Seattle to use Road Salt During Future Storms

2117701488_6a6dd04290Mayor Greg Nickels has reversed city policy in making it clear that salt may be used during future snow storms. Salt had previously not be used in Seattle due to the real concerns of its environment impact on Puget Sound. Salt, however, is one of the few effective ways to actually expose asphalt during large snowfall.

The mayor set certain conditions for using salt: on hills, arterials or snow bus routes, and on routes to hospitals and other emergency facilities when at least 4 inches of snow is predicted, if ice is predicted, or if extreme cold is expected to last more than three days.

It seems as if these conditions are stringent enough to limit the environmental impact, and we hopefully won’t need to use salt every year. Personally, I am happy to see this change since Seattle city streets being covered with ice made it impossible for Metro to provide effective bus service.

Next Monday we’ll be looking at the performance of our transit agencies during the storm and begin a dialog on some changes to prepare for future storms.

(Photo by Flickr member {Alicia}.)

Viaduct Decision Delayed

Governor Gregoire has delayed making a decision on the Alaskan Way Viaduct until the end of January. She had previously promised to announce a decision on which option would be used by the end of the year. The news was announced in a joint statement with Mayor Nickels and Ron Sims. Apparently, the tunnel option, along with Frank Chopp’s bizarre megaduct, are still on the table. The news makes this Seattle Times editorial look ridiculous.

Both of these would cost more than a surface-transit option, which I support, despite concerns that it could make Western Avenue less friendly for pedestrians. But with the state out of money, I wonder how the extra cost for these more ambitious options would get paid for.

Transportation in the Gov’s Budget

srx chris gregoireHere are some highlights – or mostly lowlights - from the transportation section of the Governor’s budget proposal put together earlier in the month. The budget is “balanced” for the next six years, which means that given projected revenue and planned spending, the budget will not require more cuts or increases for each of the next three two year (biennium) periods. The numbers aren’t pretty for that six-year period or the following biennium (2015-2017), where there’s a $850 million shortfall.

This budget will be brought to the legislature, who will make a fair number of changes before sending this back to the governor to sign into law. So don’t take the list below as guaranteed, though it portends of the cuts to come. I wonder how much this will resemble what does get through the legislature, and I hope the few bright spots, shown below, don’t get hacked out of it.

This budget is horrific. Funding for the Point Defiance Bypass is pushed way out, since it’s not in any budget through 2015. That project was already underfunded by $15 million, and now it could be underfunded by $50 million. This means there won’t be Sounder service to Lakewood for at least that long. The Vancouver Rail Bypass is also absent from the budget. The ferry budget is only balanced for 2009-2011, and even that that’s with service reductions and fare increases. After that ferry budget shortfalls reappear in the 2011-13 biennium, and in the 2013-2015 biennium.

There is a massive $30 million, or 43%, cut to the  Regional Mobility Grant Program. These grants are used mostly to fund park and rides and rush-hour transit service. Projects like Community Transit’s SWIFT get most of their capital funding from these grants and the South Lake Union streetcar also got a sizable contribution from this program. A 43% cut to this program is essentially a 43% cut in the state’s contribution to transit capital improvements.

Gory details below the fold.

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Don’t Do Anything (Yet)

 Streetcar_in_the_snow
If you have gone to a blog or opened a newspaper over the past few weeks, it’s been hard to avoid articles like this calling for huge amounts of money to be spent on snow plows and salt so the next time we have a massive snow storm we won’t be snowbound for a week or more at a time. My advice for Sims, Nickels et al is: Don’t listen to these people! At least not yet! This kind of snowpacolypse happens once every fifteen or twenty years. It’s not worth the investment, especially not an rushed, reactionary spending spree. If the city or county runs out and does that, in ten years those same people will be slamming the city or county for wasting money on snow plows that never get used. Sure the response could have been better, but these people are over-reacting when they say we need some massive overhaul.

News Roundup: Stimulus, Stimulus, Stimulus

Crowded Westlake
I don’t have time to write a real post on the stimulus, but here’s some noise from around the internet.

