Downtown White Center (Google Maps)
Downtown White Center (Google Maps)

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.

Mark Nowlin – Seattle Times
Mark Nowlin – Seattle Times

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.

64 Replies to “What Would Annexation Mean for White Center’s Transit?”

  1. You forgot to mention the issue of the fare boundary moving too for peak hour purposes. Those who live in the proposed annexation area headed to the Seattle area will face a cheaper fare, while some others may face a higher fare, those living in the proposed annexation area headed to points south of Seattle, like Southcenter, Burien, etc.

    1. The fare boundary has to go. It’s inequitable that White Center to downtown costs more than Westwood Village to downtown but the same as Maple Valley to downtown; and there’s the same problem with N 155th vs N 140th. Instead of two zones we should have higher fares for the longest express routes as Community Transit does.

      1. Setting fares by route length makes about at much since as setting them by city lines.

        Community Transit charges more for commuter routes (and has two commuter route tiers) because routes that operate long distances with no stops cost more to operate than routes that operate long distances with lots of stops.

        If Metro adopted a similar system, passengers would be charged mouted to ride freeway express routes, commuter hour only routes and community shuttle/DART routes (although there might be equity issues with that).

      2. I’d start with charging premium fares on the Seattle-Auburn, Seattle-Federal Way, and Seattle-Maple Valley peak expresses, then get down to Kent and Renton. I would not charge premium fares on the 41, 101, 150, or 372 because they are arguably basic network service.

        It gets difficult to decide edge cases because multiple factors are in play. The 15X is a short distance, and what it really does is maintain the off-peak travel time when 15th Ave W is congested and bogs down. The same can be said for other routes. As for the 26X, 28X, and 71/72/73X, I have long said it’s not reasonable to force people to meander through Queen Anne or Eastlake to get between north Seattle and downtown; where the in-between areas are lower density than an urban village. The 372 is really a corridor route rather than a point-to-point express, so it should have the basic fare. Routes like the 216 are long-distance expresses, but at the same time they’re a capacity management tool: a variation of the A/B stop pattern that some subways use, where at times that both trains are full you send one train to some stops and the other train to other stops, The same is probably true for the Federal Way routes and the 301: would STEX and the all-day Metro routes be overwhelmed if the peak expresses weren’t there? I don’t know the answers to all these. There will inevitably be complaints no matter where you draw the line. But Metro should at least start with the principle of charging the most extraordinary expresses premium fares, and eventually replacing the two-zone structure. It should at least consider these issues and articulate why the long-distance expresses exist, what their roles are, and what can be done about the inequities of the two-zone fare system at Roxbury Street and 145th Street.

      3. I’d love to see some variation in fares. The end of the ride free area has made using transit downtown quite expensive. I wonder how it would affect ridership if there was a way to jump on and off the bus for a couple block ride for less than $2.50. I know it affects my decision making.

      4. Community Transit charges more for commuter routes (and has two commuter route tiers) because routes that operate long distances with no stops cost more to operate than routes that operate long distances with lots of stops.

        If Metro adopted a similar system, passengers would be charged [more] to ride freeway express routes, commuter hour only routes and community shuttle/DART routes (although there might be equity issues with that).

        Yes, DART (and similar) routes shouldn’t charge more. Those are equity based routes.

        But the rest of it sounds right. Charge more for express routes and commuter hour only routes. Absolutely. That makes way more sense than our current system. Of course, you can expect plenty of arguments over what is an express and what isn’t.

  2. The idea of intentionally slowing buses down, by adding more stops, just to meet a legal definition for prop 1 funding, is not a good direction to be moving in. It’s also not clear how many more trips could be added to the 120 anyway. The prop 1 revenues from the portions of the route north of White Center are already accounted for in other routes, so any frequency improvements to the 120, beyond what could be funded by tax dollars directly from White Center, would have to be matched by cuts in service to other routes.

    1. The City and County found a way to fund 10-minute headway on the E Line, without adding or removing stops, I think they have the ability to upgrade all-day frequency on route 120. It’s not as if the population isn’t growing.

