Panelist from the State of Washington, King County and the City of Seattle answered questions in a Q & A session sponsored by the West Seattle Transportation Coalition on Jan. 14. at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center.
WSTC Q&A offers few solutions but explained options and challenges
The West Seattle Transportation Coalition, formed in response to the growing need to address the transportation issue facing people on the West Seattle peninsula held a Q & A panel on Tuesday, Jan 14 with representatives from the State of Washington, King County, and the City of Seattle responding.
About 80 people came to the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center to hear from Ron Judd, Project Strategy Manager for WSDOT, Chris Arkills, Transit Policy Advisor for King County Executive Dow Constantine, Andrew Glass Hastings, Transit and Transportation advisor for new Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, and Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who heads the Council's Transportation committee. They took questions from WSTC board members Michael Taylor-Judd, Mat McBride, and Joe Szilagyi.
Earlier in the day Executive Constantine had announced that the county, in the absence of action from the state would pursue it's "Plan B", a mix of taxes and a fare hike that would cover the projected Metro shortfall of $60 million annually though since they need to replace aging buses, the total shortfall is $75 million. The ballot measure would come before the voters in a special election April 22.
Since the state is at this time in political gridlock on transportation issues and the county is taking its own measures, and the Mayor is only 2 weeks in office, the substance of the answers from the panelists was long on acknowledgement and short on substance.
Judd was asked if the State and Governor Inslee intend to honor the 2009 commitment to help mitigate the effects of the SR 99 construction work. He said yes, the Inslee administration would but that "there will be winners and losers" noting that money would have to be pulled away from other projects. "There's gonna be pain," he said. Judd replaced Charles Knutson of the Governor's office who had to stay in Olympia.
Arkills, speaking about the April ballot measure said there's a March 7 deadline for the State to come up with a funding solution since that's when it must be submitted for election purposes. He said, "In my view we have both a curse and a blessing. We basically have one way in and out of West Seattle. When something goes wrong that's a curse. But it's also an opportunity for us to build high capacity transit in West Seattle."
He noted that the county has looked to the state for the last five years to "give us local funding tools as part of the transportation package and to address the gap in viaduct mitigation funding but we can wait no longer. We're to the point we have exhausted our tools to keep buses on the street. Today we transmitted legislation to the state to use the limited funding tools under Transportation Benefit Districts to save King County Metro from devastating cuts."
He said there would be a "$60 vehicle license fee to replace the $20 congestion reduction charge on car tabs right now and a 1/10 of a penny of sales tax."
"We're also asking our riders to pay more through another 25 cent fare increase. But because we've had four fare increases already in the last six years we know that has made it more difficult for people on limited incomes. So we're also proposing a new reduced fare who are 200% under under the federal poverty level who will pay $1.50 fare instead. We've worked hard to cut staff, draw down our reserves, tightened our schedules, raised our fares, implemented a temporary congestion charge, all of these things to keep service on the street. We know transit service is critical to West Seattle."
Glass Hastings said that Mayor Murray is encouraging everyone to "think bold. Innovation is not just a word he uses lightly but something that he brings to office and is really going to permeate every challenge that we tackle."
Councilmember Rasmussen said, "There are four areas I've really been focusing on as chair of the transportation committee. One is to get the resources that we need for our transportation system." He mentioned the Bridging the Gap levy and the $60 fee. He said he has "worked to improve transit services as well to insure speed and reliability in our very limited corridors. I supported the monorail and that was one of the best opportunities we had to get grade separated transit. I've worked to improve transportation safety," saying he's working almost every neighborhood in Seattle, notably, "47th and Admiral where there was a pedestrian fatality a few years ago." He said that Seattle is well behind other cities in terms of light rail. "We've voted it down several times in the 60's and funds that would have come to us from the federal government to build it went to Atlanta, they went to D.C. and other places. We're about 40 years behind where we need to be so we're playing catch up now."
Judd was asked about what WSDOT is looking for in terms of funding to solve the transportation problems.