  • Thomas Friedman took a trip to China and is depressed at the state of our transportation infrastructure. Going abroad is usually the best way to notice just how bad it’s become here. Friedman also wants to raise the gas tax, which I think is a great idea with gas prices so low; average gallon price across the county is now less than half of its peak a few months ago. The money could be used to pay for alternative energy projects, or even just pay for the stimulus package.
  • Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman wants the stimulus money given to states, arguing that an increase in federal spending won’t do much if it’s accompanied by a matching decrease in state spending. The states do need some help with medicaid and budget gaps – our state government is going to have to cut $5 billion – but I would be very disappointed if the final call for infrastructure spending ends up going through the state capitols first. As Erica Barnett points out, to states, “infrastructure” means roads.
  • At the same time, some members of Congress are pushing to increase mass transit’s share of the stimulus cash. James Oberstar, who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wants to increase the transit share for the $85 billion or so that will be spent on transportation in the stimulus package. Chuck Schumer wants $20 billion for MTA in his state, and John Kerry has been calling for spending on high-speed rail.
  • Capitol Hill is getting set for light rail construction to start.
  • Light Rail openned in Phoenix over the weekend, and things went smoothly. I look forward to the same thing happening this summer.

I am less worried that the stimulus money will all go to highway projects than I was last time I wrote about the topic. The $12 billion number the Oberstar article states could be spent on transit would be a massive increase, since currently only about $2 billion a year is spent on by the FTA capital projects. For a comparison, the capital costs of all light rail in Prop. 1 package passed in November was about $7 billion. Still, there’s no way to know how much will get spent here, so it’s worth letting your congressional delegation know that you want transit in the stimulus package.

Photo by Oran, from the STB flickr pool.

Follow-up: Partial Holiday Service

Now that we’ve all had a chance to vent about it, I chatted with Metro’s Linda Thielke about this week’s surprise cutbacks in service.

Our speculation about causes was basically correct.  As a cost-cutting measure in 2009, Metro was going to cut back during the last week of the year, when ridership is historically pretty low.

With the beating the buses took last week, though, it was clear they were going to need to pause at some point soon.  Given that this is one of the lower-ridership weeks of the year, they decided to bring the change forward to 2008, despite the short notice.

Frankly, I would have made the same decision.  Unfortunately, the announcement was largely lost in the hoopla about the snowstorm.  Although I think they could have done a better job giving it prominent play on the Metro website, it turns out the changes were announced as early as Dec. 23.  Part of the problem, of course, is that a lot people gave up on riding the bus last week and so didn’t have the opportunity to see the alerts.

A timeline of the news releases that Ms. Thielke made is below the jump.  Part of the blame, as always, falls on our local media, who mostly chose sensationalism about the storm over information readers and viewers could have actually used.  But I still wish Metro had thought to pass it on to lesser outlets like The Stranger and STB, who reach fewer people but do a good job of covering transit information for people truly dependent on the bus.

As for me, I wish I’d taken the time to poke around the Metro site last week, while snowed in.  My apologies to the readership.

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Metro: Screw it, we’re not running this week

Erica Barnett is already all over this, but Metro’s decided to operate on a “partial holiday” schedule from December 29-31st, as well as January 2.   Check your route schedule; if it says it doesn’t run December 26, there’s no service any of these four days either;  if certain trips are marked with “H”, those won’t run till January 5.

Apparently, sometime between the time they printed the schedules and now, Metro decided to just declare the whole New Year’s week as a partial holiday.

This is probably either related to Metro’s budget problems or a maintenance backlog after the storm, but last-minute service changes for no self-evident reason are going to leave a fair number of customers standing around wondering where their bus is.

Worse yet, we’re usually on the distribution list for news releases from Metro, but we certainly didn’t receive any notice of this decision.  If the dailies heard about it, they certainly didn’t print it, and indeed, as late as yesterday it wasn’t prominently displayed on the Metro website.  This is a pretty crummy way for Metro to do business, and one of the better reasons to make sure you own a car or bike when living in the Puget Sound.

UPDATE: In fairness, I should point out that ST is deviating slightly from their printed Sounder holiday plans by moving Dec. 31 to a holiday schedule.  However, they managed to get the information out more than a day beforehand.

