Ethics, Risk, and Junk-Touching

TSA at Link's Opening Day – Photo by Lloyd

I’ve watched the TSA Body Scanner/Pat Down fiasco with the usual mix of outrage and dark humor.  In our collective apoplexy we have made the TSA into caricatured goons to be contrasted with grandmothers and toddlers undeserving of security scrutiny. While my own politics agrees with these sentiments, I think a couple angles on this story have been missed, one of which relates to transit and the other to ethics.

First, in this new paradigm cars win. If you care about privacy and freedom of movement, it’s a good time to drive a car. While air, rail, and ferries will likely face ever-tightening security in the coming years, private vehicles will remain largely free of restriction or inspection, despite the massive precedent of car bombings.  Traveling on any major public conveyance will submit you to inconvenience, forced data collection, and surveillance.  Not so for cars.

Second, we are partly to blame. Our expectations of government reveal a fundamental contradiction. We tend to judge as utilitarians and argue as deontologists. Put differently, we tend to argue the merits of a policy via principles (ethics, rights, justice) until something bad happens, at which point our moral calculus swiftly switches to results-based judgment.  If there is a successful terrorist attack by whatever means, we fallaciously blame the government post hoc for failing to foresee and prevent the means of attack.  This tendency also works well in reverse; when there is an extended period without an attack we reward politicians without any evidence that their actions provided any meaningful deterrence.  How many times have you heard, “Bush may have been a bad President, but his actions kept us safe”?   As a result – despite our protestations – as a society we reward governmental hyperactivity and will not tolerate inaction.   This establishes overwhelming incentives for our government to enact ridiculously cautious and intrusive security policies.

If we want to win a social argument against the “surveillance society” on the basis of rights and justice, we must relax the utilitarian standards to which we hold our governments.  As difficult as it is for our litigious society, we must accept risk, period.  We must recognize that beyond a certain point risk-avoidance diminishes the quality of that which it seeks to protect, namely a free and mobile life.  Attacks will happen, and I may die, but I would rather face that infinitesimal particular risk than assent to a general loss of liberty.  The best formulation I have seen comes from Swedish philosopher Sven Ove Hansson in his article Ethical Criteria of Risk Acceptance,

“Exposure of a person to risk is acceptable if and only if this exposure is part of an equitable social system of risk-taking that works to her advantage.”

If only President Obama had meant what he said on Inauguration Day,

“We reject as false the choice between our liberty and our ideals…those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”

Constantine Appoints Joe McDermott to ST Board

Joe McDermott

Yesterday, King County Executive Dow Constantine appointed former *State Senator Joe McDermott to the Sound Transit Board, replacing outgoing county councilmember Jan Drago.  McDermott was elected to the King County council’s 8th District seat in November, beating out Diane Toledo.

From a King County press release:

“It is critically important that we continue to have strong south King County representation on the Sound Transit Board, and Councilmember McDermott’s extensive legislative experience will serve all of our customers well,” said Executive Constantine. “The 8th District includes the cities of Burien, SeaTac and Tukwila, and these are all emerging residential and job centers for our region that need good transportation alternatives.”

“We need to connect communities within south King County to each other, recognizing that people live, work and play outside downtown Seattle,” said Councilmember McDermott. “Working together and thinking creatively, we can produce a transit system that meets the needs of the entire region. I am honored to be a South County representative on the Board.”

McDermott’s appointment still has to be confirmed by the county council.  We congratulate him and look forward to seeing him on the ST Board.

*McDermott can only be appointed to the ST Board as an elected official in King County, not in state office.  [Update 10:37pm: At any rate, Joe is on longer a State Senator, as his replacement, Sharon Nelson, has already been sworn in.]

South Kirkland P&R TOD

South Kirkland TOD Concept

For several years King County Metro has been trying to develop it’s P&Rs into something more, using land as leverage to build TOD in addition to more parking.

Renton and Overlake are two older examples wile Redmond is a more recent example. While Renton and Overlake left a lot to be desired from an architectural and urban design standpoint the Redmond project comes a lot close to the mark. From what I see it looks like Metro has learned a good amount since they started doing these projects.

