Tuesday, 15 October, 2019

Is Seattle Really Committed to Fossil Fuel Divestment?

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The environmental group 350.org is pushing the “Fossil Free” divestment campaign to get educational and religious institutions, city and state governments, and other institutions that serve the public good to divest their stock portfolios from fossil fuel companies. They believe that it’s wrong for these institutions to profit from wrecking the environment.

Modeled after campaigns against apartheid in South Africa, the “Fossil Free” campaign urges institutions to freeze any new investments in fossil fuel companies and divest from owning any commingled funds that include fossil fuel stocks and bonds within five years. So far, nine colleges and universities, 25 cities, two counties, 23 religious institutions, and 19 foundations have committed to this divestment pledge. Currently, there are active divestment campaigns at both the University of Washington and Seattle University.fossil free

Seattle was the first city that committed to pursue divestment. Following Seattle’s example, 10 other municipalities, including San Francisco, Boulder, and Madison, also announced their intention to seek divestment. In 2012, former Mayor Mike McGinn pledged that Seattle would investigate the most responsible way to divest its pension plan from fossil fuels.

Mayor McGinn was a strong proponent of divestment. At a divestment forum last October, McGinn said “Isn’t it fiscally irresponsible as well as morally irresponsible to invest in companies whose very business model depends upon destroying the climate we depend upon?”

A Closer Look

The city manages three major investment sets:

  • Daily operations: $1.4 billion
  • City employee’s deferred compensation plans: $700 million
  • City employee’s pensions: $1.9 billion

The daily operations fund is basically the checking account of the city, and currently none of that money is invested in fossil fuel companies. The second category, the deferred compensation plans, is determined by the city employees themselves. Before he left office, former Mayor McGinn had instructed the Deferred Compensation Plan Committee to offer employees fossil fuel free options.

That leaves the third category, the city employee’s pension fund. Two of the pension fund’s top 10 investments are with ExxonMobil and Chevron.  These two funds represent just under 1% of the fund, with $17.6 million in assets. The pension plan likely has other fossil-fuel investments as well.  Mayor McGinn had requested that the pension system governing board stop making any future investments in fossil fuel companies, and begin to move existing investments out of those companies.

Does It Really Make a Difference?

Some environmentalists have argued that divesting really does nothing to affect fossil fuel companies’ bottom line. And if we sell our stock but still buy gas from them, we are doing little to effect real environmental change.

McGinn has stated that he had similar concerns when he first heard about the divestment idea. He eventually came around to it, he said, because he heard Bill McKibben, 350.org’s founder, ask simply “Which side are you on?” McGinn came away from the conversation convinced that divestment was the right approach.

However, since the returns of fossil fuel companies are predicated on them burning over five times the safe amount of carbon, there is increasing evidence that holding stock in fossil fuel companies is a financial risk over the long term.  Returns on fossil fuel holdings are predicated on never ending carbon pollution. At some point, the carbon bubble will pop, and these holdings will quickly decline in value.

In addition, a number of studies, including one done by MSCI, Imperio Group, and Impax Asset Management, have shown that even in the short term, fossil-free portfolios perform similarly to those with fossil fuels.

Where We Go From Here

Unfortunately, current Mayor Ed Murray, while stating that climate change is “the most significant issue we have ever faced as a species” just last week, has not said whether he will pursue Mayor McGinn’s divestment plans. Murray has stated that he only supports it if it doesn’t put the city’s pension at risk.

In truth, the mayor doesn’t have any control over the money in the pension funds. A seven-member board controls that. In September of last year, this pension board voted to consider investment changes for social or environmental goals only if it didn’t hurt the pension’s bottom line.

Currently, 350 Seattle is working with Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s office to craft a resolution urging the pension board to begin exploring divestment. They have also reached out to other stakeholders including city employees, retired former city employees, and the associations and unions representing them.

 

East Link Open Houses

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Route 550 buses passing at the South Bellevue Park and Ride. Photo by the author.

During the month of February, Sound Transit held two open houses about East Link Light Rail project. The first open house discussed the South Bellevue segment while the second discussed the East Main Station.

South Bellevue Open House

South Bellevue’s northbound bus issue was solved. The previous design required northbound buses to do eight—that’s right, eight—90-degree turns to get to the station. Many people pointed out this flaw at the 30% design open house. Now, northbound buses will stick to the current routing, while the northbound platform will be used for paratransit. Sound Transit staff provided information regarding the layover area and what it is going to be used for. Essentially, the layover area could be used as extra capacity for buses that currently layover in downtown Bellevue if space becomes sparse there, except route 554 which would either be truncated at Mercer Island or not at all. One of the main issues was the lack of an HOV on-ramp to/from Eastbound I-90.

