The U-Pass transit program for UW Faculty and Staff has been on an unsustainable financial trajectory for years, with a perverse reliance on parking revenue that cannibalizes funding as it succeeds in reducing driving. Rules against the gifting of public funds also require that these and other programs (such as ORCA Business Passport) be revenue neutral, with program costs rising with usage. (Though also partially funded by parking revenue, the student U-Pass has been on stable financial ground ever since the 2011 decision to make it a universal pass rather than opt-in.)

Much like health insurance premiums, non-riding UPass participants allow reduced individual rates. The more successful the program is in changing behavior, the heavier the financial outlay for UW. Indeed, UW achieves the best modesplits in the region, with its 20% drive-alone rate handily besting Downtown Seattle (31%).

But the decade-long financial storm has come to a head in the past few months, with several issues converging simultaneously to produce a complex and unsettling situation.  First, in 2011 there was a failed push to exempt UW from Seattle’s Commercial Parking Tax, which ended with the City agreeing to subsidize the UPass for 3 years instead. Ironically, then-State Senator (and UW employee) Ed Murray lobbied for the change in Olympia, but was successfully opposed by then-Councilmember Sally Clark, while today it is Murray that represents the city as enforcer and Clark that represents UW.

Then a City audit found that UW had raised parking rates by implementing a 63% “Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Fee” in 2011 on all parking transactions, but wasn’t paying Commercial Parking Tax on that revenue. This year UW settled with the city for $4m, and will now pay an additional $3-4m per year as long as that fee is in place.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 7.04.20 AMProposals to raise UPass fees (from $150 to $215 per quarter) to close the funding gap were met with such vociferous objection from SEIU and other groups that the proposal was quickly withdrawn, and the tension led in part to the abrupt forced resignation of UW Transportation Services Director Josh Kavanaugh back in April.

Unable to raise fees and now unable to avoid parking tax on its TDM fee, UW is left in a bind. Not only is the Faculty/Staff UPass program threatened, but anything the TDM fee funds is now threatened, including many of UW’s transportation planners, its Commute Concierge program, its Commute Trip Reduction activities, and key staff  liaisons between UW, Metro, and Sound Transit. Multiple sources have confirmed that UW may soon scrap its Commute Options and Transportation Planning staff. 

Beyond the immediate effects on modesplit, this has very worrisome longer-term implications. The remainder of the Burke-Gilman trail rebuild may be in jeopardy, as UW likely cannot afford it despite a $16m infusion from the state transportation package, money it may never claim. This September, the UW will release its draft Campus Master Plan, and it is likely to aim for aggressive growth of 20% in 10 years. Like all Major Institution Master Plans (MIMPs) – such as the torturous process recently played out at Swedish Cherry Hill – these plans tend to center on transportation impacts.

Both the Campus Master Plan and the big UDistrict Rezone are likely dependent on aggressive strategies to maintain or reduce total vehicle volumes, which in a growth context means sharply reducing drive-alone rates below their already low 20%. So at the time when UW must be most aggressive and visionary, it is risking taking many steps backwards at once. Potentially, it could cut faculty/staff UPass, cut its non-facilities Transportation Services staff, and respond to new incentives to maximize parking revenue on currently underused lots (such as E-1).

In addition, cutting transportation planning and programs staff will further exacerbate bureaucratic tensions between UW, Metro, and Sound Transit. The list of conflicts is long, with recent examples being months of process to add bus stops on Rainier Vista, UW’s insistence on parking retention at Husky Stadium reducing bus restructure possibilities, and lack of institutional support for HOV or transit priority on Montlake Boulevard. There is also the back-and-forth about siting Pronto at UW Station, with UW unwilling to give up any of its massive parking lots, and Sound Transit unwilling to use its expensive easement for a 3rd-party capital installation (though we hear there may be movement on this). Sources tell us that a substantial restructure of bus service at University District Station in 2021 is already likely off the table, with the powerful Office of the Campus Architect taking a page from Mercer Island and pre-emptively squashing any hopes of turnaround space for buses.

