About Martin H. Duke

Martin joined the blog in Fall 2007 and became Editor-in-Chief in 2009. He is originally from suburban DC, but has lived in the Greater Seattle area since 1997. He resides with his family in Columbia City and works as a software engineer in Lower Queen Anne.

A Preview of the Coming Cuts

If you haven’t been following the Proposition 1 discussion obsessively, you might not have a firm idea of what the (now inevitable) Metro cuts will look like. David Lawson’s analysis of the Seattle and Eastside cuts are useful references, amended by the recent slight uptick in projected revenue.

South King County’s cuts are equally deep, but are not accompanied by a major restructure and so did not merit the kind of analysis David brought to the other subareas.

Metro’s website about the cuts is here.

[UPDATE: Here's a document about phasing, where the first 166,000 hours go away this September.]

Proposition 1 Failing

Proposition 1 is failing in early (but substantial) returns. With 30% of an estimated 38% turnout counted, the measure is failing 55%-45%. Barring an unexpected late surge in ballots, King County voters will get the road and bus systems they evidently deserve.

Faced with the choice between slightly higher taxes and draconian cuts to service, the voters have chosen the cuts. The impact will be most severe on the transit-dependent, but commuters of all modes, businesses in dense areas, clean air and water, and public health are all losers.

At the campaign party, King County Executive Dow Constantine indicated he would submit the legislation to cut 550,000 service hours in the next few days. Some officials expressed interest in trying again, perhaps at the city level, but in any case cuts will begin soon.

It is always imperative that Metro spend its dollars wisely. The King County Executive and Council must exercise real political courage to overcome the forces that resist reform of our route structure. In an expanding service environment, it would be possible to rationalize the system and take care of the scattered losers from any restructure, but today Metro must focus on the serving the most people it can, and the casualties are regrettable but inevitable.

One effect of the cuts will to be consolidate desirable service into a few trunk lines. It is more important than ever that these lines function effectively to avoid the total collapse of the system. In these corridors, cities must ignore complaints from other stakeholders and remove parking or general-purpose lanes to ensure these buses are not stuck in traffic. Moreover, future city transportation levies must invest in priority treatments for buses. The returns from these projects are often astronomical, and if anything the case for them has improved.

In these struggles, we look forward to the support of the many Proposition 1 opponents who were concerned that Metro was not spending its dollars effectively.

Closing Argument

Ballots in King County’s special election must be postmarked by tomorrow, so now is the time to stop procrastinating and Vote Yes.

I suspect there are many voters out there that simply want to have as few of their taxes as possible going to transit. They’d be perfectly happy to not have public buses at all, or a system that only those in the most dire need would set foot on. If that’s your ideology — you simply haven’t bought into the enormous societal benefits of higher transit use — we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. All the squabbling about labor costs and efficiency are secondary to what you really want, so go out and vote your principles.

For the rest of you, any angst you might feel about this vote comes down to the gap between Metro as it is and Metro as you would like it to be, or perhaps the gap between a vehicle license fee with a low-income rebate and a different tax. We’re aware of those gaps; Seattle Transit Blog has probably thought more than any other organization about how to improve Metro dollar-for-dollar. But a voter more interested in good transit service than “sending a message” needs a theory of change: how a no vote will lead to improvement in whatever Metro is not doing well.

Rejection of this tax will not rally the legislature to produce a more progressive taxing source. Deep cuts to transit service are not going to punish the forces that keep our taxes regressive, and in fact will give them a solid argument that even King County voters just don’t care about preserving transit service levels.

Minor efficiencies aren’t worth deep cuts. True, a crisis at Metro might wring some concessions out of the union, but not enough to make up for the cuts, the suffering of the transit dependent, and the numbers of people who will give up on Metro and decide it’s useless for them. It is no way to build a system. The really big restructures over the past half-decade are connected to qualitatively new service — Link and RapidRide — rather than the specter of cuts. A growing system is easier to restructure than a shrinking one.

If you think Metro is a pretty good agency, vote Yes. If you think Metro could improve greatly, stand with the experts on Metro improvement at STB and vote Yes.

Sunday Open Thread: The Straddling Bus

Link and the Rising Seas

It’s become fashionable in progressive coastal cities to start planning for the reality of climate change, particularly sea level rise. Locally, Sound Transit says “the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Long-Range Plan update will consider the potential rise in sea level and localized flooding that may occur as a result of climate change based on GIS data currently available.” Although maps of the Seattle Archipelago are an interesting thought exercise, in the foreseeable future rising seas are likely to be much less dramatic. Nevertheless, plausible sea level predictions do have implications for Sound Transit’s long range plan.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Sound Transit 1 and 2 rail lines will suffer little in the next hundred years or so, although the elevated Boeing Access Road section may become a causeway over water or frequent flooding. Although Seattle is fortunate to find most of itself at elevation, Sound Transit 3 and beyond face serious constraints. Hopefully, Seattle will allow thriving, dense neighborhoods to grow around those stations; if those station areas are under immediate threat, the value of the entire alignment is doubtful.

