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Hidden Heroes

Doing community work exposes one to all the anonymous helpers who work hard to make life better for many of us. One such person, who is not so anonymous now, is Katie Wilson, the General Secretary of the Transit Riders’ Union (TRU).

Katie hails from Binghamton, New York, where she worked for Food, Not Bombs, a group that collected unused food to cook a vegetarian meal and serve it outside to those in need. Moving to Seattle in 2004, she was looking for a cause that needed leaders and organization. The Anti-globalization movement from the WTO days seemed to have withered on the vine as the groups involved followed their own particular cause (be it sea turtles or seeds), but not the larger movement.

The opportunity came in 2011 with the threatened bus cuts. Her circle of concerned folks attended the public hearings and announced through flyers and posters that a Transit Riders’ group was forming. Their first meeting was held at the Greenwood public library; 30 people attended. Katie admitted this was somewhat of a disappointment; on the other hand, it is rather impressive if posters and flyers were the only communication out there. Their advocacy helped to ensure that the County Council passed the car tab fee that would give Metro the needed money to keep buses routes from being cut. I was attending the hearings and pleading Leschi’s case for the #27 and this may have been when I started attending TRU meetings and became a member; my goal was to save the #27 bus. I found a sympathetic audience with this group; I had met with indifference and the promotion of newly designed routes at the Metro public meetings. There was no acknowledgement from Metro of the steep hill to climb to find another city bus route.

The next big issue was the threat to the free ride zone, which was the County’s wish; it cost money and didn’t help the County at all. The benefit was to poor people in Seattle. I joined in the signature gatherings and went to public events where we gathered more signatures and I was amazed at the stamina and creativity of these young TRU members. They marched down Third Ave. carrying a large replica of a Metro bus displaying an RIP wreath on the front; these symbols reach more folks than words on a page.

They didn’t save the ride free zone, but worked on getting passes for those displaced from the buses; although non-profit agencies have some passes to give, the need far outweighs the supply and TRU will be working on that issue this fall. They have worked with students from Rainier Beach High School to get free student bus passes for low-income families. This program has now been spread to all the city high schools with a simple one-page form, which indicates family size and income.

Since the early days, TRU has reached nearly 300 members and their first Monday of the month meetings are held at the Labor Temple where they are sponsored by the ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union). Currently, they are working on a student fare for the city community colleges. They are hoping to obtain a City Council resolution re: transit affordability. They see transit as a human right. Another area of focus is to get employers to do more for transit.

Katie has been appointed to the Seattle Transit Advisory Board where the Board advises Seattle on transit issues.

The TRU has gained supporters from the Seattle City Council for their respect and clarity in presenting their issues at hearings. A recent downtown fundraiser attracted Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien and former CM Nick Licata. Kshama Sawant sent a check, but had a conflict and couldn’t attend. Frank Chopp, Speaker of the House of Representatives in Olympia, had supportive words to say (and money to give).

TRU is currently working with the community college system to obtain student fares, but also looking at other possibilities. Capitol Hill Housing, which develops housing for low-income folks, is making ORCA cards available for their tenants at a reduced cost of $15. The housing to be built at 24th and Union is a Capitol Hill Housing development (the old Key Bank site). Katie would like to see all low-income developments incorporate transit support as part of their projects.

Seattle is fortunate to have this talented transplant settle here and be willing to use her skills to take on such a massive problem as improved transit access.

~Diane Snell

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