Thursday, 5 December, 2019

Judge Grants I-976 Injunction, Pausing Transit Cuts

A long line of riders wait to board a Route 8 bus at Denny and Westlake.

King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson granted an injunction on Initiative 976 this morning, pausing 175,000 hours worth of transit service cuts in the county and countless more impacts statewide. Timed just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the injunction should put transit advocates in a thankful mood. An injunction is only a reprieve rather than a permanent invalidation of I-976, but it does bode well for the outcome of the case.

Sound Transit got an even bigger reprieve as the counsel for the State conceded that the section of I-976 that sought to force Sound Transit to retire or defease bonds backed by the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) has no deadline, making it pretty much impossible to enforce. Sound Transit wouldn’t have to lower the MVET until those bonds are paid off, although it may not be able to bond off the MVET going forward unless I-976 is thrown out.

On Tuesday, Judge Ferguson heard oral arguments on the injunction at King County Courthouse. Garfield County brought the case against I-976 along with King County, the City of Seattle, Intercity Transit, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and others. The plaintiffs have levied many constitutional complaints against I-976, but it seemed the charge that ballot language was misleading and violated the “subject-in-title” rule in particular seemed to resonate with the judge yesterday.

“The ballot title states that ‘voter-approved charges’ are excepted from the $30 limit on motor vehicle license fees, but Section 2 of I-976 indicates that only charges approved by voters after the effective date of I-976 are excepted from the $30 limit,” Judge Ferguson wrote in his decision. “In other words, all existing voter approved charges are apparently extinguished by I-976, even though the ballot title suggests that all voter approved charges, past or future, survive I-976.”

The conclusion of law in Judge Ferguson's ruling on I-976 in favor of the Plaintiffs injunction on implementation. (King County)
The conclusion of law in Judge Ferguson’s ruling on I-976 in favor of the plaintiffs’ injunction on implementation. (King County)

This isn’t to rule that I-976 is unconstitutional, Judge Ferguson continues, but “at this point, Plaintiffs have sufficiently shown that they are likely to prevail as to the issue.” Thus, plaintiffs have a “clear legal and equitable right to prevent implementation and enforcement of I-976,” the judge said. The judge set a deadline of December 5th to file additional motions, briefings, or hearings. That is also the date that I-976 would have gone into effect (save for Sound Transit) if not for the injunction.

Counsel for the City of Seattle made the argument that state initiatives lack the power to overturn the will of Seattle voters, who overwhelmingly rejected I-976 and overwhelmingly passed the car-tab-funded Seattle Transportation Benefit District in 2014 (with 62.4% of the vote) and the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure in 2016 (with about 70% of the vote). The judge seemed less moved by this as a constitutional argument, but time will tell as the full case is argued. The transit plaintiffs may only need to prevail on one of their charges to invalidate I-976. There is also a possibility the court will strike down some aspects while preserving others. For now, cuts are delayed, at the very least.

“This injunction allows us to continue our ORCA Opportunity program, which provides free transit passes to more than 14,000 Seattle residents,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement. “A supermajority of Seattle voted this irresponsible measure down in Seattle. That is because Seattle votes every day with our feet and with our dollars to invest in more transit.” The Mayor is correct that transit has been popular in Seattle, where we’ve lead the nation in transit ridership growth and in lowering car ownership rates.

Ridehailing Fee and Megablock Proceeds Fund Infrastructure Boost in 2020 Budget

Seattle City Hall and the colorful fence for Civic Square pit. (Photo by author)
Seattle City Hall and the colorful fence for Civic Square pit. (Photo by author)

The Seattle City Council passed next year’s budget Monday and added a flurry of amendments making the Mayor’s budget more progressive and heed advocates like the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition. Funding the progressive priorities is a ridehailing fee hike of 51 cents per trip and one-time revenue from the sale of the publicly-owned Mercer Megablock in South Lake Union to a private developer planning a biomedical campus.

The Seattle City Council moved around about $25 million in changes to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $6.5 billion budget–largely to boost affordable housing, homelessness services, and infrastructure for people walking, rolling, and biking. The passage of Initiative 976 (cutting car tabs to $30 and putting Sound Transit’s motor vehicle excise tax in limbo) also hangs over the budget like a cloud. If the initiative isn’t struck down in court the city council may need to come back to shuffle the decks next year and plug some budget gaps the initiative created. The City of Seattle and other localities were in court Tuesday seeking an injunction, and we should hear shortly if that was successful. (Spoiler: It was!)

