Sub-Regionalism Run Amok

Oakland Airport

Oakland Airport, photo by Invisible Hour

Something underlying the entire downtown Bellevue light rail tunnel conversation is the attitude present in many that since Seattle is getting a tunnel under Beacon Hill, and another from the ID up to almost Northgate, Bellevue deserves one as well. I could never argue against that: obviously, the fewer automobile intersections Link has to make the better, and a tunnel through downtown Bellevue is a way for Link to avoid several long-wait intersections that it would have to cross but would not have signal priority in. However, the more people throw around “multi-core” and “regionalism” when discussing Link, the more I fear events like the following quote, below the fold.

Despite a projected shrink in ridership and escalating costs, the BART board on Thursday approved a funding plan to build a people mover connecting the Coliseum Station and the Oakland airport.

The project was billed as a chance to create thousands of new jobs and the 3.2 mile airport connector would transport passengers on an elevated track that bypasses street traffic and would cost as much as much as $552 million, according to current estimates. At the start of the decade the project’s price tag was just $130 million.

The automated Oakland airport connector would replace the shuttle bus service, known as AirBART, which runs on surface streets and can be slowed by congestion. The goal is to have the airport link running by 2013.

It would be the second Bay Area airport, after San Francisco, to be linked to BART. The round-trip fare would cost $12 under the current plan. The price doesn’t include the BART fare to and from the Coliseum Station.

Opponents of the airport connector long have proposed improved bus service as a less costly and comparable alternative, but BART officials have shot down the idea.

The number of riders projected to use the people mover has dropped significantly in recent years. That’s due, in part, to fewer people using the Oakland airport and because earlier plans to add one or two stations along the route have been put on hold.

Emphasis added. Thankfully, Sound Transit’s sub-area equity protects sub-regions from having to pay for other areas’ attempts at regional one-ups-manship. But nothing could be worse for transit expansion and riders than political stances that ensure that high-cost, low-ridership extensions and routings there just to appease interests that want their section to be special or underground just to compare well to Seattle or be more glamorous for potential investors. Hopefully the city of Bellevue will not try to force Sound Transit to pay for the tunnel, which would have virtually the same ridership of the at-grade alignment, at the cost of a delayed opening or a truncated line. Still, it’s something that commentators are already arguing for and against and this would already be the second leap in a short time down into the abyss of sub-regionalism, something that really played out last year with Sound Transit’s Snohomish County delegation.

Our region is way behind on mass transit and we’ve finally arrived to a place where we can actually move forward on a regional rail system. The first expansion is just about extensions to the most obvious places, so petty sub-regionalism has been subdued to a large extent. However, sub-regionalism keeps rearing its ugly head and because it’s already bad enough that some leaders Olympia seem to be trying to extort Sound Transit, we really don’t need sub-areas competing for funds within themselves. I really hope Bellevue has a plan to pay for its downtown tunnel, so we can avoid decisions like the one BART just made. We need to work together to build the best transit system we can afford, and not compete against eachother.




Comments

  1. eeepc says

    While it’s true this could be the city of Bellevue waving their hands and shouting “Hay guyz! We’re important too!”, I really think this is about building the best possible link to the East Side. A 100 year system needs to be grade separated, especially in a high traffic corridor like DT Bellevue. We’ve only got one chance to do this and Bellevue is still growing fast.

    • Andrew Smith says

      All true, but if Bellevue says “we need this underground, and you’ve got to pay or we’re not going to play ball” that’s a ticking time-bomb.

      • Cascadian says

        If they want Sound Transit to pay for it, there’s an easy solution: have a 2012 vote for an ST2.5 that adds the money for a tunnel but ALSO provides corresponding revenue for projects in other sub-areas. I’d love to get an early start on West Seattle-Ballard or any number of in-city light rail routes, not to mention the possibility of more streetcats. Similarly, extra money could expand Sounder service or extend rail further north or south.

        Done right, sub-area equity increases the size of the transit pie instead of forcing a fight over who gets what pieces because the pieces are proportional by definition.

