Gig Harbor building height debate – height vs size

You’re right to be upset by the drawings Citizens for the Preservation of the Gig Harbor Waterfront has been showing online and around town. I can’t imagine what Council or Planning Commission would approve those plans for the downtown core. Thankfully, there are no plans to do so.

The problem started with an effort to help people understand the context for a minor proposed amendment. As I explained back in March, the proposal is to allow 27′ flat roofed buildings in a small section of downtown where that type of building is reflective of the historic development pattern. Since most people don’t climb up buildings with measuring tape, the staff provided a simple drawing showing a 27′ line against downtown buildings.

Picture of downtown Gig Harbor buildings and their height.

The idea was to show two things. That 27′ buildings in this zone are common and not at all out of scale with our vision for Gig Harbor, and that flat roof buildings are also the norm. Despite this being the historic character of the area, 27′ is allowed for pitched roof buildings, but not flat roofs (directly across the street the current standard is 18′).

The Planning Commission held open houses, workshops, and public hearings before the City Council held its own public hearing. Unfortunately, during that time this citizens group decided the staff drawing was the beginning and end of zoning restrictions and filled in the dotted line. This is the result.

citizens for the preservation of the gig harbor waterfront 1To achieve these drawings you have to pretend that there are no square footage limitations, setbacks, or design regulations. To be perfectly clear, the proposal will not allow what this group is claiming it will allow.

However, this gets to another issue. Even if we wanted to keep two story buildings out of downtown, would that improve the view? The answer is in the picture below.

Two buildings in downtown Gig Harbor on Harborview DR

In reality, one story buildings block the pedestrian’s view of the waterfront the same as two story buildings. Height regulations are less about view and more about scale with the surrounding neighborhood and public safety (not smart to allow buildings taller than your fire department’s ladders). So how do we protect public access and views of the waterfront?

The simplest way is to buy property. Since I joined the Council 16 years ago the City has purchased millions of dollars worth of waterfront property. While the lawn at Skansi Brothers Park is probably the first thing to come to mind, everything from the Ancich Estuary to the Maritime Pier parking lot keep space open for the public to look at or touch the water.

The second method is by regulating the space between buildings. University of Washington Professor Jim Nicholls, visiting Gig Harbor with his students’ downtown “Storefront Studio Project” explained it in this week’s Gig Harbor Life.

“height isn’t the issue you think it is. The real key is being able to see between the buildings. Height doesn’t matter as much as the spaces between the buildings — the ‘missing teeth’ that keep the view of the harbor open and available.”

We regulate those missing teeth with setbacks, view corridors, and public plazas. Even driveways and parking lots provide some views, albeit less than ideal ones. Square footage limitations also play a role by preventing the creation of wide buildings. This is where a second story can actually help. A one story 6,000 square foot building is likely to provide less view than a two story 6,000 square foot building. That second floor means half the footprint. I’ve created an animation below to show what the combined effect of these regulations would look like.

First you’ll see an overhead picture of the downtown core. Next, the existing buildings highlighted in yellow. Red shows the footprint that our regulations would actually allow. Finally, I threw in the green sections to show the public property we purchased in the area.

Animated gif of building size restrictions in downtown Gig harbor

Bro, do you even gif?

As you can see, our restrictions allow substantially less than what you see in existing buildings in the area. This even assumes some leaps of faith that are pretty hard to imagine. For example, a building is shown on what is now parking for the old Harbor Inn (now Windermere) and the public access for Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard. The Russell Building would have to be torn down to make room for much smaller buildings. The Tides would need divine intervention to do anything more with their property, constrained by shoreline setbacks and tiny road frontage.

But these are the crudest of drawings. Staff has spent a lot of hours working on some actual design mockups showing a street level view of what this proposal would allow. They’ll be presented at our September 9th Council meeting.

Posted in Downtown, Gig Harbor, Land Use | Tagged , , | Comments

Gig Harbor building height debate – developer agreements

Two buildings in downtown Gig Harbor on Harborview DR

Do height restrictions protect your water view? Or is it something else?

I’ve been meaning to get back to this issue of building height in downtown. Tomorrow I’ll have some visuals to show you what would be really allowed, contrary to the claims of this new group “Citizens For The Preservation of Gig Harbor Waterfront.” For background, here’s a basic rundown of the issue I wrote in March.

Today I just wanted to briefly touch on a new claim being asserted by this group and one of our former councilmembers.

From their Facebook page today:

Those big Developer Agreement, already on the books, that would allow developers to buy a city block+, put 2 or 3 or more stories, butting one against another….wonder if that was passed without public comment?

