Finally, an Eastside Meetup!

In light of all the news lately about East Link alignment choices, and in large part just because we haven’t had one, it’s well past time to have a meetup in Bellevue. Our planned date: Thursday, February 11th.

I’m waiting for a confirmation, but we should have space at the Rock Bottom. It’s a block from Bellevue Transit Center, in the Galleria – which I understand is neither a Kemper Freeman nor a Kevin Wallace property (although it’s probably someone with their values).

I’d imagine you should start filtering in around 6, but don’t worry if you can’t show up until a little later – I’m sure folks will be there until at least 9. Please comment if you can (or can’t) make it!

Sunday Open Thread: Don’t Try this at Home

News Roundup: Unpleasant Transit Rides

Photo by Zargoman

Update on Link Noise

This week’s Sound Transit CEO newsletter contains an update on the work that Sound Transit is doing to mitigate Link noise.

A few months ago I told you about our plans to cut down the noise from Link light rail trains. (STB: see our previous coverage.)

Those plans included actually grinding the tracks to reduce train noise. I thought you’d be interested to know that the grinding was completed in the Rainier Valley in mid-December, and elsewhere on the line just before New Years Day. Although the grinding has reduced the high-frequency noise in many areas, there are some locations where it’s still present. We’ll measure noise levels again in early spring, after the grinding marks on the rails have worn smooth.

Another problem we’re working on is “wheel squeal” noise on curves, such as where trains enter and leave Mount Baker Station. In those areas we’re installing solar-powered machines that periodically dispense a dab of lubricant on the tracks. The track lubricators have been purchased and work is expected to begin in mid-to-late March. Work will take place overnight starting at 10 p.m. to minimize inconvenience to riders.

Finally, another noise problem in the Rainier Valley is the “ka-thunk” sounds created when a train goes through the crossover switches near S. Walden and S. Willow streets. A Sound Transit contractor will modify the two switch crossings so train wheels have a smoother running surface. Work will be scheduled between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. over eight weekends beginning in March. The project should take about two months.

We reported the first round of work late last year.

HOV or Transit Lane on 520?

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As reported by multiple outlets, the City of Seattle and House Speaker Frank Chopp appear to have shifted their opposition to the SR520 plan, with less emphasis on unworkable highway tunnels under the cut, instead pushing for the HOV lane to become transit-only.  The Stranger claims they’ll ask for light rail tracks on the bridge in anticipation of Link operations across the bridge:

Sources tell us that city leaders will soon release plans for a set of specific requests. Among them, the sources say, the city wants: only four lanes dedicated to traffic and the other two lanes dedicated to transit only, light rail tracks laid on the bridge for future use, no ramp leading to the Arboretum, and a smaller footprint through the Montlake neighborhood. This layout could include a transit-lane connection from 520 to the north side of the ship canal.

More after the jump. [Read more...]

Metro’s February Service Change Now Online

Details on the changes in Metro bus service, effective February 6th, are available online. New red timetables and a special rider alert brochure will soon be available. The changes are now live on the Trip Planner and timetables will be posted online on February 5. This is a major service change, with over 80 bus routes affected. Highlights are:

  • New Route 156 to replace part of Route 140 service in McMicken Heights and will serve Southcenter, SeaTac/Airport Link, and Tukwila Sounder stations.
  • Route 194 replaced by Link light rail and expanded service on ST Express routes 574, 577, and 578.
  • Route 140 now serves Tukwila International Blvd station via Southcenter Blvd. It no longer serves McMicken Heights (use Route 156), the airport (use Link), and Air Cargo Rd (use Route 180).
  • ST 560 and 574 will be the only routes serving the Sea-Tac Airport terminal stops. All other routes will serve SeaTac/Airport Station (including ST 574)
  • Routes 76, 77, 216, 218, and 316 move to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel
  • Long-term construction reroutes for 73, 77, and 316 373 in the Northgate area.
  • More frequent service on routes 8, 9, 36 and 60 to improve connections to Link
  • More trips on routes between West Seattle, SODO, and downtown Seattle as mitigation for Viaduct construction.
  • Trip reductions on approximately 40 Metro routes

Previously covered: Sound Transit service changes, also on Feb 6.

