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Articles by Erica C. Barnett

Erica C. Barnett is a freelance journalist covering homelessness, transportation, politics, and drug policy, among other topics. She also writes about food policy, feminism, and gardening, mostly on Twitter.

Featured Article

The 6-foot-long mauve couch just showed up one night.

So did the washing machine, and the box spring, and the piles of office chairs that littered a homeless encampment on a hillside overlooking downtown Seattle in early June, where a 1-800-Got-Junk truck just pulled away after picking up a load*, piled to the brim.

“I’ve seen televisions, couches, random bags of trash that isn’t ours,” said Jody**, who has been homeless for about two years and was living in a tent near the top of the hillside on the day of my visit, directly below a large apartment complex.

“Things will just appear. People in those apartments there” — she gestured further up the hillside — “dump bags of trash over the fence.” Jody’s friend Robyn, who was living with her partner in a nearby tent at the time, added, “People dump stuff here all the time. I don’t know why. They’re so lazy — you have trash service, why don’t you use it?”

As homeless encampments proliferate across the country, so do the piles of trash that build up in, around, and near them — trash that local waste management companies struggle to collect. The problem is particularly intractable on the West Coast, where ri... Read more

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  • The RTID package doesn’t give Seattle voters a fair choice

    Those of us who live in and around Seattle will vote this November on a huge package that's being sold as "roads and transit." Stay with me -- it's complicated but important, and it could have implications for transit projects around the US.

    Of the $18 billion in the package, about $10 billion will pay for 50 miles of new light rail; the rest will pay for roads projects, including 152 new miles of general-purpose highways (and 74 miles of HOV). Because our state legislature, in its infinite wisdom, tied the two unrelated proposals together, rejecting roads means rejecting transit, and vice versa. Pro-transit supporters of the package (and there are lots of them) pretty much stop there. How, they argue, could we turn down the first opportunity we've had in a generation to more than double the region's light rail system? Yes, there are roads in the package -- including bad roads, like the four-lane widening of a major suburban freeway -- but a lot of those will actually help transit. Expanding SR-520 from Seattle to Bellevue, for  example, will create two new HOV lanes. And look at all that light rail! Shiny, shiny light rail. How could you say no to all that light rail?

    Well, let's look at what happens if this region does pass the joint roads and transit package. That will be our last chance to make a truly ambitious investment in transportation for a generation. It is, in other words, our last chance to do it right. As local Sierra Club chapter chairman Mike O'Brien told me, "It's not like we have pools of $18 billion just sitting around." If we pass this package, we'll have light rail, but we'll also be stuck paying for, and building, all those new roads -- roads that will just fill up, as roads do; roads that will contribute more to global warming than light rail takes away; roads that certainly won't be much help in easing congestion without a much larger investment in transit than the one in this package. And we'll send a message to transportation planners around the country: "It's OK to have transit, as long as you throw some new roads in there too."

    A better message would be: "People want transit, so why do you keep giving us *$%! roads?"

  • Seattle enviros face a Hobson’s choice in November

    This November, those of us who live in and around Seattle will vote on a $17.7 billion transportation package that would expand light rail (by 50 miles) but also include billions for road expansion -- including roads that will primarily serve sprawling developments to Seattle's south and east, making the package a Hobson's choice for environmentalists. (The state legislature tied the roads and transit votes together last year, on the theory that road supporters will only support transit if it's accompanied by pavement, and vice versa.)

    A lot of the debate around whether the package is good or bad, environmentally speaking, has centered around whether the roads part of the package (known as the Regional Transportation Investment District, or RTID) consists mostly of "good" or "bad" roads. There are a lot of elements to this debate, the first of which is: What constitutes a "good" road? Are new HOV lanes "good" (because they serve people who are carpooling) or "bad" (because they're still new road miles), and could they have been created by converting preexisting general-purpose lanes to HOV lanes?

    Another issue is whether roads that are designated primarily for freight, but can be used by single-occupancy cars, count as "good" or "bad." Further confusing matters is the question of whether already-clogged roads produce more or fewer greenhouse gases when they're expanded to accommodate more traffic, because traffic moves more smoothly (at least for a little while.)

    Given all those variables, it's not surprising that Seattle's environmental community is split on whether RTID/Sound Transit is a good or a bad thing.