Link and Metro Meetings

King County Metro is starting the process of planning South End service around Link ahead of whe n Light Rail opens to the airport. Sound Transit and King County Metro are looking for meeting members to help plan the process. I know Sims was talking about using McCellan/Mt Baker station as a transit hub for buses through that area, and I would bet that something similar is being planned for Tukwila.
The requirements for members:

The agencies are looking for sounding board members who:

  • Ride the bus frequently;
  • Live or work in an area that will be served by light rail; or
  • Would like to represent a specific community, ethnic group, or set of special-interest bus riders – such as students, night-shift workers, and people who are elderly or have disabilities.

Should be good. If you live in the Rainer Valley, Tukwila or Beacon Hill and ride the bus often, I’m sure they’d love to have you.

More Seattle Fantasy Map

Reader Mark Bardwell pointed me to this awesome forum thread full of post-ST2 fantasy maps for our area. Mark’s maps are here. I wanted to link to the images, but that site appears down pretty often. If you see it down, just try back later.

Anyway, I love the maps.

Honolulu Light Rail

Honolulu’s Mayor, Mufi Hanneman, has been pushing for light rail through the area for sometime. But recently attacks have intensified by an anti-rail group, whose website is appropriately named Stop Rail Now. What does Stop Rail Now want? Light Rail to get to the ballot.

Crazy, right?

Unlike many Mainland communities, Honolulu’s transit tax hike was never put to a ballot vote.

“Virtually every other city that has done a rail system since World War II has done a ballot question,” said council member Charles Djou, who opposes the project. “It is highly unusual that Honolulu is moving forward with this rail system without a vote.

“If we don’t put this issue on the ballot, this issue will never be resolved. This project will always be controversial.”

I do hope Honolulu builds the line, and I hope they get it to the airport. But that’s not why I’ve written this post. Here’s my question: are we better off or worse off that we have to vote on light rail?

Without a ballot measure, it would likely be impossible to get a light rail expansion through this year, because enough of the politicians in region are against it. But we likely could have got Prop. 1 through last year without a hitch. Still, there could always be a sense of illegitimacy about light rail that was not voted on. So what do you think?

Sound Transit Tests Link and Buses Sharing Tunnel

Last Friday night, Sound Transit tested Link Light Rail sharing the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel with buses.  Buses and Link will share the tunnel until Link headways and/or extensions eventually re-align bus service to the surface.  Here’s how the test is described in this week’s Sound Transit CEO Corner:

Last Friday evening, after the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel was closed for the weekend, we successfully ran light rail trains and buses together in the tunnel.

This was a significant achievement – the first time ever that trains and buses ran together in the tunnel. Friday’s test was necessary to make sure the tunnel’s signal system works properly, allowing trains and buses to use the tunnel at the same time. The good news is the test showed that the system works very well and trains and buses can both safely occupy the tunnel.

Two light rail trains and nine buses were used in Friday’s test, which took about 90 minutes.

$7 Gasoline in 2010

That’s not a peak oil alarmist or a tree-hugging car-hater. That’s CIBC World Markets, trying to figure out the impacts on the economy.

Hence we must narrow our focus on those Americans where a European style shift in driving habits is currently feasible. People can’t simply abandon their cars if they have no other means of getting around, particularly in terms of getting work. There must be at least a public transport alternative.

As it turns out, roughly 57 million American households that own a vehicle have reasonable access to public transi4, slightly more than half of the number of households who own a vehicle (Chart 11). And applying the 80% vehicle ownership rate seen in Europe to this target group suggests a 10 million reduction in the number of registered vehicles in the US.

Where will this decline come from? The focus is on those who can least afford to operate a car when gasoline costs $7 per gallon. No less than 80% of low income Americans (or roughly 24 million households) with less than $25,000 annual income own a car. With gasoline bills surging to record highs, they will be the first to come off the road.

