Reevaluating Woodinville BRT

Woodinville
Woodinville (Image: SounderBruce)

[Update: corrected an error in the matrix of travel times at the end of the post, where the matrix previously miscounted the transfers in the representative project. Also updated the associated text in the paragraph just above].

Work has begun on SR 522 BRT, with the first BAT lanes in Bothell coming online in late 2020, and Sound Transit’s Stride BRT service opening in 2024. Although phase 1 design recently concluded and the project is now entering the Conceptual Engineering and Environmental process, planners continue to evaluate how to serve the low-ridership Woodinville segment.

The BRT extends from the Shoreline Link rail station along NE 145th where Sound Transit will add bus queue bypasses and signal priority for transit at key intersections. On SR 522, the patchwork of existing BAT (business access & transit) lanes will be filled in to create an uninterrupted lane for transit from 145th to Bothell. In Bothell, the BRT is likely to operate on downtown streets, serving UW Bothell and connecting to I-405 BRT at NE 195th St.

Beyond that, there is a 3.5-mile segment to the Woodinville Park & Ride where the planned service is more basic. The ST3 plan does not fund any capital improvements east of I-405 and the buses operate in general purpose freeway lanes on I-405 and SR 522. The 10-minute headways west of I-405 drop to every 20 minutes into Woodinville.

Expectations for ridership on the Woodinville segment are low. Sound Transit models suggest 8,800 daily boardings on the BRT in 2042, of which just 100 are at the Woodinville stop.

SR 522 BRT
SR 522 BRT, with exclusive ROW in blue and purple. Woodinville segment in green. (image: Sound Transit, click to enlarge)

Continue reading “Reevaluating Woodinville BRT”

Kirkland’s RapidRide Should Connect to Redmond

Frequent Transit Network in Kirkland in 2024, after the North Eastside Restructure and I-405 BRT, but before RapidRide

In March 2020, Metro will implement a restructure of service in the North Eastside. Most attention will focus on the truncation of Metro 255 to connect with Link at UW station. Another key element of the improved Metro network is route 250. This new route connects downtown Bellevue to Kirkland and runs through to Redmond. It splices together the most productive parts of several current routes (234, 235, 248) for a more frequent connection serving three of the Eastside’s major downtown centers.

The route is likely to be successful. It is, however, a step away from the Long-Range Plan (LRP) Metro adopted in 2017. In developing the North Eastside restructure, Metro assessed that this routing has more value than the Rapid Ride routing assumed for 2025. Sometime this year, Metro will kick off planning this year for a 2025 RapidRide route in this market. As they do so, Metro should reflect the learning of the North Eastside process, adopting route 250 as the preferred option for service north of Bellevue, with Kirkland-Redmond service substituted for the less useful Kirkland-Totem Lake segment. Continue reading “Kirkland’s RapidRide Should Connect to Redmond”

Montlake Bus Lane, Flyer Stop, to Close in June

The transit-only lane on the Montlake off-ramp will close this June (image: WSDOT)

WSDOT is preparing for the Rest of the West, the remaining phases of construction on SR 520 between Lake Washington and I-5. First up is the Montlake Project, where construction may begin as early as May. For transit riders, this means the Montlake flyer stop and the transit-only lanes on the Montlake Boulevard exit will both close in June. Several planned mitigations will blunt the impacts to transit riders.

The closure of Montlake flyer stops means buses not exiting the freeway will no longer stop in the Montlake area. In mitigation, WSDOT is funding additional weekend and evening service on Sound Transit route 542 through March 2020. That added service commenced with the March 2019 service change. The closure of the freeway stations are targeted for June 15.

In October 2018, WSDOT opened a temporary transit-only lane on the westbound ramp to Montlake Blvd. The lane, about 1100 feet in length, allowed buses to go almost to the top of the ramp before merging to the front of the queue of cars waiting to turn to Montlake Blvd. Originally scheduled to operate for just six months, the lane was extended three more months as the construction schedule was worked out. It has been very popular with transit users who have seen significantly better bus performance in the area.