The capacity of East Link will be huge. Sound Transit is planning to start with 3-car trains every 7 minutes during peak, making capacity of the line slightly above 5,000 people per hour per direction (pphd). As ridership increases, the next move will be to put 4-car trains every 8 minutes, making pphd 6,000, or as much as I-90 carries (around 2,000 pphd per lane or 6,000 total). Sound Transit puts the maximum capacity of the line at 12,000 pphd. That would mean 4-minute headways, which would be quite a feature, but is fully possible in the DSTT and most likely in the short at-grade section in Bel-Red.

There will be a total of five crossover tracks between I-90 and Overlake: near South Bellevue Station, East Main Station, Downtown Bellevue Station, Overlake, and one between the 120th and 130th Stations. Overlake Station’s design will use crossover track type as at Westlake and Sea-Tac. Trains will be able to either cross tracks just before the station as at Sea-Tac, but if needed they’re building a second crossover just after the station, most likely along with a pocket track.

Concerns from the public included light pollution around the station, security and the retained cut in front of the Winters House. Residents were reassured by Sound Transit staff about the first two issues. The Winters House was the subject of much commentary, with some happy that it was being protected and others complaining that it wasn’t historic enough to be worth a multi-million dollar retained cut and lid.

Finally, a group named Better Bellevue was handing out flyers trying to get people to fight against the current light rail alignment, advocating for a bored tunnel all the way from South Bellevue to Downtown. They argued that the project was equal to North Seattle, which is getting a tunnel. The comparison isn’t a fair one because the density of North Seattle justifies a tunnel while South Bellevue is much less dense. It is also possible that their information is biased because they are against the “cut-and-cover tunnel on 110th,” which according to Sound Transit is actually going to be built using sequential excavation, thus not leading to any long-term street closures.

Better Bellevue also claims that the light rail will be extremely noisy and will be a “visual ruin” like the one on MLK. I’m not familiar with 112th, but Bellevue Way is already a very noisy arterial. Additionally, I-90 is also extremely noisy, as wide as 100 meters (330 ft) in places and entirely concrete. Better Bellevue also decries transit-oriented development (and its accompanying low-income housing) and claims Sound Transit is only trying to fill its trains and buses. Yet gentrification is indeed rampant and costly apartments such as these are hardly affordable. Their final argument was that Bellevue, the city in the park, was going to become the city in the park(ing lot). It won’t if we don’t build park and rides, but rather use land for more sustainable purposes, such as housing.

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East Main open house crowd. Photo by the author.

East Main Open House

The East Main open house was a success, and the room was packed with many standing during the presentation. The majority of people attending were residents of the Surrey Downs neighborhood, which is of course logical as they’re the ones that are going to be using the Light Rail and getting benefits from it. Most were thrilled about the idea of light rail coming to the neighborhood, however there were two topics that remained hot during the open house and presentation.

The first was about neighborhood car access. The residents currently have two streets that connect directly to 112th St, SE 1st St and SE 4th ST, as well as Ped/Bike only access to the Bellefield Park Condos, which empties into 112th at SE 15th St. The first two streets are getting cut to dead-ends, with SE 4th St remaining an emergency-access only street over the train tracks. I can totally understand the concern of those people as a third of their access into their neighborhood will be gone. However if there is one thing that Sound Transit can do to appease residents would be to make the ped/bike passage between Surrey Downs and the Bellefield Park Condos a full street with car access.

The second was as well about access, this time to the station. As far as design is concerned, the only way to reach the station from Surrey Downs is to walk all the way to the end of 111th at Main then go South on 112th, crossing the tracks twice if coming from/going to the Westbound platform. Given that Sound Transit will maintain a 60-foot buffer between the Light Rail and property lines, it would be easy to have a path just west of the tracks to link the Westbound Platform directly to 111th and SE 4th. Such a path exists in SODO and would improve the walkshed of the station by a lot. I suggested this to several Sound Transit officials who told me they’d look into it with the community.

The open house also included the Main Street portal. The portal will have the same appearance as the ones on either side of the Beacon Hill tunnel, with the portal name and the ST logo engraved above the tracks. Just beyond the portal going north into the tunnel is going to be a construction staging area, later to be converted to a lid park in coordination with the City of Bellevue.