And presumably, he’s not even considering people that will accept a smaller or more expensive property to move closer to transit.

Meanwhile, in Olympia, increased funding for transit isn’t on the table — not even for buses that could help every jurisdiction in the state. Sound Transit 2, which could be the largest public transit investment in the state’s history, is on a knife edge.

And WSDOT is still talking ($) about $2.6 billion in highway improvements in Skagit County. (hat tip: Wesley Kirkman) The world has changed, but the machine keeps rolling along.

As 78% of real estate agents report clients showing “greater interest in city living”, we have NIMBY opposition to density, denunciation of “social engineering,” and opposition to the one technology — rail — that could support that density, while supporting bus technology subject to the same price pressures as cars.

What reality are these people living in?

Bradford Plummer at TNR says it best:

To put things in perspective, only about 5 percent of Americans used public transit to commute as of 2005, compared with about 50 percent in Japan and Europe, where pricey gas has long been a reality. It’s not clear whether the United States could scale up that quickly by, say, 2012, though it sounds like, among other things, it would be a good idea to get started now.

Get mad.

Via Sullivan.

Inside the Box

On SLU Streetcar

I’ve been thinking about what we can do about really crowded routes like the 15 and 545, where the buses are already articulated and are still absolutely packed, and literally can’t accept any more riders. The headways are already as short as is practicable with a bus in traffic, and it’s not clear that there’s the money to put more buses on anyway.

What if we tore out seats? Yeah, sitting down is more comfortable, but isn’t more standing room preferable to standing with someone’s elbow in your gut? Preferable to not being able to get on it all? Best of all, the cost of something like this is a rounding error compared to the cost of some other capacity increases.

I’ve ridden buses with this configuration in Montreal and Marseille, although I couldn’t find any pictures.

The buses I ride typically aren’t quite as crowded, so what do you guys think? Fewer seats on a selected set of buses?

Tacoma Link photo by Seatrans Flickr Pool contributor Oranviri.

Fanboy Poll Complete

Sound Transit’s unscientific opinion-gathering operation is complete. As we’ve remarked before, these things skew pretty heavily towards those who are heavily invested in transit expansion, or strongly opposed to it. After all, there were 5,661 web responses, and our best estimate is that our humble blog alone has about 1,000-1,500 readers!

Still, there are a few interesting trends, and it’s interesting to see where transit-fan opinion lies on the various questions.

Slide-by-slide commentary:

  • The difference between opinion gathered on the Web and over the phone (slide 10) is easily explainable when you look at the age distribution of each (slide 7). It’s clear that transit advocacy, quite understandably, is largest among the young. With Obama running and boosting youth turnout, that’s a pretty good argument for going to the ballot in 2008.
  • The distribution of voters (slide 8) is somewhat worrisome. The large number of responses from “North King” (Seattle and Shoreline), far out of proportion to its population, shows that enthusiasm in some of the other areas is a little lukewarm.
  • Slides 12-14: everyone’s in favor of the type of service most likely to help them.
  • Slides 15 and 17, a regional breakdown of plan preference, tell an interesting story. The 12-year plan does really well in North and East King, which after all will get pretty much the same benefit in less time. The other counties really want the 20-year plan, because it’s the only way light rail gets anywhere near them.
  • Slide 18. Everybody wants 2008.

I don’t think the others contain much in the way of useful information.

Conclusions? I think it’s pretty clear they should go to the ballot in 2008, as we’ve stated before. Beyond that, things are pretty muddled. I think ST needs to do some scientific polling of the various plans, and also wargame the various lines of attack opponents will use, and figure out both their effectiveness and the effectiveness of the counterarguments.

Basically, the 20-year plan can be attacked as too big and too long, while the 12-year plan can be attacked as Seattle-centric. It’s hard to rebut the kind of provincial thinking that makes the latter an appealing point. The “too big” argument, however, could be argued more effectively than in 2007. First, express the expense in terms of cents per day per household, rather than a meaningless number of billions; secondly, explicitly compare the whole cost of ST2 with the cost of road projects like I-405 widening. The realization of Tacoma residents than they’re paying more for the mobility of Eastside drivers than they would for a regional system should be eye-opening.