A wildly optimistic estimate as to when light rail might open to Ballard and/or West Seattle is 2030. A map I found that projects what the coastline might look like 50 years after that is at right.

A few immediate observations from this map:

  • An approach to West Seattle on or west of 1st Ave S is a little dicey.
  • Interbay is a terrible place to create a new neighborhood, suggesting an eastern approach to Ballard is more responsible.
  • The idea of a “Rainier Valley Bypass” via E. Marginal Way to speed up South Link trips seems bankrupt, in particular because it would likely come after Sound Transit 3.
  • South Sounder looks to be in pretty good shape; coastal North Sounder, not so much.
  • The Deep Bore Tunnel is not well-positioned, but its lack of futureproofing extends well beyond the sea level.

[Read more...]

A Word on Revenue Projections

Historic Revenues through January 2013

Historic Revenues through January 2013

An unfortunate consequence of the relentless simplification in campaigns is the reduction of revenue projections to a single number. Metro had to settle on a representative figure – 17% cuts – to produce a tangible example of what the cuts would look like, which left it open to some unseemly Times editorial board nitpicking and a trivial update from Metro.

In reality, the revenue projections which spawn these service estimates originate with King County’s Office of Economic and Financial Analysis, and like all projections they actually reflect a range of possibilities. According to County Budget Director Dwight Dively, any revenue projection from that office is “at the 65% confidence level. In other words, there is a 65% probability that actual revenue will be at least as much as is forecast.  This was a policy adopted by the Forecast Council.”

This isn’t a pro- or anti-Prop. 1 point.  Metro’s priority is to preserve current service level, so it’s entirely reasonable (and responsible) that King County would err on the side of caution. In any case, the chances are quite high that revenue will either exceed or fall short of projections, that’s the nature of projections. If Prop 1 fails, the cuts might be above or below 17%, with more weight on the low side. Similarly, if the measure passes Metro might come up a little bit short, but it’s twice as likely that there is some scope to build up a rainy day fund, make long-deferred capital investments to reduce operating costs, or add service on the most overcrowded routes. This is a good “problem” to have.

In any case, this isn’t about “lies” and “promises.” Any agency with highly variable revenues can’t make precise predictions about how much it will be able to spend. The only way to avoid this uncertainty is to join Metro’s lobbying for predictable revenue sources like Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and the Vehicle License Fee that is on the ballot next week.

Ride Services Measures Collecting Signatures

In response to Seattle’s new law on taxi-like services — formally legalizing them, placing limits on vehicle numbers, and creating new insurance and safety requirements – The Seattle Times reports Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) are funding a referendum ($) to repeal the law, under the name “Keep Seattle’s Ride Options.”

[The campaign must] collect at least 16,510 signatures by the end of Thursday [April 17th], the day before the regulations are to take effect… If enough signatures are gathered, the city would be immediately blocked from enforcing the new rules and couldn’t enact them unless voters reject the referendum.

It is not yet certain if the rules are even subject to referendum. Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, part of the (correct) Council minority who wanted the safety requirements without the camps, told me unequivocally that he does not support the referendum because “it is important to retain the safety and insurance regulations which the referendum would repeal.”

There was no serious debate about the safety rules, which are there to protect consumers and move to regulatory parity with the taxi industry. The Council has given every indication of being open-minded about revisiting the problematic caps next year. I have more faith in them than a group of companies that are evidently seeking to avoid oversight altogether.

On the other hand, Initiative 111 is focused on repealing the caps, reducing the $50,000 registration fee to $500, and tweaking some of those safety rules. For what it’s worth, that effort is led by Elizabeth Campbell, who has been associated with very problematic initiatives in the past. Initiative 111 wouldn’t delay enforcement of the existing statute in the meantime. But are the tweaks to those regulations a cause for concern?

Tom Rasmussen says he hasn’t “read the language in Initiative 111 and because of that I can’t say that I support it,” but he “would support an initiative that repeals the driver cap but retains effective safety and insurance regulations.”  An Uber representative says they’re “not supporting” I-111, preferring the referendum because “we want to give Seattle a chance to get this right.”

Sunday Open Thread: How to Take Link to the Airport

News Roundup: Not Nearly Enough

This is an open thread.