The last topic was Transit-Oriented Development, also called TOD. While TOD is not coming to the Surrey Down neighborhood, it might be across 112th Ave NE. Currently, this space is occupied by the Red Lion Hotel, Hilton Hotel and Bellevue Club, all three with extensive surface parking lots. The Red Lion, made of one and two-story buildings would be put in a new high-rise with ease along with some residential and retail uses. Standing twelve stories tall, the Hilton is built to stay. However, the building already encompasses a big parking garage, making the surface parking the hotel has mostly redundant.

Residential development could easily be launched on the Hilton’s parking lot site, given that some of the underground parking is dedicated to the hotel. The Bellevue Club’s parking can easily be replaced by a level of underground parking under a building that would occupy the site. What I’m proposing would be similar to the Spring District project three stations further on the line. East Main has some major TOD opportunities by being on the edge of downtown and a short ride to both Seattle and Overlake. The hotels will undoubtedly advertise the light rail line as an easy way to get to Seattle and Bellevue.

If you’re interested in the East Link project, be sure to join the Downtown Bellevue segment open house on Tuesday, March 25th.

Seattle Neighourhoods: Not Just for Single-Family Homes

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Greenwood Single-Family Homes
Greenwood Single-Family Homes

Look around a residential neighbourhood in a typical American city, and you will see an ocean of single-family detached homes. There is a myth that it has always been this way. In reality, many cities have historically allowed a diverse mix of buildings and uses in residential neighbourhoods: duplexes, row houses, even corner stores. Seattle is no exception.

In this article, I’d like to introduce you to Greenwood, a residential Seattle neighbourhood where I used to live. Greenwood is a unique and wonderful place. Like many of Seattle’s residential neighbourhoods, it has a great diversity of building types and uses. However, due to overly restrictive zoning, this diversity is gradually giving way to a monoculture of single-family homes. Don’t get me wrong; I deeply cherish the beauty of our city’s Craftsman homes, and always have. But single-family homes can peacefully coexist with other kinds of buildings. Perhaps now is the time to consider how we might preserve our history of diversity, and remake it for our 21st century city.

History of Mixing Uses in Residential Greenwood

If you’ve been to Greenwood, you’re probably familiar with the many restaurants, stores, and multifamily buildings that line the streets of Greenwood Ave N and N 85th St. But there’s more to Greenwood than meets the visitor’s eye. When I first moved to Seattle two years ago, I regularly roamed the back streets of Greenwood to take in the beauty and quiet that they had to offer. In doing so, I began to discover a secret world of buildings that had not been constructed as single-family homes, even if they served that purpose today.

Below are just a handful of the commercial and multi-family structures hidden within the residential portions of Greenwood. Some still serve their original purpose; current zoning prohibits this type of use, but these buildings are grandfathered in. Others have been redesigned as single-family homes.

West Greenwood ZoningSome sections of Greenwood are zoned as Lowrise Multi-Family Residential (LR1 and LR2) and Residential Commercial (RC). One would typically expect these zoning types to be on a main street, but there are a few parcels of 6th Ave NW with these zoning designations, as you can see from the map. 6th Ave NW isn’t a main street. These zones were established here specifically for the sake of buildings like the ones above, the construction of which predated today’s zoning code. 8th Ave NW serves as the closest main street, but the equivalent zoning isn’t anywhere near these 6th Ave NW blocks.

Proposal

If multifamily residential and neighbourhood-oriented commercial has worked in Greenwood for so long, why can’t we consider allowing these uses at targeted locations throughout the city?

For many people, residential neighbourhoods are desirable places to live because of the quiet and low traffic volumes that they offer. Small-scale multifamily buildings and corner stores are entirely compatible with these desires. These pockets of density, nestled in residential areas, enable nearby residents to live a walking-oriented life without having to go to a busy commercial street for all of their needs. Some people can find it stressful to deal with crowds and activity on a busy street. A corner store can help you avoid the effort of a longer trip. Small-scale multifamily buildings offer people an alternative to the single-family home while still benefiting from the character of the residential neighbourhood.

Size, Use, and Location Matter

Within these pockets of density, it’s important to make sure that the businesses and multifamily residential we allow are of the right scale, type, and location.

Size: Recognising that residential neighourhoods have maximum height limits and small lots, new construction should not exceed 35 feet in height (three storeys) and encompass more than two lots which are standard within areas zoned SF-5000. Building widths should also be small, perhaps no more than 45 feet per building.

Use: For commercial uses, the best kinds are small and “boring” businesses. Think of uses like a café, family medical practice, law office, or a traditional corner store. By nature, these uses won’t generate much traffic; they will only attract people who live very close, rather than being city-wide attractions. As a simple litmus test, consider this: would anybody cross a main street to get to this business? If the answer is “yes”, then it should go on the main street. If the answer is “no”, then the use is probably appropriate within the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, multifamily uses can be much broader in nature like row houses, apartments, condos, and other such uses.