    2. If merely renumbering the 26/131 to the 26 is enough to make it eligible for Prop 1, then (1) let’s do it, and (2) the Prop 1 criteria is flawed and should be fixed when/if it’s renewed. Numbering it as a single route would make it more difficult to reattach the halves to other segments later, but on the other hand the 26/28/131/132 has been stable for many years, and I find it more useful than I’d originally assumed; e.g., going from Fremont to Costco or Latona to Costco. If I’m starting from Fremont or Latona it’s a one-seat ride. If I’m transferring in Fremont or Latona, it’s sometimes a lmore pleasant, less-stressful transfer point than downtown, especially peak hours (because I can avoid the 71/72/73X).

  3. What is absolutely mind-boggling to me, is why do unincorporated areas have to go through a public vote in order to be annexed? Isn’t there a mandate to have unincorporated areas annexed by a city? What happens if an unincorporated area votes to not be annexed by any city?

    1. Possibly because the residents should have a say on changing their jurisdiction/who governs them? Denying them that seems to be extremely undemocratic. They are already under one form of government and have services provided by them; while it would appear to me that they would do better by switching from King County to Seattle, it’s not my right to tell them they must. It’s not as if they are in some lawless or stateless enclave.

      1. Possibly because the residents should have a say on changing their jurisdiction/who governs them? Denying them that seems to be extremely undemocratic.

        Yeah, I’m not generally a big fan of plebiscitary democracy, but I can’t think of a more appropriate issue for one than “do you want to change which jurisdiction you”re living in?” This is especially true given that there is, at present, no elected or representative government for these people we could call on to make the decision for them. If it were already a town contemplating a merger, I still think a plebiscite would be appropriate, but if not at least it’d be done by the people they elected. There’s no provision for that here.

      2. @djw — Exactly. Maybe the plebiscite could be handled differently (e. g. tell areas they have to pick a city to join or form their own) but without their own reps their is no other way to do this. Besides, the choices are still pretty simple (do I stay or do I go) versus something like taxing and spending (which this state has enacted via initiative way too many times, and often in contradictory fashion in the same election).

    2. Remember, back when GREAT grandma was a girl, most of the state was unincorporated and services of any sort were minimal (except streets and roads, of course…). Post WWII, annexation became a thing. My folks got to vote in the mid 1950s when our area of Fauntleroy was proposed to be annexed to the city. The dualing City Light and Puget Power utility poles were the issue in our ‘hood then…

    3. Local control and no taxation without representation and being able to vote on things that affect you are important things to people here. Annexation was routine until the 1950s when it was halted by the local control/suburban self-determination movement. Otherwise Shoreline would have become part of Seattle by now.

      The county only intended to provide rural services, but as annexations stopped and sprawl occurred, it ended up with unincorporated neighborhoods needing an urban level of services. The King County Library System is officially a rural library district. But as sprawl expanded in the late 20th century the need for large regional libraries in Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond came too. Often the unincorporated neighborhoods preferred remaining unincorporated because it meant two levels of government rather than three, so only two levels of taxes and less regulation. They could avoid city-level taxes while still demanding the same level of services. That’s expensive for the county and leads to city residents subsidizing unincorporated residents. The lesser regulations and lack of urban planning led to the worst kinds of low-density sprawl, car dependency, and lack of usable transit.

      The county never intended this; it just backed into it unwittingly. So in the 1990s the county started pushing on unincorporated suburban-like areas to either incorporate or join neighboring cities. First Shoreline went, and Juanita and Rose Hill and other areas around Kirkland (now honored in the “Kirkland’s X Neighborhood” signs), and the Sea-Tac Strip, and then Sammamish and parts of Bellevue around I-90 and South Highline. The county has gradually raised the pressure, and told South Highline that if it didn’t annex the county would close its parks and stop maintaining them. North Highline is now under similar pressure. If Rat City refuses to annex to Seattle or Burien, it will lose a lot of services.

