering shenanigans which will likely be on full display in states under Republican control.

The biggest gainer will be fast-growing Texas, which is expected to get two or three additional seats, followed by Florida at one or two seats. Oregon, Montana, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina are projected to each gain one seat based on preliminary 2019 census figures.

Those newly drawn seats must come from somewhere, and the Census Bureau projects California, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, and Alabama will each lose a seat and electoral vote if 10 new House districts are drawn. The official 2020 Census figures will be the ultimate determinant, though, and could be different enough to save some states on the bubble, like Rhode Island and Minnesota.

Green states will gain a seat while orange states will lose one, based on Census Bureau projections. Florida and Texas in dark green will gain multiple seats. Beige states will have the same number. (Map by 270 to Win)

Projecting Washington state district changes

Washington state will stay pat with 10 Congressional districts, but it is trending toward adding an additional seat eventually with its 14% growth nearly doubling the national average, based on preliminary figures. Since the state’s growth is mostly in the Seattle metropolitan area, the borders of districts will shift significantly. The fastest growing and thus “overpopulated” districts are all held by Democrats: the 7th (Pramila Jayapal), the 1st (Suzan DelBene), the 8th (Kim Schrier), and the 2nd (Rick Larsen). Those districts will shrink to shift population to their underpopulated neighbors, whose borders will expand.

What We’re Reading: 1990 Levels, Linear City, and Covid Crisis

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1990 levels: A report claims that carbon emissions have plummeted below 1990 levels due to the pandemic. Still, people driving are the top polluters.

Highway removal money: Congress could wind up considering $10 billion for highway removal projects.

Beg buttons: San Francisco advocates are urging the removal of “beg buttons” for pedestrians at intersections.

Delayed no more: A judge has cleared the way for new bus lanes in Flushing, Queens.

Expensive habit: Average car prices have increased to $40,000 for the first time.

The Champs: Bloomberg CityLab covers the Champs-Élysées transformation in more detail.

Expanding immigration: President-elect Joe Biden plans to put forward a bill offering a path to citizenship and permanent residence to 11 million undocumented people ($) living in America.

Guaranteed income: Compton is planning to offer a two-year pilot program of a guaranteed income.

Yang’s NYC tour: Despite his four-borough transit tour, New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang made some odd comments about pedestrians.

Farmer Gates: Bill Gates apparently has the largest private farmland holdings in America across 18 states.

Linear city: Saudi Arabia looks to a 105-mile linear city concept.

WFH West boom: With so many people working from home, there seems to be a shift going on in the American West.

River plan update: Los Angeles is master planning revitalization of the Los Angeles River.

Police reform uncharted: Police reform is taking shape in the state capitol, but what will come of it?

Apartment ban: Fort Worth is looking at a temporary apartment ban ($).

Lewis Proposal Aims to Lower Cost of Building Supportive Housing

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Hobson Place that is a partnership between DESC and Harborview Medical Center (Courtesy of DESC)

In December, Councilmember Andrew Lewis introduced legislation that could make it cheaper, easier, and faster to build permanent supportive housing (PSH) in the City of Seattle. If all goes according to plan, PSH providers could trim about 15% from building costs.

Permanent supportive housing helps combat the homelessness crisis with an affordable, communal, and service-connected environment for unhoused people. Providers like Plymouth Housing tailor their residents’ needs with a service combination of medical, behavioral, and substance treatment, hospice care, veterans counseling, family reunification, money management programs, and community activities. PSH comes in the form of multifamily residential buildings that may have their services on-site.

Canady House, by DESC, that opened in 2010 and provides 83 studio PSH units. (Courtesy of DESC)

Currently in Seattle, PSH developers have to undergo many of the same processes and regulations that other multifamily housing developers follow. The requirements limit PSH developers’ ability to provide the housing our city and chronically homeless critically need. Lewis worked with PSH providers and city staff to craft the legislation and is hoping to change that reality.

Pinning down what PSH is

On December 15th, the Council’s Select Committee of Homelessness, City staff, and PSH providers met to discuss the bill. First topic up was the definition of PSH in the bill, and needed coordination with the Office of Housing to align PSH qualifications, as the department’s funding is omnipresent in PSH projects in the city. PSH was added to Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA) two years ago, defining it as:

[S]ubsidized, leased housing with no limit on length of stay that prioritizes people who need comprehensive support services to retain tenancy and utilizes admissions practices designed to use lower barriers to entry than would be typical for other subsidized or unsubsidized rental housing, especially related to rental history, criminal history, and personal behaviors. Permanent supportive housing is paired with on-site or off-site voluntary services designed to support a person living with a complex and disabling behavioral health or physical health condition who was experiencing homelessness or was at imminent risk of homelessness prior to moving into housing to retain their housing and be a successful tenant in a housing arrangement, improve the resident’s health status, and connect the resident of the housing with community-based health care, treatment, or employment services

This addition made it illegal to ban PSH in multifamily and mixed-use zones. Today, the City doesn’t have specific regulations that govern PSH development. Lewis’ proposal would refine the GMA definition down to PSH as a multifamily residential use that has at least 90% of units affordable to very low-income households (a memo pins that down to under 50% of area median income or AMI), receives public funding or an allocation of federal low-income housing tax credits, and has a contractual term of affordability of at least 40 years.

The Council discussed amending the AMI figure in the definition to include a mix of 30% of AMI households and 50% AMI households. Lewis (who chairs the Select Committee on Homelessness) had wanted it to be 90% for 30% of AMI households, but the Office of Housing thinks more diversity for the figure will help developers attract low-income tax credit investors, and government aid.