SDOT staff close to the situation told STB on Wednesday that while the issues are real, the City doesn’t intend to let the snowball roll very far. Both the city and UW have strong incentives for the UDistrict Rezone and Campus Master Plan to go through, and many seem to think that at the end of the day, this clarifying reality will cause forward-thinking heads to prevail. But much is unnecessarily at risk because of the state’s failure to adequately fund UW (which forces this kind of nickel-and-diming), and UW’s failure to fix longstanding and well-known financial problems. But UW’s possible solution  – an axing of very successful transportation programs and staff just when it needs them most – would cut off its nose to spite the face. UW spokesperson Sally Clark is on vacation and her office was unable to comment for this story.

53 Replies to “Is UW Sleepwalking into a Transportation Disaster?”

  1. How is it that UW can ignore the city’s historic preservation laws but has to pay city parking tax?

    1. Because the former is preempted by UW’s rights in the state constitution, and the latter is not

  2. The solution, or a least a good way towards the solution is to either:

    1) sell the northern half of E1 to a developer and create an endowment funding universal u-pass for faculty and staff, or

    2) develop the northern half of E1 itself into apartments as high as current zoning will go, using rent revenues to fund a universal u-pass for faculty and staff.

    It’s fallow land, except for tail-gating a few weekends a year. Plow the sucker under.

    1. Or better yet, insist as a part of the new u-district rezone that they allow 20 story towers on E1.

    2. You do realize that E1 is pretty heavily used Monday through Friday, 9 months of the year? Not 100% utilization, but not exactly fallow either. UW is not in any hurry to get rid of E1.

      Plus, it’s a former landfill, so remediation for building will be an expensive issue.

      1. But if you stop subsidizing parking and provide a 100% free bus pass, that parking would hopefully no longer be used. It might cause some pain in transition, but pain that is absolutely necessary.

        Time to stop muddling along and make a some grand leaps to do the right thing.

      2. I really don’t think E1 is subsidized. It’s a paved over landfill that’s been around for decades and probably hasn’t been maintained since it was built. If anything, the $6/day for E1 is a huge cash flow for the University. If you want to talk subsidized parking, you need to cross Montlake to the main campus.

      3. E1 was mostly gravel 30 years ago, except at the end nearest the IMA–but you’re right, other than eventually paving the entire thing they’ve probably done very little to it.

      4. Just because the haven’t invested much into it, doesn’t mean it’s any less a subsidy. You have to compare current revenues vs. revenues generated from potential alternative uses.

      5. Even on the central part of campus, parking is not “subsidized.” Campus parking is subsidizing U-PASS – that is the whole point of this article, that parking revenue is not keeping pace with transportation expenses.

        Parking may not be priced at the revenue-maximizing level (I doubt it is – $150/month is not that high), but that doesn’t mean it is subsidized. Those are two very different concepts.

      6. At 11 AM on a weekday, E1 is usually about half full. I go by it every day on the Burke Gilman.

    3. If you click through the master plan link above and look at East Campus, you will see that they already intend to develop the entire E1 parking area (and the driving range), up to 130 feet along Montlake, as well as the lot south of Husky Stadium. These will likely be academic and perhaps student residential buildings, in keeping with the University’s actual mission. (I imagine if they can combine that mission with income producing properties they will, albeit probably by a long-term lease with a developer much as they have on their property in Downtown Seattle).

      1. Looks like they are planning on going up 160 ft in some spots. They are being too cautious of main campus views. They also plan to build a bunch of expensive, structured parking garages. Yuck. Last century thinking.

      2. They are hopefully in discussions with the city to widen Montlake and put in a transit lane at the same time as all this construction.

      3. +1000 on Montlake. That should have been done concurrently with the Link station opening.

        There are, fortunately, only three proposed buildings with parking included on East Campus, and two of those are smaller ones. Again, most of the proposed buildings are likely academic or otherwise University related and hence will have little or no “revenues” to earmark. The state is twice the population it was when I went to school there and the flagship university needs to expand, as well as continue to develop and expand satellite campuses (as does WSU). Increasing the population by the same amount as over the past 30 years, by the time ST3 is fully operational there may be 10 million people in the state. That’s nearly impossible to forecast, of course, but the possibility needs to be kept in mind.

        Getting rid of the main, iconic view corridor (Rainier Vista) is never, never, never going to happen – nor should it. Not everything on earth needs to be “shaved and paved” and that view is a hallmark of the University no less than Suzzallo or the Quad.