Beginning June, that lane will also close. The existing exit ramp will close and be replaced by a narrower temporary ramp along the north edge of the work area. In this more constrained space, WSDOT could make room only for two general purpose lanes and a pedestrian-bike connection to the SR 520 trail. At the request of Kirkland and other Eastside cities, WSDOT studied options to maintain the transit lane, but none appear feasible. Continue reading “Montlake Bus Lane, Flyer Stop, to Close in June”

Refined I-405 BRT to Speed Buses, Attract More Riders

Planned project refinements add up to much better travel times for riders than anticipated in 2016 (Image: Sound Transit)

Sound Transit has significantly refined the design for I-405 BRT which is anticipated to begin service in 2024. The final set of refinements from Phase 1 of design were shared with the System Expansion Committee at their March meeting. The design changes reduce travel times on the corridor and improve reliability. The shorter travel times make the service more appealing and ridership estimates have been raised correspondingly.

Construction will mostly occur in 2023-2024. WSDOT will begin construction of two stations (NE 44th in Renton and NE 85th in Kirkland) much earlier. Both are lengthier and more complex projects, and NE 44th is scheduled as part of the widening of I-405 south of Bellevue starting in 2019.

At the north end of I-405, the representative project envisioned buses running in general purpose lanes between Lynnwood and Brickyard. Although it would be faster to operate in the HOT lanes, the HOT lanes lack center exits to several stops in the Bothell area, setting up an awkward trade-off of speed vs access. Sound Transit has now identified several new locations where the buses can operate on the shoulder. Combined with existing bus-on-shoulder operations, the BRT will be able to operate on the shoulder for most of the distance between Lynnwood and Brickyard southbound while still serving all planned stations. As this is the most congested part of I-405 (and the only part where toll lanes have not met targets for 45mph travel 90% of the time) the benefits of getting buses out of general traffic will be significant.

Continue reading “Refined I-405 BRT to Speed Buses, Attract More Riders”

Sizing ST4: Future Rail Expansions Will be Smaller

The northern terminus of the planned Issaquah-South Kirkland line in 2041, and one candidate for a future extension in ST4 (Image by author)

Although we are early in the ST3 program, some observers are already looking forward to extending Link light rail lines into the suburbs and adding more lines in Seattle. The ST3 plan funds several studies of suburban extensions. Current taxes do not support further expansions at the pace of ST3, however. Unless Sound Transit secures another large tax increase, capital spending beyond ST3 will be mostly squeezed out by the costs of managing what has already been built and financing the bonds accumulated in ST3.

The budget for future projects is constrained by Sound Transit’s tax authority. Sound Transit levies nearly all the taxes currently permitted by the Legislature; the only unused authority is a small rental car tax. Any prospect of further authority is hard to forecast. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine today’s Legislature granting more tax authority. Many legislators were unhappy about how the ST3 program far outran the smaller 15-year program they anticipated in 2015, and high car tabs remain unpopular. On the other hand, fifteen years is a long time in politics, and a new generation of legislators in the 2030s may take a sunnier view.

But let’s suppose we are limited by current law, or equivalently that voters resist new taxes. In that scenario, Sound Transit might ask voters in the waning years of the ST3 program to authorize more projects with an extension of current taxes. How much could Sound Transit build with voter approval if they just roll the current law taxes forward indefinitely? Less than you might expect. It turns out that a capital program extended to 2060 would have a run rate perhaps only a third as large as the 2016-2041 program.

Why is this? ST4 will face several constraints that were not present in ST3. Continue reading “Sizing ST4: Future Rail Expansions Will be Smaller”

Future Link Riders are Mostly in Seattle

Ridership on Link in Seattle and the Eastside in 2040 (image original: Sound Transit)

Where will riders use the ST3 Link system in 2040? Longtime readers will be familiar with project ridership estimates, but most riders on Link are not going to the ends of the line. Along any line, ridership can be much higher on some segments than others. The suburban lines have weak ridership at the tails. Even the Seattle ST3 extensions have lower ridership outside of downtown than is widely understood.

The busiest part of the system is, of course, downtown Seattle with about 200,000 daily riders expected across both tunnels. Near downtown, the largest number of riders will traverse the North Line (about 108,000 daily riders near Northgate), the South Line (72,000 riders near Tukwila), and the east (65,000 riders crossing Lake Washington).*

Ridership to downtown Seattle from the ends of the Ballard and West Seattle extensions are smaller. West Seattle Link will carry 32,000 over the West Seattle bridge. Ballard Link has 34,000 riders on the segment west of Seattle Center. Taken together, this is scarcely more than the East Link ridership across Lake Washington.