The image above is a plan view of a concept design, which looks to be promising. I like that it includes over 12,000 sf of commercial space along NE 38th Pl, but it would be nice to see some commercial space in the area facing the transit center as well. This work is being done as part of the Lakeview neighborhood comprehensive plan update. From the project fact sheet:

The Planning Department is now ready to move forward with amendments to the Kirkland Zoning Code, included as an implementation task on the adopted 2010-2012 Planning Work Program. The current zoning does not permit residential and has a height limit of 30’. The processing of the amendments will occur either as part of the Lakeview Neighborhood Plan and Zoning Code update, or through a process independent from the remainder of the code amendments associated with the plan update.

More after the jump.
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Universal and ORCA Powered U-PASS Delayed

Back of a Husky Card affixed with a purple U-PASS sticker good for Autumn Quarter
The current U-PASS

The Daily of the UW reports that implementation of a universal U-PASS program will be a quarter behind its original Winter 2010 target (January 2010). A survey completed last spring showed 79% of students, staff, and faculty supporting a universal U-PASS. The pass would be a mandatory fee priced around $60 to $80 with a target of $75. The current pass costs $99 per quarter, almost a twofold increase over 2008 prices. Participation dropped from 85% to 72% in 2009 as a result. The U-PASS needs a new funding model as the existing model, in which students can opt-out by returning the pass, is unsustainable with budget shortfalls and increasing costs from the transit agencies.

Meanwhile, the process of converting U-PASS stickers over to ORCA-embedded Husky Cards is now anticipated to begin sometime in the middle of 2011. The University’s Transportation Services originally had a target of June 2010 and later pushed it back towards late 2010. The delay in implementation comes from the “transit side”, in other words, the agencies implementing ORCA and the system vendor. The process, called “re-carding”, involves replacing every student’s, staff’s, and faculty’s identification card (known as Husky Card) with a new card embedded with an ORCA chip. The new cards will feature a new design and would retain the magnetic strip for its existing functions. Dubs, the Husky mascot, will lead the transition.

According to the University Transportation Committee’s (UTC advises the UW administration on transportation issues) meeting minutes, the e-purse function will be disabled on the ORCA powered U-PASS. The University did not want to deal with customer service issues like refunding e-purse value. Privacy concerns were also raised in a UTC meeting where a loophole in the law allowed media to file a public information request for card user’s personally identifiable information. However, the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 5295 into law earlier this year, closing the loophole. With U-PASS moving to a universal model, a system for students to opt-out of the ORCA powered U-PASS would be unnecessary.

News Roundup: Hoses and Power Lines

Photo by Wings777

This is an open thread.

No Shortage of Negativity at East Link Public Hearing

Sound Transit's most recent preferred alternative on the left, and Bellevue's on the right

Tuesday night’s open house and public hearing for Sound Transit’s East Link’s SDEIS was nothing more than the perennial ST bashing exercise.  The public hearing was laden with several comments on why ST is a bad government bureaucracy yet there was the sole proviso that the agency could be magically forgiven for its sins if it were to choose B7 instead.  The meeting was very negative from the standpoint of a B2/B3 supporter but likely a party for B7 supporters, who criticized Sound Transit on everything from Central Link’s delayed opening to Bellevue councilmember Grant Degginger’s “conflict of interest.”

Things got heated early as one B7 supporter began dropping expletives and loudly accosting Sound Transit employees during the open house, claiming that no one would stay in the Bellevue Club’s hotel if a train would be screeching by all evening.  His rampage was stopped only by a fellow Bellevue resident, who calmly reprimanded him for his foul mouth.  Aside from the isolated commotion, the rest of the open house maintained composure and went on unscathed, sporting the usual set up of various stations staffed by ST employees.

More below the jump.

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Seattle Times Publishes Misinformation

Last week, the Seattle Times featured an Op-Ed by our own Sherwin Lee, which strongly supported moving forward with East Link and attacked Bellevue’s city council for wasting money. In response, another one of Bill Hirt’s letters appeared in the newspaper. Two things are remarkable about this:1) Hirt’s letter contains a major factual inaccuracy in every paragraph, 2) Hirt has a history of somehow getting letters published that contain major factual inaccuracies in every paragraph.

