Friday Forum: Metro’s Fiscal Cliff

Tomorrow from 12-1pm, in their downtown offices in Rm 121 of the Chinook Building,  Transportation Choices Coalition will host a discussion of the financial cliff King County Metro will drive straight over in 2014, absent action from the state legislature to give the agency more taxing authority:

Your bus could be on the chopping block! Faced with declining sales tax revenue, King County Metro may have to resort to drastic service cuts. The temporary congestion reduction charge staved off these cuts but it expires in 2014. To make matters worse, state funds which pay for transit service during the Alaskan Way Viaduct construction run out next year too – two years before the construction ends!

Join King County Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond for a discussion on what the future holds for King County Metro as they grapple with the challenge of keeping service in the face of an unprecedented loss of revenue. Hear about Metro’s plans for potential cuts and how they hope to keep buses running in 2014 and beyond.

Some numbers for context: Metro needs about $60 million annually to permanently fill the hole the Great Recession blew in the budget; this is currently filled by the two-year $20 Congestion Reduction Charge. On top of this is $15 million per year, to sell bonds to buy new buses (the current biennial budget is only balanced by assuming the cuts will take effect and those buses will not be replaced); and the almost-exhausted Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project construction mitigation funding, which pays for schedule padding and additional peak trips on West Seattle routes, trips that are now full.

Estimates from Metro suggest that a county-wide MVET of about 1% would be the minimum to meet these needs, considerably above the token 0.7% MVET included in the awful highway-expansion package announced last week. And of course, these numbers doesn’t allow for significant expansion or investment in the many corridors, mostly in Seattle, which are under-served at the current frequency levels, or which have shovel-ready projects available to reduce fuel consumption and improve travel times and reliability.

Bellevue: What Makes for a Livable Downtown?

Photo courtesy Patricksmercy

With big plans in the works for its downtown, Bellevue is recruiting intensely into the public realm for those interested in having a say on the City’s Downtown Livability Initiative.  First, a few words about the project.  With the exception of the downtown subarea plan, Bellevue has never really had a concerted downtown planning effort on this scale.  That’s why this project is significant– it would run the gamut of all downtown planning issues, from rezoning to street food.

Here’s where people like you come in.  To solicit input, the City is hosting seven different focus groups (see .pdf), each one targeted at a specific stakeholder group (see below).  Don’t panic if you don’t fit into any of the categories– if you’re truly passionate about the future of downtown Bellevue, then you probably belong in the “visionaries” category:

The meetings will include a brief presentation on the Downtown Livability Initiative, followed by small group, facilitated discussion. Discussion topics will include design, amenities and transportation issues. Feedback from these focus groups will help shape potential changes to the Land Use Code for downtown Bellevue.

Participants are encouraged to attend the meeting that best fits their stakeholder group, but are welcome to attend any meeting that is convenient. Meetings will be in room 1E-108.

·  Architects and planners, Tuesday, March 5, 2-4 p.m.
·  Property owners and developers, Wednesday, March 6, 8:30-10:30 a.m.
·  Brokers, Wednesday, March 6, 4-6 p.m.
·  Large companies and retailers, Thursday, March 7, 2-4 p.m.
·  Former Downtown Plan Advisory Body members, Friday, March 8, 8:30-10:30 a.m.
·  Institutions and visionaries, Monday, March 11, 8:30-10:30 a.m.
·  Residents, Tuesday, March 12, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

To make an RSVP, shoot an email to DowntownLivability@bellevuewa.gov.  If you’re unable to attend but still want to pitch in two cents, thoughts can still be emailed in.  The City will also report on its progress at an open house later this year.  More on the project, including existing plans, maps, and data, can be found here.

News Roundup: Informative Reports

AvgeekJoe/Flickr

This is an open thread.

Transit Supporters are the Key Swing Vote

2008 Sound Transit 2

2008 Sound Transit 2

As discussions about a new statewide transportation package continue in Olympia, transit advocates need to make one point clear to lawmakers: transit supporters are the key swing voters when it comes to defending a statewide transportation package. Just because a package passes in Olympia doesn’t mean it would survive a public vote.