        In the end, though, I expect that Bellevue will either come up with the money for the tunnel or decide it’s not worth the expense. But if they want to make it a conversation about more overall Sound Transit spending, that’s fine with me.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        ST has no remaining taxing authority for a ‘ST 2.5′. So you have to go to the legislature to do that.

    • Joe G says

      Who’s to say that in 100 years we will even be driving vehicles or on roads for that matter. I think if they want a tunnel, they should be willing to dish it out. The whole idea is that we need to be ready for the future and that does not necessarily mean keeping everything in toe with the automobile.

  2. Colin says

    Why is it that the elevated options for Bellevue were rejected? I thought I saw one that went within a block of the Bellevue Transit Center, and was not more than 20% more expensive than the surface option. Was that also rejected for aesthetic reasons?

    • Colin says

      I just checked, and C8E would pass within 1 block of the bellevue transit center, and would cost an estimated $700M, compared to the C4A (surface) estimate of $610-$700M.

      There must be another reason this was rejected.

      • justin says

        other reasons include not wanting an ugly raised section cutting through town, not to mention that one block over is 800 feet in bellevue, pushing the station even further away from the center of town.

    • says

      I’ve asked this question of the senior planner for the City of Bellevue on the Link project. Elevated was never seriously discussed in the DEIS comment period. Businesses in DT argued against it I believe more on the perceived issue of noise than on aesthetics. I also believe that in the context of discussion elevated was perceived as an alternative to a tunnel; not an alternative to at grade/surface. Now that the realization has “sunk in” so to speak that a tunnel is not going to happen unless Bellevue can come up with at least a 1/2 billion dollars there is a scramble to reevaluate the options.

      A lot is going to happen between now and the end of the year. Both “preferred” tunnel alternatives will be taken to the 15% design stage to prepare a more accurate cost estimate. At that point one will be chosen to be completed to 30% design and matched against available funding. With respect to the surface alternative City of Bellevue is unhappy (big surprise) with the traffic modeling done by ST and will be presenting their own more detail model. You can expect mitigation for this to drive up the cost of the surface alternative. In conconjuction with this, as the design progresses expect the costs associated with ROW acquisition to increase. Whether this increase brings the cost of the surface alternative closer to a tunnel or just keeps pace with increased projections for the tunnel is yet to be seen.

      Since all options in the DEIS must be studied I expect the elevated option to receive much closer scrutiny than before. Once Link opens I think there will be a renewed interest in seeing just how much noise there is and what it looks like. Downtown Bellevue is in the process of becoming a 2nd story city. The push near Bellevue Square is to build more skyways and second story open areas connecting the various developments. An elevated alternative may fit well with Bellevue’s vision for the future.

      • says

        The idea that light rail is noisy is just obnoxious. Rail is quieter than bus service, and highways produce massive amounts of noise. If that’s their issue, they should bury 405 instead.

      • DCodomo says

        I agree, if anything an at-grade option is the noisiest, with all the annoying crossing bells.

  3. Anonymous says

    That happened in St. Louis, and then the transit agency was blamed for the “cost overruns” when the original project was supposed to be built completely at-grade, but political shenanigans forced it all underground. The fallout is still being felt – that one decision may actually cause the end of transit expansion in St. Louis.

  4. Chris says

    I think its logical to assume the link would be underground, given the density of development in Bellevue. Bellevue CBD has enough of a tax base to bear a chunk of the cost locally…and I love the idea of a special assessment district sticking it to Kemper Freemnan

    • Andrew Smith says

      I think a LID must pass 60% of the land owners in the area, and I find it difficult to imagine $600 mn could be raised in short order in that 3/4-mile by 3/4 mile area.

      That’s a lot of money to raise in a very small area.

      • Chris Stefan says

        That Downtown Bellevue property is quite valuable. I suspect the LID would be used to pay off bonds anyway so the assessment rate can be kept reasonable.