Location: In residential neighbourhoods, one of the traditional hallmarks of multifamily residential and commercial uses is that they are almost always located at the corners of an intersection. Intuitively, we know that intersections have the most access, traffic, and visibility. Following this precedent, new multifamily and commercial uses should accordingly be accommodated in the same manner.

To be sure, the exact set of regulatory policies would need to be much more nuanced than this. But this does gives us a good framework from which to develop rules accommodating a modest mix of low-density uses in residential neighbourhoods. As we can see, a mixing of uses and building types has been a highly successful feature of Seattle neighbourhoods. We should embrace that fact by working to preserve and expand it into the future.

Waterfront Week

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Seattle Waterfront Concept Overlook Walk
Seattle Waterfront Concept Overlook Walk

Seattle Waterfront Concept Overlook Walk

Bertha may be dead in the water, but the Seattle Waterfront is moving full steam ahead. Construction work on the Elliott Bay Seawall is already taking place near Bertha’s tunnel area. It’s a delicate task when working within just feet of open sea and the walls of a tunnel. With Bertha stopped during the intervening months though, it will make that task much easier. However, the Waterfront redevelopment consists of more than just the seawall.

The centerpiece is the Waterfront redevelopment as a grand promenade and central public space. Some of the concept features of the Waterfront include: a dramatic overlook walk landmass connecting Pike Place Market to the Waterfront, new Green Streets intersecting the promenade, a multi-modal boulevard along the soon-to-be former Alaskan Way Viaduct alignment, and an active Pier 62/63. (If you haven’t already seen some of the Waterfront plans, you may want to check out the illustrative concepts.) Much of this work is still in the planning stages and there are some funding challenges ahead. But this week, Seattle will be introduced to these concepts by planners and civic leaders while sharing ideas on how we can make the Waterfront a more vibrant part of the city.

Waterfront Week will hold four events over five days. The week kicks off with a Waterfront 2020 presentation by james corner field operations (lead design team on the Waterfront project) and other civic leaders. The presentation will take a look at the project designs and how they have evolved over the past few years. Later in the week, three other events will be held: a panel discussion on design tools for architects, city planners, and public artists; a second panel discussion focusing on the past, present, and future of play in the art and design of public spaces; and a family-friendly field day along the Waterfront with activities such as games, live music, cruises, a tour of the seawall construction, and more. If you’re interested in attending any of these events, you are encouraged to RSVP ahead of time (although it’s not required). The week’s events run Wednesday through Sunday as follows:

Waterfront 2020
Wednesday, March 5
5.30pm-8.30pm
Seattle Center, Fischer Pavillion

Art, Design & Play: Liane Lefaivre
Friday, March 7
6pm-8pm
Seattle Art Museum, Plestcheef Auditorium

Art, Design & Play: Ideas from Around the World
Saturday, March 8
10am-4pm
Seattle City Hall, Bertha Knight Landes Room

Field Day
Sunday, March 9
10am-4pm
Hillclimb Plaza across the street from the Seattle Aquarium

Things I’ve Learned From the 358

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“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?”

-Malick

I’ve driven buses across the Aurora Bridge about a thousand times. Every time I do so, without fail, two thoughts cross my mind.

The first thought is inevitably on how incredibly beautiful the everything looks. Regardless of conditions, whether stormy, foggy, clear; whether a loamy yellow in the setting sun or night after dark in deep blues, where you can sense the vast space while hardly seeing it—wow, I think, coming around the curve at Halliday and bursting into the wide open expanse.

It’s absolutely gorgeous out here.

The second thought is always about Mark McLaughlin and Silas Cool, plunging off the bridge to their deaths, taking the bus and all the passengers with them. Mark was not a driver who behaved in a way that would encourage assaults. He was one of the friendly guys. Perhaps you know of the incident; everyone on the bus either died or was injured, and the route number, then called the 359, was retired. Why change the number to 358? As Ron Sims said in 1998, right after the event, “so that years from now, people will ask why? And we can remember a person . . . we never want to forget.”

As I cross the bridge where he died, driving the same route he drove, the question naturally occurs to me how I would feel if the same circumstances took place on my bus. Am I prepared for that, I always wonder. I know what the answer needs to be.

The answer needs to be, I am completely okay with it, eyes open and ready.

We all have our differences, but there are a few universals. One of them, I think, is that we all wish to close our eyes for the last time having as few regrets as possible. People talk of squaring things away before they pass on. Time to make amends, as the saying goes. Having that long talk with your estranged brother. Connecting with your daughter before you Go. Being on good terms with the ones you love, and with yourself. Why wait till death’s door to be able to look in the mirror?