Continue reading “Future Link Riders are Mostly in Seattle”

Financial Engineering to Accelerate Link

Downtown Everett (Image: Emersb/Wikimedia)

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff has suggested the agency is exploring creative financing options for Everett Link that shift some costs outside of agency debt limits. If successful, this would mitigate the risk of project delays as Sound Transit bumps up against statutory limits on debt in the 2030s, and may even accelerate the timetable.

The remarks came in a meeting of the Everett City Council. In response to questions about earlier service to Everett, Rogoff replied:

“Our goal in terms of being able to serve Everett sooner is two-fold. One, to work with the communities as cooperative partners to see if we can’t focus on results and minimize bureaucracy to get a plan to get up here as soon as we can. That’s A. B, if there is a way that we can work out a financial arrangement where we could start incurring costs for this that would be exempt from the debt cap imposed on us, that might provide some opportunities to get up here sooner. We’re trying to be as creative as possible.

We’ve made that commitment to not only Paul Roberts, to Dave Somers, to Dave Earling, who’ve been on this for a long time. I don’t want to say it’s impossible. I’d like to continue with each passing year to see if we can’t drive that schedule closer and closer.”

Sound Transit, like any local government in Washington State, faces a constitutional limitation that non-voted debt not exceed 1.5% of the assessed value of property within its jurisdiction.  This constrains the size and timing of capital investments as revenues must accumulate to cover most of the program. At its peak, the financial plan envisions $17.6 billion in debt by 2035, just as Everett Link is scheduled to open in 2036. The debt limit in 2035 is projected at $20.1 billion. There are many risks to that forecast, starting with the inescapable vagaries of a financial forecast two decades into the future. MVET reform alone could erode almost all of Sound Transit’s cushion unless accompanied by offsets. Several billions of anticipated federal grants are uncertain. Community pressures may drive some project costs higher.

We asked Sound Transit to elaborate on the options to spend beyond the debt cap, and Sound Transit spokesperson Kimberly Reason explained: Continue reading “Financial Engineering to Accelerate Link”

Bellevue Prepares for Autonomous Vehicle Transit

The CommutePool service (image: City of Bellevue)

Bellevue is planning a “CommutePool” network of autonomous rideshare services. The goal is to launch the service in 2019, connecting riders from southeast King County to major employers in Bellevue and Kirkland.

Last week, Bellevue and Kirkland jointly submitted a $3 million grant application to the US Department of Transportation’s ATCMTD program (Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment). That program funds model deployments of new technologies for transportation safety and efficiency. A decision on the grant is expected by October. The project also anticipates matching funds from both cities and contributions from major Bellevue employers in the Commute Trip Reduction program. Employers already pay for employee use of vans, so this can be an important source of matching funds. The projected cost of launching the program is about $9 million.

Riders will access the system via a smartphone app which Amazon will develop. The app can select pick-up and drop-off locations, find available parking at park-and-rides or leased parking areas, and reserve seats at specific times. Luum, a Seattle firm actively managing commute options at many Eastside firms, will coordinate the program at participating businesses.

The CommutePool service would connect SE King County cities to major employers in Bellevue and Kirkland (image: City of Bellevue)

Bellevue would like to operate the service with autonomous vehicles, but could lease non-automated electric vehicles as needed to start service by mid-2019. An RFP to obtain vehicles is likely soon after the grant is approved. Waymo plans to purchase 82,000 autonomous vehicles for deployment beginning 2019, and General Motors have also said they will deploy autonomous vehicles commercially next year.

In Bellevue, the CommutePool vans will serve major buildings and designated curb pick-up and drop-off locations.

The proposal has buy-in from many of the largest Bellevue and Kirkland employers. Employers with some 33,000 employees on the Eastside have signed letters of commitment to support the program.

Continue reading “Bellevue Prepares for Autonomous Vehicle Transit”

Everett & Subarea Equity

Everett Station will be the northern terminus of the Link light rail network in 2036 (Image: SounderBruce)A week ago, the Everett Herald carried an Op-Ed by three Sound Transit Board members from Snohomish County. The authors, Paul Roberts, Dave Earling and Dave Somers, criticize Sound Transit for not completing the light rail spine as quickly as possible. They go on to argue the strict subarea equity policy, where Sound Transit investments go to the subareas that pay for them, should be changed. The end goal, of course, is earlier delivery of rail to Everett at the expense of projects in other areas.

