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At a few minutes after eight on election night, November 3, Shafali Ranganathan, deputy director at Transportation Choices Coalition, was a bundle of nerves. Standing behind a pool table set up with computers and a projector in an upstairs room at the Belltown Pub, Ranganathan and about 100 supporters of Move Seattle, the biggest transportation levy in Seattle history, had their eyes glued to the screen at the back of the room, where TCC staffer Carla Chavez was updating the “results” page on King County Elections’ website every few seconds. 0.00. 0.00. 0.00.

TCC, and others who had worked for months on Move Seattle, considered the measure a tough sell, and many told me they expected to end the night several points in the red. As if to emphasize that point, many in the room had been in the process of getting loaded since earlier that afternoon. But Ranganathan was the quiet, focused center of the room, and when the results came in–57 to 43–the 5-foot-tall deputy director issued a surprisingly fierce roar of victory, then quickly composed herself and went off to face the cameras.

Another winner that night was Rob Johnson, TCC director, Ranganathan’s boss, and, as of next January, council member for Northeast Seattle’s District 4. After the election, I called Ranganathan one of the major victors that Tuesday night, not only because her group prevailed on Move Seattle (a victory that can only help the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure in 2016), but because the win solidified her position as the “heir apparent” to Johnson at TCC.

On November 12, TCC announced that Ranganathan would be the group’s new director. A few days later, I sat down with her to find out what the leadership change will mean for the group, how TCC plans to shift its focus in the future, and what it means when a mainstream transportation organization is run almost entirely by women and people of color.

Erica C. Barnett [ECB]: Rob has been at TCC for more than a decade, and has obviously made his imprint on the organization. How will the organization change under your leadership, in terms of strategy or mission?

Shefali Ranganathan [SR]: Things have been shifting gradually over the years for us. A few years ago, we did some work where we really looked at, what is our theory of change? What are we trying to get at? And it became really clear for us that in order to be really effective, we had to really dial in on the transit element of our work.  That’s not to say that we won’t do bike/ped, but it’s sort of a clear recognition that there are other advocacy groups that do that kind of work. If you really want to shape and serve communities, then you have to give people a really great option to get around that’s frequent, that’s fast, that’s reliable–and that’s transit. What you will continue to see is the refinement of that focus.

The other thing that has changed for us in quite a dramatic way is our focus on transit justice and really solidifying these partnerships that we’ve had with Puget Sound Sage and with OneAmerica over the years into what we’re calling our Transit for All coalition. For our movement to be successful, we need to build power, and it’s not just in the environmental communities but in those communities where transit is a lifeline, and that’s where we have focused on building these partnerships. And it’s borne incredible fruit. We’ve been able to really shift the county’s thinking on service guidelines, in terms of: Where are you putting current transit service and future transit service? How are you making sure that we are planning for service that meets the needs of a community and are not just lines on a map?

I’ll give you an example. When the bus cuts were happening, we did some mapping to see where service would be lost. But we didn’t do it in terms of, where do all the poor people live and where are the cuts coming? We asked questions like, How long does it take you to get to a community college on a bus? How long does it take you to get to health care? Where can you get in 30 minutes? And then that was where you started to see some of the disparities emerge in south Seattle and in south King County. These are transit-dependent communities that don’t have great transit service. So our focus is really pushing policy makers who are not the transit nerd, transit planning types to really think of it like, if I care about education, am I inadvertently cutting people off from transit access with cuts in service? That’s actually how ORCA Lift emerged.

ECB: TCC has often focused more on getting measures passed than on overseeing the implementation of those measures, sometimes to the detriment of specific projects. For example, TCC didn’t really intervene when Sound Transit deferred the Graham Street Station, or when Sound Transit decided to build the Federal Way alignment along I-5, or when Asian Counselling and Referral Services convinced Metro to continue investing in bus routes like the 42 which were redundant as soon as light rail opened. Do you think that’s a fair critique, and do you have any plans to focus more of TCC’s efforts on actually getting good projects on the ground?

SR: I think it’s a fair point. The 42 stuff, interestingly enough, was an opportunity to see [the routing issue] from someone else’s vantage point–not from a transit planner’s perceptive or an advocate’s, but as a daily, everyday user who now has to transfer two times. It also allowed us to build some credibility with groups that I think viewed us with, I wouldn’t say suspicion, but at arm’s length.

