At last week’s SCCC debate, Erica Barnett suggested Kshama Sawant criticized Conlin for, in Barnett’s words, “supporting an elitist light rail system that only serves three percent of Seattle commuters.” Goldy was also there and didn’t pick that up at all, but now there’s video and you can judge for yourself. (I’m having trouble with the automatic fast forward, but the good stuff starts around 15:23). For the record, the Sawant campaign told me this:

Again: our campaign fully supports the light rail. In fact, it would benefit the city to have the network of stations ready very soon. But if we are to have a serious conversation about transit, then we have to discuss the inequality of access. And as it stands now, transit options are limited or non-existent for the vast majority of people living outside the city center and in the metropolitan area. Many of the people who live there do so because they cannot afford to live in Seattle (due to the out of control cost of housing). But many of them need to commute into Seattle for work. Many neighborhoods in the north and in the south are severely underserviced by transit, and they live away from any light rail station.

For someone who is passionate about light rail in this city, there are things to like and things not to like about what Sawant actually said.

On the good side, she begins with a clear statement of support for Link. Although things are awkwardly phrased, watching the video after the fact it seems clear she’s pivoting to the point is that Link is not sufficient to deal with all the transit needs and displacement issues in the city. This is certainly true and probably something with which Conlin would agree. It’s certainly hard to construe from the statement that she would obstruct light rail construction or expansion.

I might quibble with the 3-5% of residents figure, but I’m also disinclined to sharpshoot vague statistics framed on the fly in a debate. However, much to the chagrin of many people here, Link is headed out to the suburbs before service in Seattle is comprehensive. It will serve people displaced to the suburbs by our timid approach to population growth.

I can’t say if Ms. Sawant would ever use the word “elitist” or not in this context. To me, elitist is the idea of building a light rail line and then severely restricting access by limiting housing supply through zoning. It’s unfair to exclude people, whether it’s by creating artificial scarcity and auctioning to the highest bidder, or artificial scarcity rationed between market rate and heavily subsidized units. If Ms. Sawant believes it’s unjust for people to be driven to the suburbs and far from transit, then justice demands that as many units as possible be built near quality transit, for rich, poor, and those in between.

The Sawant campaign’s full statement below the jump:

Barnett says that Sawant called the light rail “elitist”. Barnett were [sic] there. She knows very well that Sawant said no such thing.

What Sawant actually said was, “We are fully in support of light rail… but the majority of the population is not being serviced because they are being pushed out of the city.”

Again: our campaign fully supports the light rail. In fact, it would benefit the city to have the network of stations ready very soon. But if we are to have a serious conversation about transit, then we have to discuss the inequality of access. And as it stands now, transit options are limited or non-existent for the vast majority of people living outside the city center and in the metropolitan area. Many of the people who live there do so because they cannot afford to live in Seattle (due to the out of control cost of housing). But many of them need to commute into Seattle for work. Many neighborhoods in the north and in the south are severely underserviced by transit, and they live away from any light rail station.

In addition to an expansion of the light rail network, there is an urgent need to maintain and expand Metro service if we are to provide real transit options to large numbers of people. We need for the 17% cuts to Metro to be averted. We need a permanent source of funding for Metro through progressive taxation.

Our campaign has proposed a tax on people making more than a million dollars a year to raise revenue to fully fund Metro. Contrary to what Mr. Conlin says, it is legal.

65 Replies to “Sawant on Light Rail”

  1. I don’t see any controversy here. Sawant is absolutely right that we don’t have enough light rail serving the people of Seattle and the region, and that the lack of light rail service is a key factor in driving people out of the city due to rising housing costs. More importantly, she is pointing out that when we talk about transit, we must talk about access, which means bringing transit to as many people as possible. She’s coming down on the correct side of the “frequency versus coverage” debate, which is that it’s a false debate, and if we find the political will to tax the rich, we can have a great transit system that meets everyone’s needs.

    1. and that the lack of light rail service is a key factor in driving people out of the city due to rising housing costs

      Wait, what? How does lack of light rail service lead to a rise in housing costs?

      I don’t understand why people are so eager to search for an explanation for rising housing costs other than “more people want to live here than we have housing for presently.” It really is that simple. Insofar as light rail is an attractive amenity that makes living here more desirable, it might have a modest effect in the other direction.

      1. I can vouch for it being a real thing. When I was shopping for my home early this year, I ended up passing over a few in-city options within my budget, due to lack of frequent transit access in those neighborhoods, in favor of a further-out condo with access to the 120 in Burien.

        With expanded transit/rail service, I could have a) purchased a closer-in Seattle home for the same price I paid in Burien, or b) purchased a different border-suburb home for a lower price.