First, all ordinances go through the same public process. Ms. Woock has been increasingly suggesting, without any merit, that we discourage or sometimes don’t allow public comment.

From a previous post:

Here’s a math question for you. If an 18′ high house sits 12 ‘ behind the property line…but the 18′ is measured from the property much view could you loose? And if the city does this change without public comment, is it legal??

Our public process is very clear and a matter of public record so she can easily check before making these claims. The rules are even stricter when it comes to land use, requiring a formal public hearing process. Ms. Woock knows this because she has personally testified at those hearings. She also knows that we went far beyond the legal requirements and had a number of other workshops and open houses because she attended those as well.

Back to the development agreements, it is true we have a provision in the code that allows deviation from the land use rules. It’s completely unrelated to these changes since nothing about them would increase their use, but the threat of “big developers” coming into downtown seems to be catching on. In yesterday’s Gig Harbor Life former Councilmember Jim Franich threw gas on the fire.

the council “voted ourselves the power to do development agreements. And that has the potential of throwing the planning and zoning codes right out the window.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the code specifically requires that the proposal from the developer be superior in public benefit to what would be normally required by the code. For example, if they truly care about view preservation or public access to the waterfront, what if the developer came up with a plan that actually provided better views or access in exchange for a change in building size or setback? Are they really suggesting that we shouldn’t be allowed to consider that deal, harming the public’s interest in the process?

As an additional check, this deviation from the code is only allowed with a supermajority support on the Council.

This is the relevant section of code so you can see for yourself. Does this sound like something designed for simply throwing our zoning code out the window?

C. Deviations from Development Standards. Deviations from development standards in addition to those allowed in subsection B of this section shall only be allowed as described below.

2. A development agreement related to property within the downtown area may allow deviations from development standards imposed under the Gig Harbor Municipal Code as provided for in the subsections below.

a. The proponent shall demonstrate consistency with the following requirements:

i. The project is consistent with the adopted vision for the Harbor; and

ii. The project preserves significant historic structures or demonstrates preservation and enhancement of the existing downtown character; and

iii. The project will provide public amenities above that required by the existing zoning standards, including but not limited to parks, shoreline access, plazas, and/or pedestrian connections; and

iv. The project will result in a superior design solution to what would otherwise be achieved by applying the specific requirements of Chapter 17.99 GHMC, Design Manual; and

v. The proposed deviations to zoning development standards are consistent with the public health, safety, convenience and general welfare.

Posted in Downtown, Gig Harbor, Land Use, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments

End in sight for the new Donkey Creek bridge

Good news for people who drive through downtown. Even better news for people who like habitat restoration and parks. The Donkey Creek project is nearing completion.

On Thursday I took a tour of the site with Senior Engineer Emily Appleton and an old friend from the Public Works crew Kyle Neiman. Their oversight of the project has helped keep it on time and on budget, an impressive feat when you consider the complexity of the project.

Any construction project that involves water or steep slopes can cause headaches and dramatically increase cost. This site is basically defined by those obstacles. We know there was Native American activity in the area so there was the chance that excavation could uncover an archaeological find but so far nothing has turned up. There are also old drawings that showed a concrete seawall that could present additional challenges but it’s nowhere to be found.

You may recall that fear of these “known unknowns” nearly caused us to scrap the project or approve some dramatically scaled back half version. While surprises could still lurk in the mud below, so far it appears the gamble paid off.

The photo below is taken from the new bridge deck. You can see they’re already digging the new stream channel. That rock wall marks its edge.

Donkey-Creek-Estuary-3Here’s the view from underneath looking back towards the bay and schoolhouse at the Harbor History Museum. To the right of the logs is the trail that you’ll be able to use connecting Donkey Creek Park to the back of the museum and Austin Estuary Park. For some reason I was surprised by how high up the bridge deck was off the stream bed.

Donkey-Creek-Estuary-5Another view underneath the bridge looking at the utilities. These are the water and sewer lines. They’re working on some sort of screen to block these from view, and temptation for kids who might see it as a climbing opportunity.

I was glad to see the wall on the far side is much shorter than we had thought. Appears the slope is more stable than expected. The first plan we saw had these huge 15 foot concrete sheetpiles. Not very attractive for a park

Donkey-Creek-Estuary-4This is what you’ll see on the other side from the trail. Not bad eh?


Worth remembering, this isn’t the first bridge on the Donkey Creek estuary. Here’s the same road in the 50′s. Unfortunately not long after this picture was taken, the bridge was torn down, estuary filled, and the creek replaced with a narrow pipe with crazy bends.

north harborview bridgeThe City posts weekly progress photos that are much better than my own. Check them out here.