There is a drive in me to be good, to try and make actual my ideal of a good person. Part of it is reinforced by the daily reminder the Aurora Bridge offers. Awareness of death really means awareness of time. We place value on time only because we know it is limited, and what Bruegel the elder called the Triumph of Death can in fact be seen not as desolation but as a light, a gift of insight, the window through which we perceive the value of happiness and right action, now.

That’s part of the drive in me to square things away. I like a clean closet.

John is the guy from the end of this post, he of the white ponytail and smoky voice. He found me when I first started on the 358 over a year ago, and was thrilled by my attitude. “This is route is NO JOKE,” he would say, amazed at the ebullient sensibility I chose to bring to the environs. He’d stand at the front of the old 2300-series coaches and we’d gab it up.

The bus was often full—the chat seat not available for him—and the yellow line he’s supposed to stand behind was a couple feet back from my driver’s seat, making it awkward for him to stand and talk to me while still following the rules. I wouldn’t have minded if he was over the line- on those coaches it was painted pretty far back, and his being a bit in front of it would not have been a safety issue.

But John would lean in precariously, positioning his body at a gravitationally suspect 45-degree angle, proudly pointing out how his feet were “definitely behind the yellow line, check it out,” even if his entire body was in front of it. I enjoyed his company. He was rarely sober, coming from the bar after his day at work, and we would discuss the books he was reading, relationships, and kindness to strangers. I’d ride the 44, a passenger, and I’d see him get on and we’d keep right on talking as if the intervening weeks or months hardly existed.

Then one night I was in conversation with a driver friend at Aurora Village Transit Center when he came over. I was keyed into the discussion I was having, and intent on listening to my friend.

“Hey John,” I said distractedly, happy to see him but anxious to keep talking.

“Hey, Nathan! How’s it going?”

“Good, how are you?”

“Good.”

I nodded impatiently and he stood there, feeling uncomfortable in the ensuing silence. “Good to see you,” I said perfunctorily, and he smiled politely and walked away.

After that I didn’t see John for a while, but I wanted to talk with him- erase that awkwardness, and let him know that of course, I like his company. Yes, this is pretty small fry as far as regret-inducing dilemmas go, but sometimes it’s the little things that gnaw at us.

Weeks later- there he was! At 85th Street outbound! Hooray! The crowd began filing in, face after face, but… no John. He stayed back, outside, choosing instead to wait for the next bus. “John, what the heck are you doing,” I said aloud to no one in particular as I drove away. “You’re supposed to be riding my bloody bus!”

On the second-to-last day that the 358 ever existed, I saw him again at 46th. My bus was packed, and the general consternation of people boarding and deboarding lasted several minutes. Once again he didn’t board, instead standing just out of my sight, by the rear of the bus, sipping on his paper coffee cup.

“John, hey, man!” I said, jumping out of the coach and striding toward him. I didn’t think about the crowd inside the bus, watching and waiting. I just needed to shake his hand. It would take too long to explain why. I just like taking care of these things. Smoothing out the inconsistent details, ribbing the half-forgotten itches out of consciousness.

“Oh, heeyy, Nathan!” he said, turning, becoming alive.

Me, grabbing his right hand in a firm shake, left arm reaching back for a man-hug. “What’s goin’ on, John? Good to see ya!”

“Hey, good to see you too!”

“How you been?”

“Oh, I’ve been great, I’ve been great, I’m just, you know,”

“You finishing up work?”

I honestly can’t remember his response. I was too excited, gleaming as I took in his crisp eyes, chapped red skin, and bright smile. He was back; all was understood.

I asked, “you wanna go for a ride?”

“Well, yeah, but, that thing is stuffed, man.”

“Sure, sure.”

“I think I’ll finish my coffee here, get my book out.”

“Sure no yeah, makes sense. You wanna relax, spread out on your way home, I’m into it.”

“Yeah, you know.”

“Hey listen John, always good to run into you.”

“You too!”

“I’ll see you again!” I said, hopping back inside my bus. We’d walked back up to the front together.

“Definitely!”

Only then did I register how odd all this must have looked to the other passengers. The last days of the 358 had the quality of time traveling at a speed outside my experience. The act of shaking John’s hand collapsed the entirety of the day into a gesture. In it lived the desire to make things right, to touch the lives of all the strangers I’d come to know, to be close to the tough reality that had taken me in with such kindness…. To live and be in these final moments, without the need to process them yet as memories, to learn how to glory in the last breath of time, without sadness.