      4. I wasn’t suggesting that they shut Ranier View. They seem to be limiting the height of the E1 buildings, “being mindful of the views of Main Campus”, or some such lingo.

        With an expanding campus, it’s even more important that they establish a sustainable revenue stream to incent increased transit, bike and ped transportation and decrease SOV use. Using some of the E-1 land for revenue to generate that sustainable stream seems like a no-brainer. Unless the state does what it should and steps up to make it a “benefit” of employment. Right.

        It’s all a balance.

      5. Washington state is near the bottom of university slots for the population size, so they do need to greatly expand the college offerings.

      6. Agreed, but in 1980 the state paid for about 80% of UW costs. Now it’s closer to 20%. Unless the state steps up and embraces their paramount duty to educate their populace by increasing revenue (income tax, capital gains tax, death tax, car tax – something), it forces UW to get creative about finding the money that they need.

      7. As someone in the design and construction field I’ll point out that the entire area that E1 sits on is almost assuredly a liquefaction zone, making taller buildings vastly more expensive than even 10-12 story buildings – and even those will be more expensive to build there than they would be in, say, West Campus. That would make major commercial use of the buildings untenable as the rents to recuperate the costs would be higher than they would be somewhere else, but for University use would make more sense as their limiting factor is available land (which this is), not lease rates. If the state actually did what it should–in addition to making the pass a benefit, as you state–it would fund more than 5% of the University’s annual budget rather than hoping the school can get into the commercial real estate business (more than they already are through UNICO).

        It’s interesting they say that about the views, since the hill the main campus is on is too high to have views of anything blocked by much lower than 20 stories and there is almost no view corridor oriented that way from main campus now (save the dorms and part of Padelford Hall, which in addition to being atop the hill are tall structures on their own). I’ve spent more than a few hours on Padelford garage in the fall, looking east, and to block the lake and mountains from main campus level would take a fairly tall structure unless it was immediately adjacent to the lake (which is wetland and basically unusable).

      8. @biliruben – the UW’s 2017 budget shows state appropriations as 5% of the overall $7B UW budget. That’s the legislature’s funded portion, not tuition or the like. Tuition is now 68% of the operating funds of the school (different than the overall budget) – this is up from 34% in 2004. The UW lost HALF of its state funding in the period 2009-2012. The state — as it has done in all aspects of education — has done a serious disservice to the citizens of Washington with the damage it has caused higher education in this state, a state whose wealth in no small part is due to a highly-educated workforce. The Legislature of this state has much to be ashamed of in transportation funding, public health and the like, but what they have done to education is simply unconscionable.

      9. Re: Montlske widening. What Montlake needs is a bus tunnel, so that people are closer to the trains they are trying to get to/from, as well as solve various other issues. Maybe have the buses on the level above the tracks do it is only one floor up instead of three?

        I don’t expect it anytime soon, but long term there needs to be some serious changes to how things work around that station.

    4. UM… hello. You both better do your homework! There is a reason why the UW (or anybody else in the future) cannot and will NEVER be able to build any structures on on or near the E-1 parking lot! It is the site of an old peat bog and garbage dump. There are no stable soils there and you cannot build a structure on top of it. It is totally unstable soils. Look it up on any USGS map. It is susceptible to liquifaction after any earthquake, Hence the reason why it will always be open land and unable to support any buildings. CASE CLOSED…

      1. “Never” is an absolute term. You CAN build just about anything, just about anywhere–the question then becomes one of cost and risk mitigation. Building structures on E1 is not impossible (probably using deep pile foundations, possibly in concert with tuned dampers or similar structural elements) but it will be extremely expensive as opposed to building them elsewhere. The UW’s relative lack of developable land may mean they are willing to shoulder those costs as demand requires. Their master plan certainly seems to indicate that they will, “case closed” or not.

        Much of Seattle is built in liquefaction zones–that doesn’t make it a good idea, and certainly means that critical infrastructure should not be sited there–but U Village is partially sited on the same peat bog that was underwater 100 years ago. Almost everything south of Yesler and in SoDo is in a high-risk liquefaction zone (including two large stadia and at least two high rise towers that I am personally familiar with). Boeing Renton (and The Landing), Harbor Island and everything in Interbay are all built in high-risk liquefaction zones.