With Federal Way, here’s the lesson learned. We’re a staff of six and I think our challenges are always around resources. The Federal Way one was a hard one for us. because we were very vocal advocates for 99 and when it became clear that the board decision wasn’t going our way, we had two options. One was, okay, let’s make a real stink about it, which happened. But you know, the other option was to say, how can we make this not-so-great alignment actually work and be functional for Highline [Community College] and the other communities that were using it? The outcome’s not perfect, but it’s a much better outcome compared to what would have happened [if we hadn’t worked on improving the alignment].

“There are parts of MLK that suck to walk on. We have to activate these spaces and create places where people want to be. I think Sound Transit has gotten much better about that, but I think we still have to push the cities on it.”

The lesson learned from that is, with the Federal Way-type issues, can we address them sooner rather than later? I worked on East Link for five years. The Bellevue drama was insane. There were lots of supportive council members, but we had plenty of challenges getting there. So it’s like, can we work with Sound Transit to create some clear expectations so we don’t have those fights around alignment happen so late in the game that it’s too late anyway and it’s exhausting to the advocacy community?

With ST3, we’re setting some expectations, and you’ll see that Sound Transit is looking at what non-motorized access looks like, which allows us to make more informed decisions long before the EIS process, because you see how these different alignments shake out on the ground. That’s also the benefit of having Central Link in operation–how do we make sure that that we’re going good land use planning around it? There are parts of MLK that suck to walk on. We have to activate these spaces and create places where people want to be. I think Sound Transit has gotten much better about that, but I think we still have to push the cities on it.

I think it’s funny that we went from “Hell no, you’re not going to bring the train to my neighborhood” to, “This is the line in the sand. If you don’t bring the train to my neighborhood, I’m not going to support you.”

ECB: How do you plan to sell ST3 to voters who may be tired of passing these big transportation packages, and may not have seen light rail operating in or near their own communities?

SR: It’s going to be, “This will complete the system.” This is our last bite of the apple. You’re going to get rail that will pretty much connect to all the major employment corridors. Next year, in March, U Link is opening. We’re going to have 30,000 to 50,000 people riding that day. It’s amazing. Four minutes to downtown. It’s a guaranteed ride. So that’s our opportunity to talk to people. That’s going to be a great momentum builder. We’re hearing that, depending on the size, of the package the cost is going to be about $200 per year per person. You know, it’s steep, right? But the thing is, this is for a whole system. This is it. That’s why we’re doing in a presidential, when there will be lots of younger voters, voters who want transit. I’m not saying it’s going to be an easy sell, but it’s going to be an easier sell than, “Oh, trust us with these lines on a map.” There’s a train that will have opened to really popular destinations , and Sound Transit has a good story to tell.

I think the challenge for us is to come up with a package that is the right mix of urban and suburban, because the truth is, I think you’re going to get West Seattle [rail] in some form, but what we learned in ST2 is you cannot win an election without East King County. If Bellevue and Kirkland say no, so goes the election.

I think it’s funny that we went from “Hell no, you’re not going to bring the train to my neighborhood” to, “This is the line in the sand. If you don’t bring the train to my neighborhood, I’m not going to support you.”

ECB: What’s on the horizon for TCC at the council and legislative levels?

SR: It’s going to be a quiet legislative session for us. I’m part of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s task force, looking at different ways to fund transit. Something that’s starting to bubble up is a per-mile charge–can we find a neat way to package what it’s costing to drive per mile, versus all these random taxes that people pay? I feel like that’s the next frontier, because the gas tax is going to no longer be relevant, we’ve tapped out the sales tax, and Metro has needs. Metro’s still going to be the heart of the system for a long time, so how do we pay for all this?

ECB: What do you think of Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata’s proposal to just fund Metro with a head tax on all employers, or the commercial parking tax?

SR: The CPT is going to get used–I have no doubt about that. It’s definitely below capacity. The question is, what does it get used for? I think if Move Seattle hadn’t passed, [TCC] would have gone there. I don’t know what appetite there is now, given the deal that the city has made with the business community around the minimum wage and HALA. And the challenge is that, depending on what you set it at, it’s not actually  bringing in a ton of money.

And with the head tax, the whole idea was [originally] to reward employers that were getting their employees to use transit [by providing a tax incentive for policies that encourage transit use], and so I don’t want it to be a way to sort of shift modes in the opposite direction. [The Sawant/Licata proposal would have eliminated the incentives to commute in ways other than driving alone.] That’s the question we asked Licata’s office. Theoretically, we supported the head tax and we weren’t happy when it was repealed, but if you remove all the exemptions for people who are doing the right thing, are you inadvertently creating a situation where employers are like, this doesn’t make sense for me to do anymore? If I’m paying the head tax anyway, why would I subsidize a bus pass?