ST Express buses and Tacoma LINK are unaffected by all of this.

Colorado Railcar Gone: What is next?

With the sudden end to Colorado Railcar Manufacturing LLC, announced on December 23rd, 2008, left a huge hole in a unique market; The end of the only Ultra Dome passenger cars and the end of the only known FRA-Compliant Diesel-Multiple-Unit.

The rest after the jump
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News Roundup

Not much going on today!

  • The California High-Speed Rail project thinks they’re going to get some of that stimulus dough – maybe $15 to $20 billion.  Good.
  • In what reads like an extended real estate ad, the Seattle Times notes that Northgate is growing up.
  • Gov. Gregoire is supposed to decide on the Viaduct by Jan. 1, and the lobbying is in full force.
  • Weather is bad, Metro in disarray, blah blah blah.
  • 18 volunteers from my neighborhood shoveled out perhaps a quarter mile of a hilly side street this afternoon.  Self-reliance, people.

I would like to know what the hell is still wrong with the Streetcar.

UPDATE: We have numerous reports in the comments that the Streetcar is running, but on Saturday morning the Metro website still reports it as down.  In a way that’s almost worse.

UPDATE 2: As of 1 PM the Streetcar is no longer reported as out of service.

More Obama Panic

Bloomberg is reporting the sample of state stimulus plans publicly released are roads-heavy.  While that’s bad news, it shouldn’t be surprising at all:

Missouri’s plan to spend $750 million in federal money on highways and nothing on mass transit in St. Louis doesn’t square with President-elect Barack Obama’s vision for a revolutionary re-engineering of the nation’s infrastructure.

Utah would pour 87 percent of the funds it may receive in a new economic stimulus bill into new road capacity. Arizona would spend $869 million of its $1.2 billion wish list on highways.

As Matt Yglesias has pointed out, this is not shocking because most state constitutions are structured to limit the power of the major metropolitan areas.  Just imagine what would happen if the stimulus check were simply handed over to Olympia!

This bears watching, but I’d say it’d be most productive to make sure that our Congressmen and Senators know that we want a lot of the money delivered straight to the city and county level.  As our very own mayor is quoted in this Washington Post article:

In Seattle, Mayor Greg Nickels said that the list of projects submitted by Washington state included only one in Seattle, for a ferry dock, while the city has ambitious hopes for removing a hulking highway ramp in a revitalized neighborhood and accelerating a light-rail expansion.

“Metro areas really are the engines of the economy, and to the extent that this can go directly to the metro areas rather than a cumbersome state process, it will have more effect,” Nickels said. “States can do a nice job in rural counties, but in metro areas it’s not always a good relationship or very nimble.”

As it stands, Congress, wanting to keep things simple, plans to disburse the money under existing formulas — funding for roads and bridges will go to state governments, while money for public transit will go to the local agencies that receive transit funding.

Image from Wikimedia.

Christmas Thread

Via Oran, KOMO has posted some video of a 1987 news segment that, in turn, shows some transportation-related video from the 1920s through 1960s.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Crazy Ideas Department

If you’re able-bodied and getting stir-crazy at home, consider doing what the city won’t and shovel a patch of road, a bus turnout, or other useful piece of infrastructure. I was able to do about 12-lane feet in an hour with a mediocre shovel, so in a sufficiently dense neighborhood, some collective action could actually make an appreciable difference in a particularly difficult spot, such as a steep hill.

Something like this is more productive than yet another round of Grand Theft Auto, and helps dispel our rep as a bunch of liberals waiting around for big government to help us.

My Christmas Present for Ben

Capitol Hill electric trolley, circa 1903
15th and Aloha, 1903. I grew up four blocks from here, 80 years later.
Check out this amazing flickr set from the “Seattle Municipal Archives“. At least we’re getting a Pine Street Subway, only 90 years later:
Proposed Pine Street subway, 1920

Merry Christmas.

Tacoma Streetcar on the Slow Path

For those of you tired of talking about the snow, Dan Voelpel of the Tacoma News-Tribune wrote a thoughtful column lamenting the way in which local leadership is allowing the Streetcar expansion to spend several years in planning stages:

Meanwhile, here in Tacoma, the movement to install an expanded streetcar network inexplicably hasn’t generated the sense of urgency nor the momentum among our leaders to put it on a fast track to reality.