  3. Trying to resist the “I told you so” sentiment but I can’t. I learned this in Econ 200 a while back on the very same campus. The parking/sales taxes drive a significant wedge between employees’ willingness to pay for parking and the net revenue UW receives. This occurs with every tax, but for many other taxes the dislocation is harder to see because the wedge is smaller.

    I doubt any Seattle policymakers will remember this when they raise taxes next time, but there is in fact a point where markets begin to falter as taxes increase. At least parking can’t be smuggled – otherwise we’d really see a revenue drop.

    1. It was a way to get the program started when the number of drivers was more definite. It would become an issue when/if the number of drivers dwindled, as it now has. The same think happens with bike infrastructure. Three bikes per bus is fine if only 1% of the riders have bikes, and that might last for a few decades. So few people bike now that the cost and size of bike lanes and racks is not an issue, but if a lot of people started biking then you’d need wider lanes and a small parking lot to store them, and that starts getting into serious money so then you might have to license cyclists to raise enough money for the infrastructure.

      1. cycle infrastructure is massively cheap compared to anything. no need to raise money from bikers even in Copenhagen. Not to mention the externalities you gain (carbon, health).

  4. TIme for UW to get creative, and to explore how other urban campuses manage these issues. Surely UCLA and UC Berkeley (both state funded universities) have figured out parking/transit issues

  5. How feasible is it for SDOT and the city to force the issue on things like bus stations and turnaround space as a part of the MIMP?

  6. ” But much is unnecessarily at risk because of the state’s failure to adequately fund UW (which forces this kind of nickel-and-diming)…”

    Put that into Latin and it’ll be the official motto of the State of Washington. Already its epitaph. Good thing Seattle, the University of Washington, and our transit system are still on the green side of the lawn.

    Costing out every minute of traffic-jammed operating time (can anybody tell us how much that is per vehicle?) transit should come out ‘way ahead by simply considering student, faculty, and staff ID Proof-of-Payment all term.

    In-the-room creature, (vet says that dog needs Hell’s own workout before the Iditarod!) could have their ID included too- in thanks for giving us that giant metal sculpture that saves UW Station from looking like a temporary bus shelter. But since they’ve got some fur in our game too, Athletic program should be willing to help us bring the creature more nice people to pet it.

    Also, considering the world people my age are passing along, we shouldn’t even need an official program to recharge our blue and yellow ORCA cards. Green and white one looks too much like Medical Marijuana permit anyhow. Stats should reflect improved revenue without any recognition of announcement at all.

    Same as refusing to let anybody under 90 give me their seat. Though getting really sick and tired of getting disrespect from people three years younger than me that Don’t Know How Good They’ve Got Things! Why back in my day, Representative, the Legislature paid THE WHOLE DAMN THING!

    Mark Dublin

  7. How about making up the deficit by shifting funds from football programs and overpaid administrators’ bonuses? A university is supposed to be about education, which requires a way to get to campus.

    1. Thanks for waking up and noticing, Miss Sadie. Would be glad to make those salaries and bonuses permanent, and also usable as Proof of Payment, if these administrators would do the other thing you said.

      I think the real cure, for UW and the rest of this country’s educational system, is to shift the main thrust of public education to trade schools. With the goal of a national economy based on something behind besides bets on real estate prices. Returning us to being the country that made the PCC streetcar. By making the next one. Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton would have loved this plan. And Ben would’ve liked the streetcar too.

      And Alexander would have made the National Bank glad to finance a private company to run PCC’s, like the Presidents the car was named after.


    2. The Athletic Department is supposedly self funding and so doesn’t get any state money.

      1. Emily and Mike, what would it cost a football team to buy the same piece of land, located at a major freeway exit and near an Interstate, on the edge of a public university campus if they had to use their own money?

        Also if the team and its insurance had to cover endemic cases of brain damage football inflicts-though while rugby causes more broken noses and bitten-off ears (yeah, hospital right across the street) -risk management might find another location.