We expect substantial completion by the end of September meaning that the bridge will be open and traffic can move freely through a much improved intersection. With any luck we’ll also see a return of the native donkey run shortly thereafter. That was a joke. I know they’re all hatchery donkeys these days. Thanks again for all your patience during construction.

Posted in Gig Harbor, Infrastructure, Parks, Roads | Tagged , , , | Comments

What’s happening with the Pierce Transit cuts & some other stuff

Pierce Transit Bus at Purdy Park and Ride in Gig HarborIf you’re confused by our decision to rescind the Pierce Transit cuts at our special board meeting Wednesday afternoon, you’re not alone. I’ll do my best to explain and feel free to jump in with questions in the comments.

Revenue unexpectedly high

Depending on the source, government revenue can be difficult to predict. Property taxes hold steady while sales tax can be volatile, particularly in an unstable economic environment. Most government’s have a diversified tax portfolio to keep things steady. Unfortunately the Legislature has designed transit agencies to be mostly reliant on sales tax. For Pierce Transit it’s 70% of our revenue so rapid fluctuation in receipts can give us a yo-yo effect.

For most of its history Pierce Transit’s sales tax income grew 6% year over year. While that may sound like a lot, once you factor in inflation and population growth its actually been eroding over time. During the recession things got really bad and we saw negative growth for a couple years. 2010 tricked a lot of us with a little bit of a recovery before diving back down again. By last summer we were celebrating 0%.

Pierce Transit Sales Tax Growth Chart

Important to remember as we move through the second half of last year until now that we don’t have real-time information on sales tax. Everything is on a three month delay so by the time we see the first signs of a recovery, we’re already 90 days behind.

In light of the failure of Prop 1, we began making growth projections in December ahead of a workstudy to proceed with cuts. At the time we were just getting our first reports of some decent sales tax growth in the 5-6% range. Unfortunately it was just a month or two so there wasn’t much to get excited about yet. Meanwhile, you may recall that Congress was in the midst of its debt ceiling, sequester, Sharknado madness. Seeing little reason for optimism, we decided to make slight adjustments in previous projections but remain conservative figuring increments of 1-5% annual growth.

This projection is then used to build a service model and how we arrive at the number of service hours we can provide. With the help of some management reorganization and layoffs, we got that number to 302,000 annual service hours, well short of the 400k currently provided (to say nothing of the 600k+ just a few years ago). That means cuts.

What happened instead has taken us totally off guard. In January we had 16% annualized growth. February it was 11%. Again, remember that we don’t get these numbers until three months later at the end of April and May. By this point we’ve long since directed staff to begin the service reduction process. Because the increases were so large and so out of the norm for the last 5 years many of us, including finance staff, assumed it was a mistake. It looked like the state Department of Revenue had forgotten some or all of the tax district boundary reduction that had taken effect at the end of the year. Staff began checking in monthly with DOR to verify the numbers and make sure we weren’t going to be cutting refund checks.

At the end of June, just a week before our next Board meeting there was finally enough data to call it a new trend. Unfortunately that also did not leave enough time before the July board meeting for staff to settle on what to do. There was some thought of trying to rework the service cuts to fit model updates, but with only a couple months left before they were due to take effect and a massive federally regulated process to navigate, they decided to recommend a delay to the cuts.

Nick Sherwood, leader of the anti-transit campaigns, had an absurd reaction to this series of events telling the TNT:

“It makes them look terrible. The numbers are a moving target with Pierce Transit.”

Apparently Nick is unaware that PT has nothing to do with the numbers and that we collect them directly from the State Department of Revenue. He can easily verify them on his own and point out where we’ve been fudging the numbers. Or maybe it’s our projections that he has trouble with. Maybe Nick is actually saying that we should have been predicting double digit sales tax growth last year when we were four years into negative growth. If so, he’s in the wrong line of work. There are a lot of people who’d pay him millions a year for that kind of call. Nate Silver couldn’t have pulled it off. He goes on:

“We always said the money was there. They were crying wolf since the beginning.”

Now Nick is just contradicting himself. If the money was there, the projections wouldn’t change anything. It was the upside surprise that made things different. Even then, it’s not all that different. We’ll still have to make deep cuts despite the good news. The money STILL isn’t there.

Delay, not elimination

I cannot emphasize this point enough. These are great numbers, but they’re not enough to get us out of the hole. It’s just a slightly shallower hole. But they do buy us some more time. Time that can be used to see if this is a longer trend or if things will settle back down to recent norms. Time that can be used to make the cuts less severe. Remember that we planned for 302k service hours? The updated model can support something more in the range of 350-360k. Still painful. Still very much reduced from just a few years ago, but better than what we had been planning for the end of September service reductions.

