A Budget for ST3

The Long-Range Plan studies are done, providing the Sound Transit Board with a menu of projects with which they can compose the next ballot measure. That assumes that the legislature, one day soon, gives them the authority to do so. But now that they have the price list for various projects, how much money would there be to spend?

In principle, the legislature can do whatever it wants in granting revenue authority, although what regional lobbyists request will shape the legislation. To provide some form to this exercise, I’ll make two assumptions:

Subarea Equity. Under current law, Sound Transit must use money collected in each subarea in that subarea. In principle, new legislation could change this rule, and no less than the Mayor of Seattle is in favor of doing so. A transfer from high-revenue, low-demand East King to low-revenue, high-demand South King has its merits. However, regardless of the law, a substantial transfer of funds from one area to another is likely electoral suicide. ST sent me the most recent revenue projections for 2009-2023 (below), which state that tax revenue from Snohomish, North King, South King, East King, and Pierce will arrive in the ratio 1 : 2.4 : 1.2 : 2.0 : 1.4, respectively. Of course, different taxes will generate money in different ratios, and the ST3 revenue period will be different than this one, but using this is much better than a wild guess.


(Before you take these actual numbers and start buying stuff, note that these are year of expenditure dollars, while the ST Long Range Plan figures are 2014 dollars. In other words, the LRP projects cost more if you’re using these figures.)

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Introducing Page 2

I’m pleased to announce a new forum for long-form discussion about Greater Seattle transit and land use called “Page 2.” Although we take pride in the fact that Seattle Transit Blog’s front page maintains a high standard of discourse, that standard requires work — work that substantially limits how much reporting and opinion we can bring you.

Our solution is to open up a forum for the broader community to submit their own posts with less editorial scrutiny. This isn’t a free-for-all: submissions must relate to transit and land use, no spam is allowed, and as in the comment policy vitriolic ad-hominem attacks and other anti-social behaviors are forbidden. To support those goals, we require registration for post authors: let us know if you’d like an account. Our guest post guidelines continue to be a good set of hints on how to write effectively on STB.

If you’re here for the carefully curated writing, rest assured that this will have basically no effect on how the STB main page works. However, a nice side effect will be a streamlined system for submitting guest posts. Our intent is to take the very best from Page 2, apply whatever editing is necessary, and “promote” it to STB for distribution on our RSS and Twitter feeds, as well as getting the usual play on the front page. Alert readers may have noticed that some Page 2 posts have already appeared on the main page, indicated by the new byline for guest posts. Although for now we’re going to allow handles on Page 2, any promoted post must conform to our usual policy on real names for authors.

If you don’t have the fortitude to write long form pieces, but can’t get enough of our comment threads, I encourage you to check there every few days and see what the community has produced. We invited a few longtime commenters to start building up content there in time for launch, but what they wrote was so good that I promoted it all to the main page, so at the moment there isn’t anything there. Check back later this morning for a subject that is sure to inspire some creativity. You can certainly comment on Page 2 posts just like any other.

This new feature is entirely a product of the tireless effort of Frank Chiachiere, who had to work through several major issues and deserves all the credit for its design and implementation. Although this is an experiment and all of you will ultimately decide its success, I’m excited about it and have high hopes you’ll be excited too.

Transit Tunnel Closed Saturday Morning

Atomic Taco (flickr)

Atomic Taco (flickr)

The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) and Link’s Stadium Station will be closed this Saturday, August 9th from approximately 5-11am. The closure will allow Metro and Sound Transit to test the joint U-Link and bus operations that will be in place from 2016-2019.

Link trains will terminate at SODO, and Shuttle Route 97 will operate from SODO to Westlake, serving all tunnel stops. Buses will operate their full routes, albeit on the surface. See Metro’s Alerts page for more details of each route’s surface routing.