One big change was in how those Mercer Megablock proceeds were spent. The city council opted to replace the Mayor’s middle-income housing initiatives with a higher priority for affordable housing. Gone is a homeownership assistance fund and a fund for homeowners to create accessory dwelling units. Instead more of that money will go toward shovel-ready affordable housing.

Another consequential move was the addition of a proviso championed by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda requiring the City planning department do a racial equity analysis on single family zoning and study ways to add density in those areas. That proviso was included in our budget call to action. The racial equity study could lay the groundwork for another pass at reforming residential zoning in our city.

Tiny house villages also got a funding boost. Mayor Durkan had been a proponent of tiny homes to house homeless people, but backed away–deterred perhaps by the vocal neighborhood pushback to tiny house villages at some sites. On the campaign trail, Mayor Durkan promised 1,000 new tiny homes in year one, but ended up building only 73 in her first year.

Fare Share Plan Enacted

Seattle’s 75-cent total fee is leaps ahead of many cities browbeaten by the lobbying might of the ridehailing industry, but it’s on par with Chicago and still two dollars short of New York’s fee. Under the Mayor’s “Fare Share Plan,” a portion of the fee will be spent protecting ridehailing drivers’ rights with a new “Driver Resolution Center” and a minimum wage study to ensure drivers make minimum wage after factoring in expenses like vehicle maintenance. The rest will be split between affordable housing and transit. The Mayor signed the Fare Share Plan into law at a press conference at city hall at 3:30pm yesterday.

Mayor Jenny Durkan signs the Fare Share Plan into law at city hall. (Photo by author)
Mayor Jenny Durkan signs the Fare Share Plan into law at city hall. (Photo by author)

The Mayor intended the Center City Connector Streetcar project to be the first on the transit list. Despite some opposition, most notably from perennial streetcar critic Councilmember Lisa Herbold, the bulk of the streetcar funding is intact, although the city council did nibble around the edges to fund other transit priorities. The streetcar money remaining should be adequate to satisfy the feds and secure the Small Starts grants on which the project relied, with the project now resting on the next city council’s shoulders.

Sawant Dissents Saying Budget Must Be More Progressive

In her tenure, Councilmember Kshama Sawant has voted against every budget and this time was no different. While she did back amendments aimed at making the budget more equitable, Sawant said overall the budget tinkers at the margins rather than fully embracing the project of bringing about racial and socioeconomic equity.

What a City Needs: Anarchy at Slow Speeds (A Manifesto)


I live a few steps from the awkward intersection of Summit and Olive, where bus-related improvements shortened the crossing distance for pedestrians within the last year or two. If you follow these types of projects, and don’t live nearby, you might think: “this is the heart of Capitol Hill, a transit-dense area where the bus can now stop in-lane—what a dream. A+ and well done SDOT.” But you’d be wrong.

Neighbors of mine will be familiar: you amble out of your residence, see the Carmelo’s Tacos sign beckoning, and find yourself asked to halt for an interminable length of time, a time you cannot possibly fill with anything but irritation–and then you’re liable to be staring a bus in the noisy, stinky rear when you finally do get the light. Increasingly, I’ve noticed pedestrians taking matters into their own hands and risking the sometimes speeding cars to get across the damn street before their coffee gets cold or they miss their train. I’ve started doing so myself, against my prior moral code. And once I started doing it as a pedestrian, I found myself tempted to do so while driving as well.

Trying to pull a motor vehicle onto Olive from adjacent residential streets invariably blocks crosswalks if there isn’t a perfect opening at just the right time—so I experimented recently with a move to merge into a line of traffic rather than wait for a proper opening. This less-than-legal move feels like a white lie—not sanctioned, but harms no one—when traffic’s moving at a pace I’ll describe as second-gear-and-below.

Coming off the I-5 exit ramp at 40 mph, Olive doesn’t exactly signal to drivers that they’re in a dense urban residential neighborhood. Luckily, mid-block crossings, strangely configured intersections, and non-sequenced lights somewhat hamper the free flow and often result in second-gear-and-below speeds. That’s a good thing, since going any faster would be terrifying when, for example, one is trying to make a left at Olive and Bellevue and fourteen other actors are trying to do other movements as well. I regularly witness elaborate dances taking place at such intersections where angled streets meet the grid, and trust they happen mostly in slow motion.