The three board members argue that the transportation needs of the region are not contained within subarea boundaries. They may have particularly in mind the enormous daily flow of Snohomish County residents to jobs in King County. This burden is amplified by expensive housing in Seattle and the Eastside that pushes more households to commute from relatively affordable places in Snohomish and Pierce Counties. Lower income communities also generate less revenues, meaning the areas with the greatest socio-economic needs have the least ability to fund local transit improvements.

The crux of the issue for Snohomish County is that their subarea is small, contributing just 13% of Sound Transit revenues. Their major ST3 investment, a 16.3 mile rail extension from Lynnwood to Everett, is disproportionately expensive at just over $3 billion in 2014 constant dollars. (In actual year-of-expenditure dollars, Snohomish will spend $6.2 billion on light rail capital, including a ridership-based contribution to the downtown tunnel).

Continue reading “Everett & Subarea Equity”

Guaranteed Parking in South Kirkland

Kirkland Crossing Apartments at the South Kirkland Park & Ride

Many residential buildings are built with more parking than their residents need, and even more parking goes unused during daytime hours when residents are away. So it was encouraging to see a recent announcement from GarageHop. GarageHop is providing 40 spaces for commuter use in an apartment building at the South Kirkland Park & Ride.

GarageHop is a Seattle company that provides monthly parking spaces in apartment buildings, typically leasing spots in buildings with over-provided parking to commuters and residents of buildings without their own parking. This is their first foray into suburban transit parking.

Kirkland Crossing is a market-rate apartment building in South Kirkland, created as part of an award-winning TOD effort that opened in 2015. It was, somewhat ironically, built with excess parking. GarageHop puts these spaces to use by offering guaranteed parking for $80 per month. Customers sign up online and access the secured garage using their smartphone to park in their own reserved parking space.

Parking at the Metro lot across the street is free. However the lot fills daily (averaging 97% utilization in fourth quarter 2017). At busy times, there have been issues with spillover parking to neighboring businesses. The only guaranteed parking at the Metro lot is via a pilot program for carpools and those spots are only guaranteed until 830am. GarageHop doesn’t require a carpool and can be accessed at any time.

GarageHop joins Diamond Parking Service in the market for privately provided transit parking. Diamond developed a similar offer in partnership with Metro last year.

Market rates for parking, even with guaranteed access, aren’t high enough to attract developers to build structured parking for transit in the suburbs. But GarageHop’s offer is welcome. They are efficiently reusing parking stalls that exist anyway, and offering an additional option for transit users to access the system.

Kirkland’s NE 85th BRT Station

Buses will operate separately from cars on a new middle level of the interchange. (Image: WSDOT)

At an open house on Thursday evening, WSDOT and Sound Transit shared design concepts for the I-405 BRT station at NE 85th St in Kirkland. The station is an ST3 project opening in 2024. The latest design features better connections to local transit and an improved pedestrian environment. None of these make up for the poor location choice. The station will serve just a few hundred riders daily after a capital outlay planned to exceed $300 million.

The NE 85th/I-405 interchange is located one mile northeast of the downtown Kirkland transit center. Today, it is a large cloverleaf with 85th St passing below the freeway. From the west, sidewalks end a half-mile before the station at 6th St, from which there is a 180 feet elevation gain to the freeway. To the east is a low-density commercial strip with modest prospects for redevelopment. This is an unpromising starting point, but the design makes a strong effort to create a station that is as accessible as possible. Continue reading “Kirkland’s NE 85th BRT Station”

Most SR 520 Bus Service to Remain Unchanged: Restructure Focuses on Metro 255

Metro 255 at the Montlake Flyer stop (Image by author)

The once ambitious restructure of bus service between Seattle and the Eastside over SR 520 has been reduced in scope and is expected only to include a truncation of Metro 255 service at UW.

At last Thursday’s King County Regional Transit Committee meeting, Metro staff confirmed that Sound Transit no longer intends to propose any changes to their routes on the corridor. Peak-only Metro routes from the Eastside will also continue to serve downtown. The original restructure proposal had included ten routes, of which the greatest ridership is on Metro 255 from Kirkland and Sound Transit 545 from Redmond.

The reduced scope of the restructure comes against the background of increased optimism about downtown bus movements during the ‘period of maximum constraint’. The removal of more than 800 daily trips from the downtown transit tunnel and construction elsewhere in downtown would strain street capacity and slow transit service without mitigating measures.