Personally, I’d be happy with any of the options. It’s most important just to keep the ball moving downfield.

Another Great Audit

Sound Transit had another solid audit report this week.

The annual financial audit for 2007, conducted by KPMG LLP, found that the agency complied in all material respects with federal program requirements. It found no reportable conditions or material weaknesses involving internal control, and no instances of non-compliance required to be reported under Government Auditing Standards.

Sounds like the kind of administration that we should scrap immediately, and replace with a directly elected board like the squeaky-clean Port of Seattle.

House Passes Emergency Transit Bill

A $1.7 billion emergency transit bill passed the US House or Representatives Thursday by a 322-98 margin (wow). The bill, if it passes the Senate, would provide the money over the next two years to local transit agencies to help offset their increased operating costs. Hopefully King County Metro and the rest of the cash-strapped local agencies can get some of that money.

(Thanks to Gordon Werner for the link!)


lrt cartoon
Cartoon from Yesterday’s Issaquah Reporter

Doug MacDonald has written a series of anti-light rail pieces at Crosscut. You can read the comments where a lot of his arguments are taken apart, so I won’t bother going over it here. But I do want to show this. It’s the text of Resolution 667 from the Washington State Transportation Commission’s Website. The resolution was in 2004. This text in particular is interesting:

WHEREAS, all parties to the 1976 I-90 Memorandum of Agreement have approved an amendment to include Sound Transit as a party to the agreement and to reflect current understandings regarding the future configuration of I-90 that reaffirm the commitment to conversion of the center roadway for use by high capacity transit, specifically:
• High capacity transit operating in the center roadway is the ultimate preferred configuration for I-90;
• Construction of high capacity transit operating in the center roadway should occur as soon as possible; and
• Implementation of high capacity transit should proceed as quickly as possible, depending on the outcome of required studies and on the securing of necessary funding. 

Now check out the signature page:
Ex-Officio Member
Secretary of Transportation

Now MacDonald is hanging out with anti-light rail pro-brt billionaire John Stanton. Just sayin’.

Anti-Rail Signs

Anti-Rail signs on Capitol Hill
STB reader Jacob Langley noticed these oddly anti-rail fliers posted at the Convention Center Bus Tunnel station on the pillars.
Text of the flier:

Want your bus to run more often?

Sound Transit is asking for your opinion on what to do.

They have 2 main options:
-Build more Light-Rail, Trains and Trolleys before the one’s being built now have been finished and tried out. (Have you ever taken or seen how full the South Lake Union Trolley is?) And this would cost us quote a bit of money.
    -Hire a company to plan where the tracks are to be laid
    -People move, tracks don’t
    -Tear down houses, stores, etc.
    -It could be 12 years or it could be 20
-Or They Could Triple or Quadruple the Buses whose routes are already planned out which would not cost us near as much
    -And this could be done in one or two years at the most
Learn ore on this website and you can contact them on this # or E-mail address:

I think it’s kind of funny. I just want to point out the amount of money Sound Transit would ask for couldn’t even come near to doubling bus service. Also, the website’s url is

Note from Ben: The comment period is over anyway.

Way Off

At the Seattle Weekly’s blog, Seattle rocker John Roderick has a “music” post about how much he dislikes Sound Transit. These days it feels like you can’t read a blog without reading something bad about light rail in this region, and even musicians in bands I like are no exception. Anyway, Roderick is way off on a few points:

First, in comparing Portland and Seattle, Roderick says it’s “paternalism” that Sound Transit decided to put link in its own riight-of-way down MLK. He says “unavoidably paternalistic message is that Seattle drivers are too incompetent, stupid or blind to navigate around a gigantic train that runs every fifteen minutes without being crushed beneath its wheels”. Uh, no. The message I received was that Sound Transit didn’t want to put cars right on the place that the train runs every six minutes, because they didn’t want to slow the train down. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard the argument against grade-separation.