      2. What djw said. The solution to rising housing prices isn’t better transit, it’s more supply of housing. Better transit is something that’s needed to make a city with more supply of housing practical.

    2. Also she is correct in saying people were “pushed out” because the high costs have made places like Renton and Bellevue more popular for recent immigrants.

      However, these areas (by design I think, but I’d be accused of sitting around with a tinfoil hat) have been kept in a state of transportation quagmire.

      Back in 1993 when rail solutions (monorail, light rail) were being considered, the voters were asking for a fast regional way to get around puget sound.

      What they got was a lot of tunnels and the world’s most expensive (per mile) “light” rail system.

      If Sawant questions this, then she as just cause to do so. It’s clear that a person like Dow Constantine, who is supposed to be looking out for the interests of the entire region is not. This is why I voted for Alan Lobdell, an engineer who will clean up this corrupt system and start to mete out resources with rationality.

  2. “We are fully in support of light rail… but the majority of the population is not being serviced because they are being pushed out of the city.”

    This statement is nonsense. So Seattle is contracting in population? I wasn’t aware of that…

    1. LINK is a product of SoundTransit, which serves “the Snohomish, King, and Pierce County”.

      However after two decades and billions spent, the majority of LINK and it’s resources have been spent to serve one corridor.

      The point of “light” rail is that it is quick and easy to implement…bridging the gap between cities that desire rail and not having the density or money to support a full blown subway.

      However, in the case of LINK, all the money was spent in essence to do just that, spend it on a type of subway that serves only the interests of a very few people.

      An alternative would have been to build the cheap and widespread low cost parts first, extending it out to the full region services by SoundTransit.

      in this instance, the criticism is quite valid, and little heard.

    2. As stated it is indeed nonsense. I think she’s getting two ideas mixed up here, as Will is above: 1) most people aren’t served by light rail, and 2) some people are being forced to move out of the city because it’s getting increasingly expensive to live there.

      But of course the population being pushed out of light-rail served neighborhoods are being replaced by wealthier people, so this dynamic has nothing to do with the percentage of the population served by light rail.

      Sawant is sharp, but she has a “things I don’t like that are happening at the same time must be related” problem. I hope she continues to get smarter about transit and density and runs against one of our more useless council members in two years, but (after flirting with the notion) I can’t see supporting her now. She’d be great on some issues where she’ll lose 8-1 or 7-2, but may be a swing vote against density and the “greedy developers”.

      1. “Light” rail is being financed by all the taxpayers.

        These taxpayers are building a gourmet express for people at their expense, and then being priced out of the ability to use it themselves!

        Nothing could be more crooked..or irrational.

    3. No this is not nonsense. Me and thousands of others are being pushed out. The thing is people with better paying jobs are moving in faster then we are moving out. These newcomers are willing to pay $1600 a month for a 1 bedroom in cheaply built wood frame apartment buildings. Many people are leaving because they couldn’t afford those prices even if they were willing.

      1. THat people are being priced out of their homes and the city is not nonsense, obviously. The way she tries to causally link it with transit issues is.

      2. And more people are taking your place, so her statement is nonsense. Unless you show me data that the City of Seattle is losing population, that is.

      3. What’s important is that people can’t afford to live where they want to live. Whether Seattle is gaining or losing population is secondary. And whether Sawant slipped up in her wording is third.

  3. Shorter Kshama: “Just tax the rich and all revenue issues magically go away and we can BUILD ALL THE THINGS.”

    While more progressive taxation would be a great thing for Washington (and the country as a whole), it’s not a silver bullet. Denmark and Norway know this perfectly well — they don’t have unlimited revenue either. To take Kshama seriously as a transit candidate, I’d have to see her devote some attention to the details of how she would expand coverage to everyone.

    It’s also worth noting that she is running for Seattle City Council and talking first about people who don’t live in Seattle. Party foul, in my opinion.

      1. And Norway, thanks to energy revenue, actually comes decently close on the unlimited revenue front.

      2. The US is a *huge* oil producer. Why are we allowing a select number of lucky people to claim the entire benefit from an entire country’s worth of natural resources?

      3. It’s that private property thing. :) Most of the US’s oil is under land, while most of Norway’s oil is offshore.

      4. Mike, I think Alaska is a great counterexample. Alaska has plenty of onshore oil fields, and yet 68% of their state budget is funded from petroleum extraction fees. The US could do the same thing, if we wanted to. Conceptually, oil extraction fees aren’t any different from the property taxes that already fund most of our local governments.