ST Picking New Pictograms

cc_constellationThe Link station pictograms are a fairly self-evident accessibility feature, but the origin of these pictograms an almost entirely obscure riff on the concept of constellations, as we reported way back in 2008. Now it’s time to make the pictograms up for all the new stations between Northgate and Angle Lake:

Sound Transit is developing pictograms for future Link light rail stations. A pictogram is an icon that conveys meaning through its pictorial resemblance of a physical object. Pictograms are used on Sound Transit’s Link light rail station signage and way-finding materials. Paired with station names, they help identify stations and the surrounding neighborhood. Pictograms serve as station identification symbols for non-English customers, primarily those that use a non-Roman based alphabet.

Sound Transit would like to begin the process by getting input from you. Please take a moment to share your ideas by completing this questionnaire.

ST reports that it is “phasing out” the constellation program, in favor of simply picking a sensible pictogram.

The Times Doesn’t Know How to Increase Efficiency

The gist of the Times‘s no on Prop 1 editorial ($) is that King County should not replace the expiring tab fee, but instead avoid cuts through the magic of vaguely-specified cost controls. Suggesting that after years of efficiency-oriented service changes, administrative belt-tightening, and multiple fare increases, the deficit can be willed away by more of the same demands a detailed plan to show the numbers, but the Times betrays its fundamental unseriousness by providing only generic union-bashing and right wing talking points about trimming fat.

Their first vague solution is to “reduce labor costs.” Of course, the County can’t simply do that by fiat; it has to be collectively bargained. Personally, I think it would be great for riders if the Amalgamated Transit Union agreed to further cuts in total pay and benefits beyond what they’ve already conceded, and there likely are fair ways to do that. But the Times doesn’t say what compensation level would be acceptable to call off their jihad on transit. How should pay and benefits go down? How much can Metro reasonably recover? Is it enough to avert cuts? Without answers to these, this point is generic union-bashing.

Their second “solution” is to raise fares. A 25 cent fare increase yields about $6.6m annually. With a $60m annual budget gap, that implies a fare increase of $2.25, to $4.50 off-peak/$4.75 one-zone/$5.25 two-zone, if there were no decrease in ridership. Setting aside entirely the social impact on riders, at those prices Metro will have trouble competing with driving on subsidized highways with subsidized gasoline to subsidized parking spaces, and so it won’t actually plug the revenue gap. By suppressing ridership, it is likely to increase Metro’s cost per rider.

Their third source of savings is that old chesnut, “administration.” What positions should Metro eliminate? Public outreach? Service planning? Transit security? The people who clean bus stops? How many millions will that save? Metro’s administrative staff roster was slashed in the early 2000s as part of the cuts arising from I-695, notably including elimination of more than half of the community relations staff, who solicit customer feedback on service changes, and the entire long-range planning team. Where’s the fat to be cut? Again, the Times has nothing useful to say, it merely regurgitates generic talking points.

If the Times board were serious about increasing efficiency, they might start reading STB, where we’ve spent years figuring out how to reduce cost per rider:

[Read more...]

Day-Pass Trial Starts Today

The ORCA consortium’s experiment with offering ORCA-based transit day passes begins today. Bruce explained the details and offered a critique in February.

Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

What’s Important in an SDOT Director?

The Mayor’s Office is seeking the input of Seattle residents into the qualities and expertise Seattle should emphasize in its next director of the Department of Transportation. There’s a very short questionnaire that asks you some general questions about your transportation priorities. If you’ve been following our SDOT coverage over the years, you’re well-qualified to answer these questions. Please do so by April 8th.

Beyond the obvious need for transit speed and reliability improvements, please also consider the emphasis on pedestrian and bike safety over car throughput, through SDOT programs like the road diet.

You can also attend the public meeting at Seattle Center this Saturday, if you RSVP online.

Sunday Open Thread: Gigapixel Seattle

Explore the picture itself here.

City Changes Regulations on Taxis of All Types


Although the City Council’s final compromise wasn’t quite everything car-free living advocates might have wanted, the legislation as a whole could be a positive event for Seattle. It’s positive if it’s the first, rather than the last, step in the evolution of how Seattle pays for car rides.

Anna Minard provided the most concise summary of what the bill does:

• Rideshare companies—that’s uberX, Lyft, and Sidecar, which are being referred to as “Transportation Network Companies”—must abide by a rule that no more than 150 drivers can be active on their system, ready to pick up passengers, at a time. Given that Uber last week revealed they currently have about 900 drivers and “regularly exceed” 300 drivers on system at a time, that could really change their service.

• Allows for-hire drivers to pick up street hails but not passengers from taxi stands. (Until now, they’ve been barred from picking up people hailing cabs on the street and limited to only picking up prearranged passengers.)

• Adds 200 new taxi licenses over the next two years.