Next, Mr Roderick says that the Capitol Hill tunnel project for U-Link “is a design which emphasizes everything that is exactly the opposite of what light-rail is good for… An elegant and effective form of public transit is destined to be an unloved and underused white elephant. If the light rail instead ran down Eastlake Way to the University district it could be built for a hundredth the cost, serve thousands more people, and be built in a tenth the time” There’s no way they could build a light rail line down Eastlike for $10 mn, even the SLU car cost $50 mn. And there’s no way it would serve more people: 40,000 people live with walking distance of the Capitol Hill station, and twice that many more live within a bike ride. Eastlake, on the otherhand, has just 6,000 people live in Eastlake, with few plans to build more housing. And there’s no way an at-grade light rail could connect the U-District and Capitol Hill in just three minutes.

I guess I shouldn’t fault a rockstar for not knowing about transit, but then again…

Welcome New Bloggers

I’d like to welcome two new Bloggers to STB. Eric from Ride the Link, he mixed the great video of the tour of the Sound Transit facilities we went on last month, and John Jensen, the commenter formerly known as rizzuhj.

Light Rail over Columbia River moves forward

A few months ago, we mentioned that that Washington and Oregon state have been considering adding Light Rail over the Columbia River as part of a project to replace the I-5 bridge.

Today the Columbia River Crossing Committee voted to recommend a replacement bridge that includes light rail between Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR.

From the article:

VANCOUVER — Representatives of Oregon and Washington voted Tuesday night to recommend replacing the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River with a new bridge and a light-rail extension to Vancouver, marking a milestone in dealing with a West Coast traffic bottleneck.

Those of you who are interested can find more information about the proposed alignments here.


Good for Virginia Beach.

Two Republican legislators from Virginia Beach have introduced a bill that would extend the light rail system now under construction in Norfolk to within blocks of the Oceanfront.

The legislation was put in by Del. Robert Tata and state Sen. Frank Wagner with little apparent discussion with local elected city leaders.

“It’s time for this to happen, whether they favor it or not,” Tata said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in Olympia, the debate among the Democratic supermajority is not how much to fund Sound Transit, but whether to hobble it with navel-gazing governance reform.

Our Democrats are to the right of Virginia Republicans.

Via The Overhead Wire.

Interesting Read on Amtrak

This man rode Amtrak across the country on Amtrak, and wrote about it. The piece includes some interesting history. It’s worth reading.

Tacoma News Tribune on Transit Expansion

LINK Interior
Image from bgtothen from the Seattle Transit Blog flickr pool.

The big question continues to be whether we’ll get a transit initiative on the ballot this year, and if so, which one. This Tacoma News Tribune editorial has a round up of the situation. The News Tribune doesn’t like the .4% sales tax increase plan, saying it does too little, or the 20-year .5% plan (essentially the same plan from last year’s prop. 1), saying the time frame is just too long. Do they like the .5% 12 year plan? They don’t really say.

I understand that the News Tribune is concerned about the 20-year time frame, and I understand the feeling that the .4% 12 year plan does too little. But is the .5% 12 year plan just right? I don’t live in Tacoma, so I don’t know whether the plan to expand Tacoma Link is popular, though I would guess from the Tacoma Streetcar movement that it is, or whether more Sounder runs are enough to entice them. Sadly, with .5% you can’t get light rail to Tacoma any faster. But if a 20 year proposal is too long, why not think about an acceleration measure a few years later? What else can make them happy?

Metro Fare Increase Talk

Image from bill98117 in the STB flickr pool
Here’s Mike Lindblom of the Seattle Times writing about the budget troubles Metro Transit is facing. It’s the same story recently we’ve been hearing recent, more people are riding the bus because of higher gas prices, but at the same time costs have gone up for transit agencies due to the same rising fuel prices.