In the first paragraph of his letter, Hirt implies Sherwin works for Sound Transit by calling us the “Sound Transit (ST) blog.” Hirt has commented on this blog before and should know we aren’t a government agency. In the second paragraph, Hirt claims that members of Sound Transit board are unelected. All members, save for one, are elected officials. Hirt’s point may be that these officials are not directly elected to the ST board, which is true (and good), but his use of imprecise language seems like no accident.

Photo by Oran.

Hirt asks indignantly, What gave the ST Board “the authority to ignore the council in selecting the light-rail route through Bellevue?” The answer is in the Op-Ed he’s responding to: a “1999 ruling in a state growth-management case” which cited RCW 36.70A and decided that light rail is an “essential public facility.”

In Hirt’s third paragraph, he claims that while the Eastside provides “40 percent of ST  funding,” “only a small part” “will ever be spent there.” Every dollar raised in the Eastside will be spent there under a rule called subarea equity and the Eastside is projected to provide 26% of Sound Transit revenue in the coming decades — much less than Hirt’s claim.

In the final paragraph of his letter, Hirt says that Sound Transit has not spent “one dime evaluating two-way bus only lanes” across I-90 instead of light rail. That has been studied, and a busway would provide a slower ride to the 10,000 fewer people who would ride it daily.

Many rely on the Seattle Times and other newspapers to give them the facts and encourage debate where appropriate. Publishing letters that get basic facts wrong doesn’t encourage debate but rather stifles it under the weight of ignorance, cynicism, and even malice. Though the average citizen is expected to make some mistakes regarding public policy, we should expect the media to provide some barrier between us and outright falsehoods.

It’s easy to think that Mr. Hirt lacks real intellectual rigor and has no sense of responsibility for what he inks, but what does that say about the Times’ staffers who choose to give him space in their paper?

Seattle Zoning Code Improves

Chicago Row Houses (wikimedia)

PubliCola reports that “lowrise multifamily” zoning area, covering 8% of Seattle, will become somewhat more permissive:

And, perhaps most significantly, the new law would eliminate the minimum amount of parking developers must build in low-rise multifamily areas (currently one space per unit), allowing developers to build housing without dedicated parking (saving tens of thousands of dollars per unit).

The comment thread has a pretty wide diversity of opinion, but I’m having trouble perceiving complaints about the parking change as anything but defense of an existing subsidy. After all, the road right of way is public property. Anyone with a garage and/or driveway sufficient to park the cars of their family and friends isn’t concerned about on-street parking. So in essence, you’re seeing people whose property doesn’t have enough space to store their cars requiring that new construction be able to store its cars. In other words, “I got here first.”

Meanwhile, people moving into a place that provides no parking are likely to be fairly relaxed about giving up the car if it becomes too much of a hassle.

This is huge.

New Multifamily Zoning

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Erica Barnett says there’s been some great progress with the multifamily zoning codes.  A whopping 8% of the city’s land can now be developed without minimum parking requirements.  Lots of good stuff in there, be sure to click through to read the details.

This will only affect a small chunk of the city’s land, as Erica notes.  And given the current housing market and the supply overhang from the last boom, only a very small percentage of care-free rowhouses will realistically get built in the next 20 years.

Still, it’s a great start towards a more rational and diverse housing policy.  To those who are freaking out about it, keep in mind that the market will ultimately decide.  Developers are conservative.  If these houses suck and no one wants them, the developer will learn very quickly not to build any more.

How Much Would Seattle Save?


One of the stronger objections to my quasi-support for a rebuilt viaduct is that the City of Seattle would not realize the $700m in savings between that project and the Deep-Bore Tunnel.

In principle, I suppose WSDOT could demolish the current structure and walk away, leaving Seattle to clear the rubble and do something with the space. Although  that’s essentially surface-lite, I don’t think it’s a reasonable possibility. The State has consistently committed to funding the main roadway, and has demonstrated deep interest in preserving the flow of cars and freight through downtown.

