News Roundup: Accounting Problems

Kris Leisten/Flickr

This is an open thread.

PSRC Studies Impacts of Increasing Rail Freight

2035 Regional Gate Down time. PSRC.

2035 Regional Gate Down time. PSRC.

Last week — by sheer chance, the day an oil train (harmlessly) derailed in Interbay – the Puget Sound Regional Council released a staff report on the transportation and economic impacts of the Gateway Terminal, a proposed bulk-goods export terminal at Cherry Point, near Bellingham. This facility would primarily serve to transport coal from Montana to China, using BNSF’s rail lines to cross the northwest, and the bulk of this study is focused on impacts to road users of increased rail traffic on BNSF’s Puget Sound lines.

In general, I don’t have much to add to the Gateway debate (I think building it would be an appalling mistake, on the basis of coal’s global climate impact), but there are a couple of nuggets about Washington’s rail infrastructure that are important to the state’s future regardless whether or not the Gateway Terminal gets built.

First, “gate-down time” — the average amount of time, per day, that road users will be delayed at grade crossings — will rise significantly throughout the region due to the coal-induced increase in train traffic associated with Gateway. The impacts will be particularly severe in railroad towns with many grade crossings, such as Marysville, Auburn and Puyallup. Second, even if Gateway is not built, freight traffic is expected to reach similarly-problematic levels of gate-down delay by 2035 (as shown in the graphic above), simply through secular growth in economic activity and shipping.

One obvious conclusion is that if Washington had a rational state transportation policy, WSDOT would be busy building overpasses and underpasses at high-impact crossings, both in Puget Sound and around the state. We don’t have such a policy, of course, as the pathetic pavement quality on I-5 in King County testifies every time I drive on it, but along with taking a “fix it first” approach to highways, a sensible statewide transportation policy would include a grant fund to help localities pay for grade-separation projects needed to keep their roads working.

PSRC has helpfully studied all the crossings in our region, and identified 34 high-priority individual grade-separation projects, at $50-$200 million apiece. This would be a great list for the state and region to start working on, but I’d like to see a little more ambition in certain areas. Between Everett and Marysville, in particular, the existing BNSF trackage is characterized by tight curves, extremely old bridges, and an extraordinary number of grade crossings, all of which impose frustrating speed limits on passenger trains, and degrade the safety and quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods. A real commitment to the state rail network might include replacing that section of track with new river crossings and full elevation through Marysville.

Extreme Link Excuse of the Week: Hydroplane Races and Blue Angels

hydroplane racesA new tradition started back in 2009, when Seafair started having free shuttle buses between Columbia City Station and the entrance to the paid viewing area for the hydroplane races at Genesee Park, which also happens to be a great place to simultaneously watch the Blue Angels airshow.

The hydroplane races and airshow take place this Friday through Sunday. The free shuttle buses will run from 7 am to 6 pm Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

You can also now ride King County Metro route 50 from West Seattle all the way to Genesee Park. Route 50 connects to Link at Othello Station, Columbia City Station, and SODO Station. If you miss the last shuttle bus, just take route 50 back to Link, in either direction.

Past Link Excuses of the Week are here.

Streetcars: A Momentary Lapse of Reason

Bus stop in Ballard, 2006

There’s something about modern streetcars that causes people — many of whom have sensible things to say about transit, and some of whom I know personally and respect greatly — to start spouting peculiar and contorted arguments in favor of building more of them. The last few days have brought a couple of new entries in this genre: this defense of slower-than-walking streetcars from New Urbanist writer Robert Steuteville, and this Seattle-focused post from Scott Bonjukian.

For a thorough and fair parsing of those arguments, this (sadly anonymous) letter written to Jarrett Walker makes excellent reading, but the denouement deserves to be carved onto the wall of Seattle City Hall (emphasis mine):

If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don’t particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we’ll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead “game changing” fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and “place mobility,” but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.

So far I’ve hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don’t want to alienate any friends, but I’m increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple “technograndiosity.” At the end of the day, I’d rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.