Amtrak Cascades 2009 Ridership Numbers

This has been in my inbox for a while, but in 2009 Amtrak Cascades experienced a slight decline from the high gas prices and lower unemployment of 2008 while maintaining healthy gains over the recent past.  According to the report, the drop in performance is mainly due to the Portland-Eugene corridor.  In total, Cascades trains carried passengers about 118m passenger miles.

On a somewhat related note, if you participate in RailPlus — using regional passes to travel on Amtrak between Everett and Tacoma Seattle — you must obtain a “validation ticket” from the TVM with your ORCA card.  Amtrak staff presumably don’t have ORCA readers.

Pacific Northwest to get $598 Million in HSR Funds

'Racing Amtrak Cascades' by Oran

By way of an official press release from the White House, the Cascades corridor is expected to receive $598 million from HSR (high-speed rail) funds, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  President Obama will be on hand in Tampa (guess who’s cashing in?) today to make the announcement of grants toward thirteen major corridors, the Pacific Northwest being one of them:

Improvements will be made to the corridor using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to provide rail passengers in the Pacific Northwest with faster, more reliable and more frequent service.

Seattle – Portland: Two additional daily round trips will be added between Seattle and Portland, for a total six; travel time will be reduced by at least 5 percent; and on-time performance will increase substantially, from 62 to 88 percent. Major construction projects include building bypass tracks to allow for increased train frequency and multiple upgrades to existing track and signal systems. Several safety-related projects will also be funded, including grade separations, positive train control, and seismic retrofits to Seattle’s historic King Street Station.

Portland – Eugene: Investments include upgrading Portland’s Union Station, and engineering and environmental work for track and signaling projects that will increase service reliability and reduce congestion.

Along with WSDOT and ODOT, other regions/corridors that have also been earmarked for HSR funds include the Northeast Corridor, Florida, California, the Chicago hub network, and Ohio.  The White House website has individual releases for each regional grant.  The Infrastructurist had speculated that out of all the contenders, Texas would likely get the shaft, but Fort Worth is expected to receive just a tiny bit.  We’ll bring you more as soon as we figure out exactly what projects our $598 million will go towards.  [UPDATE 7:26am: Here is a full list (PDF) of the grants from the White House.]

Light Rail Measure in November: Open Thread

Yesterday, we reported that Mayor McGinn is likely to pursue a November 2010 ballot measure for light rail expansion.

During the campaign, the Candidate McGinn promised to offer a ballot measure “within two years” to expand light rail to the west side of the city. What route should his line take? What do you think we could build with, for example, ~$1.5 billion or so (with the rest of the funds going to bike and pedestrian improvements)? How big of a role should Sound Transit play? A tunnel through Downtown or a surface street alignment like Portland? Where would it be more cost effective to extend a streetcar line to rather than build a new light rail line to? How much should the voting public know before it expects to approve a multi-billion dollar funding package?

These questions will all be answered in the comments, to be sure. This is an open thread on McGinn’s likely ballot measure.

Cities express little enthusiasm for saving Metro service

Former Executive Kurt Triplett

When we broke the story about the King County Council forming a Transportation Benefit District in unincorporated portions of the County, media outlets who noticed focused on the implications for the South Park Bridge. And rightfully so: collapsing bridges are an important story.

Unfortunately, that overshadowed the very interesting point that when former County Executive Kurt Triplett sent a letter asking Mayors to indicate interest in negotiating to form a countywide TBD that could save some Metro bus service, there were zero positive responses and many negative ones.

Gov. Gregoire vetoed an attempt to give counties to authority to impose a vehicle license fee for transit, citing the existing TBD statute that allows a similar fee. Unfortunately, said statute requires consent of at least 60% of cities representing at least 75% of the population. Triplett’s letter was an attempt to gauge support to create a Metro-oriented TBD.

