Tipping Point

A month or so ago, I couldn’t help but feel that our nation was approaching a sort of transportation tipping point, where the momentum was finally moving in the direction of re-envisioning person transportation from meaning just cars and airplanes. It was hard not to, with most transit measures passing nationwide, and the California High Speed Rail Proposition passing as well. I was worried a bit, though, with the House passing a $14 billion bailout that our leaders weren’t necessarily paying attention. The Senate seems to be set to stall the bill, but probably not because they feel the changing winds.
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Suburban Revival Story

Wednesday’s “All Things Considered” on NPR had a piece about a suburban revival transforming a DC suburb called Tysons Corner. Tysons Corner was developed from farms about forty years ago into a sprawling, car-oriented suburban nightmare, and with DC MetroRail planned through that area, urban planners are working to reinvent it. This description of driving around the area (about 3 minutes in) reminds me of the sort of places in our area I really hate, particularly Southcenter.

The whole story in general reminds me of Downtown Bellevue, which was never quite the suburban nightmare as Tysons Corner, but has been transforming into a proper city for the past few decades. Well, at least the downtown is transforming. I think that Link could have a similar effect on communities in our region, though I wonder which stations are going to transform the immediate area. Lynnwood, Tukwila, Northgate? Which areas do you think will be most re-invented by Light Rail?

First Major U-Link Contract on the Cheap

As we discussed in early August the downturn in the economy can have a silver lining: More contractors available for major construction projects like transit, and competition means that it can be cheaper to build a system. This is turning out to be true for the U-Link light rail extension which had its first major contact be rewarded to a bidder that was 34% below ST’s estimate:

The University Link light rail extension moved closer to construction today as six bids on the first major construction contract came in below cost estimates. Condon Johnson & Associates, Inc. is the apparent low bidder with a $19.4 million bid to prepare the area where a tunnel boring machine will pass beneath Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle, with a bid 34 percent below the $29.6 million engineers’ estimate.

That’s more than a $10 million difference and hopefully bodes well for the rest of U-Link. What remains to be seen is how Obama’s upcoming infrastructure plan will affect demand of contractors capable of major projects, such as light rail expansion.

Full press release after the jump.

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ST Releases Third Quarter Ridership Numbers

Just as transit ridership soars across the country, we see local numbers explode as well.

Sound Transit bus and train ridership continued to climb during the third quarter, with total boardings increasing by 21 percent compared with the same period last year. Normally, transit boardings decline during the summer compared with the other seasons, but the highest year-to-date monthly ridership was recorded in July, when average weekday boardings exceeded 60,000. Mid-summer gasoline prices that averaged over $4 per gallon clearly contributed towards this surge. Since that time, average weekday boardings have dipped slightly but are still much higher than one year ago. All service modes are experiencing growth, including Tacoma Link.

Thus far, the economic downturn has not significantly affected Sound Transit ridership growth, and recent monthly boarding totals are holding up well, especially considering the large drop in gasoline prices that started in late September. Bus overcrowding continues to be a serious issue, but there is evidence that the severity of the problem has eased somewhat during the months of September and October with fewer reports of crush loading and pass-up conditions.

ST 3rd Quarter Ridership

You can read the full ridership report on the ST website. Overcrowded buses should be eased next year as the 100,000 service hour increase funded by Sound Transit 2 (aka Prop. 1) goes into effect.

Transit Ridership Continues to Grow

A story in yesterday’s Washington Post indicated that transit use continues to grow across the country, with the 6.5% growth from June to September breaking records:

Americans rode subways, buses and commuter railroads in record numbers in the third quarter of this year, even as gas prices dropped and unemployment rose. The 6.5 percent jump in transit ridership over the same period last year marks the largest quarterly increase in public transportation ridership in 25 years, according to a survey to be released today by the American Public Transportation Association.

Ridership growth began hitting record levels last year and continued through the first and second quarters of this year, spurred in large part by gasoline prices that topped $4 a gallon in July, the industry group said. But the third-quarter increase is notable, it said, because gas prices began falling and unemployment rose, trends that tend to drive ridership down.

As the economy continues to sour, it can become more appealing for those with easy access to transit to leave their keys at home or, even more, finally sell that car. A common theme you see in stories like this is that people try transit because of hardship — like the high gas prices that struck last summer — and end up deciding that they prefer this new, less car dependent lifestyle.

Op-ed: High Speed Rail – Seattle to Portland


Our economy is in shambles, infrastructure rotting away, global warming hanging over our heads and $5 or $10 a gallon gasoline not far off again. Sounds pretty gloomy, but soon, Congress will enact a stimulus-funding package to bootstrap our economy out of the doldrums.  The question is:  What do we do with the money?

It has to be for “projects ready to go”, and will likely be for only a 2 year period. Why not spend a large chunk of Washington State’s share of the pie on working towards high-speed rail, along the I-5 corridor, between Bellingham and Portland?

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Prop. 1 Precinct Maps

STB super-illustrator Oranviri has done it again.

Raw data here.