      5. Alaska is a special situation. Russia had claimed only “sovereignty” over it, not the land itself, so what the US bought was sovereignty and the ownership remained with the natives. That’s why the natives and all the state’s citizens are able to extract fees from the oil profits. Texas and Oklahoma and the midwest were settled differently. In most of the west, the government claimed ownership of the land and assigned it via homestead grants, so that the individual landowners somehow have more rights to all the oil wealth.

      6. If the US government decided that they wanted to levy huge taxes on oil extraction, they could do so. If they decided that they wanted to buy Exxon Mobil via eminent domain, or even just by buying their shares on the stock market, they could do that, too. I don’t see any reason why this violates property rights any more than something like the income tax already does.

    1. Her point is that unless something is done immediately to address soaring housing costs, many of those current Seattle residents will have to become former Seattle residents. I agree that more supply is important but that doesn’t solve the problems of people in 2013 being hit with unaffordable rent increases. We need rent control, now, while we also work on adding more housing supply and more transit.

      1. Possibly off topic, but rent control effectively decreases the supply of housing. It segregates people into two categories: existing residents lucky enough to be in a rent-controlled place (but who can never move again) and the poor new saps who want to move in and have to compete for the few non-controlled units. It may protect existing residents from financial shock, but in the long run it exacerbates inequality, as middle-class arrivals get priced out of the market and upper-class arrivals demand higher and higher pay to pay for skyrocketing housing costs.

        This is exactly the dynamic that has led over time to a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan costing $5000/month.

        There is only one way to increase the supply of housing: increasing the supply of housing.

      2. Many of them would be fine with being former residents, however we do not have a widespread or robust enough transit system to allow that.

        Not enough Sounder trips.

        No extensive rail systems.

        No rapid East-West routes.

        Under or unbuilt highways.

        This state was clearly designed in a corrupt way to reward only the downtown real estate owners, and not the entire people of the region. Our money was used against us, not for us!

      3. Rent control is not the answer because it doesn’t do anything to increase the housing stock. Reduce the barriers to new apartment projects.

      4. You are all aware that “rent control” can take forms other than the divisive and ineffective New York-style system David describes, right?

        An equitable form of rent control, for example, would be one that places a maximum limit on annual increases, especially in the absence of documented improvements to a structure. One can also provide subsidies to owners to incentivize leasing to families and to the stably-but-not-upwardly-employed.

        Laissez-faire pushers love to seize on this idea that “rent control” is synonymous with the NY system, with perverse incentives and even more perverse disparities between those who luck into the system and those who don’t. By poisoning this well, they bias the public against the term.

        Such forces used this tactic to ban rent control in Massachusetts by statewide initiative, conflating the deeply flawed Boston system with far more equitable and successful systems in Cambridge and Brookline, which balanced the needs of tenants and property owners, but which wound up banned as well.

        Again, I routinely find Sawant’s socialism to be well-tempered with pragmatism. She’s not advocating the supply-killing form you claim.

      5. d.p., I lived in Cambridge for three years. There is no middle class there. The residents of the city are either wealthy Harvard types, students, or public housing residents. It used to be that middle-class people lived across the border in Somerville, but a good friend who still lives there (and is active in local politics) informs me that the non-wealthy are increasingly getting priced out of Somerville as well. I don’t see any evidence that Cambridge’s rent-control system was any more effective than any other.

      6. It seems to me that the single biggest problem with all American rent control systems is that the price resets when the unit becomes vacant.

        Consider the implications. If you’re in a rent-stabilized apartment, and you move, then your rent will spike. If you’re a landlord, you want your tenants to leave so that you can raise the rent, so you won’t maintain your property or invest in it. If you get a new job in a different neighborhood, you can’t afford to move, so you’ll stay in a home that isn’t suitable for you.

        There are some other “unintended consequences”, as well. It turns out that the starting rent for rent-stabilized apartments is higher than it is for uncontrolled apartments. Landlord effectively price in the first few years of price increases. So if you move into a new rent-stabilized apartment, you have to stay for a number of years just to hit the break-even point.

        If we want rent control to work, then we need a system that limits the *absolute* level of rents, and that does not reset when tenants move out.

        To compensate, and to ensure that apartments stay maintained, the system should allow landlords to recoup the value of repairs and investments they make, by tying the level of rent to the assessed value of the unit. If the unit becomes less valuable through disrepair, then the allowed rent goes down. If the unit becomes more valuable through repairs and upgrades, then the allowed rent goes up.

        I’m not aware of any US system that works this way. NYC comes close, but units leave rent control as soon as they become vacant, which completely neutralizes any advantages that the system might have. Certainly, the SF model doesn’t seem to work at all.