        But main thing, since whoever pays the piper, or the DJ, calls the tune, what in the Hell are us taxpayers doing putting physics, medicine, and a lot of other stuff that used to keep us in the First World in command of something State, City, and Country need to survive in the hands of football executives!

        I know, the legislature isn’t giving us any money! Would like to talk with some world class high tech executives about this. Though maybe they’ve all got enough Chinese ownership or customer base that they might earthquake proof the tailgate lot!


      2. How much would it cost? In 1920? When they built the stadium on an unused peninsula surrounded by swamps and a bog? Not too bloody much. In fact, it probably cost about what the entire University campus cost, which was nothing. Since they’re not buying it today, that’s a specious argument.

        Your other point is, frankly, nonsensical. AD Jennifer Cohen has no say in anything having to do with medicine, physics or any other academic program. And “we taxpayers” don’t pay shite into the University any more, practically speaking. I’m pretty sure the “world class high tech executives” have been working with the University for years–with no success–trying to get the Legislature to fulfill their duty to the state’s educational responsibilities. Not a few of them also put their own money into the athletic program.

        We get it. You don’t like it. You don’t pay for it, nor do you have to–I do (along with a bunch of other things that I don’t much care for or use but that you might happen to enjoy–such is the price of civilization). You’re a better poster than this.

  8. This is all just from memory, but I’m pretty sure that waaaay back in the early 80s or whenever the UPass came to be, it was created because the UW had to mitigate traffic problems if it wanted to get permits to build a bunch of new buildings, buildings that would result in more people coming to campus everyday.

    1. Might date me a bit, but I got a UPASS in 1990, when I was a grad student. I seem to remember that at the time it was a new program.

      1. I was working at UW when the UPass system started in 1991. Cost for faculty/staff was $10 per month, and even less for students, I think it was $25 a quarter. Meant to be a way to encourage using public transportation and relieve parking lot congestion.

  9. Outside of student protests, I don’t see how the public can influence UW decision-making. The subtext here is that UW is fighting SDOT, Metro and probably ST – and doesn’t show much inclination to adapt to even their needs. Can anyone change the direction of their steamroller capital projects and planning process?

    1. Yeah, imagine if there were something that could be done that would radically change things. Maybe, something completely unprecedented, like the UW allowing a light rail station to be located where people could actsully get to it.

  10. I’m curious how U-PASS actually works. Employees pay $50/month. Does that mean UW is purchasing monthly passes from ST for $50/month? Or that UW is purchasing passes at full price and paying the difference out of parking fees? Or maybe some hybrid approach where UW pays a discounted flat rate and then a portion of every fare?

    The reason I ask is because if UW is paying full price for fares, maybe they could cut corners. The most expensive ORCA pass is $207/month. But most people commuting to UW could get by with the $117 pass which would cover all Metro buses, Link, and 1 county ST Express. So could UW have tiers, for instance employees pay $50/month for a “basic U-PASS”, but $60/month for a “premium U-PASS”?

    1. My understanding is that UW negotiates some set rate to pay ORCA based on historical usage on each agency’s facilities. It’s not full fare but it is based on historical usage, hence UW Transportation recently sending an email reminding U-Pass card holders to tap off on Link to save the program money.

      1. yup that’s how it works for the city too. they charge based on how the collective used transit: x% take a 3 zone bus, y% take light rail to the airport etc. etc.

  11. I emailed Rob Johnson a couple days ago about this, and got a reply from one of his interns. He plans to reach out to Sally Clark and try to find a way to make the UW transportation programs “financially sustainable”. No idea if it’ll happen, but he of all the council members knows the issues and the consequences of non-action.

  12. That is a bind. I can see areas of the Commute Options offerings that should be cut if they cannot be made solvent without hitting UPASS holders with a huge fare increase. Commute Conceirge employees are high paid employees to provide info most people can Google themselves. Nice offering, but not a necessity. The CTR efforts lamely try to get people off the bus to save costs (eg bike buddy program) and have little ROI. The dept. became bloated with too many staffers and not enough funds. The UPASS program ran for years with a small staff and did well/reduced SOV trips. Time to meet half way – cut the fat and lobby state/city/regents for more funds.

  13. Oh come on. Make a U-Pass part of the contract with the faculty and staff. It comes out of the salary-and-benefits budget. Problem solved.

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