Next Train Arrival Signs: Mid to Late January, Hopefully

Video by Oran (click to watch)

Wouldn’t it be nice if Link light rail stations had signs telling you that the next train was arriving in, say, five minutes? Time enough to busily inspect your smartphone and look social, to be sure.

Sound Transit has been planning to install these arrival signs for a while, but apparently they’ve hit hiccups. First, we heard rumors from Sound Transit staff that the signs would be operational within weeks of the initial segment’s opening.

Then, Sound Transit officials told folks who had contacted them that things were more complex than anyone on the outside could have known was possible. “We have been working on integrating this station into the Central Link system and it requires us to use two different train tracking approach one for the Central Link and different one for expanding to the Airport.” Due to these issues, “the train arrival message will not be activated until the end of November.” That time came and went. With the new Airport station opening tomorrow, Sound Transit representatives diligently sent us an update.

“It sounds like we’re really looking at mid to late January for it to be up and running,” said Bruce Gray of Sound Transit of the next train arrival signs. “It’s about 97% ready to go, but we expect it to need a few tweaks after the new segment is up and running.”

Hopefully the arrival signs are more accurate than the signs of the arrival of the arrival signs.

ORCA Privacy

photo by Oran

photo by Oran

We’ve mentioned these issues briefly before, but Mike Lindblom has a really important article in the Times today about privacy and ORCA:

Whenever someone buys an employer-subsidized fare card through one of 2,000 companies or institutions, the employer has the right to see that person’s travel records. A boss could check to see, for example, whether someone is abusing a subsidy by reselling ORCA cards or find out if an employee called in sick but rode the bus to the mall or the beach…

Personal fare-card information is technically available to news media and other groups, as well, though it’s unclear how forthcoming ORCA would be in providing it.

Read the whole thing.

ORCA hasn’t been a particularly well-run project, and I suspect it’s partly because no one is really in charge.   So it’s important that the mainstream media shine a spotlight on the issues here.

I’m not really a privacy absolutist, but there some basic policy decisions that could improve things while still maintaining some fraud-prevention features.  For instance, ORCA could notify card holders when an outside party requests their records.  Deleting records after a time would also be helpful, except as anonymized data for traffic analysis.

What other changes would you like to see to the ORCA privacy policy?

Airport Link Opening Tomorrow: T Minus 17 hours

In preparation for the grand opening of Airport Link tomorrow, Sound Transit invited members of the press aboard Link for a quick preview ride to the airport and back.  With the Certificate of Occupancy signed, crews are now working on polishing up the station for Saturday’s big event.  You can read Martin’s detailed coverage last month of SeaTac Station and the opening day announcement, where Senator Murray was there to break the news, along with several other dignitaries.  Oran and Brian were on hand yesterday to take video and photos, along with Cian Hayes, who Ben mentioned was officially the first passenger to board a plane from Link.  You can visit our Flickr Pool with some new photos of the station, as well as the video of the preview ride above, shot by Oran.

Among the other firsts, Oran found the ORCA readers to be up and running and tapped in along with Brian, which we believe made them both the first revenue passengers to use Airport Link.  More of the preview ride below the jump.
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What Will the Next ST Board Look Like?

Who will make up the Sound Transit board next year? Publicola offers some reporting and some smart speculation for your p.m. reading.

Followup On Metro Cuts

photo by zargoman

photo by zargoman

After hearing from the County Council that there would be no “significant” reduction in service over the 2010-11 biennium, I was finally able to chat with Metro Manager of Service Development Victor Obeso to get more details.

A total of 200,000 service hours are to be cut over the next two years, about 5% of the total, of which 50,000 will be this February.  In terms of losses perceived by the user, about 2% of existing service will be cut over 2 years:

Scheduling efficiency Supplemental low-impact reductions
Feb 2010 25,000 25,000
Sep 2010 50,000 25,000
Jun 2011 50,000 25,000

The “Scheduling Efficiency” side amounts to changes in how routes are allocated to Metro’s operating bases, plus reductions in layovers at the end of routes.  There should be no impact on riders from these other than a possible slight decrease in reliability.  Obeso is hopeful that in the February round the efficiency savings will actually be as high as 30,000  hours, sparing some cuts.