      7. There’s another way of “tying the level of rent to the assessed value of the unit”… letting landlords set rents.

        I could possibly support a system that bans the very most egregious increases (say, beyond the level of inflation plus 15%). But price controls are a mechanism that have had huge unintended consequences everywhere they have ever been tried, and there are really better ways to address the problem of insufficient and unaffordable housing. The best is, of course, to make it easy, cheap, and desirable to put additional housing on the market.

      8. “Many of them would be fine with being former residents, however we do not have a widespread or robust enough transit system to allow that. Not enough Sounder trips. No extensive rail systems.
        No rapid East-West routes.”

        And one other thing: unwalkable suburbs. People wouldn’t mind moving to the burbs if they could find a walkable neighborhood. That would also give more momentum to extend fast/frequent transit to those areas. Building walkable neighborhoods is the one thing that’s under the suburbs’ control: it doesn’t require a lot of money or coordinating with the state. They just have to change the zoing to allow it in more areas, and encourage developers to build right rather than wrong.

        “Under or unbuilt highways.”

        The highways are what made the suburbs unwalkable, or at least created the conditions for it.

      9. We need rent control, now, while we also work on adding more housing supply and more transit.

        Whatever the merits and demerits of rent control (I’m not categorically opposed to all forms of it, but it’s no magic bullet), it’s illegal in WA state, so we’ll need to find solutions elsewhere.

      10. The conundrum is that our present scheme for housing is that developers and owners are incentivised to provide housing by the prospect of ever increasing property values and by extension, rents which form the financial basis for increasing property values. This is not sustainable because the market signals and expectations have become skewed, not keeping in balance with incomes. The natural market reliever is sprawl. If we as a community think sprawl is bad, then we need provide a market mechanism for affordability. I do not believe the current scheme of market based housing development serves the needs of the vast majority of people.

        A form of rent control such as capping rent increases would serve to disrupt this incentive and possibly disrupt the market based supply of housing.

        I do not believe it is fair to the taxpayers to subsidize the rents received by property owners and does not solve the supply problem.

        I believe the only way out is for government to build massive amounts of public housing that is rented at a strict formula based on percentage of income and family size. Such housing could also be provided on a co-ownership model where the occupant makes a financial commitment to the property in conjunction with the government.

        I think the model that exists in Singapore is a viable model to consider. Most citizens of Singapore have access to affordable government provided housing but a vibrant private housing market also exists for upper income citizens.

        Having a large supply of housing that is not subject to financial incentives for value pricing would bring sanity back to the housing market as a whole and allow for more people to live closer in and create viable walkable urban neighborhoods with access to transit.

        I am undecided about the efficacy of the planned Yesler Terrace redevelopment. I recognize the value of having a mixed income environment, however it seems the ratio is skewed and it would appear that the public housing component is secondary to providing “market based housing”.

      11. I could possibly support a system that bans the very most egregious increases (say, beyond the level of inflation plus 15%).

        This seems like the most justifiable form of rent control to me. I swear Seattle had that back in the 90’s. (I think the cap was 20% increases regardless of inflation.) I’m not sure when it became illegal but it is:

        http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=35.21.830

      12. There’s another way of “tying the level of rent to the assessed value of the unit”… letting landlords set rents.

        That would be true in a perfectly competitive market. But such markets, like perfectly smooth surfaces and perfectly round circles, do not exist in real life.

        In reality, the sellers of rented property wield some amount of monopoly/oligopoly power. Some of this is artificial (due to zoning restrictions), and some of this is natural (since it’s not possible to create more land). In a monopolistic/oligopolistic market, it is often the case that the price charged by the monopolist is higher than the competitive equilibrium price would be. The monopolist thus captures some of the consumer surplus that would otherwise be retained by consumers.

        Monopolies are an example of market failure. Given a monopoly, it would be possible to improve total welfare by forcing the market to accept a lower price level. The monopolist would be worse off, but the buyers would be better off by a larger amount.

        Therefore, to the extent that the housing market is monopolistic — and that extent is greater than 0 — the government can improve outcomes by imposing price controls.

        But price controls are a mechanism that have had huge unintended consequences everywhere they have ever been tried

        It’s funny that you said “price controls”. I’m guessing that you meant “price controls on housing”. But given your current wording, the minimum wage is a colossal counterexample.

        The labor market is the converse of the housing market. It is basically an oligopsony — very few buyers, almost infinite number of sellers. Therefore, the buyers of labor are able to use their market power to demand a lower price than the competitive equilibrium. By setting a price floor, the minimum wage is able to increase total welfare.

        This is not just theoretical. Empirical economic research has found that the minimum wage really does improve outcomes. And so the argument that “price controls never work” falls flat.