I spoke with Doug Hodson, who was Triplett’s transportation manager and now does government relations for King County DOT. Hodson that was the point of contact in Triplett’s letter. His correspondents were generally city public works managers, and the response was overwhelmingly negative. Of major cities that didn’t respond negatively, Hodson only recalled Federal Way (non-committal, but positive) and Kirkland (no response). More after the jump.

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Light Rail with Kids

One of the minor, pleasant surprises of light rail is what a great amusement ride it is for small children. I’ve used it extensively for that purpose, and I can tell you that most little kids can easily become totally obsessed with the line and its stops.

One problem is that there isn’t a ton to do for kids within little-feet walking distance in many station areas.  That’s  certainly true when the weather is poor.  Fortunately, Delicious Baby has a two-part series (1,2) to lay out lots of outing ideas for each station.

The only item I’d add at Seatac is going up to the top floor of the parking garage to watch the planes take off.  If you’re OK with taking a connecting bus (or walking a longer distance) that widens the options to some pretty great parks in the Rainier Valley (Jefferson, Seward, and Kubota Garden).

McGinn Polls Light Rail Ballot Measure for November

Photo from Mike Bjork.

Photo from Mike Bjork.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn yesterday seemed to confirm rumors that he’ll be running a ballot measure for in-city light rail expansion this November, a year earlier than McGinn’s deadline of 2011.

The possibility of a rail vote this year is the worst-kept secret around town. The Stranger quoted McGinn saying he’d like to have a vote this year and Publicola’s reporters have for weeks hinted that McGinn would be moving on a ballot measure sooner than expected, culminating with a recent report on McGinn’s strong opening statement as a member of the Sound Transit board.

His office wouldn’t answer directly when asked if the mayor planned to put a measure on the ballot this November. “During the campaign, he committed to put a plan before voters within two years,” said Aaron Pickus, a spokesperson for the mayor, “and during his inaugural address, the mayor affirmed that commitment.” But some actions can speak more clearly than [a spokesperson's] words.

Yesterday, Publicola and The Stranger both reported that McGinn spent money from his own pocket to poll a potential measure for November.

This November, voters will decide a tax measure to fund light rail, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure. The measure authorizes up to two point one billion dollars in taxes over thirty-five years. If the election were today, would you vote yes to approve, or no to reject this tax measure?

66% Yes
21% No
13% Undecided

$2.1 billion is a lot of money for light rail and other green transportation improvements. (Central Link cost $2.6 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars to build.) We’d like to hear more specifics, though, including what role Sound Transit would play in building and operating light rail.

It now seems more likely than not that 2010 will have another vote for light rail expansion. A vote later this year would come just two years after the region — and Seattle overwhelmingly — voted to build Sound Transit 2 which extended light rail north to Lynnwood, south to Federal Way, and east to Redmond.

#1 Menace to Waterways

While most discussions about what transit can do for the environment almost always revolve around climate change, transit is part of a larger set of  tools that are critical to save the Puget Sound. Frontline has a great documentary that looks at the environmental challenges that both the Chesapeake Bay and the Puget Sound are facing.

For the Puget Sound one of the most significant threats is surface runoff caused by impervious surfaces. Limiting sprawl and creating dense, and thus more transit dependent communities is one part of the solution. Reducing runoff through Low-Impact Development (LID) is another. I’m no expert and I know just enough to be dangerous so I’ll leave it there but certainly check out the documentary. Its very informative, both about what causes polluted waters as well as government regulations, or lake there of.

Also, if you’re not familiar with the The Puget Sound Partnership or The Cascade Land Conservancy and their plans, the Puget Sound Action Agenda (better website here) and the Cascade Agenda respectively take a quick look.