• Adds new insurance and safety regulations to the app-based services, while also trying to block TNCs from working around the driver caps by creating multiple shadow companies. It also gives the city council authority to remove the cap on the number of drivers in the future, instead of leaving it to city regulators.

For users of everything other than the TNCs, this is an unmitigated good thing. On-demand car travel becomes much easier with for-hire drivers available for immediate use and more taxis.

The impact on TNC users is mixed. The old situation is an unregulated gray area with few rider protections. The bill creates those protections, while forcing a de facto decrease in the supply of drivers. The latter is bad for consumers, but I can appreciate the Council’s position. It makes no sense to destroy the taxi industry with onerous regulation while allowing a competitor to operate without limitations. A superior solution for consumers would be to lift taxi caps too, but the conservative thing to do is to ease the taxi caps and for-hire restrictions while hobbling the TNCs enough to give their competitors some breathing room.*

That’s all fine as an intermediate step. The ultimate policy objective should be to phase out arbitrary caps on all sorts of driver services. A city where it’s easy to get a ride when you need one is a city where not owning a car is a very attractive option, which will boost transit ridership and decrease the crippling weight of parking pressure on our land use. That’s what the three anti-cap Councilmembers (Burgess, Bagshaw, and Rasmussen) seemed to understand, and I applaud them for their vision.

*One can certainly quibble with the level of the cap, but then the TNCs were notoriously secretive about their driver numbers until the last moment.

Community Transit Begins the Recovery

While Metro kept itself afloat through a combination of reserves, cutting nonessential services, and legislative authorization for a two-year, $20 vehicle license fee that expires this year, Community Transit went over the cliff in 2010 with a cumulative cut of 160,000 annual service hours, including all Sunday and Holiday service.

CT’s new draft Transit Development Plan (pdf) will use increasing tax revenue from the economic recovery to restore 73,000 annual service hours in increments through 2019, with the biggest chunk coming in 2015. CT will remain a shadow of its former self, even before considering the growth in Snohomish County in the intervening decade. 2014 is the first year that sales tax revenue will exceed 2007, in nominal dollars. Adjusted for the consumer price inflation — to say nothing of fuel and labor costs, the main drivers for a transit agency — CT is still 10% lower.



Although Metro is presumably experiencing similar trends, they only partially offset the various temporary measures that have preserved overall service levels and expire soon. Expect a full report on Metro’s financial state this week.

Details on CT’s proposed service additions are below the jump.

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Another ORCA Purchase Option


On Friday Sound Transit announced that they would join the other partner agencies in offering a fixed sales points for special-rate ORCA cards. On the last Wednesday of each month, beginning tomorrow, a booth in Union Station (the building that looms over International District/Chinatown) will offer these from 11-1:30pm.

Although the network of ORCA Card outlets is now fairly extensive, the set of staffed locations that can dispense discounted cards to seniors, youth, and the disabled remains tiny, and with limited hours. Youth cards are available by mail, but the others require showing up in person to one of the partner agency offices during regular business hours.

Last year the consortium created the Orca-on-the-go program to visit major events and selected groups and issue cards on the spot. All of the agencies paid for development, and Metro, Kitsap Transit, and ST purchased the equipment with the understanding that they would cover the whole region. The ORCA website indicates that groups may still call or email schedule these visits. I couldn’t get detailed statistics on this program in time for publication, but ST teams alone have generated about $2,000 in sales so far in limited deployments. Metro has visited 138 locations over the past 12 months.

While more visibility is always good, it’s hard to imagine a smaller improvement in availability. The Metro office is two blocks away, if less obvious, and has much more extensive hours. The best thing to say about the new service is that it’s a low-cost way to add capacity at the busiest time at that Metro office, when the lines become oppressive. Let’s hope there’s decent signage at the Metro office tomorrow.

Sunday Open Thread: East Link Animation

The whole line after Mercer Island, for your viewing pleasure:

East Link Animation
[KGVID width="640" height="360" downloadlink="true"]http://d2virlc8fnqkl3.cloudfront.net/video/projects/03132014_EastlinkAnimation.mp4[/KGVID]

Springfield’s Subway System is Better Than Ours

At the very least, this map provides innovative suggestions for Sound Transit station names. N 130th St. is boring, but “Queasy Street” or “Fast Food Boulevard” is unforgettable.


Metro Cuts Panel Tomorrow

Tomorrow I’ll be part of Metro cuts panel sponsored by Commute Seattle, along with County CM Larry Phillips and Sharebuilder President Dan Greenshields. It’ll start at noon at the 4th floor conference room of the 4th & Madison Building downtown. You can RSVP here.

The focus will be on how the success or failure of the revenue package will affect employers.