While transit supporters are the most likely to support new taxes for transportation investments, they are also the most likely to swing against a highway-heavy package. History has shown that when transit supporters are not happy with a transportation package, an odd coalition of environmentalists and fiscal conservatives (i.e. Tim Eyman) emerges to soundly reject it. This is as true now as it has ever been.

History bears this out. In 2002 Referendum 51 drew criticism from parts of the environmental community, failing in an incredibly lopsided (38%-62%) statewide vote. Three years later, Tim Eyman’s Initiative 912 — which would have repealed the  2005 Transportation Partnership Program which on a whole made necessarily investments in safety, maintenance and replacement  – was rejected by voters. While the initiative had much more support statewide than R-51, King County was the decisive factor in its defeat, rejecting it by over 161,000 votes.

The 2007 Roads and Transit package and 2008 Sound Transit 2 measures also clearly illustrate this trend. Full of controversial projects (such as the Cross Base Highway) and with strong institutional and financial backing, Roads and Transit was nevertheless rejected by 56% of the voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. In contrast, Sound Transit 2 passed just a year later with 57% approval despite a shoestring campaign budget and the looming economic crisis (see map above).

As currently proposed, the House transportation package looks to repeat the history of R-51 and Road and Transit, with transit supporters opposed to the package despite the dire funding needs of transit agencies. What transit supports want is important, but what they don’t want is equally important, and their ‘yes’ vote cannot be assured simply by including their needs in an otherwise unacceptable package.

Key fixes to the current proposal to make it palatable to transit supporters include:

  • Ensuring transit agencies have a sustainable funding sources in addition to revenue sources for future growth, especially for Sound Transit;
  • Increased state funding for safety projects, especially Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School;
  • Robust local funds for counties and cities to maintain their deteriorating roads;
  • Fully funding existing projects like SR-520 and SR-99 over new projects and;
  • A true emphasis on the Moving Washington goals, particularly safety and maintenance.

Good News: Demand-based Parking Can Be Adjusted Based On… Demand!

Parking Lot Rising

Parking Garage, photo by flickr user Jasonmp

Econ 101 tells us that underpriced goods will be over-consumed. Hence, if all parking is free in a busy neighborhood, then free spaces will be scarce.  Conversely, if all parking is very expensive, then spaces will be plentiful but people will be overspending on parking. So you have to hit the sweet spot, which is one reason why the city has decided to adjust rates in the International District.

As Erica Barnett notes, the city is constantly adjusting rates in every neighborhood.  No doubt they will do it again in the future.  Despite the Times’ effort to portray this as a McGinn “blink”, this is a good thing. Matt G did a post back in March with plenty of graphs on parking utilization in the ID and other neighborhoods if you want to deep-dive on this subject.

Here’s local restauranteur Tom Douglas, as quoted in the Times:

“It costs more to park in front of Wild Ginger than the Dahlia Lounge and more to park in front of the Dahlia Lounge than Tai Tung (in the International District). It’s nonsense and it’s self-defeating,” Douglas said.

We don’t know if there’s more to that quote that clarifies why Mr. Douglas thinks setting prices according to demand is “nonsense.” Nevertheless, parking outside Dahlia Lounge costs $2.50 per hour.  The Mixed baby lettuces with lemon, parmesan, goat cheese crostini on the dinner menu will set you back $9.  Just to keep things in perspective.

Bellevue & Sound Transit Come to Terms on Light Rail Overlay

Joni Earl at Monday's Bellevue city council meeting (click for video)

Joni Earl at Monday’s Bellevue city council meeting (click for video)

In one of its rare 7-0 votes, the Bellevue city council unanimously adopted a light rail overlay into its land use code last night.  If you’re confused about what was actually adopted versus what was proposed, you’re not alone.  The land use code amendments went through multiple iterations in the past week, some of which occurred the night before the council meeting.  The bottom line, however, is good news: the overlay, as adopted, would no longer add significant delay to East Link.

If we rewind to last week’s council meeting, you might recall that those batch of amendments could have stuck 12-24 months of delay on the schedule, simply because of restrictions on Sound Transit’s ability to apply for permits.  The restrictions were worrying enough for ST to prompt both parties to go back to the drawing board– negotiations in the ensuing days churned out so many revisions that City staff had to color-code the amendment alternatives for Monday’s meeting.