But the CPT, we’re all about. We think it needs to happen and I think it’s the right time for it to happen. I would be very surprised if the council didn’t do it this year. I’ve heard that because you can bond with the CPT, it could fund larger capital projects that the property tax can’t, such as, potentially, the First Avenue Center City Connector. That project is very competitive for federal grants, but you would need to do some kind of local match.

Transportation is a man’s world. It really is. I think that we’re very unique in [our gender balance], and my continued goal is to keep us as a place that’s attractive for women and for people of color.

ECB: One of the most noticeable things about TCC as an organization, particularly one that works in the white-male-dominated world of transportation, is its diversity. With the impending departure of policy director Andrew Austin, TCC will at least briefly have an all-female staff. And the staff is half people of color.  How did that happen?

SR: A little bit unintentionally, but then more intentionally. I think the organization has always embraced diversity, but Rob often tells this story: It was light rail opening day and we had a booth over at Westlake, and more families of color walked up to us than they ever would have, because I was at the booth. So Rob was just like, “You know what? We have to reflect the community that we want to serve.” So we’ve tried to build that connection and be very opening and welcoming of folks. 

Transportation is a man’s world. It really is. I think that we’re very unique in [our gender balance], and my continued goal is to keep us as a place that’s attractive for women and for people of color. I want to make sure that people feel motivated and excited to do this work, and the transit equity work has really excited the staff in a very wonderful way. And I see that in our work that we are doing on the advocacy front, with new partnerships with groups we wouldn’t have traditionally worked with.

ECB: As a woman of color, how do you think women and people of color experience the transit system differently?

SR: It’s a completely different experience. I’m a woman and a person of color. Granted, I present, probably, as sort of a middle-income person, but it feels different. As a woman, just thinking about my sense of safety–like, I don’t feel safe as a transit rider walking down MLK. I bet Andrew [Austin] or Rob [Johnson] would be OK walking from the Filipino Community Center to light rail. If we want to make the system attractive to all kinds of users, but especially women, who tend to rely disproportionately on transit, we have to make that system much more accessible. Bringing that experience to the policies we’re pushing and the work that we’re doing–that’s what has made us different.

It’s also kind of random things. I am terrified to load my bike on the bus. It’s just super unwieldy. What am I, like five foot nothing, trying to put that heavy bike on there. It’s little things. The system is very much designed for an able bodied male, and our goal is to make it so that it’s something everyone can get on.

ECB: Sound Transit in particular, but also transportation agencies in general, are dominated by white men. As you’ve pointed out, perspective and life experiences effect what you prioritize in a transit system. Does TCC plan to push for more diversity in transit agencies and representation on transit boards like Sound Transit’s?

SR: I think that we want to continue to push for diversity, and diversity of all kinds. I want the people who are running the agency to be frequent transit riders. You experience the system differently when you are a rider of the system because you are closer the needs of riders. The transportation industry is very male-dominated, so when there are opportunities that open up at the leadership level at these agencies, we’re always trying to offer ideas of women who could be good. But I will acknowledge that it is a challenge, and it’s one that we’re acutely aware of, and we’re trying to figure out ways that we can work with the agencies. And it’s broader than just that. It’s how they view equity and how they view transit justice.

15 Replies to “New TCC Director: “For Our Movement to Succeed, We Need to Build Power.””

  1. A ton of good stuff in here and I’m a “white” male saying it. Also I have to say at the outset I speak for me and only me and not any group or committee I’m part of.

    That said, first and foremost from the new TCC leader:

    I want the people who are running the agency to be frequent transit riders. You experience the system differently when you are a rider of the system because you are closer the needs of riders.

    This is a huge issue with all transit agencies. I’m sure the conversations we have with transit agency leadership would dramatically change if they actually had to ride the transit or even vanpool into work. There are way too many cars in front of Skagit Transit Headquarters, let me tell ya as a new Citizen’s Advisory Committee member… The substantial walk to/from transit headquarters of both Skagit Transit & Island Transit would most likely change as well.

    Then there’s:

    Transportation is a man’s world. It really is. I think that we’re very unique in [our gender balance], and my continued goal is to keep us as a place that’s attractive for women and for people of color. I want to make sure that people feel motivated and excited to do this work, and the transit equity work has really excited the staff in a very wonderful way.