U-Link will boost peak frequency from 8 trains per hour to 10 per hour, and those tunnel slots either have to be accommodated via improved operating efficiency or by surfacing buses. Metro obviously has every incentive to keep its buses in the tunnel, as the tunnel saves riders time and saves Metro money. Sound Transit, of course, has every incentive for U-Link to be as fast and reliable as true rapid transit should be. These incentives being at odds, tests like these try to find the operating level where Metro maximizes its bus throughput without damaging U-Link’s reliability.

Long term, of course, the tunnel is slated to be rail-only, but not until 2019.  In the event that joint ops at 2016 service levels bring the tunnel to a standstill, some additional buses will need to be removed. For a prioritization framework about which routes are worth keeping in the tunnel, I wrote on the subject in 2012 when the RFA was ending, and I think the analysis still holds up fairly well.

Rainier Station 60% Design Open House

This is a guest post.


Rainier Station Platform Rendering

Rainier Station Platform Rendering

On Thursday night Sound Transit hosted the last 60% design open house (30% report here) for East Link at the Northwest African American Museum. The event was well attended with an estimated 50 people seated for the presentation. The presentation included comments by the project managers Tia Raamot & Cynthia Padilla, project consultant architect David Hewitt, STart program manager Barbara Luecke (with an assist from Tia Raamot) and a short Q & A session. Of note:

  • Construction on the I-90 express lane reconfiguration starts in 2015
  • Construction for EastLink starts in 2017 and continues until 2022

David Hewitt (Hewitt Architects) gave an overview of the design enhancements including acoustical and aesthetic treatments to sound walls (see above). More after the jump.

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New Survey Shows Increased Satisfaction with RapidRide C & D Lines

Metro’s General Manager Kevin Desmond was pleased with the results produced by RapidRide C and D lines, noting that about 83 percent of the riders surveyed in those routes were either satisfied or very satisfied with the service.

“I’m proud of the ‘can-do’ Metro team that pulled it off,” Desmond said in a statement. “And very pleased that we brought a new level of transit service to the people we serve.”

The rider satisfaction numbers came via a new survey from Northwest Research Group, which found that about seven out of ten C Line riders (71%) said that the overall experience on RapidRide is better than other Metro services. In addition, almost three out of four D Line riders (72%) agreed that the overall experience on RapidRide D Line is better than the previous route. Riders from both lines were most positive about the frequency of service, service hours during the day, not having to rely on a pre-determined schedule, and the shelters and features at bus stops.  The survey does show that Metro has room to improve on other dimensions, however, such as rider safety perceptions, capacity, and ease of transferring.

Full report details after the jump.

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Rider Report: The New SR-520 Freeway Stations

This is a guest post.

92nd/Yarrow Point Freeway Station Platform

As part of the Eastside Transit and HOV project, WSDOT recently opened replacements for the Evergreen Point and Yarrow Point Freeway Stations. For the latter, Metro refers to the station as Clyde Hill/Yarrow Point but WSDOT refers to it as the 92nd Ave Transit Station. Regardless what name you call them, each of these stops are located in the center of the freeway and are a vast improvement over their former roadside counterparts. Evergreen Point opened June 16, and Yarrow opened July 14.

If you’ve used the freeway stops at the Mountlake Terrace Freeway Station, you’ll feel right at home at the new pair of stops on 520. There is a small plaza connecting to the roadway overpass and a pair of platforms in the median below. All platforms are completely weather protected. The platforms can accommodate at least three 60 foot coaches simultaneously, and there is enough shoulder space for coaches to pass each other. I measured sound levels and each station averaged around 74 dBC during commute hours. Mountlake Terrace was about 3dB higher, or twice as loud. Mountlake Terrace is surrounded by 10 lanes of traffic versus Evergreen and Yarrow’s four.

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Regressive Taxes Aren’t the Worst Thing in the World

In the last few months, Seattle’s chattering class has become enamored of the idea of “regressive taxation,” which they are now tossing off in argument as often as possible, regardless of whether or not it actually applies.

You can try it yourself at your next cocktail party. When someone mentions a tax you don’t like, just call it “regressive,” and sound smart while at the same time painting your interlocutor as a heartless Ayn Rand acolyte. Keep in mind that when one says, “that’s a regressive tax,” it’s best said with a slightly condescending affect, the way one might say, “I don’t watch TV.”