The One Center City partners plan several changes to improve downtown capacity without removing so many buses from downtown. On 5th and 6th Avenues, a new northbound transit pathway can serve up to 40 buses an hour (though more likely 25-30 buses). Likely routes on this pathway are peak routes including 74, 76, 77, 301, 308, 316, 311, 252, 257.

On 4th and 2nd Avenues, signal and priority changes will speed bus movements and give pedestrians leading signals improving safety when crossing. On 3rd Ave, all door boarding and all-day bus operations will speed operations there. Through travel for cars will be prohibited during day time hours, but cars will still be permitted to turn right on to the street and must turn right off the street after one block. SDOT, Metro and Sound Transit are sharing in the $30 million cost of street improvements downtown and in Montlake.

Together, these steps allow buses to operate more effectively than they do today through downtown, with up to 25% better travel times on 4th Ave. The added pathway on 5th and 6th alleviates pressure on all avenues. Bus passenger capacity across downtown would increase by 3700 in the PM peak hour, and overall people-moving capacity by all modes would grow by 7500 per hour.

With greater downtown capacity, early proposals to truncate ST 550 at International District station, to route West Seattle buses to First Hill, and to loop route 41 on Pike/Pine, have all been shelved.

Continue reading “Most SR 520 Bus Service to Remain Unchanged: Restructure Focuses on Metro 255”

High Speed Rail Economic Study Makes Exaggerated Claims

High Speed Rail in Taiwan (Image: jiadoldol)

Last week in Vancouver BC, Washington Governor Jay Inslee talked up how “the convenience of a one-hour trip between Vancouver and Seattle would create countless opportunities for people in both B.C. and Washington”. He cited an economic analysis that a high-speed rail link between the two cities could create up to 200,000 jobs and $300 billion in increased economic output annually. Inslee has characterized this as a 20:1 return. How seriously should we take these claims?

The economic analysis, funded by Microsoft and the Washington Building Trades, was prepared as an addendum to a study by WSDOT of HSR costs and ridership. It was released in January, a month after the main report. The analysis estimates 38,000 jobs will be created, directly and indirectly, during construction. More speculatively, the authors claim up to another 160,000 jobs will be created through agglomeration effects, effectively growing the Seattle and Vancouver urban area economies by reducing travel times from outlying cities. While agglomeration effects are a real phenomenon, the size of the claimed effects is preposterous. The reader is asked to believe that about sixty jobs can be created for every daily rider on the train. Continue reading “High Speed Rail Economic Study Makes Exaggerated Claims”

Reimagining Wilburton

Alternative 2 from the Wilburton DEIS (Image: City of Bellevue)

Bellevue is considering an upzone of the Wilburton area east of Downtown across I-405. A draft EIS, currently open for public comment, examines much greater height and more intense urban activity. The Citizens Advisory Committee is also looking broadly at development standards and public investments to improve the livability of the city’s traditional Auto Row.

The area, despite being so close to downtown, is relatively underdeveloped. Apart from a hospital cluster in the northwest, it’s largely a mix of auto dealerships, big box retail, and older strip malls. Existing zoning generally allows development between 35 and 70 feet (excepting the hospital where allowed heights range up to 200 feet). That has not been enough to induce much developer interest and Bellevue anticipates little future growth under the no-action scenario, with the current 3.6 million square feet of development expanding to just 4.2 million by 2035. Continue reading “Reimagining Wilburton”

Senate Approves SB 5955 MVET Bill

The roll call from last night’s vote to approve a reduction in ST3 car tabs

Last night, the Senate approved SB 5955, changing the valuation schedule for the ST3 MVET (Motor Vehicle Excise Tax). Up to two-thirds of the cost is remedied by reducing payments from Sound Transit to the Puget Sound Accountability Fund. The vote was 30 yeas, 14 nays, with 5 members excused. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives which has already approved similar reductions to the MVET, but without an offset for the lost Sound Transit revenues.

Sound Transit levied a 0.3% MVET in Sound Move in 1996. That levy used a schedule that overvalues newer cars relative to resale values. In 2006, the Legislature approved a new valuation schedule that aligns to resale prices. The 0.3% MVET, because of bond requirements, continued to use the older schedule. This levy expires in 2028.