      13. The conundrum is that our present scheme for housing is that developers and owners are incentivised to provide housing by the prospect of ever increasing property values and by extension, rents which form the financial basis for increasing property values. This is not sustainable because the market signals and expectations have become skewed, not keeping in balance with incomes. The natural market reliever is sprawl. If we as a community think sprawl is bad, then we need provide a market mechanism for affordability.

        I can’t make sense of what you’re trying to say here. Rents are ultimately determined by what people are willing to pay, not property value.

        What if we allowed enough density such that we had as many housing units in Seattle as we had people who want to live here, plus maybe a few more. Developers who planned to get really rich on rapidly increasing rents would be disappointed, but they’d be out of luck: some rent is better than no rent. If those developers can’t be bothered to build housing without the prospect of mega-profits, I’m sure others can be found.

      14. I can’t make sense of what you’re trying to say here. Rents are ultimately determined by what people are willing to pay, not property value.

        Property value is a nebulous concept, too. The real estate market isn’t like the commodities market or the stock market, where you’re buying and selling huge quantities of things that are basically the same. Property gets mispriced all the time, and it gets bought and sold for speculative rather than fundamental reasons. In fact, you could argue that the income you can get from renting a property (in the absence of rent control) is closer to the fundamental value of the property than the price you could get from selling it.

      15. @DJW, but here’s the thing, with our current scheme, developers and owners only interest in building housing comes from an expectation of massive profits instead of say a reasonable and steady rentier income. To achieve those profits, they expect financial cash flows that are far in excess of average people’s incomes. The current system is designed to not build excess capacity in housing but to purposely provide less than demand thereby stoking their profits.

        There are additional market factors in this scheme and that would be banks and third party lenders that finance these projects. They are very interested to make sure that supply does not exceed demand and they look at vacancy rates as part of that mix. A building owner sometimes let units go unrented if they cannot get what their financial package requires. For example, Othello Station had unrented units even after 2 years from opening, yet has not substantially lowered rents to meet demand. Yes, forgoing a rental income to maintain the value proposition. Sometimes owners will provide a rebate incentive (e.g. free rent months) but the face value of the rent is the target they want to power their financial returns because bankers expect that your stated rents are X. Have you noticed that the vast majority of storefronts in new buildings go unrented? The owners built them as a condition of getting their project approved, yet there is no incentive to actually rent them out. Yet, a vibrant merchant community is essential to building a neighborhood.

        And to introduce another facet to the discussion, that is the elasticity of demand. Everyone (generally) desires housing. So, it is said that the demand for housing is inelastic. People will pay what is required to have it. Not what they want to. This leads to a situation where they percentage of income needed for shelter far exceeds the traditional 33% of income and the renter starts to have to make decisions between housing and food or healthcare. Decisions that have disastrous consequences and should not be necessary in an equitable society. Moving to cheaper accommodations which is the logical market solution forces the renter to move farther away and to a less walkable neighborhood with less access to transit and forces reliance on an automobile.

        So, in my view, if we want large numbers of people and more density inside our cities with less sprawl, then enough public financed housing to reign in the runaway private housing market values is needed.

      16. I lived in Cambridge for three years. There is no middle class there.

        The event I described (the prohibition of municipal rent control by statewide initiative) happened at least 15 years ago.

        Back then, there was still a significant middle class in many parts of Cambridge and, believe it or not, in Brookline as well.

        There’s a whopping Q.E.D. to be found in your disbelief!

      17. …19 years ago, to be precise. The lack of a middle class in Cambridge and Brookline today is no coincidence.

      18. developers and owners only interest in building housing comes from an expectation of massive profits instead of say a reasonable and steady rentier income.

        Perhaps so. But let’s make them wrong in expecting that. Let’s stop restricting housing supply via zoning such that supply can meet demand.

        If current developers are simply don’t think a “reasonable and steady rentier income” is worth bothering with, and take their ball and go home, do you really think no one will bother to step in and do it? There are apartments being built all over the country where “a reasonable and steady rentier income” is all the developers are expecting to achieve. Will these builders all shun Seattle?

        If some developer bet on future restrictions on housing supply producing huge rent increases every year, well, tough luck for him. Just because people bet on the city being dumb about housing supply doesn’t mean the city should be dumb about housing supply; they’re not entitled to win that bet.

    2. It’s also worth noting that she is running for Seattle City Council and talking first about people who don’t live in Seattle. Party foul, in my opinion.

      David, I’m surprised to hear you say this.