    4. Actually, the libraries would be one of the things to change too. The White Center library would presumably become and SPL library, perhaps with a payment to the county for real estate and book stock. White Centerites would no longer be able to place holds on KCLS books; they would have to physically go to a KCLS library and check it out, which is only possible if nobody else has a hold on it (i.e., it’s not a new or popular book). KCLS’s book collection is larger and has more recent titles; it’s actually one of the best library systems in the country. So that could be an issue.

      1. Area Y residents, even if annexed by Seattle, will be eligible for a KCLS library card with all the “normal” benefits until the KCLS library bond is paid off (from the Feb2015 KCLS Board of Trustees meeting minutes).

      2. And King County residents are also eligible for a Seattle card and to place holds on Seattle books. I love that agreement.

      3. One Regional Library to Rule Them All
        One Regional Library to Fine Them
        One Regional Library to Bring Them All
        And in the Darkness Bind Them.

  4. “… KCDOT, which has often proposed unpaving roads to ease their maintenance backlog.”
    Do What?
    Next they’ll be advocating for swapping your car for a horse drawn buggy. Seattle Sketcher will have a ball doing all the Roman Chariots screaming down Aurora if they can find a supplier of cobblestones.

    1. We actually do have a bunch of cobblestone streets in Seattle.

      King County unpaving streets (on a non-temporary basis) seems not much different than Kent selling off a park, or Seattle selling all its public bikes (which, alarmingly, my city representative has actually advocated).

      1. Are cobblestones an approved method of traffic calming?
        On annexation, of course voters have a right to weigh the pluses and minuses over joining Seattle. Better service v. higher taxes & more regulation.

      2. It might be a good idea to pave the streetcar lanes on 1st Ave. with cobblestones when the Central Connector is built.

    2. In a strong towns sort of sense, I don’t actually see the huge issue with unpaving roads. How many residential side streets are so high traffic that they really need all the pavement they receive?

      1. I wouldn’t mind having my street unpaved. Keeps the idiots from driving 70 mph through my neighborhood.

      2. Ummm….have you considered how much it rains in Seattle? And what happens to unpaved streets in a rainy climate? Most of those unpaved streets would have no sidewalks….

      3. Thanks Roger, now I have this vision of White Center motorists slugging it out through the mud to get to work – something like Pattons army heading for the Battle of the Bulge through Belgium, with the Mayor standing in the intersection directing traffic in the rain.
        Gotta love Seattle.

      4. An apt illustration of the return to the Gilded Age.

        “Let them eat gravel.”

  5. Sidewalk coverage will still be sporadic; I don’t think anyone who lives there thinks otherwise when looking at the fact that tens of thousands of Seattle residents currently live in areas where sidewalk coverage could only charitably be described as “sporadic.” That isn’t changing anytime soon, and it certainly won’t in White Center.

    Oh, and a large number of those Seattle residents live on streets that are “chip sealed,” which is a bare step above unpaved roads. White Center residents will need to weigh those facts against likely better bus and other public services and higher taxes.

    1. The areas between 85th and 145th streets were annexed in the 50’s and many of these areas don’t have sidewalks today and a good number of the streets have not been improved either so if anyone thinks that if the White Center area gets annexed that they will get sidewalks and improved streets are dreaming. If the city hasn’t done much of anything for North Seattle some 50 plus years after that annexation it isn’t going to happen for White Center either at least for the foreseeable future.

      1. +1 and both areas should be getting sidewalks through priorities that have their basis in getting folks to buses

    2. Yes, I agree there’s no reason to expect the city to install any significant amount of sidewalk after an annexation. Areas north of 85th street were annexed decades ago and still have very few sidewalks. Sidewalks are expensive, and their installation is primarily the responsibility of adjacent property owners.

      SDOT seems to have a small budget that they use to install sidewalks along arterials that lack them (such as the current project to make Greenwood Ave more walkable), but White Center residents should be under no illusions that annexation to Seattle will magically cause their side streets to get sidewalks in the near future.

    3. White Center’s only choices are Seattle or Burien. And Burien depends on whether Burien is willing to subsidize them, which it was before the Great Recession but is now less willing to. So it may not get sidewalks soon with Seattle, but it may not get much more from Burien either, and it won’t get anything if it remains unincorporated.