The “low-impact reductions” will, as per County policy, be doled out to subareas in proportion to the resources they receive.  In conjunction with the budget, the council adopted an update to the Metro 10 year Strategic Plan which identified these reductions as “suspensions,” not “cuts.” This leaves open the possibility that restoration of the service would not be subject to 40/40/20, but doesn’t necessarily mean that restoration is first in line.

There will not be the proposed route-by-route blanket cuts, but cuts targeted at the least productive trips in each subarea.   Metro is first looking at opportunities to eliminate the last trip of the night, eliminating trips that allow them to pull an entire bus out of service while not increasing headways too much, and trips where other good, nearby options exist.  Obeso expects the number of riders inconvenienced to be small.

A 2% service cut targeted at unproductive trips, while not desirable, is clearly not a catastrophe for public transportation. Indeed, with Transit Now, WSDOT viaduct mitigation, and dedicated SR520-related revenue funding additional improvements, the net change is positive. However, Metro’s budget crisis is not solved, but merely deferred.  The numbers are sensitive to small changes in revenue projections, but past estimates indicate about 385,000 service hours could be at risk in 2012-2013 without new revenue sources.

The First Airport Passenger


First Airport Passenger

Sound Transit provided a media ride on Link to SeaTac/Airport Station this morning, just after they officially took occupancy (meaning the station’s “done”). It so happens that photographer Cian Hayes, who has taken photos for STB in the past, is returning to Ireland for the holidays today, so we sent him to get station photos on his way to the airport. We checked with Sound Transit, and he is indeed the first passenger using Link to the airport to take a flight.

House Jobs Bill: $9.2 Billion for Transit & Amtrak

Under construction. Photo by Flickr user papahazama.

Under construction. Photo by Flickr user papahazama.

The House yesterday narrowly passed a $154 billion jobs bill that included tens of billions in transportation funding. Largely breaking along the same lines as the stimulus bill earlier this year, the funding works out like so:

  • $27.5 billion for highways
  • $8.4 billion for public transit
  • $800 million for Amtrak

Unlike the Obama administration proposal to allocate $50 billion in competitive transportation grants, this bill mostly allocates along the same lines as the stimulus — mostly through distribution formulas and with most of the money going to state transportation departments that tend to favor highway projects often far from urban areas. Most transit money will be allocated through metropolitan areas also along formula guidelines. Earlier this year, the PSRC distributed over $130 million in stimulus funds.

The Senate will be drafting a bill next year that could move back toward the administration’s goal of a more competitive infrastructure grant process that would likely see better projects receiving funds on merit rather than state politics. That could mean better results for transit. But Senators have more loyalty to their states than to the federal government, so the House bill could simply reflect the political reality.

Either way, more unexpected capital investment for public transit is always good. Based on the earlier stimulus requests, Sound Transit could accelerate construction of a South 200th St stop or North Link to Northgate with some more dollars. Metro could potentially purchase more buses and improve facilities. Local agencies and cities may have new capital projects that weren’t available at the time of the stimulus.

Up to 10% of the transit dollars could be spent on operations costs, according to Streetsblog DC.

November Link Ridership Down

New lights in BHS, by Mike Bjork

"New lights in BHS", by Mike Bjork

As I’ve said consistently through both ups and downs, monthly ridership numbers suffer from significant sample size issues, seasonal variations, shifts in supporting bus service, and so on, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Nonetheless, weekday ridership dropped about 10% from 16,192 to 14,399, bringing it to about the same plateau as August and September and October.  Weekend ridership dropped even more (9,838 for Saturday and 7,836 for Sundays and Thanksgiving), possibly hurt by a lack of special events.  These numbers put Link slightly above Metro’s highest ridership route, the 48.  I’m told by various sources that October is typically a peak ridership month for buses and Sounder, so the month-to-month drop isn’t surprising.