Some random comments:

  • Yes, the maps have the proposed Sound Move stations, not the actual Central Link or ST2.  Get over it.
  • You can compare this map with a 1999 median income map for kicks.
  • Given his constituency, Mayor Nickels was pretty smart to get out in front on ST2.
  • That huge blue block in the Southwest corner is Fort Lewis.  People that live on base pay no sales tax at the PX, and many have experience of other metro areas. (?)
  • We knew this already, but Aaron Reardon, Deanna Dawson, and Paul Roberts really delivered Snohomish County.

What do you learn from this?  Share in the comments.

Seattle Streetcar Expansion Passes City Council

The full Seattle City Council has approved the streetcar expansion plan that the Transportation Committee passed last week. According to those viewing online, the council passed a resolution supporting the expansion plans 6-3 after a spirited debate about alignment and funding. (We don’t yet on information on how each council member voted.)

The plan instructs the city to move forward with plans for four additional streetcar lines on top of the South Lake Union Streetcar: a Central Line along 1st Ave, a First Hill Line connecting Capitol Hill to the ID, a Fremont/Ballard Line, and an extension of the SLU Streetcar to the University District.

You can read the full resolution text online. In the resolution, the council states its desire for a Downtown connection between the SLU and the First Hill lines. The council also makes clear that it would like to prioritize the development of the First Hill and Central lines — certainly because the First Hill line was funded by Sound Transit’s Prop. 1 which passed last month and the Central Line is a likely candidate for state funds when a Viaduct replacement is chosen. The resolution does not contain any funding and for that reason actual construction of and funding for a given project would require further council approval.

The SLU line took just under over four years to move from concept to reality.

Welcome Hinano Smith

Second child born to a STB blogger, she was born Friday at 9am, 7 lbs, 12 oz.

She’ll never know a city without light rail.

Congrats, Andrew.


From President-Elect Obama’s weekly address today:

Second, we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it . If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money .

Emphasis mine.  Good policy?  Sure.  But let’s just say that our 4 layers of local government and local-planning-by-ballot-measure may not hold up too well under these sorts of constraints.

No one tell the NIMBYs when the meetings are this time…

Image: Jon Lok, Seattle Times

UPDATE: It seems Brad at Seattlest made almost exactly the same point a few hours before I did.  Great minds think alike, I guess.

Weekend Thread

  • It’s becoming clear that the very pro-transit Mayor of Seattle, Greg Nickels, will seek a third term in office next November. The mayor did a great job working for Sound Transit 2, and the election could prove a good opportunity for streetcar and urban design fanatics like ourselves to put some additional pressure on the mayor. Now how about Ron Sims vs. Larry Phillips for King County Executive?
  • On Wednesday, there will be a meeting at Seattle Central Community College regarding construction for the Capitol Hill light rail station. Construction is set to begin early next year.
  • The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for East Link (light rail from downtown Seattle to Overlake) has been finished and posted to the web. This wonky set of documents is the first major step toward engineering a project and getting federal funds.
  • Mark B, a reader, has sent in a set of conceptual transportation maps he found on the Puget Sound Regional Council’s website. What do you think Seattle’s transit will look like in 2040?

So what’s $3 million?

I just want to point something out here. This is barely worth a post, but I don’t think anyone’s considered the cost-benefit perspective here.

King County has or will spend something over a hundred million dollars replacing and upgrading their computer systems, if I’m not mistaken. The state Department of Revenue might be smaller than the county, but let’s consider what the alternatives actually are here.

The state collects billions in revenue each year. To replace that computer system would likely mean buying an entirely new system, running them both in parallel and cross-checking the results of any number of different types of collection by hand – and this for at least a year. Such a contract could be astronomical in cost – and during a time when the state needs to cut costs by five or six billion dollars.

So, three million dollars? While it sounds like a lot, I think having this happen and then repaying it is likely much cheaper for everyone.

More Viaduct Reports

A handful of new reports regarding the Viaduct replacement options have been released. Yesterday the Times covered two reports regarding the urban design and open space aspects of all the designs.

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Sound Move MVET Charged Outside of ST District

The 0.3% MVET that Sound Transit collects when registering vehicle tabs was accidentally collected for those living just outside of the Sound Transit district, the P-I reports:

More than $3 million in Sound Transit motor-vehicle excise taxes was wrongly collected from about 95,000 vehicle owners who lived outside the agency’s taxing district due to shortcomings of a computer program at a state agency, court testimony shows.

The taxes, which will be returned in the form of refunds, were collected between June 30, 2005, and July 1 of this year, according to court testimony by Sound Transit’s Chief Financial Officer Brian McCartan.

This is truly an embarrassing and unfortunate situation for Sound Transit to find itself in. To be clear, though, state agencies like the Department of Revenue and Department of Licensing are the ones who collect these taxes and presumably determine who should pay them — not ST. Sound Transit’s mission is to build transit and not collect taxes, after-all. All agencies at this point, however, should be working together to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future. I’m glad everyone seems to be moving forward quickly with a refund to those who were wrongly charged the MVET.

Silver lining? Not to be flippant, but thank goodness this didn’t break before the election!