In ST3, voters approved an additional 0.8% MVET. The enabling legislation specified that it should use the familiar older schedule until 2028, then snap to the more accurate 2006 schedule in 2029. At the time, few noticed how this works, but it became suddenly controversial in 2017 when owners of newer cars received their much higher car tab bills. Some felt overcharged because the effect of the higher rates was compounded by a schedule that “overvalued” their cars.

For car owners, the bill would credit car owners for the difference in valuations for the ST3 MVET. Effectively, they’d pay on whichever schedule shows the lower value. Owners of cars less than ten years old will see bills reduced, and owners of older vehicles are not affected. The bill includes refunds for past payments before September 2018.

The credits reduce Sound Transit revenues by $780 million through 2028. Offsetting this are up to $518 million in reduced payments to the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account. As the revenue reduction increases Sound Transit debt, there are additional debt servicing costs which could increase the total impact up to $2.3 billion by 2041 if not mitigated. However, reducing the revenue hit by 65% will proportionately reduce the associated debt servicing hit.

Continue reading “Senate Approves SB 5955 MVET Bill”

Sound Transit’s Debt Limit

Sound Transit anticipates a steep increase in debt after 2025, approaching statutory limits by 2035.

At recently as 2012, Sound Transit had less than one billion dollars of debt. That increased to $4.6 billion by the end of 2017. The ST3 program will push it much higher, peaking at a projected $17.6 billion in 2035. That path puts Sound Transit close to legal limits as major ST3 projects are delivered. After 2035, as most major projects are completed, the outstanding debt could be reduced.

Sound Transit’s ability to take on more debt is constrained both by statute and by policy. Most immediately relevant is a statutory limit of non-voted debt at 1.5% of the assessed value of property within the RTA. This is the same limit all Washington State municipalities face. With 60% voter approval, the statutory limit would increase to 5%, though other policies and bond covenants would prevent the debt ever getting that high. The cushion between actual and allowed debt is most narrow in 2035, when the $17.6 billion in outstanding debt nudges against the $20.1 billion limit.

All financial projections over such an extended period are uncertain, combining assumptions about revenue growth, federal grants, project costs, and interest rates many years into the future. The legal debt limit may be lower than anticipated if the growth of assessed property values slows. Some risks correlate in unhelpful ways. Prolonged slower growth would mean lower tax revenues and less ability to borrow to fill the gap.

The long-term debt plan is very sensitive to small changes in the financial plan in the early years. Consider the bills to correct MVET valuations. The tax revenue loss from updating the valuation schedule is just $780 million between 2017 and 2028 if there is no other mitigation from the Legislature. The implications for Sound Transit debt are larger. Absent offsetting cost reductions, the lost revenues must be replaced by debt. The average interest rate is anticipated at 4% through 2021 (reflecting low recent bond rates), and 5.3% thereafter (a more typical pre-recession cost of debt). Sound Transit pays a 1% origination fee on bonds and typically begins repaying principal after five years. The principal and interest payments are themselves funded with more borrowing. At those rates, the MVET reduction accumulates to $1.6 billion in outstanding bonds by 2035, or $2.2 billion by 2041. That appears to just fit within future debt limits, but the margin of error is much too narrow for comfort in a decades-long financial forecast.

Could Sound Transit borrow to replace a loss of federal funding? Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link alone were anticipated to receive $1.67 billion of federal grants, with several billions more in future New Starts loans on other projects. There is some short-term flexibility in the plan, as Sound Transit is still far from its maximum debt capacity. But extend out the cost of replacing those grants with accumulated interest, and the debt impact roughly doubles by 2035. More debt in the 2020s means exceeding debt limits in the 2030s. A significant shortfall in federal funding would almost surely mean delays or scope reductions somewhere in the capital program. Continue reading “Sound Transit’s Debt Limit”

Eastside Cities & Transit Agencies Lobby for Tolling on I-405

Future expansion of I-405 would add two more HOT lanes from SR 522 (pictured) to SR 527 (Image: WSDOT)

As Sound Transit steps up planning for I-405 BRT, WSDOT is preparing to extend managed HOT lanes from Bellevue south to Renton. Meanwhile, a political consensus in favor of tolling has solidified. After an unsteady start, managed lanes have grown more popular with the public. Eastside cities are recognizing both the benefits in managing traffic and the need for toll revenue to fund future capacity expansion. Eastside cities have joined with transit agencies and local employers to lobby for continued tolling and an expansion of toll lanes at the north end.

