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Sawant: Make transit free during coming ‘Seattle Squeeze’

(Image: City of Seattle)

Officials have been warning of the coming “Seattle Squeeze” starting with the January 11th closure of SR-99 offering up “Rapid Response Teams” and discounts on Uber but only one has stepped up to make the boldest, likely most effective, and — unfortunately — probably most implausible call yet — make public transit in Seattle free.

“Immediately, public transit from Metro to the Light Rail should be made free for all during the three weeks of the Seattle Squeeze,” District 3 council member Kshama Sawant writes in a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine.

The Seattle City Council member representing Capitol Hill, the Central District, and surrounding neighborhoods points out that “rider fares constitute only a small proportion of the revenue that Metro and other public transit agencies use to fund their operations.”

Sawant says she estimates the move “would cost less than $10 million, which is well within the ability of the county and its cities to fund.” Sawant also says that more buses and trains would be required during the period so “drivers and maintenance workers should be compensated with overtime pay to fulfill the extra duties.”

The full letter is below.

Beginning January 11th, State Route 99 through downtown Seattle will be closing for approximately three weeks to realign the highway into the new waterfront tunnel. During the closure, both the viaduct and the tunnel will be closed. Drivers should expect up to six weeks of region-wide congestion, the city says. Officials have suggested that commuters try to adjust their work schedules — starting later or leaving earlier — to reduce predicted congestion.

It’s not clear how Durkan or Constantine could put Sawant’s plan into motion though there are surgical examples when free rides have been legislated like the upcoming New Year’s Eve with no fare charged on Metro, Sound Transit, or the Seattle Streetcar.

Sawant’s call comes only weeks before the planned closure begins with her council not scheduled to meet again until January 9th.

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41 thoughts on “Sawant: Make transit free during coming ‘Seattle Squeeze’

  1. It’s a good idea, but it isn’t her call, and it is way too late for all the various agencies and sundry officials to sign off. Jump in the way back machine to about August, then maybe.

  2. I was going to say, good idea Khama Sawant’s office! It would have been nice to put this on the table for planning 1 years ago, not 2 weeks before, but hey!

  3. My question is, where exactly is this $10M supposed to come from? We can’t even afford to properly house our homeless population or put enough police on the streets but there’s a spare $10M just lying around somewhere?

    • For example, taxes on those million dollar homes. Extra taxes if those neighborhoods oppose density.

      More taxes for cars (with a sunset in 5 years, once the construction is over). Special tolls to enter the worst area (like London).

      More taxes for businesses with parking lots, since they encourage driving.

      More taxes for households with multiple cars.

    • People in those million dollar homes already pay disproportionately more in property taxes than renters do from their rent. When their homes go up in value they’ll automatically pay more.

      “Extra taxes if they oppose density”? So now we’ll be taxing some people higher because they don’t agree with what the politburo dictates?

      Do you know how many neighborhoods have “million dollar homes” now? Practically every corner of the city. The problem isn’t that homeowners aren’t paying enough. The problem is that a lot of very high-earning people in Seattle are renters in expensive apartments, whose exposure to tax increases is diluted by their being in large buildings. You keep trying to soak homeowners increasingly more and you’ll trash the housing mkt, and screw up the tax base even more when you chase all the middle class out of Seattle.

  4. God she sucks. Every time there is a headline with her name in it, I can barely bring myself to read it. Does she even know anything about the Central District and Capitol Hill whom she represents? Doubtful.

    • She’s proposing free transit during the worst traffic crunch our region has ever seen. Considering the high density of CH/FH, a lot of her constituents rely on transit, so pushing for free transit (albeit a day late and buck short) seems like she’s representing her district well.

      But don’t let that stop your off-topic rant about how much you hate your councilmember.

      Every time there is a headline with her name in it, I can barely bring myself to read it.

      Got it, you irrationally hate her so much that you immediately dismiss everything she does without having knowledge of what she’s doing.

      I don’t even like Sawant, but I can’t wait for November 6th to experience the sockpuppet pity party in the comment section.

  5. It’s a good idea about a year too late. Once again Sawant seems more concerned with attaching herself to the headline of the hour than actually thinking about and trying to solve issues long term.