      One of the criticisms often leveled at proposed Metro changes, such as your Frequent Network Plan, is that it will take away buses that are used by existing riders. Our response — and it’s the correct response! — is that it’s valid to take future riders into account, too. Those future riders don’t currently have a voice, and so we need to be extra careful to ensure that we consider their needs, and don’t allow them to be drowned out by the much louder voices of current riders.

      The same is true for microhousing. Politically speaking, it’s easy to overweight the concerns of the small number of people who would be adversely affected by a new microhousing development, and to underweight the concerns of the larger number of people who would benefit from the development. There are some of us who understand that, and we need to give voice to those future residents, since they’re not able to.

      And yes, in the same way, there are many people who don’t currently live in Seattle, but would like to. These future residents matter just as much as current residents. It would be a huge mistake to say that we should ignore the concerns of these future residents just because they don’t live here yet.

      Note that this is very, very different from what Ed Murray is doing when he talks about issues like suburban light rail and Sound Transit’s subarea equity. Murray is advocating for changes that would permanently benefit the suburbs at the expense of Seattle. That’s a bizarre and uncharacteristic thing for a mayoral candidate to suggest. In contrast, Sawant is explicitly arguing for ways to make Seattle better; it just so happens that she’s correctly taking the concerns of future Seattle residents into account.

      1. Aleks, if her approach had been “I want to improve Seattle transit [and presumably housing] so that these people who were forced out could move back in,” then I’d agree 100 percent. She seemed to me to be saying instead “I want to expand transit to serve all the people who have moved out.” One implies improving transit in the city; the other implies sending more transit to the suburbs.

      2. She’s saying that she wants to increase mobility and access to Seattle. That includes people who live here, and it also includes people who work here. Workers are another group who are completely underrepresented in our political system. You get to vote based on where you live, not based on where you work, and so it’s no wonder that we make so many decisions that are biased in favor of what residents (but not workers) want.

        For me, the difference is that she’s clearly interested in making transit investments that will improve the lives of people who live, work, or play in Seattle. Adding more transit outside of the city’s boundaries is not incompatible with that vision.

  4. It’s clear to me that Sawant is talking about the conflict that pits our expanding light rail system against systemic, needed improvements to the bus system as a whole, which are not talked about at the council level. These changes would affect a higher majority of the population of Seattle, especially the lower income population that Sawant is speaking for in this campaign.

    Council members love to talk about how much they support light rail, and then quietly let Metro waste its resources. This is where we have a problem.

  5. I do fear that Sawant has spent some of her activist-y time hanging out with the sort of well-meaning but misguided “bus riders union” forces that routinely advocate “lethargic transit”, as if the poor or the mobility-impaired were any better served by slow, infrequent, laborious transit than anyone else.

    Sometimes, such proximity leads one to start adopting the flawed language of one’s coalition partners. Fortunately, Sawant is both too smart and too pragmatic to have internalized their backwards thinking.

    Sawant’s unambiguous desire is a thriving city in which people of all walks are able to participate. She knows that transit — transit much more effective than today’s — is an essential ingredient in that.

    If anything, one can read into her statement a criticism of a rail approach that aggressively violates the principles of comprehensive urbanism, proving useful only if you’re lucky enough to be employed at one of a handful of exalted “nodes”, and demoting the vast majority of city users and uses back to crappy buses. She’s right that Link ridership projections, even in the long-term, betray the very limited purpose for which our is being designed. This outcome has only gotten worse with recent implementation decisions, all of which ST board member Conlin has rubber stamped.

    I’d love to see her have a platform for exposing the flaws in our present rail discourse, rather than see Conlin continue to double down on the permanent botch that ST’s widely-disproven presumptions are building.

    1. d.p., for someone who is frequently very pessimistic about the character and motivations of local politicians and officials, you sure are optimistic about Sawant’s.

      “Too pragmatic?” I see very little that’s pragmatic in her platform. She doesn’t address at all how she would get her preferred policies through a council that will always be in a different place ideologically than she is, or what trades she might be willing to make.

      “Sawant’s unambiguous desire is a thriving city in which people of all walks are able to participate.” Really? She advocates a policy — rent control — which has had the long-term effect of driving out the middle class in every city where it has ever been tried on a sustained basis, making housing available only to the wealthy, to those who were already in the city when the rent control program started, and to those eligible for public housing.

      “She knows that transit — transit much more effective than today’s — is an essential ingredient in that.” Yet she has never said a specific word about what sort of transit she actually would want. How do you know it’s not just twice the service on the slow spaghetti routes many lefty activists love?

      1. “Too pragmatic?” I see very little that’s pragmatic in her platform.