      • says

        It’s a little more than half a square mile, the 3/4 mile-square area Bellevue considers “downtown” is .5625 square miles, or 360 acres. $600 million into 360 acres is a tax rate of $1.67 million per acre (if you did it evenly). That’s a lot of money. Bellevue Square Mall is about 33 acres. That would mean Kemper would have to pay $55 million just for the mall in this tax. Another substantial amount for the rest of his land. He’s worth a lot, but asking someone to come up with eight or nine figure amounts for a tunnel is not reasonable.

        I think the tax would have to be spread over all of bellevue, but why would the whole town have to pay it?

      • lloyd says

        Oh, joy! Kemper having to pay US$55M for transit – it’d make the last 40 years worth having lived through! Not reasonable? His intransigence on transit and support for I-405 have cost us 10 times that amount of money in “societal costs”! Poetic Justice!

      • Chris Stefan says

        The LID wouldn’t need to pay for the full $600 million in year 1. Even if bonds aren’t sold ST won’t necessarily need the money all at once. If you take the tax over even 6 years you only need $100 million per year. Sell 20 year bonds and you need about $50 million per year once financing costs are factored in.

        For that matter Bellevue might have enough councilmatic bonding capacity to be able to fund a majority of the tunnel costs by just issuing General Obligation Bonds. (this is how Seattle paid for the Municipal tower, Justice Center, and new City Hall)

      • Andrew Smith says

        6 years is still too long. You’re still asking Kemper Freeman to cough $15 million a year. Do it over on year or over six, it’s still too much.

        They may be able to get something like $100 million total from a LID in downtown Bellevue, but that’s it. The area is just too small to raise $600 million in it over any reasonable amount of time.

  5. Gary says

    Well one thing you seem to forget is that the Eastside has loaned money via the sub-equity rules to the rest of Sound Transit. How was this done? ST sold bonds that it didn’t need, pledging the revenue from the Eastside, the deposited the money. The interest on that money then was sent to the general fund. It’s a money laundering scheme.

    Now it’s time for the Eastside to use it’s revenue on directly related projects, and unfortunately it’s down due to the crappy economy. I don’t think it’s a “Me too” issue but one that says, get this thing out’a-my way and don’t block the view attitude of the I drive to work Bellevue moneyed elite. But even so, if it costs the rest of the line from being elevated down Bell-Red it’s a bad trade.

  6. Nicholas Reed says

    Just a slight correction, the photo location is actually an aircraft pushing off of Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport.

  7. Max Jacobowitz says

    If elevated is good enough for downtown CHICAGO, it’s good ‘nuf for downtown Bellevue.

    • alexjonlin says

      The area underneath the loop isn’t exactly pleasant… Proposals are always happening for burying the loop in Chicago, but they cost too much. We need to do it right the first time, and put it underground.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Well, honestly, what street in DT bellevue is a thriving plaza today? I was on the 230 through dt bellevue at 5:30 pm on a tuesday and I counted exactly 7 people on the street who weren’t smoking or waiting at the Bellevue transit center. And it was a nice day that day.

        Seven people. It’s 11:30 pm right now and there’s more than that walking on the street in front of my house in the U district.

      • says

        Did you by chance attend Danish architect/designer Helle Soholt’s awesome talk at UW a couple weeks ago? I haven’t been to Bellevue in 10 years, but I can say plenty on Seattle–and Bellevue needs to be looking to do much of the same stuff Seattle does. Putting in a new Viaduct or I-405 would be exactly what NOT to do. Seattle has a long way to go on walkability, bikeability, and great active public spaces. But these noisy, ugly, obtrusive barriers like the Viaduct and other highways are part of the problem. Soholt found that the busiest pedestrian spot in the city is Westlake Park, with about 26,000 daily. That’s a fraction of what Copenhagen has, and there are lots of wasted places and opportunities. Both Seattle and Bellevue, as well as other cities in the region, can and must create great, vibrant public spaces that attract thousands of pedestrians.