  6. Such a typical Savant idea. Let’s map it out:

    1. Make transit free during the tunnel shutdown!
    2. Hey, that was great, let’s make it free all the time!
    3. Hey, more people are riding transit— need more busses and rail- looks like we need more money!
    4. Hey, more people are going carless. Lower gas taxes (that help fund transit and roads). Lower tag fees (that help fund transit and roads). Looks like we need more money!
    5. Nobody’s paying fares— need more money!
    6. Hey, we need more money… let’s raise tag fees (prompting more people to ditch their cars, losing more revenue stream). No income tax, so let’s raise property taxes! (Making homes more expensive, making rents more expensive). Making homelessness worse.
    7. Oh yeah— and RENT CONTROL, we still need that too!

    Isn’t “free” stuff great? It’s so simple!

  7. The Urbanist just yesterday wrote about how we can pay for free transit. It’s a very thoughtful, well-considered post that answers a lot of the But, But, Buts that are inevitably brought up when big, transformative proposals are on the table. Even if we couldn’t get free transit up and running tomorrow or in January, it is worth doing as soon as we can.

    • Yeah, there are a few assumptions in that post.

      1) That a payroll tax would be widely accepted (how’d that turn out earlier this year?)
      2) That the sales tax that currently helps fund transit would be replaced by a payroll tax (once the government gets a taste of tax revenue, they’re not rolling it back)
      3) That, naturally, with free transit, people will just abandon their cars (many will, sure. but i think there’s an under-estimation of the connection people have with their vehicles)

      I think that any conversation about providing free transit really needs to start with a serious discussion about how it will be paid for. And that’s not a “do it in 2 weeks” or “just do it Seattle” conversation. I would challenge Sawant to take up this project for the 2020 budget planning taking place next year; if she’s still in office then.

    • Yeah, there’s a lot of good data for how we’ll pay for it in that article, but no actual data about ridership and the impact of fares.

      For example, it makes the assumption that low income people don’t ride the bus because of cost. Is the assumption that they own and drive their cars instead? Cars cost more to maintain, and parking is more expensive. So is it really the cost of the bus that keeps them from using it, or is it the lack of routes, the overcrowding, or just the extra time? (I take the bus every day, but it’s a 20-min drive in normal traffic and a 1-hour bus ride in the same traffic, assuming the bus gods are nice to me.)

      Fundamentally, a study would need to exist that says the primary de-motivator for public transportation use is cost, not convenience. Uber and Lyft are way more expensive, but way more convenient; a free bus isn’t an alternative for those who can pay that expense.

      • A major part of the proposal is that the payroll tax would fund increased service. It is the lack of efficient service that incentivizes people to drive who would prefer a less expensive public transportation option.

  8. More drive-by grandstanding from Sawant, who’s soon heading off to India for vaycay. This’ll be her second trip back home in one year. Four R/T tickets to India (her servile husband Calvin goes, too) ain’t chump change. (Then there those many overseas trips she makes to propagandize her ‘movement.’)

    I can’t imagine how she does it on “the average worker’s income.”

    • Ha, she’s a microsoft ex-wife who lives in Leschi, hardly the working class. But like Bush and Trump, they like to pretend to be common people when it suits them.

      • Anyone wanting to see how she _really_ lives should just check out her FB page. And note that she does _nothing_ directly for her poor workers, who aren’t invited to her sumptuous Christmas dinners (and her celebration of Christmas is downright petit-bourgeois, not to mention hypocritical for a ‘historical materialist.’

  9. Is there any study on what incremental increase in ridership we’d see from this? Is there really a large number of people who avoid transit and drive alone due to the cost to ride?

    Seems like a government program in search of a problem. The timing of the letter at best displays Sawant’s incompetence, and at worst shows her opportunistic desire to stay in the headlines even when there’s no real governing going on.

    • I doubt there’s many folks who avoids transit because of the cost because drivers rarely even confront people who don’t pay the fare much less throw them off the bus and everyone knows it…. Maybe you wan’t to avoid the light rail because of the fare inspectors that occasionally show up downtown, but otherwise you’re pretty safe.

      It’s not worth it to the drivers to risk being assaulted or verbally abused at the minimum and they certainly aren’t going to call the transit police and disrupt everyone’s commute just for a fare skipper..

    • When I’m in a particularly auto-dependent mode of living, the barrier to getting me on/back on transit has never been that it costs money.

      BUT, it has frequently been… “where’s my fare card” – “do I have correct change to get on the vehicle” type considerations. If I have to spend even 30 minutes of my morning figuring this out, guess what, I’ll be late, so I’m hopping in the car and grinding it out with everyone else.