To be perfectly blunt, I don’t share the optimism of some. Staff believes these numbers are driven by car sales which would explain why we haven’t seen a corresponding jump in revenue in Gig Harbor. If that’s the case then it’s possible the bounce comes from pent up demand in the auto market that will settle down later. Our local and national unemployment rates remain stuck and Congress appears determined to do harm to the economy again this fall. Fortunately we have enough in reserve to take a pause and make sure the right decision is being made.

I was wrong before in wanting to speed up the cuts (making them sooner saves money & therefore some service hours) and this would be a very good time to be wrong again.

Gig Harbor's PT TrolleyPT Trolley is a massive hit

On a sunnier note I’m proud to say that the first few weeks of the PT Trolley experiment in Gig Harbor has been a massive success. Well beyond my already lofty expectations. I’ll have an explanation of this boarding data below.

Trolley Performance Dashboard July 21 – 27 by Derek Young

Some notes and observations:

  •  Week 1 was only 5 days but things have steadily grown since the first day of service.
  • The performance goals were set with the low fare (thanks the partnership between PT and the City of Gig Harbor, Chamber of Commerce, Uptown, and Waterfront Alliance), increased frequency, and cost of the service in mind. We expect better performance give the effort and it’s easily besting even those standards.
  • The route is essentially a shift of the 100 during the hours it operates. Last summer, average daily boardings in this section of the route was 179. We’re nearly tripling that.
  • We won’t more know until we do some work with the merchants, hoteliers, and marinas, but through on board surveys we know we’re capturing some visitors which was the main purpose.
  • Boardings during events downtown have been massive. This helps with both traffic and parking congestion as well as making things safer for pedestrians. We have to keep this in mind later. Public investment here saves public investment in downtown killing activities like building parking lots.
  • It’s early yet and we expect ridership and interest to settle down. But already I’m getting people asking how they can financially support the trolley’s return next year. I’d call that a success.
  • We don’t have hard numbers yet, but it looks like we’ve encouraged thousands of first time transit riders to connect to the system in a way they valued. That’s exactly the idea behind PT’s Strategic Innovation Project, of which Gig Harbor’s PT Trolley is just the first. The cuts have meant we can’t afford the traditional big bus model in places where it doesn’t work well, so we’re looking at different ways of delivering service that a community might find more useful. We’ll see how it works in other communities but so far in Gig Harbor, I’d say we nailed it.
Posted in Pierce Transit, Taxes | Tagged , | Comments

Gig Harbor building height debate – grandfather clauses

Couldn’t find a picture for “Grandfather Clause” and this post kinda screamed Ron Swanson

The issue of building height in Gig Harbor has been covered extensively by the Peninsula Gateway. I also wrote about it previously, but wanted to expand on a couple things over the next month before the Council takes the issue up for a final vote.

First up is the grandfather clause. While I really appreciate all the hard work the Planning Commission put in on this ordinance, and agree with the overwhelming majority of their proposal, I’m concerned that this section might be the wrong way to approach preservation of Gig Harbor’s character.

The proposal states:

“Any such nonconforming structure or nonconforming portion of a structure that is intentionally removed or altered may be reconstructed to the same or smaller configuration existing immediately prior to the time the structure was removed or altered.”

That is what we call a “grandfather clause” and unlike nearly every one you’ll ever see, this one is designed to grant a perpetual development right.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “grandfather clause” has an old and ugly history unrelated to its current usage. After the Civil War and passage of the 15th Amendment, literacy tests were enacted all over the South to prevent African Americans from voting. However, to keep illiterate whites going to the polls they exempted anyone who could prove their grandfather was allowed to vote.

The only connection between this dark period of American history and its modern usage is simply that they exempt preexisting conditions from new laws. For local government, grandfather clauses tend to be about uses and structures. Lets say you’ve owned a commercial building in a residential area for many years. Because of the changing character of the neighborhood, the City decides to rezone the property for residential uses only. Compliance would mean a substantial economic hardship since you’d lose the income or business from the property plus the cost of remodeling or rebuilding to fit the allowed uses.

In most situations like this governments will allow provide a grandfather clause so that the activity or structure can continue as a nonconforming use, so long as the amount of nonconformity does not increase. You could continue to operate, but not expand when demand rose.

Most municipalities will let you rebuild nonconforming structures that were destroyed by accidents or natural disaster. Most will let you remodel up to a certain value of the valuation, before forcing compliance. In Gig Harbor that’s typically 50%. This ordinance would allow a building to be torn down to the dirt and rebuilt under any circumstance, no matter how great the nonconformity, essentially locking in a different development right for each property in perpetuity.