The end result is a kind of give-and-take agreement.  Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl gave the council her commitment, in person, to ask for board authorization of property acquisition no more than 60 days after adoption of the final alignment.  The City, on the other hand, agreed to an amendment which would allow ST to apply for permits after initiating the property appraisals process (Alternative 1 on slide 5 - .pdf), whereas last week’s draft would have required waiting until after initiating condemnation.  Ultimately, the net outcome keeps East Link on schedule.

The adoption of the overlay is one step in fulfilling the Memorandum of Understanding (.pdf) that was signed between Bellevue and Sound Transit in 2011.  ST is expected to wrap up environmental work on the cost-savings work next month, paving the way for a hopeful April date in approving the final alignment.

“Sex, Neuroscience and Walkable Urbanism”

Price Tags has posted a video of a great lecture given at Simon Fraser University by Jeff Tumlin, a principal at Nelson\Nygaard. If you’re interested in making our cities and transportation systems more sustainable, able to accommodate more people, and just nicer places to be, you’ll want to take the time to watch this lecture in its entirely; Tumlin is an excellent speaker, wonky yet engaging.

I couldn’t agree more strongly with his main points: focus on pedestrians, make walking delightful; make bicycling safe and enjoyable for everyone; fix (or replace) the broken metrics the civil engineering field uses to evaluate and plan streets; active, mixed-use density is good for us, individually and collectively; and that the critical density to make cars optional does not have to be high-rise towers (although that’s great if we can make it happen, especially around rapid transit), it can be a continuous fabric of low- to mid-rise mixed-use density.

I only wish he had not taken some of the detours into pop-psychology; they are distracting, somewhat speculative, and seem unnecessary to motivate or explain his real message. That many people are willing to pay a considerable premium to live in walkable, car-optional neighborhoods with an active street life is reason enough to fix the broken regulatory systems that prevent us from building more of them.

It’s Not Just The Bicycle Tax That’s Terrible

Suburban Highway

Massive Spokane Highway Expansion

Now that House Transportation chair Judy Clibborn has proposed a statewide transportation package, much of the local reporting has been focused on the fact that it includes a tax on bicycle sales. And yes, a bicycle tax is a stupid idea. It would create a disincentive to use a transportation mode that does almost no damage to streets or our climate, and improves public health, for a measly million dollars in revenue in a ten billion dollar package.

It’s also a genius move – put something so incredibly stupid in a package that we talk about that instead of the real reason the package is insane.

At a time when the state needs money for maintenance across the state, we’re trying to address climate change, and we desperately need money for transit, this package spends $3.9 billion to start – and not finish – shiny new highway projects. It widens 405, 5, 167, and 90. It doesn’t solve the 520 or 99 funding problems the state has already started. And it puts hundreds of millions into the Columbia River Crossing project – throwing money into a boondoggle that our new transportation secretary has opposed for years.

There is a little bit for transit – but it wouldn’t come close to solving Metro’s shortfall, and it does nothing to build toward Sound Transit 3.

This would be a terrible place to start a debate. Urban legislators would be left fighting a bicycle tax, trying to fund I-5 preservation through downtown, and finishing 520 and 99, instead of asking for transit. While I can’t speak to Clibborn’s motivations, it would make sense for this to be intentional, to keep the debate focused on highway projects. Transit advocates would be left fighting it entirely or trying to get what they can (which wouldn’t be much).

In the short term, we don’t have much to worry about. House leadership isn’t interested in the bill. It was yanked from getting a hearing in today’s meeting, and I’ve heard from sources in Olympia that the House doesn’t want to deal with transportation at all until education is solved.

Unfortunately, this is what we’re going to have to look forward to. Without strong leadership from our representatives, we’ll end up starting the transportation debate with a package that would drive sprawl, accelerate climate change, and screw transit users all over Puget Sound. Remember – the legislature created our transit mess.

If we start with a package like this, we’d do best to kill it at the ballot box, and force the legislature to actually fund transit if they want our votes.