      Make it so people don’t have to worry if they have the correct, special kind of money required to ride transit, there’s a good chance more people will consider it as an alternative, especially if they look at a traffic map with all red and black highways and make the spur-of-the-moment decision that it might be a better idea to ride the bus.

      With two weeks to go, it’s too bad the consensus amongst the commentariat is that it would take a year to implement simply turning off fareboxes and ORCA readers for roughly three weeks. Seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me.

      • You’re still using cash on public transit? Almost no one does that. Get an ORCA card, keep it in your wallet so you don’t have to search for it, and have it automatically re-filled from a credit card.

      • Install the Transit Go Ticket app on your phone. You can buy fares with a credit card. No transfers are supported, so if you want to use those, get an ORCA.

  10. Typical grandstanding move by Sawant. It’s like, if she finds herself out of the headlines for a week or so, she has to dream up something to call attention to herself.

    Tell me again when we can vote her out of office. It can’t come soon enough.

  11. Not sure that the cost of transit is why more people don’t ride it.. I most cases transit is cheaper than SOV commuting when you consider fuel, insurance, parking, etc. This is just Sawant pulling another publicity stunt, which seems to be her only real talent.

  12. this is typical Sawant, always grandstanding to get attention. the question here is where would the money to come from? and Metro doesn’t have the buses or drivers to handle the capacity of the increased ridership.

  13. Hang on…. You can already get discounted fares if you are under 18, over 65, are low income, live in an apartment complex of 20 or more people, work for one of the major employers in the area (I get an insanely cheap $10/month formerly free, ORCA pass through my work that lets me ride Community Transit, Everett Transit, King County Metro Transit, Kitsap Transit, Pierce Transit and Sound Transit through my work.)

    Sooooo… the only people who even have to pay full price to ride the bus (which even then is still cheaper than any of the alternatives…) are young to middle aged adults with good jobs that don’t offer a bus pass as a perk, who are probably already the least likely to want to use transit and for whom making it free likely wouldn’t change their behavior anyway…

    • I live in an apartment building with close to 20 units, so definitely 20 people. I’m eligible for a reduced fare Orca card?

    • The biggest motivator to get people out of their car would be to not be stuck in traffic. I’ve ridden in or formed several vanpools, and almost every time, it’s the desire to get home faster and avoiding the dead-stopped traffic that gets people into the van. (Also avoiding tolls like on 520). The Catch 22 here is that for this to make a noticeable difference, so many more people would need to be out of their cars and onto transit,that it would overwhelm capacity and be just as bad as being stuck in that traffic.

      • The new queue jump for buses exiting WB 520 and turning right on Montlake to the UW Link Station is one reason I bus from Capitol Hill to work on the East side more often. It saves several light cycles at rush hour.

  14. Where is the love here, brothers and sisters? With my inexhaustible political will, I offer another freebie to my brothers and sisters in the labor movement, and all I get is ridicule! My (oops–“our”) Movement is for free everything, the only way to liberate ourselves from the shackles of corporate Capitalist exploitation! Don’t you understand? I am leading you to the Promised Land!

    And if you don’t want to live in my Promised Land? Off to Gulag with you.

    As for me, I’m jetting off to India for another vacation. You peasants enjoy the traffic.


    • It’s funny how the anti-Kshama trolls somehow managed to become more annoying than her. Having morons like you represent the voice of opposition is probably the best thing that can happen to her reelection chances.

  15. I agree that a few dollars of bus fare is not the main obstacle for most car commuters. I have been in the Bay Area during “spare the air” days (high ozone pollution) when they make transit free for everyone – it’s a nice idea, but definitely invites a lot of weirdos with nothing better to do to come hang out on the trains instead of hanging out on their usual street corner. Although it certainly wouldn’t hurt to offer some promos now and then to get people to try out transit, I don’t know that a several week long free-for-all is the ideal starting point.

    The real solution to keep traffic moving would be a robust system of congestion tolling; unfortunately we are years behind schedule to have anything like that up and running in time for the viaduct closure.

  16. So the commuters who religiously use (and pay for) transit should even though they can “afford” to drive, because it’s the right thing to do, have to endure even more crowded buses because making transit free is the only way to get people out of their cars? Great idea Sawant. Pull the other one.