The reasoning seems to be that people tend to like what they know; controversy is in the unknown. While it seems like a clever way around the problems created by restrictive land use, there are a number of problems with this approach.

It can be very difficult to find a bank that will lend to nonconforming businesses or properties, and when one is found, interest rates and conditions are typically punitive. Insurers have similar issues. This uncertainty translates into lost property value for the owner.

It’s smart to allow for nonconforming uses and structures in many cases, but if it becomes widespread, there’s significant damage being done to the community. To me, that means a government should have a really good reason to enact laws that force nonconformity.

When a local government passes zoning restrictions it’s making use of its “police powers” under the 10th Amendment of the Constitution. Under this clause, zoning restrictions may be passed to protect the “health, safety, and general welfare” of the public. The first two should be fairly obvious in their intent, but the latter has been the subject of much debate. Some governments, like Gig Harbor, have taken it so far as to regulate design aesthetics. Others take a narrower view and simply regulate uses that might damage the property rights of others.

Even still, there must be a justification for those restrictions. When we adopt land use regulations we must also make findings of fact and in them, explain why we’re using police powers to limit property rights. I’m having a really hard time explaining why a particular size structure is so offensive that we have to prohibit it to protect the public, but we’re going to allow dozens of buildings that same size to rebuild rather than bringing them into compliance.

The Equal Protection Clause also has something to say about land use and I think, this grandfather clause proposal.

The courts have established a two part test to determining if a property owner has an equal protection claim against a local government. Both of these conditions must exist:

(1) an intentional differential treatment to those similarly situated and (2) no rational basis for the differential treatment.

In this case properties in the Downtown Business and adjacent Waterfront Commercial zones will be affected. Clearly being a part of the same zone in the defined geographic boundaries, these properties are similarly situation. There are no overlapping regulations that could explain their separate standards (sometimes we have overlay, transitional, or design standards that can mean different things in a single zone). The only difference is the existence and size of a building on their land.

Since we’ve established the first, now we have to consider the second part. What is the rational basis for their differential treatment? If we are accepting that one 27 foot building does so little harm to the public that we would grant that property a development right to that limit forever, how can we explain that it’s not acceptable on an adjoining property?

We spend a lot of time thinking of ways to stop development ostensibly to protect Gig Harbor’s character. That’s great in one way because it means people really case about this town. But if we’re so anxious to protect its historic development patter, why do we pass so many regulations that outlaw buildings that define it?

Posted in Downtown, Gig Harbor, Land Use | Tagged , , | Comments

Trolley service in Gig Harbor

Picture of wheeled historic style trolley for Gig Harbor. Pierce Transit.

This is what the PT Trolley will look like.

I’m really excited to share some great news that’s a long time in the making for Gig Harbor. Starting July 9th Pierce Transit will begin a demonstration project for seasonal trolley service in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, Gig Harbor Historic Waterfront Alliance, Uptown Merchants, and the City of Gig Harbor.

After the press release I’ll have some more explanation.

  Gig Harbor Trolley

This project is actually the first to be rolled out under new policy direction from the Pierce Transit board. As cuts have been made to the system we’ve done our best to preserve as much traditional service where it works the best and needed the most. That’s meant significant cuts to outlying areas like the peninsulas.

In response, the board directed staff to work with these communities to find innovative solutions to their needs. The ideas they come up with might not look like traditional bus service, but could ultimately provide better value. In Gig Harbor’s case we see a dramatic increase in activity downtown during the summer months so there’s always been a desire to provide better connectivity along the bay and to our other center of activity in Uptown.

Why Gig Harbor? The simple answer is that we were ready. Since I joined the Council 16 years ago I’ve heard a persistent call for a service like this. Former Mayor Gretchen Wilbert talked frequently about the need for a “Town-around” service. While Pierce Transit had already begun laying plans for this project the Chamber of Commerce Economic Development committee approached us with a similar idea in mind. When the private sector and City came to the table with money and in-kind resources we decided to move forward. The communities east of I-5 aren’t far behind with their ideas for a different kind of service.

We’ve settled on trolleys rather than regular buses because it provides a visual cue to people who aren’t traditionally transit riders. People who are unfamiliar with a transit system, particularly visitors from outside the area, typically won’t hop on a local bus because they’re not sure where it’s going, when it’ll return, and what they’ll do when they get there. The very nature of a local trolley says “cool stuff you want to do this way.” Plus they’re just kinda fun. Go to cities that already use these nostalgic wheeled trolleys and you’ll see people riding it just for the experience.