Read more stories at nathanvass.com.

Exploding Oil Trains Currently Run Through Downtown Seattle

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oil trains

Two months ago in Casselton, North Dakota, a train carrying crude oil from the Bakken oil fields hit a derailed soybean train on the outskirts of town.  A huge firewall exploded hundreds of feet in the air. Because the fire was so hot, the only thing that the Casselton Fire Department could do was watch it burn.

Last July, in Lac-Mégantic, a small town of 6000 in Quebec, an oil train which had its brakes incorrectly applied derailed at high speed in the middle of town and exploded into what survivors called “a tsunami of fire.” 47 people were incinerated by the explosion and 30 buildings, the majority of the downtown, were destroyed.

The blast flattened nearly everything in a 1 km radius, and heat from the fire was felt nearly 2 km away. The blazing oil entered the city’s sewers and roared out in huge fiery flumes in basements and sewer systems of nearby buildings. Emergency response called the scene a “war zone.” The fire was finally extinguished after burning out of control for nearly two days.

Oil trains carrying the exact same oil are currently running through downtown Seattle at least eight times a week. Currently, there are nine new proposals for oil-by-rail terminals in Washington that could increase the traffic of crude oil through Seattle to nearly three times a day.

Given the recent string of oil train disasters over the past few months, this dramatic increase in the transport of crude oil through Washington communities is worrying to say the least.

A Brief History of Oil by Rail

Using trains to ship this much oil is a new phenomenon. In 2008, the oil industry shipped less than 10,000 carloads of oil. Last year, they shipped over 400,000. Why the sudden increase?

The huge expansion of oil by rail has been due to the amount of recoverable oil from the Bakken oil fields of Colorado, Wyoming, and North Dakota. By using hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, the oil industry has been able to recover over 600,000 barrels of oil per day. The available pipelines are not able to handle this much oil.

Enter oil trains. Even though it’s more expensive, the oil industry has had to resort to oil trains to ship their product. Today, as many of 200 trains ship oil from the Bakken oil fields to refineries. In fact, two thirds of those daily 600,000 barrels of oil travel by train.

Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute says, “Our research suggests that oil is far and away the fastest growing type of freight hauled by rail, and that the volume of oil we are talking about potentially shipping through the Northwest would be nearly as much as the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline.”

Some of those trains go through downtown Seattle, right next to our waterfront where thousands live, within a few feet of Safeco and CenturyLink fields, and directly under Pike Place Market.

Why These Oil Trains Are So Dangerous

There are two huge problems with this. For one, the oil being shipped is dangerously unstable. This is not normal crude oil. Bakken oil contains natural gas and other chemicals used in the fracking process. Putting gas into tank cars meant to ship liquids can increase the pressure of these cars to dangerous levels and lead to explosions.

The other problem is the oil cars themselves. The Federal Railroad Administration found that Bakken oil caused “severe erosion” to these oil cars. Many of these oil cars running through downtown Seattle are DOT-111, the same ones used in Quebec and North Dakota. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found in 2012 that DOT-111 cars are inadequate and can lead to “catastrophic loss of hazardous materials” if they derail.

The oil industry is pushing back against any retrofitting of the DOT-111 cars because it would cost them nearly $1 billion.

Pushing Back

Mayor Ed Murray and City Councilman Mike O’Brien have introduced a resolution which calls for the increased scrutiny and new regulations for oil trains passing through Seattle. It calls for local, state, and federal agencies to work together to assess the risk these kinds of trains pose and calls on the city to review its emergency response plans in case of an oil explosion.

While this is a good start, 350 Seattle, a local environmental group opposed to these oil trains, has urged the council to include language about how these oil trains contribute to global warming and also to include a moratorium on any increased shipments of oil by rail.

Adam Gaya, one of the leaders of 350 Seattle says, “Even if these trains don’t explode, their cargo is still deadly—contributing to climate change, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels. “

Last Tuesday Mayor Murray called climate change “the most significant issue we have ever faced as a species.” The large volumes of crude oil travelling through Seattle to refineries and terminals, along with other fossil fuels like coal, significantly contribute to catastrophic climate change. Seattle will feel these impacts in rising sea levels, ocean acidification and an increase in catastrophic weather events.

Why Tech Workers Should Care About Housing Issues

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Protesters block a Google bus in San Francisco.

Technology industry workers are not apathetic. The industry is known for its passionate defense of civil liberties, the unprecedented scope of the philanthropy of its most successful members (and not just Bill Gates—Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Pierre Omidyar of Ebay and Sergey Brin of Google were all amongst the top 10 philanthropists in the US last year), and growing movements in both education and immigration reform. Working in such a transformative industry naturally leads people to think and care deeply about societal issues. But I suspect most tech workers have hardly given a moment’s thought to housing issues. That needs to change.