        The word “pragmatic” doesn’t always mean “finding a local maximum”. She’s shifting the Overton window with respect to revenue. That’s arguably more pragmatic than anything that the council is doing right now.

        She advocates a policy — rent control — which has had the long-term effect of driving out the middle class in every city where it has ever been tried on a sustained basis

        My understanding is that there are successful examples of rent control in Germany and Sweden, though they are very different from American examples.

        Anyway, I’m willing to give Sawant the benefit of the doubt here. She has a PhD in economics. I don’t think she’s suggesting rent control with the same kind of naivete as your average cash-strapped renter. There are sound theoretical economic arguments in favor of price controls on monopolies — and yes, landowners are monopolists, unless you know of a way to produce more land. I would be extremely surprised to see her propose a system that would mimic the failures we’ve seen in NYC and SF.

        By the way, the buyers of labor have some amount of monopoly power, too. There was a time when everyone thought that the minimum wage would destroy jobs and eliminate the working class, but recent research has found that the minimum wage actually increases welfare; the effect of the higher wage is greater than the effect of the reduced number of jobs. So chalk that up as an example of where price controls actually correct a market failure.

        Yet she has never said a specific word about what sort of transit she actually would want. How do you know it’s not just twice the service on the slow spaghetti routes many lefty activists love?

        This simply isn’t true. She has talked about this — in debates, on her Twitter and Facebook feeds, etc. She strongly supports massive expansion of grade-separated light rail.

        A couple of weeks ago, there was a minor event on Facebook/Twitter, where Ben Schiendelman called out someone posting on Sawant’s Twitter feed (who I believe is not actually Sawant herself) for criticizing the Seattle Streetcar program. After that, Ben talked to Sawant, and then posted on his Facebook feed something like, “I’m really impressed with Sawant’s position on this issue”.

        I don’t mean to suggest that Ben is endorsing Sawant, or even that he’s voting for her; I don’t actually know who he’s voting for. But I think it’s safe to assume that Sawant’s idea of expanded transit is not a spaghetti mess of bus routes.

      2. Most everything Aleks said, from the Overton Window to the pragmatic transit.

        If she’s willing to force the slow-streetcar fetishists to rethink some of their errors of dogma, then that’s the cherry on top.

        And you’re wrong on rent control, as noted above. The death of the rent control caused the eviction of the middle class from places like Cambridge.

    2. Sawant’s main problem is she’s running against Conlin. I voted for her when the alternative was worse, but I’m not going to replace one of the most forward-thinking councilmembers with her.

      This is another problem with district-based council seats. Currently, challengers can run against whoever they consider the most wrong or the weakest. If they run against the most wrong member and win, it raises the quality of the council as a whole. With districts, challengers can run in only one position. If the worst member is in one district and the best challenger is in another, there’s no way to raise the quality of the council as a whole unless the challenger moves to the other district.

      1. What if there was some formula for a balance of district representatives and at large representatives? While I do not like the current proposal on this ballot, I think there is some benefit to district representation. A district rep such as the Aldermanic system we had in Chicago sort of serves as a focal point for neighborhood needs and is often very influential in directing city services to a specific need. e.g. timely street repair etc. Sorta like a neighborhood Mayor. While clearly the effectiveness of various Alderman in Chicago varied, where they did work, there usefulness was apparent.

      2. I agree, it’s a shame.

        I’m guessing she picked Conlin because he voted against the paid sick leave act. However, some public statements from her campaign have given the impression that she thinks Licata is a great guy to have on the council, which makes me nervous.

      3. Charles, the idea of having a “neighborhood mayor” sounds interesting. But I don’t see why those folks need to have a vote on the city council. It sounds like their main impact is executive (i.e. making things happen) rather than legislative. It seems like it would work just as well to create distinct political offices for those “mayors”, and to have separate elections for those offices.

        Another benefit of that is that you never need “redistricting”. So long as the “mayors” don’t have legislative votes, then it doesn’t matter if the districts have different levels of population, or if the relative populations change over time. You would draw the lines based on where they make sense, rather than choosing boundaries that force each district to have the same amount of population.

      4. For what it’s worth, I do think there’s an interesting argument to be made for a district proposal that’s based on natural boundaries. For example, you could say that North Seattle (north of the ship canal), West Seattle (west of the Duwamish, including Harbor Island) gets 1 seats, and Central Seattle (the rest) gets 3 seats. The district boundaries are fixed by geography and never change, just like the boundaries between US states never change, though the apportionment might change over time. Within each district, you would vote for candidates using the current system, or (even better) some form of ranked-choice or approval voting.