Capitol Hill Community Council’s streetcar proposal

Drawing of proposed street configuration at Broadway & Harrison by Daniel Goddard

At a public meeting last Thursday, the Capitol Hill Community Council released their preferred alignment for the Captiol Hill section of the First Hill Streetcar. Unlike other proposals which would split the route between Broadway and either 11th or 12th Ave., the community council recommended keeping both directions on Broadway north of Union. The proposal, outlined in a memo sent to SDOT and the Mayor’s Office, also includes a separated bike path, and encourages an extension of the line north to Aloha St:

After broad outreach and discussion, the Capitol Hill Community Council has come to three key recommendations for the northern segment of the First Hill streetcar:

  1. Plan to extend to Aloha St. The Aloha extension has been a consistent priority for Capitol Hill ever since the streetcar was first proposed. Even though funding for Aloha St is not yet secured, the extension should be fully designed and brought to a point of being “shovel ready” as part of this project, and the rest of the line should be designed in such a way as to maximize the feasibility of extending to Aloha.
  2. Keep the streetcar on Broadway north of Union St. This keeps the energy and focus on the retail corridor and makes the system simpler and easier to understand, a key factor in attracting new riders. The Cal Anderson Park loop raises safety and running time concerns and interferes with the community’s plans for the redevelopment of Sound Transit’s light rail station properties, particularly the plan to move the Farmer’s Market to Denny Way and Nagle Place.
  3. Reclaim the Street. Make the streetcar a catalyst for reclaiming the use of the right of way on Broadway. Specifically, consider eliminating the center turning lane on Broadway except at the major intersections and repurposing this space for bicycle and pedestrian use.

Read the full memo
View the proposed street configuration

Also at the meeting, Ethan Melone from SDOT presented the different alignments currently being considered by the city. Although a two-way broadway option is being considered (in addition to various couplets), the current proposal from the city has the streetcar terminating on Denny between Broadway and 10th, which raised concerns from members of the community who are hoping to permanently close this section of the street (currently closed for the next six years for U-Link construction) and turn it into a pedestrian plaza as well as a permanent home for the Broadway Farmers Market. Concerns were also raised that this would preclude an extension north to Aloha.

The Seattle City Council will make a final decision regarding the alignment in April, and construction is scheduled to start in fall of 2011.

[UPDATE 12:25 PM: Tony Russo from the Capitol Hill Community Council sent in an updated version of the memo PDF linked above, containing "minor (mostly cosmetic) edits". The link above now points to the latest version of the document.]

Sunday Open Thread: Our Train Station

King Street Station. Photo by Chris Fussell.

Our train station may be a sad one, but it’s ours.

This is an open thread.

County Council Proposes Metro Transit Task Force

Timetables - from Oran

Although King County Metro has found short-term fixes to their ongoing shortfall, come 2012 they’re still going to have to either find significant new revenue or cut service.

With that in mind, in a proposal from Larry Phillips and Jane Hague, the county council plans to put together a transit task force (.doc) to make policy recommendations that could change the high-level design of Metro. These would not only include particulars such as how Metro grows or shrinks with available revenue, but goes as far as how they weight land use, environmental and social justice, and efficiency when determining where and how to provide transit, and even what Metro’s role in our transportation system should be.

I think this sounds like the kind of overhaul Metro needs. This year’s discussion of service cuts seems like it was just a window into a larger problem. As we’ve seen, Metro has routes that serve a few dozen people a day, and routes that serve eight thousand. Is it really Metro’s place to provide minimal service everywhere to the detriment of really usable core routes? How can we make Metro’s operations help serve our long term land use goals, but keep serving transit dependent communities? How can we stabilize Metro’s revenue so we don’t keep having to argue over it?

This task force could answer these questions. It will consist of a broad group of stakeholders – elected officials, representatives of social services, transit agencies, environmental, business, and educational groups, and others. Their timeline starts in February, with policy recommendations ready for implementation in September.

King County Ridership – Spring 2009

Highest Weekday Ridership Routes, Spring 2009 (click for more routes)

This data (click the image to see more routes) is a tad dated but I think everyone will enjoy taking a look and seeing how their favorite routes stack up.