The history of the technology industry was mostly written in the suburbs, whether in Silicon Valley or Redmond. But today tech companies and tech workers are increasingly choosing to locate in city centers. In San Francisco, the arrival of Twitter has brought an influx of tech companies downtown, while here in Seattle, Amazon has completely transformed South Lake Union. Given the large and ever-accelerating size of the tech sector, these companies and their employees are increasingly shaping the character and policies of cities. That gives the tech industry a responsibility for engaging constructively on housing issues, which are central to life in a city.

For a sense of urgency, look to San Francisco, the obvious example of what happens when a tech boom combines with failed housing policy. If you haven’t been following the growing hostilities of the last few months, here’s a quick summary of the conflict unfolding there. New residents have been flooding into San Francisco during the latest tech bubble, while construction of new housing continues its decades-long stagnation (see Gabriel Metcalf’s piece in The Atlantic Cities for a great summary). Predictably, already high rents have skyrocketed. Rightly or wrongly, tech workers have been cast as the villain in all this. Protests against evictions, rising rents and gentrification have become so frequent that they’re making national news. The improbable lightning rod for these protests has been the company buses that ferry tech workers each day to campuses south of the city.

Protesters block a Google bus in San Francisco.

Protesters block a Google bus in San Francisco. Attributed to: Chris Martinlicenseoriginal

In a sense, the protesters are right to blame tech workers for rising rents. Wealthy tech workers are directly competing with poorer residents for the severely limited housing stock in San Francisco. But in another sense, the blame is misplaced. Had San Francisco built housing to keep up with demand then there wouldn’t be ever more people fighting over the same limited housing stock. This is why the tech industry should be pushing hard for more density: because without it, their workers really are pushing out the poor.

The tech industry should be a powerful voice for more housing, more affordable housing, and an end to homelessness. But unfortunately, the message from the tech community that’s gotten the most attention is ex-CEO of AngelHack Greg Gopman’s rightfully reviled rant against the poor. Gopman’s contention that the poor should be forcibly removed so as not to bother the rich reads as almost too movie-villain evil to be real. But sadly, he has become the public face of the tech industry for many.

Being seen as the enemy will have real consequences for tech workers. Companies like Twitter and Amazon are able to locate in downtown cores because city leaders have welcomed them. If public sentiment turns against them, as it has in San Francisco, tech companies will surely find it more difficult to work downtown. Additionally, the new construction that houses so many tech workers in city centers can only continue if the public is convinced that density and growth is good for the city as a whole.

Seattle is thankfully in a far better position than San Francisco. We’ve continually added to the housing supply, keeping rental prices from rising as rapidly as they have in San Francisco. But debates about growth, density and affordability are far from settled. The tech industry in Seattle should heed San Francisco’s warning and get involved now. For their own good and the good of the city, tech workers should stand up to demand enough housing for everyone who wants to live here.

How Does Sound Transit Expand?

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Sound Transit's Question

Sound Transit's Question

 

Sound Transit, the regional transit agency that builds Link and Sounder rail services and operates a lot of our express buses, is currently updating their Long Range Plan – a list of projects that informs their future expansion. This is the first phase of any ballot measure for additional Sound Transit service. As someone watching this process closely, this seems like a perfect time to talk about how an idea in an advocate’s head becomes a project serving the public!

Long Range Plan

At a very high level – everything starts with advocacy. To move forward on any project, someone must first convince Sound Transit staff, and eventually the Sound Transit Board, to add that project to the agency’s Long Range Plan – an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) first finalized in 1993. This EIS was updated with a Supplemental EIS (SEIS) in 2005, prior to placing Sound Transit 2 on the ballot, and now, in preparation for a potential Sound Transit 3, it will be updated with a new SEIS.

This document is a holistic look at the whole Sound Transit system and how it might expand: those projects that have already opened, those funded or under construction, and those that might be funded someday. The Long Range Plan is financially unconstrained – it isn’t worried about how much funding authority Sound Transit has now, or even how much funding they might win in a future vote. It’s intended to be a menu of projects the agency might build in the foreseeable future, with some, but variable, understanding of their scope and cost, and how those projects would fit into what’s already on the way.

The current update started in 2013, and should be complete by the end of this year. There’s a lot of public input gathered throughout, as with any EIS, and at the end, Sound Transit will release a new plan to the public, showing us all the directions we’ve asked them to go.