Missing Love on the Bus

callisto.ggsrv.com

I’m not sure exactly what to make of this map (via Sullivan), but fills me with an odd sort of pride that Washington is one of the few states (along with Oregon and the obviously transit-oriented Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and D.C.) where transit use is commonplace enough to lead in this statistic.

Sunday Open Thread: State of the City

This is an open thread.

Why Seattle Needs Urban Seating on 40′ Coaches

Blocked Aisle

Blocked Aisle on an Orion

In the last week or so, Metro’s newest Orion coaches, with low floors, wide doors, slimmer seats, bigger windows, air conditioning, and much quieter drivetrains, have finally started percolating onto my neighborhood bus routes. While I’m fond of the old Gilligs they are replacing, the Orions are in every way a vastly superior vehicle for the passenger and neighbor. The one thing I wish they had was a better seating layout like that of 40′ coaches Vancouver or Phoenix, where, similar to what Metro has done with RapidRide, seating in the low section of the bus has been reduced to make more floor space available for passenger circulation.

The photo above (for whose terrible quality I beg forgiveness) shows why this matters. Extremely busy inner-city bus routes invariably seem to have a number of people who want bring large wheeled shopping baskets or unfolded strollers onto the bus. I have no idea if, or to what extent, this is against Metro policy, but in practice, drivers rarely seem to bother even trying to enforce it. The smart thing to do is just accommodate these people officially, and this is vastly easier if there are just fewer seats down in that section, otherwise they are end up blocking the aisle or doorway, like you can see here. (On this busy trip, the disabled seating area was occupied).

Well-informed people at Metro and the city tell me that, while no decision has officially been made, there’s a consensus on high that having a RapidRide-like seating and three-door arrangement makes sense for the 60′ trolleybuses Metro will soon be purchasing, the benefits of this layout having been proven in practice. This is great news; but apparently the expectation is that 40′ trolleybuses will be laid out like the current Orions. Given that trolleybus routes — especially those which use 40′ equipment — primarily serve short trips with very high passenger loads, and will never see service on long-haul commuter routes where more seating makes sense, this would be a real missed opportunity to make transit in Seattle work better for less money, using a strategy that’s proven both here and elsewhere.

STB Wins Municipal League Award

I’m humbled to announce that, as Bruce alluded to yesterday, the Municipal League of King County gave STB its 2013 award for “Government News Reporting of the Year.” It was a complete surprise to be included in the tradition of admirable journalists who have won it in the past, like Robert Mak, Erica C. Barnett, David Postman, and West Seattle Blog.

STB is of course a labor of love by thirteen people with real day jobs. Although there are a lot of opinion pieces and short bursts we do try to break stories and provide in-depth analysis that is fair (if not always balanced), and it’s gratifying to hear that people find it to be interesting and thought-provoking. We’ll use this as motivation to keep improving, and as a vehicle to thank our readers and commenters, without whom we’d be shouting into the darkness.

The awards banquet is April 11th in downtown Seattle.

New Bellevue Land Use Code Changes Could Delay East Link

Overlay transition areas – click for staff presentation

Over the weekend, Bellevue rolled out new changes (.pdf) to its land use code amendments in response to the NIMBYs that swarmed the City’s public hearing last week. From what we’ve heard, the changes are a last ditch-effort that could end up delaying East Link by months, maybe even years. Sound Transit is so concerned with the new amendments that they even sent East Link’s project director to testify against them at the council’s meeting Tuesday night.

Among the changes are three technical code revisions, any combination of which could end up having some negative impact to East Link:

  • Height restrictions that could be determined by a lengthy regulatory process
  • A 30-foot setback from the edge of the alignment to residential property lines
  • A 60-foot setback from the edge of the alignment to residential building structures

[Read more...]

Joni, McGinn and Lots of Enthusiasm

Meetup Panorama. Photo Will Green.

Meetup Panorama. Photo Will Green.

The upstairs of Hale’s Ales was packed on Wednesday, as well over a hundred people crowded in to hear Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn discuss the upcoming Ballard High Capacity Transit study. The room was a mix of STB regulars, agency staff, political insiders, neighborhood activists and interested members of the public. A show of hands before the speeches indicated the audience was overwhelmingly enthusiastic at the prospect of building better transit to Ballard.