        This seems like it would be a nice hybrid between what we have now and the Proposition 19 proposal. By using natural boundaries, you permanently close off any possibility for gerrymandering. By using large, multi-member districts, you maintain the current system’s ability to focus on city-wide issues. But by shrinking the districts, you deliver the advantages of smaller constituencies and smaller campaign budgets.

      5. There is something to be said for representatives to be elected from subsets of the whole as opposed to all coming from the whole. I am not certain geography is the best way for those subsets to be determined. But the only alternative I see is to simulate subsets with proportional representation, which has its own problems and can’t be applied to the nonpartisan Seattle City Council anyway. I liked the mass approval-voting system Aleks suggested in another thread.

        If we are going to have districts, to me the best way to prevent gerrymandering is to give the people a say in what the districts should be, and leave it out of the hands of politicians or, in this case, special interests.

      6. Charles, the idea of having a “neighborhood mayor” sounds interesting. But I don’t see why those folks need to have a vote on the city council. It sounds like their main impact is executive (i.e. making things happen) rather than legislative. It seems like it would work just as well to create distinct political offices for those “mayors”, and to have separate elections for those offices.

        Gah! Voter fatigue, anyone?

        I don’t understand, especially after the government shutdown and debt ceiling debacle, why people see the division of legislative and executive as some sort of natural law.

        Fun fact: in Chicago, the Mayor is the presiding officer of the City Council. The aldermen or “mini-mayors” exercise a large degree of executive control in their wards, and together with the actual mayor function as the legislative body for the City.

        Chicago is building hundreds of miles of protected bike paths across the city. Chicago is rehabilitating and expanding their mass transit system. Seattle can’t even finish the $#*&$# Burke-Gilman.

      7. Matt, if there was an initiative to replace the US’s system of presidential democracy with a parliamentary system, I’d be the first person to sign.

        My point about executive versus legislative powers isn’t that I think there needs to be a separation (though it’s worth noting that Seattle already has this separation). Rather, it’s that I don’t want a gerrymandered city council, and I think that any system of single-member districts will get us there. I understand what Charles is saying about constituent services, but I don’t see any reason why the person who provides those constituent services needs to be the same person who votes on citywide policy.

        I would actually be totally fine with changing Seattle’s city council so that the mayor is nominated from and elected by the city council, in the same way that the prime minister is nominated from and elected by a parliament. But that’s not what’s up for debate. Proposition 19 does absolutely nothing to reduce the conflict between the mayor and the city council.

        If anything, it makes it worse. Consider that in the 2012 elections, Democrats received more votes for Congress in total than Republicans, but Republicans got more seats. In Seattle, imagine that you have the “McGinn Party” and the “Establishment Party”. It’s easy to conceive of an election where the “McGinn Party” gets the most votes and wins all the citywide elections, but the “Establishment Party” gets the most council seats. This scenario is much less likely to happen in the current system.

        By the way, do you really think that Seattle isn’t expanding our transit system because the City Council is elected at-large? Do you really think it has nothing to do with the county council (which has districts) that’s in charge of Metro, or the state (which has districts) that has failed to give us any meaningful amount of funding? I’m not disagreeing with you that Seattle isn’t moving as fast as I’d like, but I really don’t see how Prop 19 will make this any better in any way.

      8. “For example, you could say that North Seattle (north of the ship canal), West Seattle (west of the Duwamish, including Harbor Island) gets 1 seats, and Central Seattle (the rest) gets 3 seats.”

        This is better than Prop 19, because at least the North and Central/South districts are large enough to prevent any neighborhood parochialism. The West district would still be prone to it, but with only 1/5 power it wouldn’t have undue influence. However, I wonder if every district should have at least two seats. That way if one representative is bad, at least there’s the other representative.

      9. This is better than Prop 19, because at least the North and Central/South districts are large enough to prevent any neighborhood parochialism. The West district would still be prone to it, but with only 1/5 power it wouldn’t have undue influence. However, I wonder if every district should have at least two seats. That way if one representative is bad, at least there’s the other representative.

        I was wondering about that, too. If you set a floor of 2 seats per district, then you would end up with 0 at-large seats, and either North or Central would gain an extra seat. I think that would be a reasonable place to land.

  6. Challenger Sawant isn’t focusing on issues that the Seattle city council is responsible to govern. Both King Co Metro and Sound Transit are regional entities. I’m a recent immigrant from another state and a transit-averse city where pickup trucks rule… I love the transit amenities in Seattle and often enjoy the buses for errands. Sawant’s shrill whining won’t gain cooperation amongst the transit authorities. Planning for improved transit, coordinated with TOD and other land use issues, must begin in the neighborhoods, not city council. The legislature must untie our local funding constraints to choose sustainable local funding, or not.

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