"We do have a continuing crisis," he said. "This is the reason we've been working so hard on the transportation package. By 2015-17 if we don't get substantial money in our system then 52% is the cliff we drop off in terms of the preservation of maintenance of our roads and bridges. That just affect car traffic. It affects Metro, it affects freight, it affects the ability for all modes of transportation to work effectively in this state." He acknowledged those in the room and said, "without folks like you giving feedback to legislators about the need for a transportation package we'll never get there. Advocacy is key."
Are there cost saving measures Metro is taking that don't involve service reductions?
Arkills said, "We tightened our schedules and negotiated good labor contracts with our bus drivers and cut a lot of our staff in overhead, cut our maintenance budget. We have a very tight budget. But we have a commitment in King County to continuous improvement. Executive Constantine asked each department to tty to identify 3% efficiencies every year and that's a commitment that's ongoing."
He noted that it's complicated to run a transit system. "Everything from garbage pickup to cleaning the stops, operating transit police, having maintenance for our buses to make sure they are safe and clean on the roads."
Are the 3% efficiencies publicly available?
Arkills said they were and were available on Metro's website.
What about the 1% motor vehicle excise tax for the mitigation of construction related traffic? Will Inslee honor Gregoire's commitment?
Judd said, "Yes. The question is what's the path forward? We're hoping to get a transportation revenue package... Not doing it is not an option."
How will the Mayor prioritize the transportation issues for the West Seattle peninsula?
Glass Hastings said, "Priortization of transportation in Seattle in the past has been in a little bit of a black box. It's really hard for the average Seattleite to figure out how the city's transportation dollars are being prioritized... that's got to change." He said the Mayor wants to make it easier for people to learn what the transportation priorities in Seattle are and "how the priorities are matched to funding opportunities and how those priorities are going to turn into projects on the ground." He talked about an "inter-modal plan" that would include a bicycle master plan (now nearing completion), a freight master plan and a transit master plan under development. He said the Mayor wants to find a more comprehensive strategy that ties all these plans together.
State mitigation funding for transit runs out in five months. The tunnel won't be finished, the waterfront won't be ready, and more. Should additional funding from the state fail to materialize what is the Mayor prepared to spend on increasing transit capacity?
Glass Hastings said that Mayor Murray was in Olympia meeting with the Governor and that topic is one he was going to bring up. How can the city in a newfound friendship with the state how can the city find a way to address some of the specific viaduct related challenges? ... What is the solution? "It's to find a way to get behind the plan that was just announced by the county. Move King County Now. That's a tangible way that voters in Seattle and King County have a way to sort of take control of our transit and transportation future."
A question for Tom Rasmussen - How will you as chair of the Transportation Committee be prioritizing the West Seattle peninsula for transportation issues?
"I've been doing it now. I advocate for it. I champion it at the council. I work with the Dept. of Transportation to make sure they are hearing the needs of West Seattle." He added some examples of what he's done. "35th has new speed cameras but there are two others things I did for West Seattle... I tried to get the Coast Guard to agree to not open the low level bridge during rush hour. I persuaded Mayor Nickels and the Dept. of Transportation Director to join me in sending a letter to the Coast Guard to allow traffic to continue to move there and not open it during peak hours. We tried and tried but have not had any success.... Another is I keep in very close touch with our Traffic and Patrol Division of the Seattle Police Dept. making sure they are patrolling our streets particularly during peak hours to make sure people are not blocking the 'Bus Only' lanes. I met with them recently and they deeply appreciate the support of public officials and the public. They are the ones out there with radar guns and and stopping traffic in the Bus Only lanes and they need our support."
He acknowledged that prioritization has not been transparent and despite asking to see a list of priorities from SDOT, he's never seen it. "That would be a great accomplishment from this Mayor if the process is clear, equitable and is transparent."
Should funding from the state fail to materialize what is the City Council prepared to spend on increasing transit capacity on the peninsula during service hours?