So improvements like the in-lane bus stop at Olive and Summit probably do help add to the general chaos of the urban street in a way that narrows the profile, slowing down cars. Combined with signal timing that goes against giving cars the sequential greens that enable third gear speeds, and this investment could have worked—by utilizing concrete and rules.

But what if there is no perfect engineering or design solution? What if concrete and rules are a more expensive and alienating way to manage the movement of people in a community? Bear with me for a second, but what if we stuck a giant temporary artpiece as a roundabout in the middle of Olive and Bellevue? What if we just… figured out how to get around each other?

Here’s where I’m going with this: we need fewer rules, and lower speeds.

Why Transit Riders Are Joining The Suit Against Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976

Bus riders wait on 4th Avenue. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

We’re joining the lawsuit against Initiative 976. Along with the disability rights group Washington ADAPT and the Northwest-based clean energy economy nonprofit Climate Solutions, Seattle Transit Riders Union (TRU) is intervening in the suit that was filed on November 13th by the Garfield County Transportation Authority, King County, the City of Seattle, and other plaintiffs.

Transit riders, especially those of us who depend on public transit every day, have everything to lose if this measure is allowed to stand. The impacts to our quality of life will be drastic and unacceptable. Our voices need to be heard in this case.

“I heard about I-976 on election night, and my heart fell,” says Naomi Adele, who cannot drive due to a disability and also can’t afford a car. “I regularly take the 7, the 106, the 45, the 48, and the 373. I use many other routes, too. I’m scared for what the future looks like for me, and for other people even more vulnerable and disenfranchised than I am. For some people, reliable public transit is the difference between a job and homelessness.”

In 2015, we fought alongside the courageous students at Rainier Beach High School (RBHS) who led the campaign to win free ORCA transit passes for low-income high school students. Last year Mayor Jenny Durkan expanded this program to include all high school students, many middle school students, Seattle Promise Scholars, and 1,500 residents of low-income housing. All these people could lose their reliable access to transit and the freedom and opportunity that comes with it.

“With my ORCA card I am able to get to all the places I need to be for free,” says Nathan Villar, an 11th grade student at RBHS. “It saves me about $5 a day and I usually spend that on food that I wouldn’t be able to afford without my ORCA card.” 

We Can Rezone The Ave While Preserving Its Historic Character

The M Tower, the first highrise out of the gates after the U District was rezoned in 2017, rises in the background of this shot of The Ave at NE 50th St. (Photo by Doug Trumm)
The M Tower, the first highrise out of the gates after the U District was rezoned in 2017, rises in the background of this shot of The Ave at NE 50th St. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Too often, our city has spent years delaying policy with infighting, time that we could spend on collaborative efforts to address our growing housing affordability crisis. Our city grew by over 15,000 people in 2018, and with the Puget Sound region expected to grow by 1.8 million people and 1.2 million new jobs in the next 30 years, we need to act now. To meet the ensuing housing and transportation crisis, we must focus this growth on continuing to build transit-oriented density.

With a light rail station and a new RapidRide line set to open right in its midst, the U District is an ideal place to steer growth. While my time on Council will be over, I will remain an engaged member of my neighborhood and community, and I believe we can work together to allow additional growth in a way that prevents gentrification and displacement while providing needed access to transit.

It’s important to understand how Mandatory Housing Affordability, or MHA, impacts these considerations. MHA is a program that requires new commercial and multifamily residential developments to provide affordable housing, by including it in their building or paying into the City’s affordable housing fund. All told, MHA will provide at least 6,000 new rent-restricted homes for low-income people in the next ten years. Additionally, MHA includes a new requirement that ground-floor retail includes small commercial spaces, making it easier for small businesses to lease in key commercial zones.

But MHA requirements are only triggered when areas are rezoned. Following the citywide MHA rezones that were adopted earlier this year, University Way, better known as The Ave, is now the only commercial strip in the entire city where MHA requirements do not apply. Growth will happen regardless of whether we rezone the Ave or not–-The Ave is currently zoned for 65 feet, taller than most current buildings in the area. Not rezoning The Ave to implement MHA incentivizes redevelopment of this street without contributing to needed affordable housing. 