During hours the trolleys are operating, the route 100 (the main Gig Harbor-Tacoma service) will shift away from local service and connect at the Kimball Park & Ride for those who need to continue across the bridge or back to Purdy/Gig Harbor North.

It’s important to remember that this is a demonstration project. We’ll be doing a lot of promotion in the coming weeks to  ensure its success but ultimately we’ll have to prove to the board that it had good enough use to justify full operation the following summer.

If you’ve got questions, feel free to ask in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Posted in Pierce Transit, Transportation | Tagged , | Comments

Federalism and internet sales tax collections

Empty ecommerce shopping bagI don’t know what state and local governments ever did to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) but he sure hates our guts. How else could you explain his bizarre quest to protect tax evasion that undermines our ability to pay for roads, schools, and cops?

The Marketplace Fairness Act, now making its way through Congress with bipartisan support, would lift the federal government’s prohibition on collection of sales tax for retail goods purchased online. I’ve written about it previously here.

In places like Washington, state and local governments rely heavily on sales tax instead of an income tax. Consumers are still obligated to pay a “use” tax but few know about the requirement and without enforcement, still fewer are willing to pay what’s owed.

Wyden called the bill “a targeted strike against the Internet and a targeted strike against the digital economy.” Keep in mind, the act doesn’t increase taxes. It doesn’t impose a new federal tax. It doesn’t apply to small businesses, exempting those with under $1 million in revenue. It doesn’t even obligate the state to collect the tax. It simply allows us to collect what is already owed under existing law and is paid by their law abiding “brick and mortar” competitors.

More importantly for those brick and mortar retailers, smart phones have turned a price disadvantage into a genuine existential threat commonly known as “showrooming.” While the tax discount has always enticed people to shop in stores and then go home to buy the product on the internet, armed with a simple app they can now scan the barcode and find it online before walking out the door.

Given these facts, how in the world does Wyden’s argument make any sense at all? Answer: it doesn’t. It’s simply the ugliest form of DC rent-seeking. A business wants an advantage over their competitors and rather than offering a better service or price, they get Congress to pass a law. Wyden is from a state without a sales tax so he’s an easy mark for corporate lobbyists on this issue. He’s also in line to replace Sen. Baucus as the Senate’s Finance Chair so his influence is enormous on matters of tax policy.

If anything, Wyden’s position is a “targeted attack” on federalism. It’s one thing for the federal government to regulate interstate commerce or issues of national significance. But the federal government has no legitimate interest in how we fund government services in Gig Harbor, Pierce County, or Washington state. We’re not setting up a duty on imports from Oregon. In that case, the Constitution grants authority over interstate commerce to the federal government and Wyden could rightly oppose.

Washington has simply chosen a different tax system than Oregon and most other states. However, its hardly the only system that crosses state boundaries. For example, Washington residents who work just across the river in Oregon must pay Oregon income taxes. Oregon residents that work in Washington must pay as though that income was earned in Oregon.

Is that a targeted strike on Washington businesses Sen. Wyden? While I think it’s fair to say that our respective states should work out some sort of tax reciprocity, particularly in light of the fact that forgiveness is entirely one direction in Oregon’s favor, but do you really believe it’s the federal government’s job to intervene?

It’s time for the Wyden and the rest of Congress to butt out of decisions that are the sole province of Washington citizens.

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Pierce Transit mythbusting – empty buses and overpaid staff

Pierce Transit Bus at Purdy Park and Ride in Gig HarborOne of the most persistent questions I’ve had since joining the Pierce Transit Board, and also heard by virtually every transit agency in the country, is “why do I see empty buses driving around?” It’s an understandable question for people who largely interact with the system from their car. I wondered the same thing when I first started looking into Pierce Transit costs. If we could use smaller buses, wouldn’t that reduce costs and save service?

While I’ve tried to help folks with the explanation, this video from another transit agency does a much better job. Thanks to Commissioner McKnight for passing it along. Trust me, in a few minutes you’ll get it.

To sum up:

  • Just like road congestion that fluctuates throughout the day, buses that are full during some hours, aren’t full at others. However, capacity has to be built for peak trip times (aka rush hour).
  • Also like roads, the start of a route will have less congestion than other portions of it. For a system like Pierce Transit, that means peripheral areas like Gig Harbor, UP, Lakewood, Fife, and Puyallup will typically see bus routes before they pick up most of their passengers.
  • To run smaller buses during off-peak hours you’d need to purchase additional vehicles and add staff.
  • The money saved in fuel costs is small compared to the additional costs shown above, particularly for Pierce Transit whose fleet is compressed natural gas. Last time I asked about cost, CNG was running about $.76 per equivalent gallon (conversion to gasoline costs).
  • Even if we wanted to waste money buying smaller buses to satisfy public perception, federal regulations prevent us from doing so.