The constant lefty one-upmanship on this issue has led to some humorous exchanges, such as this one at the Seattle City Council, captured by Erica Barnett, wherein Jean Godden accuses Nick Licata of proposing a “regressive” tax on parking:

What’s particularly humorous about this exchange is that Licata’s whole proposal was predicated on being more progressive than the one Godden supports (a flat license fee). If it feels like we’ve entered a hall of mirrors, it’s because everyone’s a little confused about their terms. A true progressive tax is like the federal income tax: not only do you pay more as your income goes up, but the rate you pay goes up as well. Nothing like that has been proposed to fund bus service. As far as I know, there are no truly progressive taxes in Washington State at all. Someone can correct me in the comments if I’ve gotten that wrong.

Progressivity is but one one of many ways to evaluate a given tax. Some call the $60 VLF “regressive” because it doesn’t tax BMWs more than Fords. But that ignores the fact that the poorest don’t own a car, but do ride the bus. So any tax on cars, flat or not, is redistributive, if not progressive.

Likewise cigarette and gas taxes are highly “regressive” using the terms we’ve defined above. And yet very few liberals would pooh-pooh those taxes on that basis, because they understand that certain taxes are useful at reducing negative externalities. And while a tax on car ownership may have similar goals, framing a VLF explicitly in that manner would be a political disaster.

At the end of the day, the bus system needs more money, and poor people disproportionately ride the bus. Therefore, nearly any bus tax is going to tend to benefit the poor more than it costs them. In fact, this is true of nearly all government spending at the state and local level. Higher tax revenues help the less well-off, regardless of how the taxes were collected. Matt Yglesias made this point well several years back:

The most important thing is to just have lots of tax revenue. Public expenditures are pretty progressive in their impact everywhere, and the difference between a very progressive and a not-so-progressive system is mostly that the more progressive ones are bigger. So while liberals have no reason to give in to conservative demands to make the existing revenue scheme less progressive—by adopting a flat tax, say, or replacing the income tax with a consumption tax—there’s very good reason to basically be looking for revenue by any means necessary. If it’s easier, politically, to get some center-right politicians on board for new consumption taxes than for higher income taxes, then it’s incumbent on progressives to walk through that door and take the revenue.

Indeed. All else being equal, progressive is better than regressive, especially in a state with the dubious distinction of having the most regressive tax system in the country. But getting more revenue is even more important.

News Roundup: Accounting Problems

Kris Leisten/Flickr

This is an open thread.

PSRC Studies Impacts of Increasing Rail Freight

2035 Regional Gate Down time. PSRC.

2035 Regional Gate Down time. PSRC.

Last week — by sheer chance, the day an oil train (harmlessly) derailed in Interbay – the Puget Sound Regional Council released a staff report on the transportation and economic impacts of the Gateway Terminal, a proposed bulk-goods export terminal at Cherry Point, near Bellingham. This facility would primarily serve to transport coal from Montana to China, using BNSF’s rail lines to cross the northwest, and the bulk of this study is focused on impacts to road users of increased rail traffic on BNSF’s Puget Sound lines.

In general, I don’t have much to add to the Gateway debate (I think building it would be an appalling mistake, on the basis of coal’s global climate impact), but there are a couple of nuggets about Washington’s rail infrastructure that are important to the state’s future regardless whether or not the Gateway Terminal gets built.

First, “gate-down time” — the average amount of time, per day, that road users will be delayed at grade crossings — will rise significantly throughout the region due to the coal-induced increase in train traffic associated with Gateway. The impacts will be particularly severe in railroad towns with many grade crossings, such as Marysville, Auburn and Puyallup. Second, even if Gateway is not built, freight traffic is expected to reach similarly-problematic levels of gate-down delay by 2035 (as shown in the graphic above), simply through secular growth in economic activity and shipping.