Seattle is currently considering studying five alternatives to rezoning The Ave with MHA. However, due to the already underutilized height available on The Ave, I believe that we should instead utilize three of those rezone proposals in addition to rezoning of The Ave. By combining these proposals, we would take some of the development pressure off the main corridor of The Ave while allowing us to further orient density around new light rail stations and in one of the most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in Seattle. We cannot afford to delay–-we are in a housing crisis, and we’re falling behind on our own Climate Action Plan, to which transit-oriented density is a crucial component of success.

Sound Transit Nixes ‘Red Line’ Brand, Offering New System Naming Opportunity

Three car light rail trains. (Credit: Sound Transit)

Just over a week ago, Sound Transit’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Rogoff, announced that his agency would reverse course on branding of the light rail line running between the University of Washington and Angle Lake. The transit agency had recently begun implementation of its new systemwide branding effort, which sought to call the initial operating corridor the Red Line until becoming the Green Line in 2035 when the Ballard extension is slated to open. In listening to community members, staff heard clearly that many were concerned about the name, given the historic effects of “redlining” practices that were applied to communities of color in communities now served by the light rail line.

Context of redlining

Before getting into how Sound Transit ended up with line’s name and highlighting system rebranding and usability options, it is important discuss the context of redlining. A primary facet of redlining was a financial risk assessment practice where banks and insurance institutions would not lend or insure real estate in areas that were considered to be poor and risky investments.

“These discriminatory practices caused widespread damage and inequities that have had a lingering impact to this day,” said Jackie Martinez-Vasquez, Sound Transit’s Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer in an agency blogpost. “In response, we are going to identify a new system for identifying our routes. It’s the right thing to do, and we are grateful for the community members who encouraged us to take this action.”

Redlined areas closely tracked with where people of color lived. In Seattle, that meant the Central Area, Chinatown-International District, Beacon Hill, and parts of the Rainier Valley were designated as “hazardous” and functionally identified as red on security risk maps, hence redlined. Yellow-lined areas often had the same practical effects and were even more widespread.

A historic security risk map of Seattle from the redlining era, as seen at the Wing Luke Museum.

In the mid-1930s, the federal government began a process of establishing these risk classifications through the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which financial institutions relied upon for investment decisions. Regardless of the actual condition of neighborhoods, racial makeup was a driver in determining risk. Predominantly Caucasian neighborhoods fared better in the risk ratings and many had restrictive covenants in place that precluded non-Caucasian individuals from owning property. Other prejudicial history played a socioeconomic role in how people came to live in places of American cities, such as the “alien” land laws, Jim Crow laws, racial steering, and racial zoning laws.

Fundamentally though, the process of redlining was systematic and used to protect the interests of privileged people while restricting opportunity, extracting and holding down wealth, and concentrating people that were considered lesser than the privileged ruling class. This was then further exploited through later processes, such as blockbusting and White flight, which drained capital from central cities and further harmed communities of color, essentially locking them in. So it is understandable then why people might object to a light rail line being called a “Red Line” in areas still marked by this painful history and stigma.

How we got here

The process of how Sound Transit ended up with the Red Line goes back to 2012. That year, the Sound Transit Board of Directors approved a policy framework for the light rail system naming process.

The policy framework indicated that Sound Transit would implement “a comprehensive naming structure for the entire Link light rail system that uses a color scheme and naming conventions for planned and future Link light rail lines.” It also outlined criteria that “[e]ach line will have an ‘end-of-the-line’ destination name and an associated color, which is [Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)] compliant.” The suggested initial colors were red (for the north-south line) and blue (for the east-west line).

Sunday Video: Airport Expansion


Using London’s Heathrow Airport as a case study, Dave Amos explains the pitfalls and limited benefits of airport expansion.

We Scream For It


We’ve all been there. You’re standing over here, and they’re over there, not too far from you. It’s a public space. They’re screaming. You aren’t. Maybe it’s awkward, because there are only a few people around, or because for whatever similar reason you don’t blend in. Or maybe it’s crowded. They’re usually not addressing you, and eye contact feels dicey. Perhaps they’re getting arrested, or they’re railing against the world as though no one can hear them, giving thundering voice to an anger you too have felt, though probably for different reasons. 

Whatever the circumstances, the person yelling is almost always of a different class group, race, level of mental health or medication than you, the listener. It just seems to turn out that way. You have to reach a little (or a lot) to get around to grasping where this person’s coming from, and sometimes it’s impossible.