    As a man, I can say this – we do have a gender problem as well. At least the Skagit Transit Citizen’s Advisory Committee is taking big leaps to do our part.

    I might get into trouble for openly campaigning for this but I’m hopeful when Dale O’Brien retires from being CEO in a few years if not sooner, Skagit Transit Planner Carolyn Chase will suit up for the big job. She’s been around.

    Finally, as to;

    ECB: What’s on the horizon for TCC at the council and legislative levels?

    SR: It’s going to be a quiet legislative session for us. I’m part of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s task force, looking at different ways to fund transit.

    Well actually there’s a request with enthusiastic Washington State Transit Association/WSTA support for, “a new dedicated state source of operating funding for Rural and Small Urban transit districts to provide for regional connections beyond the borders of their individual service areas.” Rationale is, “These projects provide vital access to !obs, healthcare, social services and recreational opportunities. They generate significant ridership and preserve capacity on the state highway system at a modest cost. Despite their success, their future is uncertain because they are funded from short term sources. large urban areas benefit from access to funding from the Sound Transit regional network and more generous levels per capita levels of federal funding. This proposal would correct this imbalance, and ensure funding for regional connections throughout the state.”

    I appreciate the support from STB commentators like I so far. Hope for some TCC support please.

  2. We’re hearing that, depending on the size, of the package the cost is going to be about $200 per year per person. You know, it’s steep, right? But the thing is, this is for a whole system. This is it.

    That’s a sad thought, since there’s no way ST3 will include anything close to a complete system. Does the TCC plan to surrender and call it a victory? How exactly are we going to continue inching our painfully slow path toward a real urban transit network if we call ST3 a “whole system”?

    Or is the TCC just being wildly optimistic here, expecting ST3 to include all three/four of the lines we would need to call our system “complete” without making fools of ourselves? I can’t see how we’ll get that for only $200/person/year.

    1. My comment on ST3 being the big package was no way meant to imply that we (TCC) were going to call it quits on any future expansions. It was meant to acknowledge that realistically speaking, we tend to expand every decade or so and it will be a while before we get another opportunity to expand the system this significantly.

      1. Exactly. Sound Transit seems to only be able to run in Presidential Election years.

        I am concerned it is taking way too long to build light rail. We should demand Sound Transit seek regulatory relief and streamlined permitting and build already :-).

  3. “It’s also kind of random things. I am terrified to load my bike on the bus. It’s just super unwieldy. What am I, like five foot nothing, trying to put that heavy bike on there. It’s little things. The system is very much designed for an able bodied male, and our goal is to make it so that it’s something everyone can get on.”

    I’d be curious to know what are some of the other ways the transit system is biased against women. As a man, I probably don’t notice most of those things.

    1. I thought about this last night. One of the random little things that I noticed is railing, poles and straps. I say it as a 5ft 7in woman, so a 5ft nothing would be even worse.

      The top railing especially in the front sections is exceedingly high so your arms are way up for a long period of time. The straps in this area are not really long enough to ameliorate it. There are also not enough straps. If you are short or have balance issues ‘hang on’ isn’t really hanging on or you have to space your feet wide enough so that you take up even more space. The poles alternate – one row of seats has one, next row not. Poles are gold.

      Sometimes what happens is that as you stand, you find yourself near a pole or a seat handle that you perceive as stable so you do not want to move back because it means that you are gambling that you will find something similar in the next position back. It also means that people are a little less likely to offer their seat as they are making that same gamble.

      1. As a 5’7″ male, I get that.

        However gentlemen, when a woman is standing and you’re sitting… BE A MAN AND GET ON YOUR FEET. Your feet might hurt, but your heart will swell with manly pride for standing.

        Perhaps we need to have this discussion again about rider etiquette – stand and let women sit, no manspreading, no bagspreading when the bus is nearing capacity, headphones not speakers, etcetera.

      2. As a 5’5″ male, I *totally* get that. Straps are not very useful; the top railing is completely unusable; poles are great.

      3. @Joe

        And as a woman, who is sometimes asked what the secret to a good life – and a good transit experience – is, it is this:

        If someone is trying to be kind to you, LET THEM.

        Sometimes I’m offered the seat and even though I think I’m young (why is my grandmother staring back at me in the mirror?) and this is fou fou, I always take the person who offers up on it, sit down and thank them well. This is the season where we can get a head start on this!

  4. Well 2 more people who think non-Seattle residents are second class and subhuman. Nothing will change with those two.

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