Thinking more about this analogy to road capacity I’m even wondering if there’s a lesson to be learned at the fare box. One idea that’s been pushed by economists and transportation planners for years is congestion pricing (aka variable rate tolls.) Basically the idea is to charge a larger toll during peak trip hours and something less or nothing at all during off peak hours.

Why? The first rule of economics is that price rations the use of scarce resources. If something is free, it will get get overused when demand is high.  Overused roads cost everyone extra money because we have to add lanes to keep peak time congestion down. If people had a price incentive to switch the time of their travel they’ll tend to distribute their trips more evenly throughout the day. When they do, it adds peak time capacity. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, paying a variable rate toll can ultimately save taxpayers far more money by getting more efficient use of our infrastructure.

What does this have to do with transit? The bulk of our riders need the service during a few hours of the day. That means buying enough buses and deploying staff to adequately serve those more congested hours. But lets say we could provide a financial incentive to trips at a different time. That would free up assets to serve during other hours. In other words, we might be able to restore some of the cuts to off peak service hours like evening and weekends.

The downside is that mass transit in our area tends to be a social service. Most riders have no other transportation option so it might unfairly burden those who could least afford it.

This is nothing but idle speculation. I don’t know if any other systems have tried it. I suspect it would require a more sophisticated fare box than we’re able to purchase. It’s also possible it just won’t work. But it just so happens we’re finishing up a comprehensive fare study and system redesign so now seems like a good time to ask.

Update: A reader noted that King County Metro actually uses a variable fare. Still not sure if it would make sense for Pierce Transit, but since we use the same ORCA payment system, it’s at least technically possible.

Wages for non-represented employees

Another persistent complaint I hear is that non-represented (non-union) Pierce Transit workers are overpaid. Unfortunately we hadn’t done a salary survey in 10 years (wages for non-rep workers have been frozen since 2007) so I didn’t have proof they were wrong. Well, the results are in and it turns out they’re 8.6% beneath market.

More importantly, the point of the salary survey was to move non-represented workers to a market/performance based system. The current “step” system is based on longevity. Raises are based on years worked for the agency and making it to the next step. A market/performance based system looks at what others are paying for that job and establishes a salary band around our desired midpoint. In our case, we’re targeting the median.

Employees can get raises within their salary band through performance based increases of 1-3%. But that would depend first on the Board approving a budget that would allow it. This gives the Board much more control over labor costs. We’ve used this system in Gig Harbor for both represented and non-represented workers for a couple decades and it works well.

There was some confusion when the study was released that it meant we were handing out 8.6% salary increases. This is untrue. For a handful of employees outside their salary band, they would be adjusted. For some this meant an increase, for others, it would actually be a salary cut. But there wouldn’t be any difference for the bulk of the non-represented employees.

For a number of reasons, the rest of the board wanted more time to look at the proposal. So while the News Tribune article notes that the plan failed, I anticipate that it will be brought back in a couple months for reconsideration.

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Amending Gig Harbor’s Comprehensive Plan

Burnham Hill Commercial Center Map Gig HarborUpdate: I was wrong, read more at the bottom.

Over the last couple of weeks the City Council has received a considerable amount of testimony, emails, and phone calls on a proposal to amend the Comprehensive Plan. The applicants would like to change the land use designation of their 2.79 acre parcel at the intersection of Burnham & 112th from Residential Medium to Commercial/Business.

Before we get into that process it would probably be helpful to explain what a Comprehensive Plan is and why it’s important. Basically comp plans are a local government’s way of figuring out what it wants to look like in the future and decide what will be needed to get there. While this process isn’t unique to Washington, it was mandated in high growth counties after passage of the Growth Management Act. Ultimately we must abide by state law, regional plans (Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2040), and countywide plans, but the bulk of the work comes from each community’s wants and needs. Most of the services we provide like roads, water, sewer, and parks, have elements in the plan based on land use decisions we make in it.

For more detail’s on comprehensive planning, I highly recommend taking a look at the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington website.

Each year Gig Harbor has a process to amend the comp plan. Normally, these amendments are sponsored by the City and more technical in nature. But occasionally we’ll get a property owner who thinks their property doesn’t have the proper land use designation. To be clear, they’re almost always asking for an increase in intensity of use because it makes their property more valuable for sale or development. That’s exactly what is going on in this case.