"We have some funds through Bridging the Gap," said Rasmussen, " to use for additional transit hours and those funds were added into transit service last June. There may be some more capacity in our Bridging the Gap measure to purchase additional hours of transit. We'll have to determine if that's available and how much. It's very hard for the City to go it alone to pay for it, for transit service. We really should not get to that point if the state fails. I've spoken to the people this week at WSDOT and they're hearing it loud and clear but we have people in the state legislature in powerful positions. People who live in Ritzville, they live in Vancouver, they live in Medina. Do you think they care about Seattle? Some of them don't, and they will say publicly they don't. Hear what they say about Seattle. We have to work closely with the county and our neighbors. For the first time we've got great support from Bellevue, Kirkland, Auburn, Black Diamond throughout the region for this service. That is powerful and it hasn't happened before." Rasmussen went on to suggest the City of Seattle could impose a Vehicle License Fee. "I'll ask the voters. Would you support an additional $20, $40 or $60 a year vehicle license fee to help support transit?...We could do a sales tax, we could even do tolling on roads through a Transportation Benefit District."
Measures like that would require the approval of voters.
Is Gov. Inslee willing to direct WSDOT to fund our buses until the state project (SR 99 tunnel) is completed?
Ron Judd explained," The answer is yes, but WSDOT doesn't have an unlimited amount of money. Our money is allocated by policy by the legislature...right now if we don't get new revenue...we'll have to figure it out administratively. But there are winners and losers in that because we'll have to pull that money away from something else to make that commitment."
Do you think Executive Constantine would be willing to call for a new performance audit of Metro?
Arkills said, "I can't say that it would be the wisest use of tax dollars to have another complete audit. I would you to look at the audit that was done. It was very extensive. It took about 2 years to complete. It was done by the King County Auditors office without being influenced by Metro staff. We are always open to audits. We get audited regularly by the State Auditor's office, we get audited for use of federal dollars by the federal government. Audits R Us."
Would the Mayor be willing to ask the City Council for a temporary moratorium on density zoning increases and the waiving of parking requirements until these transit funding issues are resolved?
Glass Hastings said, "This is an example of one of those issues that the Mayor wants to approach with fresh eyes...Often times in Seattle we're not ahead of growth when it comes to our transportation infrastructure... This is what happens. You have neighborhoods receiving a great deal of growth and the investments haven't been made to support that growth... It needs an innovative approach..."
Rasmussen said, "I had an experience with that last spring. You may recall that there was a significant increase in the demand for housing units in Seattle, particularly in the University District and Capitol Hill. With no parking... I held a public forum on the concerns I was hearing. I talked to my colleagues on the City Council asking them if they would be willing to agree to a moratorium on the development of that kind of housing. Guess what the answer was. No. It wasn't going anywhere. The reason is there is a very vocal group of people who strongly support dense development next to transit. This is consistent with what their vision is. If you raise concerns about that you are accused of being a NIMBY or you are accused of being insensitive to the need for more housing and more affordable housing because those units, the micro units are being marketed as lower cost more affordable housing... In that environment, which exists today, it would be very hard I believe to successfully impose a moratorium on any development....If you want one we're going to have to hear from you. Because the folks who don't like moratoriums, who love the micro housing ...are organized. They have a paid lobbyist...they have a newspaper that strongly supports micro housing and that newspaper uses its bully pulpit to personally attack people who oppose micro housing. I support affordable housing but we have to be mindful of the effect of development on the quality of life for the people in the neighborhood."
Glass Hastings added, "The Mayor will be convening a Neighborhood Summit within the first 100 days of his administration and this is exactly the type of issue that he expects to be brought to that summit."
How much financial offset is the Mayor intending against developers to deal with transportation issues?
Glass Hastings answered, "Parking, especially in dense urban areas where parking is put underground is incredibly costly. Often times developers when facing having to build to certain parking thresholds, often times parking gets overbuilt. That over building of parking and the high cost associated with building each space which can be upwards of $35,000 for underground parking gets passed along to the renter or buyer of that property which lessens the affordability of housing in Seattle. On the flip side of that when developers don't have to build that parking and they are not over building that parking...there's a a savings that gets passed on to the renter or buyer... There's potentially an opportunity to extract some of that value, that isn't going into that parking into surrounding transportation infrastructure. That's not to say you could ask developers to instead of paying for parking, pay for transit service." He explained that the former is a "one time payment" while the latter is ongoing.
Can you outline how the City Council will tie permanent zero parking to increased transit funding?