Ads in the Transit Tunnel

Apparently someone in Metro has heard the cry for more advertising, because they have announced the introduction of paid advertising in the Downtown Tunnel. The ads have been up all week, but I haven’t had a chance to snap a photo. If you look at the amount of money they will be getting, it’s obvious that it’s worth it: $30,000 for a single station for a single month.

What do you think of the ads? Pics and a correction below the fold.

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Washington Ferry System – Part 1

Photo by Brian Bundridge – M/V Walla Walla departing Edmonds

With many projects coming up, such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the 6-month closure of the Hood Canal Bridge, and replacement of SR-520 floating bridge – not to mention the rest of the 277 state-wide projects on the list of things to do, it comes as no surprise that there is still a huge hole in our transportation system even with our excellent bus, heavy and upcoming light-rail. Some may be pondering what exactly I am talking about – we have buses, we have rail, we have decent roads and an improving ferry system. This is all true but more can be done and needs to be done, starting with the ferry system.

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SF’s Streetcar Lessons

Monorail and Streetcar: Past, Present, and Future

Streetcar and Monoral, by Oranviri

SLU Streetcar and Monorail, by Oranviri, via the STB flickr pool
A lot of people say that streetcars are really most useful if they are traffic-separated, unlike the SLUT which generally runs in lanes shared with traffic. I’d say they are still useful even in shared lanes, but I want to show an example of how, over time, streetcar systems can develop into traffic separated and even grade-separated transit. San Francisco’s Muni Metro has developed from a streetcar network to a hybrid system that has a mix of shared-lanes, at-grade but traffic-separated lanes, and even fully grade-separated routing.
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This column from Donald Padelford of the CETA is the sort of thing I had hoped we wouldn’t have to ready anymore after Prop. 1 passed. He’s pushing BRT and HOT, which is not the problem with the piece. The problem is that he criticises light rail for being light rail and its supporters for being vain. And something about world class that seems really trite.

My advice for those pushing for BRT over light rail in our region: We’re getting light rail, so stop complaining about it. It’s over, you lost. If you want to get BRT and HOT built, first come up with a plan, get some supporters and make friends who those inclined to agree with you. Don’t call us vain and tell us our efforts are a waste of time, or else you’ll ensure your efforts are.

City Council Panel Approves Streetcar Plan


Seattle’s City Council’s Transportation committee approved a streetcar expansion plan in a 4 to 2 vote today. A full council vote is expected for next week. Four lines in total were approved, the First Hill Line, the Central Line, a Ballard line and a University District Line. The two streetcar lines fast-tracked are the First Hill Line, which has had $120 million in funding approved as part of ST2 that passed last month, and the Central Line, which is meant to be a part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct construction mitigation. The Central Line will replace the defunct Waterfront Streetcar line, which will finally be removed during viaduct construction.

The First Hill line would run from the Pioneer Square or ID tunnel station up Jackson to around Broadway, turn north and follow Broadway up to either John or Aloha. The Central Line would follow First Ave from the Pioneer Square station to about Mercer street. Neither alignment is fixed, and there are groups pushing to change both plans. Some in First Hill want that line moved further west, since it was meant as a replacement for a First Hill subway station, and some along First Avenue don’t like that alignment for the Central Line, believing it would worsen traffic and remove parking along the street.

The vote also approved an extension of the SLU line on Eastlake to the University District, and a line to Ballard either on 15th Avenue or along Westlake through Fremont. Those two lines are not fast tracked. It’s worth noting that there is no funding for either of these lines, and that funding for the Central Line as part of the viaduct replacement is not definite, though the rumor is that WSDOT will fund it.

Since these routes can be built pretty quickly, both the Central Line and the First Hill line could open by 2012 or possibly sooner. Many in the city want the First Hill line to open much sooner than the funding is scheduled to come on line from ST2 – which allocates funding for the line around 2016 -since construction on the Capitol Hill station is going to disrupt life on Broadway, and bringing the streetcar there could make life a little easier. Final engineering for the First Hill line should be done by February 2009.

The two dissenters on this vote were Nick Licata and Richard McIver. Tom Rassmussen, who is not on the transportation panel, is likely to vote ‘no’ as well, and has a competing plan that he will bring to the full council along with Licata. One of the other two members not on the committee would need to vote yes in order to approve the streetcars in a full council vote.
Image from caseysail, via the STB flickr pool

More Election Data

We’ve discussed the King County results before, but now precinct data is out for both Snohomish and Pierce Counties.  (For Pierce, scroll all the way down to page 50.)

STB benefactor Oranviri may put together some maps for of us over the weekend, but in the meantime here are some raw numbers by Legislative District.  The Snohomish aggregates are courtesy of commenter Cascadian.

27th:    57.24%     Central Tacoma
28th:    52.94%     University Place, W. Lakewood, Steilacoom
29th:    50.08%     Parkland, Lakewood
25th:    44.80%     Fife, Puyallup
31st:    44.29%     Sumner, Bonney Lake
2nd:     41.34%     Orting, Roy

32nd    58.16%     Edmonds
21st     57.12%     Edmonds/Lynnwood/Mukilteo
1st       53.86%     Bothell/Brier/Mountlake Terrace
38th     52.17%     Everett
44th     50.15%     Mill Creek/E. Everett