Fortunately for me, upsetting the orthodoxy of my follow urbanists will not hurt my career, but I hope, for the sake of America’s younger cities, that the writer will not have to silently endure for too many more years. The primary public policy problem of teeming, traffic-strangled West Coast cities like Seattle is to keep buses moving while we build out fast, high-capacity systems, permanently endowed with their own right-of-way. Streetcars — especially of the short-line, not-very-frequent variety we’ve built in Seattle — do not meaningfully bear on that goal, and it pains me to tally all the money that is misspent in building them, and the effort misplaced justifying and defending them.


Monorail Initiative Qualifies for Ballot

The Century Transportation Authority has gathered the requisite signatures to put an initiative on the fall ballot for a $5 car tab fee to plan a monorail route between Ballard and West Seattle. Oran detailed the proposed route over two years ago.

We may have a few qualms with Sound Transit, but creating yet another agency to build a transit line using a different technology is problematic, to say the least. It would make more sense to use the city’s taxing authority to accelerate light rail to more neighborhoods.

The best case here is that any attention this measure draws will send yet another signal to Sound Transit, SDOT and the state legislature that there is a huge demand for high-capacity rapid transit within Seattle, and transit-strapped residents aren’t interested in waiting decades for it to materialize. This new monorail’s promised opening date of 2019 is probably fantasy, but it may resonate with some voters who want transit relief and want it yesterday.

More likely, though, it will simply confuse and frustrate people while setting real transit back a decade or more.

Airport Transit Rankings – How Does Link Stack Up?

Link at SeaTac/Airport Station

Arriving at an unfamiliar airport, you see multitudes of signs directing you towards taxis, shuttles and public transit.  So many questions arise: Which should you take?  Do I have enough time to take transit?  The answers to these questions vary widely depending on the airport.  There is a lively and valuable debate over the priority, value and social equity of airport transit links.  However, this post is from the point of view of a traveler, ranking the transport options between the world’s 50 largest airports and their central city by comparing the best transit alternative to a taxi.  After traveling a fair amount in the past few years, I wanted to compare transit outcomes for travelers and identify the best practices.

Airport Transit Graph

Transit Service Type Transit Time Penalty* (Minutes) Average Frequency (Minutes)
Airport Express Rail 3 17
Subway/Metro 15 8
Light Rail 16 11
Regional Rail 18 24
Seattle (Link) 21 10
Express Bus 25 32
Bus 50 32
Multi-modal 53 17

(*) Time penalty over taxi.  Transit time accounts for waiting and transferring time.

The total travel time required to use airport transit is compared to the uncongested midday travel time of a taxi.  Congested taxi travel times were used for some notoriously clogged cities, such as Jakarta and New York.   The transit time is based on a traveler arriving at the airport (the largest international terminal, to be precise) in midday, and waiting one-half the vehicle frequency for the next ride.  The same method is used to estimate time for any transfers, including any shuttles required to access the transit station.

Seattle offers Sound Transit Link light rail service between Sea-Tac Airport and downtown Seattle.  It performs in the middle of the pack (31st out of 50) on the transit time penalty, but much better on frequency (tied for 10th out of 50).  Link is in the ball park for light rail airport service, although a bit on the slow side compared to the taxi alternative.   Light rail and subway systems can offer much better frequencies than the other types of airport transit because they pool demand from a variety of high-demand, all-day sources.  As an extra bonus, although not accounted for in the rankings, a variety of destinations in the metro area can be reached as frequently from the airport as downtown.  Dedicated airport transit services, even at the largest airports, don’t generate sufficient ridership for sub-10 minute frequencies.  In that aspect, Seattle is blessed that its airport is along a natural corridor of transit demand.

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Torchlight Parade Re-routes and Shuttle from Queen Anne

Members of the 1000+ Chinese drill team, the only one of its kind in the US

Members of the 1000+ Chinese drill team, the only one of its kind in the US

Just when you thought it was safe to travel again, the Seafair Torchlight Parade has arrived. Yes, 4th Ave will be closed all evening from 3:30 pm to 10 pm, and 38 34 bus routes will be re-routed. These include routes C, D, E, 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, 21, 24, 26, 28, 33, 36, 40, 43, 47, 49, 66, 70, 99, 120, 125, 131, 132, and ST Express routes 512, 522, 545, and 554, 577, 578, and 594.