      1. Exactly. Seattle is going to spend around $60 million on sidewalks after passing proposition one. White Center isn’t likely to get any of that (or at best, very little). But the proposal and its passage is indicative of Seattle’s support for sidewalks, along with other improvements. I have no idea if Burien is making similar efforts, but my guess is it isn’t. In the long run joining Seattle would just make a lot of sense.

  6. Thoughtful analysis, Zach. Clearly the pros outweigh the cons. But why is 2017 the soonest a vote could be taken? November is still a ways off and a presidential election year should draw more voter participation…

  7. The vote will be affected by the $80 higher car tab within the city limits (or $60 for those asking for a rebate). It impacts lower income renters in more suburban areas more significantly than renters in central Seattle because their vehicle is more of their lifeline so they likely own one.

    Seattle should be promising a set of improvements ala Move Seattle using this added revenue or the residents won’t be eager to pay the higher tabs.

    1. The vote will also be impacted by those making at or near the state minimum wage. Vote for annexation and you get bumped to $15/hr. That is huge compared to car tabs.

      Of course not everyone who lives in WC works in WC, but…..

      It’s still an interesting wrinkle though.

      However, I tend to agree. This will go down in flames at the ballot box.

    2. Is it Seattle or White Center that needs this? For Seattle it’s nice to have but not that important. We don’t need to beg White Centerites to join us. We should offer a reasonable set of promises to be true to our liberal values, but mostly they need to weigh joining Seattle as it is. For White Center it’s either join Seattle or lose the level of subsidy and support they’ve been receiving from the county. I think Seattle can offer them at least the level of services they have, but it does come with higher taxes. Some of them live there precisely to avoid those taxes. But it’s not 1985 anymore and that position is increasingly less viable.

      1. Is it Seattle or White Center that needs this?

        My sense is that it’s King County that feels they need it; they want WC off their hands.

      2. King County could sweeten the pot by promising funding for improved frequency on route 120 if the annexation passes.

      3. On second thought, the county could go one step farther: Promise to extend route 120 to SeaTac/Airport Station. Connect White Center denizens to the nearest major job sites to the south.

        Before people start jumping on the cost of sending artics from Burien to SeaTac, I’m pretty sure route 180 is already using artics.

  8. If I lived in White Center, I’d balance the pluses (bicycle signs installed at random locations in my neighborhood, guiding me to distant destinations as if I was totally lost) and the minuses (higher taxes and fees) and probably vote no.

  9. A question about the annexation that was not answered–

    All the east-west streets south of Roxbury in West Seattle, being in unincorporated King County now, are numbered rather than named. But on the other side of town (the Rainier Beach area), the streets south of Roxbury ARE named–Norfolk, Pilgrim, Perry, Cooper, Prentice, Bangor, etc. This makes me wonder–will the numbered streets in the North Highline area become named streets (eg, “SW Bangor St”) if the area does get annexed by Seattle?

    1. I was wondering that too. It would be nice, to confirm where the city ends. But Arbor Heights has numbered streets. They’ll probably figure the numbers are too well established. And in this modern era where it costs significant money to change signs and business cards and corporations have interest groups, it probably wouldn’t get far.

    2. When Renton annexed the eastern part of the Highlands a few years ago it did change street names from numbered to named (in alphabetical order) because the city had its own address grid.

  10. King 5 just ran a story tonight on all the buses running down Roxbury to the dismay of neighbors. The streets are crumbling against all the heavy loads to the point where one neighbor put in seismographs to document the rumbling. His house is showing cracks in the walls.
    Metro says they’ll slow down some, and SDOT blames City Light for the streets.
    That can’t bode well for some Yes votes to join the city.

    1. The older housing in White Center is on the north side of the street, in Seattle. The housing south of Roxbury is mostly newer townhouses, which I have to assume were built with some seismic common sense. I’m pretty sure there are more voters wanting more bus service in White Center than there are residents of older houses on the south side of Roxbury who wish the buses would go away. King 5 seems to find all the people who want buses out of their neighborhood, but they are still a distinct minority in their own neighborhoods.