However, given widespread vacation time in December, it would be surprising if Link were to come near its year-end target 0f 21,000 weekday riders.  The end-of-2010 target is 26,000, at which point data would reflect a full year of the completed line running to Seatac with all planned Metro changes in place (except for RapidRide A) for almost 11 months.  The last word on Central Link’s success or failure will not come for decades, but that will be the first really informative data point.

SCCC Hosts Streetcar Open House

First Hill Streetcar open house at Seattle Central

First Hill Streetcar open house at Seattle Central

Seattle Central Community College last night hosted SDOT’s initial First Hill Streetcar open house event to solicit feedback from the community on the proposed alignments.

Since comments were written down privately, it’s hard to gauge an overall reaction from the community but the takeaway is that Capitol Hill is very interested in its streetcar.

The City had staff on hand to (attempt to) answer questions. Almost all of what was shown we saw earlier this week, but the material was new to most in attendance.

More after the jump…

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Editorial: 520 Options K, L, M Aren’t Worth It

Gotta love these WSDOT videos.  When does SR520 have this traffic volume? 2AM?

Of the officially considered SR 520 bridge options, A+ is superior to A, K, L, and M for use as a starting point to develop a truly transit-friendly interchange design.

Since gas taxes must be used for roads, a project that mainly improves seismic robustness and extends the HOV lane across the bridge is a particularly attractive use.  However, gas taxes will cover only about half the cost of a new SR520 bridge. The rest will come out of a different revenue source, one that could potentially be used for light rail expansion or other worthy transit projects.  More after the jump.

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Reminder: Streetcar Open House Tonight at SCCC, 6pm

Don’t forget the First Hill streetcar community open house tonight starting at 6pm in Seattle Central Community College. It doesn’t say a specific room but the meetings are usually at the southern end of the building and are well marked.


  • Tuesday, December 15, 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Seattle Central Community College (1701 Broadway)
  • Wednesday, December 16, 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Yesler Community Center (917 E Yesler Way)
  • Thursday, December 17, 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Union Station (401 S Jackson Street)

The Seattle Streetcar website has more details.

Our coverage includes Offical Drawings11th Ave Rumor and Details12th Ave Couple is a Bad IdeaFirst Hill Funding Agreement…and much much more.

And just one last time. If you keep getting confused about the different alternatives I have included a google map just for you after the jump

SE King County Commuter Rail coming soon?

WES by Jason McHuff

WES by Jason McHuff

Imagine getting off Sounder or a bus at Auburn station and a few short minutes later, another sleek, quiet train pulls into the station. This could happen in a few short years for Maple Valley, Covington, and Black Diamond residences.

The cities of Maple Valley, Covington, and Black Diamond have joined together for a feasibility study to implement commuter rail service, running from the Auburn Sounder Station to  the Black Diamond/Ravensdale communities, in hopes to relieve congestion off Highway 18, Hwy 169, and create transit communities around the stations or TOD, much like Kent Station.  More after the jump…

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CORRECTION: Maple Valley Commuter Rail study

Last week we relayed a P-I report and press release that Sen. Patty Murray had secured $600,000 for a commuter rail study.  Larry Ehl of WSDOT’s Federal Transportation Issues blog confirms that the $600,000 figure is a typo in Murray’s press release.  The correct figure is $360,000.  We regret the error.

Ehl’s blog post on the subject has a list of all the transportation earmarks for Washington, with dollar values. It’s an interesting read.

Meeting Roundup: Meet Your New ST Board Chair (he now has a goatee)

Several notable things happened at the December 10th Sound Transit Board of Directors meeting, Greg Nickels’s 378th(!) and last.  You can watch the video or check out the motions online.

  • Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon is the new Sound Transit Board Chair through the end of 2011.  Reardon has been County Executive since 2004 and may be best known to STB readers as someone who bargained hard with Nickels to get light rail to Snohomish County included in ST2.  Andrew Austin has much, much more on this.  Lakewood’s Claudia Thomas and Issaquah’s Fred Butler are the Vice Chairs.
  • The staff briefly discussed the three new, post-DEIS, downtown Bellevue options: C9T, a tunnel under 110th Ave.; C9A, a surface route on 110th; and C11A, an at-grade alignment on 108th Ave.  The cost and ridership estimates are supposed to be done by the end of January, with Board discussion in February and a decision on this segment on March 11th.  The Board allocated $15,000 for the staff to include Kevin Wallace’s 114th Avenue elevated alignment in this work.
  • The Bellevue City Council, while not changing their preferred alignment, asked the Board to study the Wallace proposal, and also asked for an one-month extension of their expiring six-month deadline to come up with a funding plan for a downtown tunnel.
  • The Seatac ceremony, according to ST CEO Joni Earl, starts around 8:45 am on December 19th.  The first train from downtown to go all the way to Seatac with passengers will arrive right around 10am.
  • Issaquah Councilmember Fred Butler sponsored an amendment to the budget directing the ST Staff to study the introduction of fares to Tacoma Link and report to the Board by June 30, 2010.  ORCA n0w provides an infrastructure that would reduce the cost of collecting fares; up to now, staff has estimated that fare collection would cost more than the revenue collected.
  • The board adopted a scope control policy which states that the primary project objectives are “cost control, ridership and operational efficiency.”  In other words, Sound Transit isn’t going to gold-plate stations just because a City asks for it, especially if it isn’t in the EIS.
  • According to Joni Earl, government agencies have right of first refusal to buy the rest of the BNSF Eastside corridor should they be put up for sale.
  • The last hour or so of the video is a tribute to Mayor Nickels, winner of the American Public Transportation Association’s Outstanding Public Transportation Board Member for 2009.  We’ll comment more on this later, but it’s a useful reminder of everything he has done for the region, going back to 1988.

Official First Hill Streetcar Alternatives

Boren Alternative

Boren Alternative

SDOT has just released engineering drawing of the First Hill streetcar alternatives. The alternatives are still generally along 12th Ave, Boren and Broadway with a few refinements. As reported yesterday, all alternatives will use 11th Ave as a couplet with Broadway. The Boren alternative has seen the most revisions with the Broadway and 12th Ave alternatives sharing refinements. I have included links to the PDFs below.

There are two alternatives for the southern most segment in the International District. The first is more direct, staying on Jackson St and either ending where the waterfront streetcar used to end or in a loop that gets closer to Pioneer Square. The other option uses Weller St in Chinatown to turn around, returning to Jackson at 7th Ave. It also has the option for a loop that gets closer to Pioneer Square.

more after the jump

First Hill Streetcar: 11th Ave Couplet

The Stranger and Capitol Hill Seattle are reporting that all three of the alternatives will include a one-way couplet on Broadway and 11th Ave roughly between Madison and Denny.

The 11th Avenue segment would be:

* Northbound from Madison to Denny with the Two-Way Broadway option;

* Northbound from Union to Denny with the Boren option;

* Southbound from Denny to Union with the Broadway-12th couplet option.

I have a call into SDOT asking about the reason for the couplet as well as how it will affect travel time and if this means that the streetcar might enjoy some level of exclusive right-of-way. Later today I should be receiving detailed maps of the different alternatives so look for an update sometime later today.

UPDATE: Ethan Melone just got back to me. His response to my questions are below. I also just received maps and images for tomorrow meetings and I’m in the process of uploading them.

Q: Are the alignments the same besides the 11th Ave segment?

A: Yes, the alignments are otherwise the same south of Union or Madison street.

Q: Why 11th?

A: 10th does not continue through to the light rail station, because of Cal Anderson Park and Bobby Morris Playfield. 11th provides an opportunity to loop around the park to the terminus station. This loop has several advantages including:

  • simplest and most efficient turnback option for streetcar service;
  • easier to avoid bike conflicts with tracks in only one direction on Broadway between Madison and Denny (see proposed roadway section on forthcoming drawings);
  • improved reliability with only one direction of travel impacted by traffic congestion in this section of Broadway;
  • reduced construction impacts;
  • fewer utility conflicts.