Sort of luckily for us, King County Exec Ron Sims has promised not to cut service, but unfortunately, that means we might see either new Transit Now service not materializing or a fare increase.

Service increases scheduled for September are not at risk, said Kevin Desmond, Metro’s general manager. But the extent of future service improvements funded by the Transit Now sales tax could be in question. The plan, approved by voters in 2006, calls for bus rapid-transit service every 10 minutes at peak hours to five corridors: Pacific Highway South, West Seattle, Ballard, Aurora and Overlake, to begin in the 2010s.

A guess canceling a planned service increase is not the same thing as cutting service, but it’s too bad either way.

The article mentions how the other agencies are going to deal with the budget problems.

Closer to home, Kitsap Transit has announced a 25-cent fare increase starting in August, along with cuts to routes that carry fewer than 10 people per hour, and a trim of four administrative jobs. That should cover fuel spikes through 2009, said director Dick Hayes. But he thinks fuel will continue to get more expensive. “The decisions get much harder from here.”

Snohomish County’s Community Transit has made no proposals to change service or fares. The agency will launch its Swift bus rapid-transit line on Highway 99 next year, and still is seeking bids this year for new double-decker commuter buses, spokesman Tom Pearce said.

Sound Transit can cover its fuel gap with reserve funds this year and hasn’t planned for 2009 yet. The spike affects not only its express buses, but the diesel-powered Sounder commuter trains, which carry 28 percent more riders than last year, mainly on its south-end line. “We’re not talking about fare increases or service cuts at this time,” said spokeswoman Linda Robson.

One winner is Pierce Transit, whose fleet runs on compressed natural gas, equivalent to $1.21 per gallon.

Go Pierce Transit!

So what should Transit agencies do? Take the poll below.
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Why BRT Doesn’t Make Sense

Buses are often hailed as the cheaper solution for mass transit. I think there are fundamental flaws in most of the comparisons we see between BRT and rail systems, and that it’s unlikely mainline buses actually make sense in long term planning.

When I say mainline, I mean corridors that will have long term need for transportation. I think Martin’s brought up some great points about what that means – I don’t, for instance, think that we need to build past Redmond at this point, or past Issaquah – we don’t know what is going to happen there in the coming decades, and we don’t have the money to guess. We have some clear centers that are not going to disappear – some are already walkable and dense, like some of Seattle’s neighborhoods, and some are car-centered today, with lots of parking and one-story clusters of development, but ripe for reconstruction to funnel the new growth coming to our region. There’s no “flexibility” argument here, though – urban corridors don’t pack up and move, they never have and they never will. This isn’t a frontier town, this is a major city.

I’m sitting on a bus right now, in stop and go traffic at 9th and Stewart in downtown – so I want to start with the fallacy that building HOV lanes on our freeways is somehow equivalent to building new rail right of way. I think to some, especially to those who use transit already, it’s clear that these are nowhere near the same levels of service. If I head downtown from work, like today, about half of my commute is spent in downtown traffic – a tiny percentage of the overall distance. No matter what we do to SR-520, the 15-20 minutes I spend getting from one end of downtown to the other will not be affected. In order to provide consistent service end to end, we have to build new right of way end to end.

That right of way costs money – lots of money. With a project like University Link, in order to get anything like three minute service from Husky Stadium to the center of Capitol Hill, you’d have to tunnel for buses just as we are for rail. The cost of laying rails in that tunnel is tiny compared to the tunnel itself. You can look at any segment of our light rail system and make similar observations – in the Rainier Valley, we repaved the entire roadway to make space not for trains, per se, but for dedicated right of way. The cost is due mostly to the level of service, not the technology, but that level of service difference is what creates the consistency and reliability that we value in rail systems. When you actually compare the capital cost of a BRT system that provides the same level of service as a light rail system, you find that your right of way costs are exactly the same.