After Martin’s words of welcome, Chuck Sloane from the Municipal League of King County announced that Seattle Transit Blog is this year’s recipient of the Best Government News Reporting award, which we’re thrilled to receive; Martin will have a separate post on that soon.

Our first speaker, Joni Earl, introduced the study by way of explaining ST’s previous and ongoing work in building out Link; the ideas of sub-area equity and the agency’s regional mandate, which have thus far operated to focus construction outward from Seattle to the surrounding region; and the crucial fact that any major new project by ST would require new taxing authority from the legislature, and in all likelihood, a public referendum.

Mayor McGinn spoke in more detail about the study. The only thing formally decided is the study area itself; essentially everything else — type of vehicle, alignment (Uptown versus Fremont) etc. — is on the table. The area is shown on this map, and includes Ballard, Fremont, Interbay, Queen Anne, and downtown Seattle. One of the primary purposes of the study will be to generate a set of alternatives, with estimates of construction and operating cost, ridership and other pros and cons for each. The first open house (in the more traditional format with presentations and posterboards etc.) will be held sometime in March; you can be sure we’ll announce it when we find out specifics.

The speeches were intentionally brief to provide maximum time for audience questions. As at many such public events, a majority of the questions were only vaguely related to the subject at hand (parking and traffic in Ballard, Sounder to Olympia, Ballard Sounder station, buses to Golden Gardens, Fremont-Queen Anne bus connections, labor disputes involving an ST contractor etc.), and to most others (What would the streetcars look like?, What about building another downtown bus tunnel?, How much is revenue is it plausible to ask of from the legislature?), the answers are simply not known yet.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten all the best questions and answers, so please chime in below with all the things you learned that I missed. Thanks to all of you who brought your questions and your enthusiasm; but particularly to our special guests, Joni Earl and Mike McGinn, and their respective agencies, who put this together; to our gracious hosts at Hale’s Ales; and to the donors who helped STB cover the cost of the venue.

News Roundup: Openings

Yesler Cable Car, 3rd & Yesler, 1940 (Rob Ketcherside/Flickr)

This is an open thread.

Action Alert: Come Support Capitol Hill TOD

Urban Design Framework

Urban Design Framework

After four years of extensive work by volunteers, the community, the City and Sound Transit to develop a shared vision and development agreements for the Capitol Hill Link Station, a NIMBY group is slinging outright lies at the work in an attempt to kill it. The NIMBY group is trying to discredit the comprehensive and open process spearheaded by the Capitol Hill TOD Champion group that last September led to a development agreement between the City and Sound Transit, a first of a kind in the region and a model of what needs to happen in the future.  At Thursday’s Capitol Hill Community Council meeting John Akamatsu and Lisa Kothari are up for appointment as the CHCC’s representatives to the Champion’s group, and NIMBY groups want to block their appointment in an attempt to stall progress on TOD.

If you support TOD at the Capitol Hill Station come join me at the Cal Anderson shelterhouse on Thursday, February 21st at 6:30pm to show your support these two appointees.

Agenda details are here. To vote on the CHCC you must live within the boundaries of Capitol Hill; own property or own or operate a business or nonprofit organization within the boundaries of Capitol Hill; be employed within the boundaries of Capitol Hill; or volunteer for an agency which serves Capitol Hill.

CHS Blog has more backstory here.

Housing and Transit: Supply and Demand Works for Transit Too

Mike Lindblom wrote a pretty decent story on the idea of gondolas in Seattle. Unfortunately the headline touts the gondola as a solution to a “traffic mess,” which plays into the narrative of transit as a means to improve the flow of car traffic. Most of us view transit as a way out of auto dependence, not a way of making our car commute faster. Nevertheless, the article gave fair play to what might seem like an outlandish mode of travel for Seattleites.20130219-115049.jpg

But there’s another big issue for innovative transit solutions like gondolas: supply and demand. In order to create the demand that would support lots of transit innovation, we need to aggregate that demand geographically. That means dense, compact development patterns.

I’ve pointed out before that when we disperse demand, we end up increasing the costs to operate transit, a cost soaked up by government subsidy. When we have lots of people in one place, it’s more efficient and cost effective to get them where they need to go and back again.