Under the DBT plan, the roadway and construction mitigation amounts to $3.1 billion dollars. This is funded out of $1.8 billion in gas taxes, $600m in other state and federal funds, $300m from the Port of Seattle, and $400m from tolls.

The final iteration of the rebuild allocates $2.9 billion to similar projects, plus $103m for I-5 improvements. It would be absolutely unprecedented for WSDOT to not fund the state or interstate highway. Interestingly, the seawall is viewed as so integral to the viaduct that it’s included in the same line item in the report. But let’s assume that the State leaves that with Seattle to the tune of $244m*. Whether the $100-300m in savings is captured by the Port, toll payers, the highway fund, or even Seattle would of course be a matter of negotiation. In no case, though, would I presume that a dime of the State’s money would go to transit aside from the customary construction mitigation.

Seattle could be tasked with funding $234m in street improvements under the rebuild plan. The DBT price tag for the City is $811m*, leaving a savings of $333-577m seawall-depending. Now it’s certainly not the case that that money is automatically programmed into transit. However, transit advocates have a much better shot with the Seattle City Council than the Washington Legislature. We certainly have a strong claim on the $267m required to make the transit part of the viaduct plan work.

Then, of course, you have overruns and tunneling risk. But you’ve heard about those.

* Accounting for the flood district’s $30m contribution to the seawall.

Bellevue TC Gets an ORCA Vending Machine

The vending machine is located by the Rider Services Building
The new card vending machine.

Eastside transit riders no longer have to travel to Seattle to purchase an ORCA card in person. A new ORCA vending machine was installed at the Bellevue Transit Center recently last month. You can find the machine outside the rider services building on the north side of the transit center.

The machines are the same model found at Sounder and Link stations with limited functionality. What you can do is listed in 5 simple steps on the machine itself. You can add value to your e-purse, purchase a pass, check your card’s balance, or purchase a new Adult card. The machine accepts cash (coins and bills), credit cards, and e-purse for payment. You cannot purchase a paper ticket. Senior, disabled, and youth cards still need to be obtained at a customer service office or by mail.

While the list of ORCA retailers is slowly growing, retail locations can only add value to existing cards; they do not sell ORCA cards. The new vending machine is a welcome addition that will make ORCA more convenient to use for many.

RE: Viaduct or Tunnel

If we had to choose between a new viaduct or a deep-bore tunnel, which should we choose? First, I think the reality is that a deep-bore tunnel will be constructed since “important” people are interested in it succeeding. If I’m wrong and the tunnel project does collapse, the ensuing political chaos would result in an environment where surface/transit/I-5 has just as much of a possibility as being built as a viaduct.

However, for this first part, let’s assume we could choose just between a new viaduct and the tunnel. Martin has gone to great lengths to show that the city would save hundreds of millions of dollars if a viaduct were built instead of the deep-bore tunnel. It’s true, but money saved isn’t necessarily spent and it’s not obvious that Seattle would tax itself to invest in transit and bike projects just because it would have taxed itself for a deep-bore tunnel. Major transit investments like the Central Streetcar are dead-on-arrival — there isn’t local political support — and we wouldn’t see money from the state for transit: improvements beyond basic mitigation are certainly considered optional by the state. The state has already ignored the transit funding it agreed to with the deep-bore tunnel agreement.

Photo by Oran.

These things are important, because in any scenario where a viaduct is being rebuilt is over the very strong objections of the Seattle mayor and city council members: if the state is already overruling us, why would they sweeten the pot? Heck, why not build a bigger viaduct or one with more off-ramps? And if the city is upset with the state, would it partner on strategic transit improvements?

After all, the transit elements of the rebuild plan were included in the same stakeholder process that was completely ignored when state and local officials agreed to build a deep-bore tunnel. I think Martin’s comparing a fully politiked deep-bore tunnel to a conceptual viaduct. It could be the case that a rebuild would result in tremendous local spending on transit, but even more transit spending is possible with surface/transit/I-5 where transit is moved near the forefront of the plan.

More after the jump…

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