Revenue Authority

Before that work is even over, Sound Transit must also begin to lobby the legislature for revenue authority – the right to ask voters for more funding. Sound Transit is currently using nearly all of their existing revenue to build projects voters have approved, and will be paying those projects off for many years to come. To build more anytime before the late 2020s, they’ll need the authority to ask voters for more money.

Even without the current deadlocked legislature, this is difficult work. Not only does the Sound Transit board have to find a set of projects that are likely to poll well when paired with a particular source of revenue, they have to balance public demand in their own cities and districts with the interests of legislators – and grassroots supporters, major employers, business, labor, and environmental organizations, and engineering and construction firms – all the players who will help bankroll a ballot measure as well as their own elections. The Long Range Plan helps protect Sound Transit from some of these external pressures; by forcing the board to select from a list of somewhat vetted projects, there’s some barrier to terrible projects making it to the ballot.

System Plan

After identifying a revenue source and the bulk of the projects, Sound Transit uses their selections from the LRP ‘menu’ to create a System Plan that they might put to voters.

The first System Plan Sound Transit created was put to voters in 1995 and failed, but after modifying the plan, it passed in 1996, first funding Sound Transit projects. This same failure followed by success repeated in 2007 and 2008, with the final vote funding expansion of Sounder service, express bus service, and Link light rail north to Lynnwood, east to Bellevue and Overlake, and south to Federal Way (although with the recession, light rail will only reach Highline Community College for now).

A System Plan is financially constrained, including local revenue, bonding plans, and expectations for federal grants, and it includes a timeline. We don’t have time machines yet, so it’s hard to predict what a given source of revenue can achieve as the economy changes, both in how much is collected and in the cost of all the goods and services Sound Transit has to purchase to build a project, but Sound Transit increasingly plans conservatively to mitigate those risks.

If Sound Transit is too conservative, the System Plan will be too small or too slow to excite enough voters, and it will fail. If they aren’t conservative enough, though, projects will be visibly delayed and over-budget, dampening public opinion for their future legislative and voter needs.

Expert Review Panel

Before going to the voters, Sound Transit’s enabling legislation has one more requirement – they must submit their System Plan to a state expert review panel, adding months to the development of a ballot measure. As far as I understand, the expert review panel has never found a major issue in a System Plan. The import of this process seems to be almost entirely making the state government comfortable with the agency’s decisions – exerting power above and beyond the purse strings of revenue authority, a Dillon Rule artifact. As an aside, if I’m wrong about this, email me!

The Ballot Measure

Finally, once the System Plan is approved by the state, Sound Transit puts it to the voters. The board votes to submit a ballot measure to Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties. Sound Transit can’t spend money on campaigns, though, so in the meantime, a campaign is filed with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, and all the advocates, companies, and organizations I mentioned before put in a lot of money and time to win.

As I noted, this has happened four times so far – March 1995 and November 1996, and then November 2007 and November 2008.

The Four Elections

Different election years dramatically affect voter turnout: some people vote in every election, and tend to be older, whiter, and more well off; a more conservative electorate. The more spent by the campaigns and the more media covering the election, the more younger, more diverse, and more progressive people are reminded (or convinced) to vote. Turnout is far higher in a Presidential election than any other year.

Both of these pairs Sound Transit votes consist of a non-mayoral, non-legislative election followed by a Presidential election year. In 1995/1996, Sound Transit chose a conservative year followed by a progressive year – in fact, the original ballot measure in 1995 was a special election, the lowest possible turnout and most conservative electorate they could have chosen. In 2006, Sound Transit was prepared to go to the voters, but the state legislature asked them to wait until 2007 to be paired with highway expansion. In 2008, Sound Transit went to the ballot again by themselves and solidly passed. It’s possible that the highway expansion caused failure of the package (and I would love that to be the case), but I think it can just as easily be explained by the low turnout and more conservative electorate.

Far more people voted against Sound Transit when it passed than when it failed. Let me say that again: some 50% more people voted against Sound Transit 2 in the year it passed, 2008, than in the year it failed, 2007 (King 07, King 08, Pierce 07, Pierce 08, Snohomish 07, Snohomish 08). In the year when it passed, though, turnout was dramatically higher – the new ‘yes’ votes overwhelmed the new ‘no’ votes.

Suffice it to say, we should be aiming for a Sound Transit 3 vote in 2016.

The Future

We’ll be writing more about the Long Range Plan update as it continues, as well as particular projects that we can champion. Once Metro is saved, helping Sound Transit win revenue authority will be the next step on the path to Sound Transit 3, and you’ll hear more from us about lobbying existing legislators, as well as electing some new transit friendly faces.

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