Rasmussen said, " I think we'd have to explore whether we could do that. The first thing to do is contact the law dept. to find out, do we have the authority to carry out such a program. If we do, then what the best way to implement that."
He explained that downtown employers are encouraged to contribute to bus passes and to encourage car pooling. "Maybe there are programs like that, that could work with residential developers too."
He continued that the city has the ability to charge impact fees on development and they must be used for transportation issues.
Have you looked into whether or not those fees leveraged as a one time cost at the time of building can be added like in the form of a property tax to that development so that it's an ongoing perpetual fee?
"I'm not sure it can be an ongoing perpetual fee," said Rasmussen. It has to be consistent with the City's transportation plan.
Is the Governor willing to recognize and protect the Viaduct mitigation as a separate issue?
Ron Judd explained that the State wants to figure this out. "We'd rather figure it out as part of a revenue package because then we have the space and resources so that something else doesn't suffer. But we have an agreement between the parties here. I was one of the individuals that negotiated that memorandum, so I know it well, and the intent of it. Have we met that intent in its entirety? We have not. I won't go into the reasons. Are we committed to meeting that intent? Yes we are." He explained if there is no revenue package they face a 52% reduction in the next biennium there will be "lots of losers."
Are there any transportation assurances from Metro for elder people for shopping and medical needs?
Arkills said that Metro is doing everything it can to make sure the proposed cuts won't happen. He explained that transit ridership has been a huge success story, noting that the number of vehicles on the Viaduct prior to the construction was "about 100,000 cars every day, now about 75,000 cars use it, and they have gone to transit." He further explained that "90% of our riders own a car and many of them will return to cars. For seniors that's often not an option or not a good option." One tool Arkills included was the Hyde Shuttle which operates in the southern part of Seattle paid for by a bequest from a widow many years ago.
"That is one tool we could use."
Are you willing to consider an employee payroll tax in order to spread the burden of costs more equitably?
Arkills responded, "We did some research and the authorization for the payroll tax is actually not in the transportation benefit legislation. It is in the RTID (regional transportation investment district) legislation that was used in the roads and transit ballot measure that failed several years ago. One of problem with it is that it could only be used for capital, so it could only be used to buy buses....Most of the transit expenses are operating dollars not bus purchases. We get federal formula money to help us with bus purchases.
Would the Mayor consider bringing back the "Head Tax" which raised at the time $4.5 million as part of Bridging the Gap levy?
Glass Hastings said, " The Mayor is looking at all revenue sources. Unfortunately that was put on the table and the City Council did unwind it so it's no longer a revenue source for the city but it doesn't mean it couldn't be re-looked at to possibly find a way to broaden its appeal."
Would the City Council consider reversing its repeal of the $25 per employee head tax?
"I think the climate may have changed, " said Rasmussen, "So that there would be a more supportive business community for a head tax."
How does the Governor's office feel about allowing the control over revenues from a Motor Vehicle Excise Tax fall to the local level?
Judd said, "Taking off my Governor's hat and I'm just talking to you as a user. In this state it's very quick for those in other parts of the state to complain a lot about Seattle and King County and all their needs. But they don't complain one iota when they get a boatload of our tax dollars that feeds the rest of the state. Your idea makes sense from that perspective. But there are winners and losers. So a lot of the revenue generated where the population is and the jobs and economy are would stay there. I totally get that. There are those in Olympia right now that are not working as hard as they should be and could be and need to be to get us a revenue package. In their legislative districts, their people would be losers which is what drives people like me crazy. Logic and reason is not being applied. What were faced with in this state is a set of political circumstances that is trumping common sense when it comes to transportation issues and revenue... If King County is successful in this vote, you cannot pass anything in this state if you don't have King County. So by the very fact that if they are successful in funding Metro means that it's going to be very difficult for the state to come back to a statewide revenue package next time, because the county has already made its decision. To try to get voters to come back and vote again on another package would be impossible. You cannot win statewide without winning King County."
Is the state willing to adjust the ferry run to serve the Colman Dock in downtown Seattle?