Q: Does this mean there will be any exclusive ROW?

A: We do not see this as exclusive right-of-way from Denny to Union. It might be exclusive from Madison to Union or possibly Madison to Pike.

Q: How will this affect travel time?

A: The travel time is estimated to be the same as, if not shorter than, two-way on Broadway in this segment. We have not taken into account yet the travel time savings that might be possible if we provide signal priority at 11th & Pine and 11th & Pike (the latter would be a new signal).

Sunday Open Thread: Automobile Actual Size

Old GE pro-transit ad from Vintage Seattle. (click to enlarge)

Old pro-transit ad from General Electric (click to enlarge)

Via Vintage Seattle (H/T: Gordon Werner).  Note the “now we don’t propose to hinder progress” bit.

News Roundup: Rail Grinding

Video by Eric Jensen.

BRT in Clark County

This isn’t really new, but Clark County’s high capacity transit study concluded last year and advocated three BRT lines and other improvements by 2030,  with two of them running substantially in an exclusive lane.  The study did not include the controversial Columbia River Crossing in its scope.  According to spokesman Dale Robins, “One of the main assumptions of the Clark County HCT Study is that [light rail over the Columbia river] would exist as part of the region’s HCT system.”

He added:

C-TRAN is leading the effort to determine which HCT corridor of those identified in the Clark County HCT Study should be the first to be implemented. They are currently in the process of developing a 20-year transit plan, which appears to give priority to the Fourth Plain corridor [depicted above]. C-TRAN is seeking funding for an Alternative Analysis in their preferred corridor and hopes to get started on that process in the near future.

It’s not entirely clear what the revenue source would be, but last year the legislature passed SB 5540, which allows a Sound Transit-style 0.9% sales tax to pay for HCT corridors.  At the time we interpreted that as a bid to allow MAX expansion, but it may very well be used to extend lower higher-quality bus service further into Clark County.

If you read Section 2 of the law you’ll find all sorts of tax constraints that make this a bit more restrictive than the RTA law that authorized Sound Transit.   In particular, C-TRAN cannot go to the voters to fund this until July 1, 2012.  It’s also a one-shot deal; by law, they can’t go to the voters for part of the authority and then have a second measure to use the rest of it.

Estimated costs and ridership, from the Executive Summary:

clark hct

Federal Transportation Bill Moves Forward

The House and Senate have agreed on a conference report for the federal transportation budget. (You can read the summary online.) The bill needs to pass Senate and will probably be signed by the end of the year. The high-level overview, which contains plenty of transit and rail funding:

  • $10.7 billion for public transit, including $2 billion for new construction.
  • $2.5 billion for high-speed rail, well above the administration’s $1 billion request. This number will complement the $8 billion in high-speed rail dollars that are part of Obama’s stimulus and hints that Congress will likely have an on-going role in funding rail.
  • $1.6 billion for Amtrak, above the administration’s request.
  • Highways are still the big winner, with $41.8 billion in funding.

Also included $600 million in merit-based transportation grants modeled after the TIGER. Putting more money into competitive grants decided at the federal, and not the state, level is good news for urban areas. These grants can be spent on bike lanes and transit as well as roads based simply on which projects are the best.

In other federal news, the Obama administration is pursuing a staggering $50 billion in new TIGER money for a forthcoming jobs bill, and it would be good move if Congress honors this request instead of choosing to appropriate this transportation spending to the states after the unfortunate experience for transit with the stimulus. A large pile of money could allow for some interesting outcomes. With just $30 million in grant money, for example, Sound Transit could complete the South 200th street light rail station years ahead of schedule.

One thing the transportation appropriations bill didn’t include and isn’t on the immediate horizon: A national infrastructure bank that the Obama administration has requested. This bank would be able to give low-interest loans to municipalities looking to build infrastructure projects without resorting to often costlier privately-held bonds. The proposal is a good one, but may need to be defined outside of the appropriations process and within a new transportation authorization bill that may be authored next year.