So, you say, you’ve seen capital cost comparisons that meet these requirements, have exactly the same amount of new right of way, but still show BRT being cheaper? Unless they’re in totally different cities or countries with different labor costs and safety requirements, they’re almost always missing one thing – electrification. In this area especially, that’s a big deal. While the cost of oil has doubled in the last couple of years, the cost of our electricity hasn’t. Electrification insulates us from $4.50 per gallon diesel – or $6, or $10. We’re designing a system to last not decades, but hundreds of years – we can’t just shut it down to change over later. But when you electrify, your total cost of construction for rail versus bus is nearly identical – which makes sense, because it’s not any cheaper to lay concrete roadway than to lay rail, and all of your other infrastructure is a product of the level of service, not the technology.

Okay, so what’s the problem? Why are you so hell-bent on building rail if they’re exactly the same, Ben? Two reasons:

First, capacity. Some BRT advocates will tell you that buses can have exactly the same capacity as rail. They’re either uninformed, or they’re lying. Even with double-articulated coaches as in Curitiba, you’re looking at an 85 foot long vehicle with 57 seats. Curitiba claims they can reach 270 passengers – but at the measure of 6 passengers per square meter standing. With half that standing density, 3 passengers per square meter, our light rail cars carry 200 (with 74 seated). If you went by Curitiba standards, we’d carry more than 325 people per car. These cost about the same amount to operate and maintain – for the sake of discussion, about half the operations cost of a vehicle like this is the fuel, and about half the operator, although that now varies a lot more with the high cost of fuel prices, so my comparison gives buses a slight advantage.

But wait – we can tack three more vehicles onto a Link train behind the same operator. If we want to add another bus, that means paying another operator, so Link scales to four car trains at some 5/8 the cost – and a full metro can go much higher, with as many as 12 cars. We can also go down to lower headways than the buses can without affecting service quality – the big limiter is the time taken to board, which is a lot lower for four simultaneous light rail cars than four sequential buses, even when the buses have multiple doors. Rail can also offer a very finely tuned interface between vehicle and platform – on new systems, no ramps or lifts are necessary for wheelchair users.

I’ve already touched on it a bit, but the last reason is long-term cost. A rail vehicle costs more than a bus, but lasts at least proportionally longer – New York City has subway cars well over 50 years old in service today, and recently retired some that were even older. Most buses last ten years, some fifteen. Our Breda coaches in Seattle are now nearly 20 – but that has only been possible after major overhauls. They are nearing the end of their service lives. At the same time, fuel costs for our bus system have doubled, while our electricity prices in the city (I don’t know about you Puget Sound Energy folks) have stayed basically the same.

With any dedicated right of way, ridership is generated largely by the existence of the transportation system. I suspect that this would be the case for true BRT as well, because the factors that generate that ridership have to do more with the pedestrian density generated around stations than with the mode. In the long term I think the immediate space around any system built in any of the Puget Sound urban corridors today will increase in density to the point where the capacity offered by a rail system is absolutely necessary. I think our recent exercise at Reality Check helped make it clear that most of our regional leaders are on the same page in that respect.

Buses are great feeders, but they have no place as a mainline corridor – claims of cost savings are not for equivalent systems and don’t hold up in the long term. If you’re going to build a real transit system, make it rail and do it right.

Eastside Rail Open Houses

The Port of Seattle is holding three open houses about the Eastside rail corridor. The Port is considering different options for the corridor, including feature passenger rail, a bike trail or both.
Wednesday, June 25, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Newport High School Commons
4333 Factoria Blvd., SE, Bellevue

Wednesday, July 9, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Kirkland City Hall, Peter Kirk Room
123 Fifth Avenue, Kirkland

Thursday, July 10, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Kennydale Elementary School Cafeteria
1700 NE 28th, Renton

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