Judd said, "A lot of folks take the ferry every day and it's tourists, and folks going to work, and transporting goods via the ferry system. I believe we actually explored that idea and had some conversation and got some pretty harsh feedback relative to that." He explained that changing ferries and landings and destinations gets complicated and that "we would have to go through a very public process," and it's not something they would take lightly but "maybe it's time to have that conversation."
How about a more limited approach, say every other ferry?
"Tom referenced the Coast Guard before. There's always personal growth opportunities when you get the Coast Guard involved. It's not as simple as the City and WSDOT sitting down. There are a lot of other players involved."
Would Metro consider a peninsula circular route for the Water Taxi to increase its use by commuters?
"We already have two shuttles in West Seattle," explained Arkills," the 773 and the 775. One operates in a loop between Alki and Admiral Junction and the other goes to 35th and Avalon a major transfer point and to the Alaska Junction. During the midday, Councilmember McDermott's office worked to make sure that that shuttle could go to the Morgan Street Junction. Part of the struggle with the shuttles is that they are timed to meet the boat. They are in radio communication with the boat. They don't leave until the boat gets there. They take the shuttle route and they are timed so it's a seamless transportation system." He explained that Metro looked at one point at having the shuttle turn around at the park n' ride under the West Seattle Bridge but the turning radius required was too tight in that space. There may be other options for the shuttle and a public outreach is planned for later this year. "I'd like to see a shuttle go to the North Delridge area." He also mentioned a "great option" is for people to get on a bike and ride to the water taxi. The old boats and new boats coming have space for up to 20 bikes on board.
What is the Mayor's office willing to do to create a holistic and funded plan for all transportation?
"The cornerstone of Mayor Murray's transportation agenda during the campaign was creating what he coined as the "Move Seattle" strategy. It's the opportunity to take these individual inter-modal plans that embody a great deal of work, great deal of time... and integrate them ...so that they don't speak as individuals but as one system. You can integrate these plans but you also need to prioritize them."
What is the City Council willing to commit to implement the return of the 4th Avenue on ramp to the viaduct?
Actually they looked at it," Rasmussen explained, "and they determined that it would not be safe, so close to I-5."
What is the Mayor willing to commit to regarding a 'fly-over' bridge on Lander Street?
"The Lander Street fly over crossing is a long standing priority for the city, the state and also for the Port and the county.... What do we do with all the buses coming from West Seattle into downtown when the viaduct goes away? This project came up several times because it was seen as a way to get those buses reliably across the railroad tracks...That is something that needs to happen."
Does the County Executive understand the expectation that voters have that if they vote to tax themselves, that their bus routes will continue to be there to meet their needs?
"Yes he does understand that," Arkills said. "We are committed to expanding and maintaining transit throughout King County. He explained that old method of allocating transit by simple percentage assignment was not a good way. "People live and work in different places... we need to have a unified transit network." He explained that a Regional Transit Taskforce found that allocation should be based on land use patterns, population and where jobs were. But that it also needed to be balanced by social equity and geographic value. Metro developed their strategic plan based on the task force recommendations.
Is developing and committing to plan for grade separated rail a priority for the City Council?
"It definitely is," said Rasmussen, " we funded a master transit plan now we have to plan to build it out." He explained that "Sound Transit 3" is the next opportunity we have to move forward on that plan. We now have planning underway for Sound Transit rail line to West Seattle and then out to Burien as well as downtown Seattle to Ballard."
What is WSDOT willing to do to change its culture and be more open to urban transportation?
"Under both Gov. Inslee's leadership and the Secretary that he brought in that has a strong intensive background and she's in the middle of looking at WSDOT and how we prioritize funding....WSDOT Is roads heavy. We have a lot of roads. But we can also become multiple use friendly." He went on to explain that the 18th Amendment which limits how gas tax dollars can be spent, confining them specifically to "highway purposes" means the state is limited in their ability to help with transit related activities.
What level of partnership would be applied to increase the utilization of more water taxis?
Arkills explained a bit about the history of the water taxi and said, "We'd love to continue to expand it...We're committed to water borne solutions." He suggested that the County is ideally positioned to be a service provider for riders in Bremerton.
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