Metro will also be operating a shuttle every 20 minutes between Nob Hill on Queen Anne, and Queen Anne Ave and Mercer St, by the Seattle Center, from 3:30 pm to midnight, with frequent stops between the termini.

For those wishing to get across the parade route, use this nifty little map of all the accessible tunnel corridors throughout downtown. Westlake Station is my favorite shortcut under 4th Ave street closures. You can grab the fold-out version of this map at Westlake Station.

For the unaware, the Torchlight Parade is a big deal. Thousands of spectators claim spots along the street with fold-up chairs hours before the parade. Over 150,000 apectators are expected to show up. Sounders fans, whose game against the LA Galaxy got moved to Monday night, will be showing up in force as World Cup heroes Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin serve as Grand Marshalls. Mariners fans will also get to show up this time, as their game today is at 1 pm, instead of the usual 7 pm.

Downtown Seattle isn’t the only location where Seafair will be stressing the public transit system. Renton River Days will impact 10 bus routes serving downtown Renton, including routes F, 101, 105, 106, 107, 148, 169, 240, 908, and 909.

Metro and Sound Transit each have alert services to which you can subscribe.

Addendum: Sound Transit Express routes 512, 577, 578, and 594 are also on re-route until 10:00 pm downtown.

The Case for Express Cascades Trains

Cascades at Kelso (WSDOT Photo)

Cascades at Kelso (WSDOT Photo)

Until its peak year in 2011, Amtrak Cascades had been an unqualified success story, with strong and growing ridership and ever-higher farebox recovery ratios. It seemed like exceeding 1 million annual passengers and achieving near-profitability was right around the corner.  Well, new challenges have arisen and Cascades has begun to struggle modestly, resulting in a small but growing funding problem.

Despite being showered with nearly $800m in capital money by the 2009 stimulus package, the federal contribution to operational funding was cut in 2013 as mandated by the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008 (PRIIA). In a feat of brilliantly backwards federal thinking, PRIIA committed the feds to divest from the most successful Amtrak lines (corridors under 750 miles) while continuing to fund the least successful (those over 750 miles). Such a mandate placed operational funding primarily in the hands of an even more recalcitrant body, the Washington State Legislature, which has shown little interest in achieving anything beyond what is mandated by the stimulus funding (two more Seattle-Portland trains), much less the Long Range Plan.

Cascades Farebox Recovery

Chart from WSDOT’s 2013 Amtrak Cascades Performance Report

Over the past two years, farebox recovery has fallen from 66% to 59%, with the squeeze coming both from stagnating revenue and operating costs that continue to rise by $1m per year despite no added service. Ridership has declined in each of the past 3 years, albeit modestly, from an all-time high of 848,000 in 2011 to 807,000 last year. The lost ridership can likely be attributed to competition from Bolt Bus in the Seattle, Portland, Bellingham, Vancouver, and Eugene markets, and also from worsened speed and reliability from construction that is intended to address both issues. [Read more...]

Sound Transit Selects BNSF site in Bellevue as Preferred Alternative for Rail Yard

The Sound Transit Board voted yesterday to recommend building a 25-acre rail yard in Bellevue near the Spring District real estate development in the Bel-Red Corridor.

Sound Transit looks to triple their current light rail fleet from 62 to 180, as well as expanding their light-rail system from 16 to 50 miles. Because of the projected growth, a new maintenance facility is needed to go along with the current facility in the Sodo neighborhood, as the latter is expected to reach its full capacity by 2020.

The BNSF site in Bellevue’s Bel-Red corridor west of 120th Avenue NE was among the four sites that Sound Transit narrowed down in the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) completed in May. The other sites considered were in Lynnwood and two other Bellevue locations, with one being adjacent to the SR-520 and the other being a modified version of the BNSF site. Detailed version of the site map for the original BNSF site can be found here.


Courtesy of Sound Transit

Courtesy of Sound Transit

The EIS considered a number of factors to measure the impact that would be left by the new light rail operations base including: noise and vibration; land use; visual and economic impacts; social, neighborhood, and social service impacts; and, impacts to parklands, open spaces, and other natural resources.

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