Current and planned express toll lanes on I-405 and SR 167 (image: WSDOT)

The first HOT lanes (high-occupancy toll) in the region opened on SR 167 in 2008. In 2015, another 15 miles of HOT lanes opened on I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood. Throughput on the lanes is maximized with a combination of free HOV-3 and tolling for other vehicles. The former HOV-2 lanes were badly congested as too many vehicles qualified to use the lane, but HOV-3 alone would leave the lanes under-used. Tolling balances traffic by allowing just enough other cars into the HOT lane so it is used efficiently, but not overwhelmed. Raising the HOV limit to three occupants at peak hours, however, did make the lanes unpopular with former two-person carpoolers.

In Renton, construction is underway on HOV-to-HOV ramps between I-405 and SR 167. Those will open for traffic in 2019, enabling higher occupancy vehicles to avoid the weave across several lanes of general purpose traffic. Construction then begins on widening I-405 to create two HOT lanes in each direction between Bellevue and SR 167. A fifth of the $1.175 billion cost is funded from future tolls. Completion of the Bellevue-Renton HOT lanes in 2024 will enable Sound Transit to operate BRT on this corridor.

Between Bothell and Lynnwood, the highway narrows to just one HOT lane and two general purpose lanes in each direction. Demand for the HOT lanes is so high that they often fail to clear even with tolls at the statutory maximum of $10. Toll revenues funded a shoulder lane between SR 527 and I-5 that opened in April 2017. That significantly improved operations in the northbound direction, increasing vehicle throughput in the general-purpose lanes and reducing toll rates. The cost was a low $11 million. Future planned improvements in the I-405 Master Plan have higher price tags and currently lack state funding, but could be paid for by future tolling.

It is against this background that the continued operation of managed lanes is being debated. All the major Eastside cities, the transit agencies on the corridor, and many large employers, have joined in lobbying the Legislature. They seek continued tolling along the corridor and an expansion of the HOT lanes north of Bothell. Two recent joint letters lay out the interests of local stakeholders.

Continue reading “Eastside Cities & Transit Agencies Lobby for Tolling on I-405”

How to Pay for Fixing the MVET

Train departing Angle Lake Station. (Image by author).

Here’s the idea in a nutshell. Revise the valuation schedule for the MVET, per HB 2201, so that the ST3 MVET (0.8%) is levied on the more accurate 2006 schedule. Pay for it by extending the Sound Move MVET (0.3%) that is otherwise scheduled to expire in 2028. The extended 0.3% MVET can use the 2006 vehicle schedule too, and can be set to expire once the funding gap is made whole. Sound Transit’s ability to deliver voter-approved projects on time will not be impaired. Car owners will see an immediate tax cut, offset only by a delay in the expiration of the Sound Move MVET after 2028.

Let’s recall some MVET history and ST3 financing. Continue reading “How to Pay for Fixing the MVET”

High Speed Rail Study Predicts Low Ridership

China Railways High Speed Train at Beijing South Station (Image: calflier001)

WSDOT’s recent study of high speed ground transportation in the Cascadia Corridor raised hopes that much faster rail connections to Vancouver and Portland may be in our future. The Governor has requested a more comprehensive study in 2018.

Depending on the technology and alignment chosen, a high-speed rail service could cover operational costs by 2035. However, capital costs may be large, with estimates ranging as high as $42 billion. Annual ridership in 2035 is just 1.9 – 2.6 million, rising to 3.1 – 4.2 million annual riders by 2055. That seems too low to warrant such a large investment unless costs can be dramatically reduced. Policy makers may conclude the more promising path is to pursue incremental upgrades.

Range of estimated capital costs (Image: WSDOT/ch2m)

Key findings

The study examined high-speed rail and maglev technologies with maximum operating speeds of at least 250 mph. The hyperloop is briefly reviewed, but that technology is too speculative for useful cost estimates. After screening, three conceptual north-south corridors were studied in most detail, all serving the Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver markets. Corridor 1A serves seven stations with a combination of urban core and periphery stations. Corridor 2 serves only the urban cores and Portland Airport. Corridor 4 is a lower cost option serving just three suburban stations. The latter option reduces costs somewhat, but also reduces ridership because the slower local rail connections to business districts increase total travel time for many users. Continue reading “High Speed Rail Study Predicts Low Ridership”