  8. alexjonlin says

    Has anyone actually proposed using ST’s money for the tunnel? As far as I know, Bellevue understands that it’s going to have to pay for its own tunnel

    • Andrew Smith says

      A lot of talk radio types have. Bellevue has talked about “cost savings” and “federal grants”, which never sounded to me like “paying for its own tunnel”. I don’t know, we’ll see how they place to fund this.

  9. justin says

    Does anyone have the numbers for how much Bellevue’s share of the total east sub area contribution is?

  10. says

    There should be no sub-regions to begin with. They’re only there for political expediency (placate Eastsiders to vote for ST). If Bellevue wants a tunnel, that’s fine, but they should pay for it. I remember a similar battle in the 90s in St. Louis. Clayton insisted on a tunnel, but the regional agency couldn’t afford it. Clayton was told they could have a tunnel if they found a way to pay for it themselves. They did, and their tunnel opened a couple years ago. http://www.cmt-stl.org

    I’m really concerned that the main Bellevue station in any alignment is too close to I-405 to facilitate good TOD.

    • ericn says

      I wouldn’t worry too much about TOD; it’s already happening. There are currently at least four big residential towers (two on the same superblock as the convention center, two on the same superblock as the Galleria) opening in the near future within a block of Bellevue Transit Center. There are also a bunch of new condos being built around NE 8th-12th, but those are also fairly close to I-405 and might even be better served by Ashwood/Hospital station.

      • says

        But will it occupy the full 1/2 mile radius from the station, or will some of that land get wasted on proximity to the highway?

        I don’t disagree on siting it in downtown Bellevue, just would like it nudged away from the highway if possible. Or better yet, change the highway. Admittedly, I’m not really familiar with Bellevue though.

      • ericn says

        Google Maps says the proposed tunnel station would be 1800 feet from 405. That’s not quite half a mile, but you have to remember that the station is equally far from 405 and Bellevue Square. Bellevue Square + Downtown Park is so big that moving the station farther west won’t get you much extra room for TOD, and would make it harder/more expensive to get the train back over 405 to Bel-Red.

      • Andrew Smith says

        I think you would only need one station in DT bellevue if the blocks weren’t so long. When you’re dealing with 1000 foot blocks, however, a 2000′ as the bird flies walk could be 3000′ or maybe more.

      • ericn says

        Block length shouldn’t matter, since the Manhattan Distance is the same regardless of block size. Plus long blocks mean fewer crosswalks to wait at, so a faster walk for the same distance.

        The real issue with having one station is that the residential area on Main Street west of Bellevue Way (south of Downtown Park) is kind of far away. A circulator bus/streetcar would fix that, though.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Those lights seem significantly longer, especially with the four-passed signals. A pedestrian there really only has one section of the signal period, with the two turn signals and the two straight on signals. And no jay-walking: there’s always cars and the streets are way wide.

        Also that manhattan geometry only counts if you’re starting from a corner. Start at the middle of a LONG block, and you sometimes have to walk an extra half a long ass block.

      • ericn says

        Good point about the lights. That’s probably why it takes so long for the 271 to get through downtown Bellevue too.

        The proposed tunnel station will be at a corner (NE 6th and 108th), so the Manhattan distance to/from it will be about the same regardless of block length—this depends on where ST puts the station entrances, of course.

      • andrew smith says

        That’s definitely true. I hope they place them at the corners: the platforms have to be 400 feet long just to support the trains!

      • says

        I can tell you there’s a pretty strong consensus among pedestrian advocates that smaller blocks are better.

        My Google abilities are a bit stunted (and I’m a policy wonk, not a techie ;). How do you figure out a distance like that 1800 foot one?

        I’ll hope that 405 is someday narrowed or buried, as I do for I-5 in central Seattle.

      • ericn says

        To figure out distances, go to Google Maps and click the ‘My Maps’ link on the left side. You’ll see a link called ‘Distance Measurement Tool.’ From there, all you have to do is click on the map a few times, and it will tell you the total distance of the path.

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