Until a few years ago these applications automatically went to the Planning Commission for hearings and recommendation before the Council ever saw them. When the recession hit and staff cuts put their time at a premium, the decision was made to give amendments a quick look at Council before wasting all that effort. While there’s no hard and fast rule, we essentially decided at the time that if the application met a couple basic criteria, it would move forward regardless of our personal feelings on its merits. The application had to be complete and there needed to be some basic justification for the change but other than that, we would try not to pre-judge the case, as it were.

In this case the applicant is basing their case on the change in land use designation granted to the property to their north where existing construction and mining operations were located. While that shouldn’t be confused as a justification for granting the amendment, it does meet the criteria to ask for one.

The communication we’re receiving since our last meeting, primarily from surrounding residents, is all very well thought out. There are concerns about traffic, wetlands, changing the character of the neighborhood, and effect on their own property values. I would say that the applicants current aspirations for a gas station and mini-strip mall probably aren’t going to happen as they’ve imagined.

However, those arguments really are best made while the Planning Commission goes through its process. One reason I’m hesitant to stop even applications that I don’t like is that I never know what will come out of it. While those uses don’t seem appropriate, they’re not the only ones allowed by the C/B designation. We’ve seen comp plan amendments be limited by development agreement so that they can get a change, but not the uses that would cause too much harm.

I’ve seen applications that seemed impossible pass with broad support and slam dunk applications fail after closer inspection.

There is also a broader question that I’d like to see the Planning Commission wrestle with. Since there has been some encroachment of commercial activity on that side of the highway I think it’s fair to ask how hard of a line do we intend to draw there. This would seem to be a useful case to test that question and get a definitive answer, but that can’t happen without further study.

Mostly I want those who are concerned by the speed of this process to understand that we won’t be making a decision on the application at tonight’s meeting. This is just the beginning of the process and all the arguments you’re making today are exactly what you should be saying as it moves along. If it comes back from the Planning Commission with a “do pass” recommendation, the Council will still have the final say. Even after that, the applicant would need a rezone in which the Hearing Examiner can order mitigation for impacts before saying yes.

Finally, an award should be given to whoever is organizing the emails we’re getting. This is probably the most comment I’ve seen on a land use application in several years. While downtown issues tend to generate this kind of passion for obvious reasons, it’s good to see it come from other neighborhoods.

UPDATE (4/8/12 10:55) - As those who attended the meeting will already know, it turns out I was wrong. We didn’t need to consider the applicants claim that a change in land use designation to the north was a “substantial claim” which means there was no need to move the amendment forward. In other words, the plan won’t have any further hearings. This is one of the rare cases where I’m ok with being wrong.

Posted in Activism, Comprehensive Plan, Gig Harbor, Land Use | Tagged , , , | Comments

Senate Majority Coalition budget eliminates Office of Aerospace

Boeing Everett plant from the air overlooking Puget Sound.If governmental budgets are about priorities, the Senate Majority Coalition seems to be saying Boeing jobs aren’t high on their list. The budget they released on Wednesday has proposed elimination of the Governor’s Office of Aerospace.

Think back a few years to the time when location of Boeing’s 737 Max line was still up in the air (sorry). Boeing had already moved work to other areas of the country and losing more would threaten tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs in the region. In response, the Puget Sound Regional Council (I sit on the executive board) created the Washington Aerospace Partnership, a coalition of labor, business, government, and economic development interests. It’s led by our Executive Director, Bob Drewel, a longtime veteran of local government and economic development.

The partnership commissioned a competitiveness study which made a series of recommendations, many of which state and local government have already adopted or are making progress towards. One of those recommendations was creation of the Office of Aerospace. To this day it works so closely with PSRC that they’re partly housed in our offices.

Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t just about Boeing. There are 1250 Washington businesses in this industry. It could easily be more and since this is one of our best performing economic clusters and we should be doing everything we can to get the rest. If you want to go get everyone else’s business, doesn’t it make sense to have someone on point in state government?

Aerospace directly employs 131,000 people in Washington, the bulk of them around the Puget Sound. Indirectly it’s likely four times that number. While we may have won the competition for the 737, the immediate goal for the partnership and office, that’s not to say the job is done. Future ventures like the 777x will still need our support and coordination with state government investments in transportation and human capital is critical.

I don’t know who is responsible for the office’s elimination in the Majority Coalition’s budget. I don’t really care. Maybe it was a mistake. These things happen I guess. All that matters is that it’s put back. The Senate could be voting today so it’s critical that you call your Senator and tell them this is too important to cut. Seriously, even if you have never spoken with them, it’s absolutely essential that the Legislature hear a roar from their constituents on this issue.

Posted in Budget, Washington State Legislature | Tagged , | Comments