I love the gondola idea. But if we’re going to create more transit supply (which can be expensive to build), we need to work on the demand side too. Seattle and the surrounding region has a tendency to forget that while modes are important (BRT, light rail, monorails, gondolas etc), there must be adequate, dense demand to make them competitive with driving.

With housing, we fuss about price while at the same time, restricting supply – we need to do the opposite. With transit, we’d also have better outcomes for affordability if we allowed more density. In the case of housing, increased supply has a salutary effect on price, while in the case of transit, an increase in demand has a similar salutary effect.

Density solves the demand problem for transit, concentrating it in fewer places, creating efficiencies and even competition between modes and innovative solutions (think about all the car sharing going on for profit!)

Gondolas in Seattle? Absolutely! But don’t forget the density.

December 2012 ST Ridership

DWHonan/Flickr

Sound Transit’s December 2012 ridership report is out, and once again shows healthy year-on-year gains for most services. As a bonus, December closes out the yearly stats. ST Express’s year-on-year numbers aren’t directly comparable because the end of the ride free area means that intra-downtown trips are now counted.

December’s Central Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday boardings were 25,084/17,356/15,984, increases of 3.8%, 23.4%, and 42.6% respectively over December 2011. Sounder’s weekday boardings were up 4.7% (despite historic mudslides on the North Line) but Tacoma Link was down 7.7%.

For the year as whole, every service except Paratransit saw gains over 2011. All but Tacoma Link gained more than 10% over 2011.

Inslee Names Lynn Peterson to Head WSDOT

Lynn Peterson

In a move that shows a strong commitment to walkable, bikeable communities, transit, and sustainability in general, Governor Inslee has appointed Lynn Peterson to succeed Paula Hammond as Secretary of Transportation.

Peterson has been Sustainable Communities and Transportation Advisor to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber since March 2011.  She began her career as an engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in 1988, and has worked in the greater Portland area since 1994: as a Travel Forecaster for Metro Regional Government, as a Transportation Advocate for 1000 Friends of Oregon, a Strategic Planner for Trimet, 4 years with her own consulting firm, and as Chair of the Clackamas County Commission.

Peterson is very unlikely to support highway expansion over transit. She’s been a supporter of rail over road expansion in the past. This is great news for us, for our transit agencies, and for our climate.

2:15pm update: Looking a little deeper, there’s a lot to like here. In Peterson’s 2010 letter to the Columbia River Crossing Review Board as chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, she was carefully critical of the Columbia River Crossing project, with really solid comments that show clear support for light rail and pedestrian connections, and little support for highway growth. This is the approach I want to see to every highway project:

“Removing a bottleneck on the I-5 bridge and moving it to I-5 in the Central City is not a viable solution, and the region is forced to make additional difficult and unrealistic choices.”

Tolling I-205 (a parallel crossing to I-5 in the project) is a major theme here, and the strong support in the letter shows she’ll be committed to tolling I-90 as well. She also wrote that “evolving environmental expectations” mean that “mega-projects do not reflect the priorities of the communities we are elected to serve,” and disapproves of prioritizing the CRC project over all other regional concerns. That’s exactly the kind of approach Washington needs.

Seattle Trivia Crawls: Rapid Ride Edition

The First In-Service RapidRide, by Atomic Taco on Flickr

The First In-Service RapidRide, by Atomic Taco on Flickr

I’m a huge fan of pub trivia (or “Quizzo” as we called it back in Philly). I’m also a fan of pub crawls. And I’m learning to love RapidRide. So I have to give a special shout out to Seattle Trivia Crawls new RapidRide edition:

A first in Trivia Crawl history. Instead of walking amongst pub stops, we’ll use the Rapid Ride buses.

We’ll be crawling along/using the “D” line. You either need an Orca card or cash to pay the $2.25 fare.

3 pm start time at Thirsty Fish in Crown Heights
End location is Lower Queen Anne (so plan accordingly).
This crawl will go longer than the typical 3.5 hour length due to the uncertainty of bus arrival times.

An email with all pertinent details will be sent a few days prior to the Crawl to those who have registered.

Heh: “the uncertainty of bus arrival times.” It’s like you don’t even need a schedule!

Register here.