      1. I can’t argue with that, but sometimes it doesn’t take to many negative stories, complete with visuals, to sway an election. Ask Dukakis how that works riding in the turret of a tank and running for President..

  11. Seattle has shown a willingness to pay extra for transit. This includes paying extra for Metro bus service (prop one) or Move Seattle (another prop one). My guess is that White Center wouldn’t directly benefit very much from either. But in the long run, such willingness to invest in transit is a very good sign, and bodes well for White Center, should they join Seattle. Whether it is worth paying the extra taxes or not is another matter. Generally speaking, for a population that is less wealthy than the other city, it most certainly is. But our regressive tax structure throws an interesting wrinkle at things. Extra bus service, along with some extra sidewalks and similar improvements may be very nice, but is it worth the extra money? Hard to say, but I would definitely recommend folks in White Center join the city. Even with our regressive tax structure it is generally better to pay for those sorts of things (which is why supporting an increase in the sales tax almost always is a good thing). Those are, after all, just transit things. The big benefit comes form health and human services, extra policing and the like (which White Center needs more than most areas in the city).

    As for Seattle, I’m sure a lot of people are wondering why we would be interested in growing. This will diminish our average tax base. White Center has way more in the way of expenses than revenues. But all generosity aside, there is great value in being bigger. As it is, Seattle is growing faster — in absolute number, believe it or not — than all the surrounding cities combined. This may, in the long run, allow us more independence, and thus allow us to spend much more on things like transit. We might not be beholden to Sound Transit, for example, to pass a big budget transit project. Given the fact that we are pretty much done with all the logical, really expensive cross jurisdictional projects (light rail will serve and connect the counties) it would make a lot of sense to focus more on the city. Having a bigger voting block might allow us the clout to get that out of Olympia.

    1. White Center might be more pro-transit and density than some other parts of the city. Normally I worry about annexing suburban areas: extending the border from 65th to 145th enlarged the city, but in practice the lots are larger, more single-family, more car-oriented, and less willing to pay transit taxes. If we had annexed Shoreline and Burien the dense area would be a small fraction of the city and urbanists would be overwhelmingly outvoted and unable to do anything. But White Center is such a small area and a small population that it won’t make much difference.

    1. I don’t think they will care much about your straw conspiracy to eliminate all single-family housing zoning, not just because they don’t identify with the white SFH neighborhood activists, and not just because there are more apartments and multi-family housing in White Center per capita than there are in surrounding neighborhoods, but also because what is on the table in Seattle is extending the non-SFH areas around urban villages rather than a mass abolition of SHF zoning that you keep on creating out of thin air.

      What kind of zoning does White Center have right now? They might be more afraid of having Seattle’s zoning laws suddenly laid down over their blue-collar neighborhoods.

    2. The urbanist conspiracy has not yet been adopted by government more than a little, so it’s no more a plan than Seattle Subway is a plan: it’s an unofficial proposal. When you see large mile-wide areas of 3-10 stories with scattered SFHs and transit every 5-10 minutes, then you’ll know it has arrived. A draft of HALA proposed redefining single-family zones as, I don’t know exactly, some kind of lowrise, but that did not make it into the final. The final report merely recommends relaxing single-family regulations to allow ADUs and duplexes/triplexes. And that the mayor said he won’t implement, although it’s unclear at this point which parts of HALA will be implemented and to what extent. White Center single-family residents may be concerned, but White Center multi-family residents are also voters and there are a bunch of them.

  12. Route 132 is also a primary bus route in the area proposed to be annexed. If 28/132 were treated as a single route, and route 132 were straightened out to go to Tukwila International Boulevard Station instead of Burien Transit Center, it would easily meet the 80%-of-stops-in-Seattle threshold.

  13. Would city council district 1 be redrawn immediately following, or would that wait until the regularly scheduled changing of lines to accommodate unequal changes in population growth (following the 2020 census?).

    Would we shave off 15,000 residents off the eastern part of D1, give that to D2, then move more Mt. Baker (and North Beacon Hill?) residents to D3, and so on until rough parity is achieved?

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