On Wednesday approximately 200 people representing a number of different unions shut down traffic for 15 minutes near the intersection of Montlake and Pacific. The unions want the University of Washington to provide free transit passes to UW employees in an effort to combat climate change and to reduce projected gridlock in the U-District as the university expands under its Campus Master Plan.
The pressure appears to be working. Today Brian Weitzner, elected member of the bargaining committee for the postdoc unit of UAW 4121, says UW is prepared to offer employees half off its U-PASS, which would reduce its price from $50 per month to $25 per month. Weitzner says the union hasn't accepted the offer as of now and will continue to push.
Right now UW uses money from selling parking passes to fund its subsidized transit card program, which sounds...counterproductive, to say the least. Initially, according to Weitzner, UW offered to partially subsidize the U-PASS even more if the unions pressured the Seattle City Council to exempt the school from paying commercial parking taxes. The unions rejected the offer and demonstrated.
“The deal was: if we do a bunch of work to get them out of having to pay their taxes, and it saves them a bunch of money, then they simply won’t steal it from us," Weitzner said. "But we live in Seattle. So if the city needs the revenue—and if that revenue isn't coming from UW and parking—then we’re going to pay those taxes one way or another."
Over the next decade UW hopes to bring 13,000 more employees onto campus as part of its expansion plan. Wednesday's demonstration was designed to raise awareness about what that influx of bodies will do to traffic in the area. According to an Environmental Impact Statement, over six thousand people will drive alone to work, clogging 12 out of 13 districts in the U-District.
Representatives from environmental organizations and unions argue that the best way to prevent future traffic jams is to provide a free U-PASS for employees. They mention several other large institutions who already do that—Microsoft, Swedish Hospital, Seattle Children’s Hospital, King County and the City of Seattle—and point to the 2008 Seattle Urban Mobility Plan, which shows that free passes reduce car trips from anywhere between four and 22 percent, “with an average reduction of 11 percent."
Taking cars off the road by increasing access to mass transit also meaningfully addresses climate change, which is a goal UW President Ana Mari Cauce describes as central to the school's mission. When Cauce announced the university would be signing onto the We Are Still In Campaign, which reasserts its commitment to "a transition to clean energy and to holding global warming to well below 2°C," she wrote, "Climate change is not only real, it is urgent. We must take action today." Giving away passes to its employees is a real way UW could take action today, one that would seem responsive to the urgency Cauce is talking about here.
Weitzner says fully subsidizing the U-PASS would cost $4 million per year, a pretty small slice of UW's $7 billion annual budget.
UW spokesman Victor Balta says their bargaining agreement with the unions bundles U-PASS money with "across-the-board pay increases, targeted recruitment and retention adjustments, and new benefits investments," so they're "considering the cost of providing this benefit along with all the other costs associated with our total collective bargaining agreements."
Environmental groups and unions have referred to those "across-the-board pay increases" as cuts, since they don't they don't rise above the rate of inflation.
Balta says money's tight, especially in the university's hospital system, and adds that money to fund a free U-PASS would come from "from student tuition and patient revenues."