Long planned but also long delayed, Seattle’s annexation of North Highline/White Center received new life last week when the legislature agreed to redirect $7m in state sales taxes to Seattle to cover the transitional costs of annexation. Three sequential process steps remain for annexation, namely the approval of the King County Boundary Review Board, approval by the Seattle City Council, and then a public vote by the 18,000 citizens within the annexation area. The earliest a vote could take place would be 2017.
Sandwiched between Tukwila, newly-annexed parts of Burien and long-established Seattle neighborhoods such as Arbor Heights and Highland Park, the area has long been an exclave of lower taxes and fewer services, with urban policing falling under the otherwise rural mandate of the King County Sheriff, and road, transit, and bicycle projects subject to the overburdened KCDOT, which has often proposed unpaving roads to ease their maintenance backlog.
Though annexation is politically complicated and by no means guaranteed at the ballot box – with higher taxes and a generally more severe regulatory burden competing with benefits such as higher wages and more robust social programs, etc – it’s pretty clear that bringing the area within Seattle would greatly benefit transit and mobility in the area. The area would need to be incorporated into the Transit and Bicycle master plans, concerns about feeling ‘left out’ could be mitigated by new Council District representation, and jurisdictional continuity would help keep street improvements from dead-ending in White Center.
The area currently resembles 1980s-era Seattle, gritty and suburban-ish yet with a wealth of diverse local businesses. There are no bus and few bike lanes, sidewalk coverage is sporadic, and the area is generally a hostile pedestrian environment. All of these things could improve under the purview of a City Engineer such as our Dongho Chang.
And what about Proposition 1, under which all White Center routes were excluded by the requirement that 80% of a route’s stops be located within Seattle? Given a primarily east-west annexation area and primarily north-south bus routes, annexation adds few stops to help routes 120, 128, and 131 meet the Prop 1 threshold. All 3 primary routes (which carry a combined 17,000 riders/day) would likely still fall short, but just barely. Route 120 would go from roughly 60% to 75% of its stops within Seattle.* Route 128, a crosstown workhorse with 100 stops between Southcenter and Alki, would still fall considerably short, going from 55% to 70%.* Route 131, the primary local connection between White Center, Georgetown, and Sodo, would come very close, going from 75% to 79%. This creates interesting incentives for the city, with options to meet the threshold by either adding stops within the city, lobbying Metro to consolidate stops in Burien, lobbying Burien to form a interlocal partnership with Seattle, or signing though-routes as a single route, such as “26” from Northgate to Burien instead of 26/131.
For transit, bicycles, pedestrians, road maintenance, social services, wage protections, and many more reasons, I believe annexation would be mutually beneficial for both Seattle and White Center/North Highline. It’s as much a part of the urban fabric as its adjoining neighborhoods, and it needs more in civic support than King County can provide. Annexation would make the city as a whole more diverse, close one of the two remaining unincorporated exclaves abutting Seattle (Skyway is the other, and Seattle should annex that too!), and add 18,000 to Seattle’s population overnight. It’s an issue I would encourage urbanists to follow and support.
*Quantifying “stops within Seattle” is harder than it seems. Routes may have unequal stop pairs each direction, and through-routed buses may be signed as a route far earlier in one direction than another. My published ranges have attempted to account for this fact.