Even though it already won the seed money: $79.55 million for building the track and $3.7 million more to buy the streetcars…

Not only that. Sound Transit front-loaded the proposition in Tacoma’s favor. The 15-year transit expansion package gives early dibs on the available money pool beginning next year to Tacoma. That concession came because Sound Transit already has done some preliminary planning to extend the 1.7-mile downtown Link in both directions – past Freighthouse Square to the Puyallup Tribe’s Emerald Queen Casino and north through the Stadium District to Tacoma General Hospital

Realistically then, on that snail’s pace, Tacoma probably wouldn’t see construction start on a streetcar network until late 2012.

“I don’t understand it,” said Morgan Alexander, founder and executive director of Tacoma Streetcar, a grass-roots organization devoted to building public support for connecting Tacoma’s business districts with streetcars.

“I think (the planning) could be done affordably and quickly, so we could get a shovel in the ground by the end of 2009,” he said.

Voelpel goes on to list the decisions that have to be made before they start moving earth, and proposes a set of choices that would get things moving.

He’s right, of course, that an extended planning phase is asking for trouble.  These things always take longer than planned because someone, somewhere, will file a lawsuit.

Furthermore, it’s nice to see a columnist in a local daily newspaper whose transportation opinions aren’t transparently motivated by their status as an SOV driver on Mercer Island.

Tacoma readers: what do you think of Voelpel’s solution?

(H/T: Gordon Werner)

Image by Oran in the STB Flickr Pool.

Thank God For Walkable Neighborhoods

Snow, cars
My cars aren’t going anywhere. 

With Snowpacolypse possibly continuing until after Christmas, getting around by car is still looking like trouble. I made the mistake of driving on Saturday, and even my new Subaru couldn’t really handly the snow. I hit an ice patch, ran the car into the curb, and messed up the alignment. My bus route to work has been cancelled, so I’ve been working from home, but I’ve still needed to get food, diapers and water for me and my family. This Seattle Times article suggests I’m not alone in visiting neighborhood shops.

Good thing I live in a walkable neighborhood. My address gets a perfect 100 from Walkscore, and that has made such a difference over the course of Snowpacolypse. I’ve got four supermarkets, four drugs stores and dozens of take-away restaurants to get everything I need. I have even been able to get my Christmas shopping done on the Ave.

Anyone else been snowbound at home with no transport to work? Glad to live in a walkable neighborhood? Wish you did? Think I’m a wimp for not driving a four-wheel drive car? Let me know in the comments.

Transit User’s Christmas List

 Holiday trolley, 2002

With today the last “shopping day” before Christmas, I was thinking what the best gifts for transit users would be. I don’t mean conceptual presents, like streets clear of snow so we can get around, or a transit system that runs on time; I’m thinking about what items every transit user can use and would make a good gift. These items came to my mind quickly:

  • MP3 player.  Everyone likes i-Pods, though I like my Zune because it has the radio and a subscription service.
  • Books or even an eBook reader. I love to read on the bus, though an eBook reader may be too nerder even for me.
  • Gloves or an umbrella. Perfect for Seattle riders.
  • A backpack or messenger bag. For carrying all of the above.

Anything else come to mind?

Amtrak Cascades is running again

Amtrak Cascades is back and running and doing well so far!

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Tuesday’s Snowpocalypse Open Thread

img_0037Another day of terrible transportation news. The roads are icy, the airport is just sorting out things, and transit is not very reliable:

The snow was cool until it made me miss Christmas with my family…

News Round-Up

Bellevue Buses in snow
Image by Oran via the STB flickr pool.

I hope you’re holding up. I’m, personally, getting a little stir crazy locked at home. With a sick newborn at home, I’m on a short leash.

VMT Going Down

C Burger in the comments mentions this Brookings Institute study that says Vehicle-Miles-Travelled (VMT) by driving plateaued in 2004 and has fallen since. The decline is likely caused by urbanization and by rising gas prices.
In the accompaning video, Brooking’s Fellow Robert Puentes has policy some policy advice:
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