Back when I wrote at Orphanroad.com I did a series with some similar ridership data (Part 1, Part 2). I didn’t directly compare the ridership figures because they aren’t directly comparable, so cross your eyes a bit if you want to compare them. I have only included routes with more than 1,000 daily riders. Also note that these figures are not direct measures and created using sampling and some fancy statistics.

The next shakeup should complete the most significant change Seattle’s transit system has seen in many years and it will be interesting to see how it impacts ridership on specific routes. At first blush I would expect the 8 to gain a good amount of ridership. It is becoming a center city version of the 44 and 48. And can’t the the 48 get any love… or Rapidride branding, TSP, off-board fare payment and maybe some real-time information?

I-90 Term Sheet is a Good Step Forward

We held off on writing about yesterday’s East Link news to get some more information and more fully understand the process – and I’m glad we did, because there’s more to it.

The term sheet (.doc) referred to in pieces published yesterday is positive, but it’s not the final agreement – it’s more of a mutually agreed upon starting place for building an agreement. WSDOT and Sound Transit are agreeing that these terms are good enough to use when crafting a more lengthy, complex “umbrella agreement” later in the year. This umbrella agreement will be much more detailed, potentially covering exact dates for project delivery, particular responsibilities assigned to each agency, and more.

The term sheet, though, lets us in the public know that WSDOT has pretty much accepted that they’re not going to get actual cash from Sound Transit for the reversible express lanes, despite Speaker Chopp’s earlier demands. This is in line with what we predicted before – the R8A work Sound Transit is doing to add HOV lanes to I-90 constitutes a benefit to the state, a benefit, it turns out, that outweighs the reversible lanes’ value!

Aside from that, there are two things I find really interesting about this term sheet.

First, it’s temporary. It will last 40 years after the start of East Link revenue service, but the umbrella agreement will provide for a renewal contract extending that for an additional 35 years. This ensures the agreement won’t have to be renegotiated until 2095. Hopefully light rail will have its own bridge by then, otherwise I’m going to have to live to 114 so I can write about it.

Second, this removes all responsibility from WSDOT for additional R8A funding past their already spent or programmed money. That bodes well for East Link’s schedule, as Sound Transit is pretty good about funding things when they say they will. Sound Transit just moved forward with the next step of R8A, as well.

This should be representative of the final agreement, but don’t throw a party yet. There are a lot of costs here, from the airspace lease to bridge maintenance, and they could go up before the umbrella agreement is complete and signed – that said, this is good news.

News Roundup: Sounder’s Back

'Which direction?' by Oran

Editorial: The Olympia tax fight matters for transit

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[UPDATE 2:28pm: If you'd like to put together your own package of  sales tax exemptions, this Dept. of Revenue pdf lists them all.  The list of special-interest giveaways is mind-boggling (livestock semen?  gun safes?).  Of particular interest, gasoline (p.291) would yield about $28m for Metro.  Taxing all personal and professional services (p.285) would net over $100m a year.]

One could be forgiven that the coming legislative struggles over plugging the State’s general fund deficit are orthogonal to the transit funding crisis.  And indeed, the profound decisions to be made are likely to drown out calls to rescue struggling local transit agencies with more tax revenue.

However, of all the new revenue options being covered, one stands out as being useful for transit, and that is the option of reducing exemptions in the Sales Tax.  Unlike other options, such an expansion would also increase the revenue of all other state entities that use the sales tax — including all county transit agencies and Sound Transit.

I’ve spoken to a number of veteran Olympia watchers and no one has definitively verified or challenged my layman’s interpretation.  Perhaps that’ll happen in the comments.

Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations, using the 2011 revenue estimates reported in the Schmudget blog and the estimate that Metro sales tax collections in FY 2011 will be 5.5% the size of the State take*:

  • Extending the tax to candy and gum would raise $1.5m;
  • bakery products, $0.9m;
  • a variety of consumer services, $6.5m;
  • financial services, $10.5m (mentioned in the Seattle Times) ; and
  • removing the non-resident exemption, $2m.

More after the jump.

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