One obvious conclusion is that if Washington had a rational state transportation policy, WSDOT would be busy building overpasses and underpasses at high-impact crossings, both in Puget Sound and around the state. We don’t have such a policy, of course, as the pathetic pavement quality on I-5 in King County testifies every time I drive on it, but along with taking a “fix it first” approach to highways, a sensible statewide transportation policy would include a grant fund to help localities pay for grade-separation projects needed to keep their roads working.

PSRC has helpfully studied all the crossings in our region, and identified 34 high-priority individual grade-separation projects, at $50-$200 million apiece. This would be a great list for the state and region to start working on, but I’d like to see a little more ambition in certain areas. Between Everett and Marysville, in particular, the existing BNSF trackage is characterized by tight curves, extremely old bridges, and an extraordinary number of grade crossings, all of which impose frustrating speed limits on passenger trains, and degrade the safety and quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods. A real commitment to the state rail network might include replacing that section of track with new river crossings and full elevation through Marysville.

Extreme Link Excuse of the Week: Hydroplane Races and Blue Angels

hydroplane racesA new tradition started back in 2009, when Seafair started having free shuttle buses between Columbia City Station and the entrance to the paid viewing area for the hydroplane races at Genesee Park, which also happens to be a great place to simultaneously watch the Blue Angels airshow.

The hydroplane races and airshow take place this Friday through Sunday. The free shuttle buses will run from 7 am to 6 pm Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

You can also now ride King County Metro route 50 from West Seattle all the way to Genesee Park. Route 50 connects to Link at Othello Station, Columbia City Station, and SODO Station. If you miss the last shuttle bus, just take route 50 back to Link, in either direction.

Past Link Excuses of the Week are here.

Streetcars: A Momentary Lapse of Reason

Bus stop in Ballard, 2006

There’s something about modern streetcars that causes people — many of whom have sensible things to say about transit, and some of whom I know personally and respect greatly — to start spouting peculiar and contorted arguments in favor of building more of them. The last few days have brought a couple of new entries in this genre: this defense of slower-than-walking streetcars from New Urbanist writer Robert Steuteville, and this Seattle-focused post from Scott Bonjukian.

For a thorough and fair parsing of those arguments, this (sadly anonymous) letter written to Jarrett Walker makes excellent reading, but the denouement deserves to be carved onto the wall of Seattle City Hall (emphasis mine):

If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don’t particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we’ll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead “game changing” fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and “place mobility,” but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.

So far I’ve hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don’t want to alienate any friends, but I’m increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple “technograndiosity.” At the end of the day, I’d rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.

Fortunately for me, upsetting the orthodoxy of my follow urbanists will not hurt my career, but I hope, for the sake of America’s younger cities, that the writer will not have to silently endure for too many more years. The primary public policy problem of teeming, traffic-strangled West Coast cities like Seattle is to keep buses moving while we build out fast, high-capacity systems, permanently endowed with their own right-of-way. Streetcars — especially of the short-line, not-very-frequent variety we’ve built in Seattle — do not meaningfully bear on that goal, and it pains me to tally all the money that is misspent in building them, and the effort misplaced justifying and defending them.


Monorail Initiative Qualifies for Ballot

The Century Transportation Authority has gathered the requisite signatures to put an initiative on the fall ballot for a $5 car tab fee to plan a monorail route between Ballard and West Seattle. Oran detailed the proposed route over two years ago.

We may have a few qualms with Sound Transit, but creating yet another agency to build a transit line using a different technology is problematic, to say the least. It would make more sense to use the city’s taxing authority to accelerate light rail to more neighborhoods.

The best case here is that any attention this measure draws will send yet another signal to Sound Transit, SDOT and the state legislature that there is a huge demand for high-capacity rapid transit within Seattle, and transit-strapped residents aren’t interested in waiting decades for it to materialize. This new monorail’s promised opening date of 2019 is probably fantasy, but it may resonate with some voters who want transit relief and want it yesterday.

More likely, though, it will simply confuse and frustrate people while setting real transit back a decade or more.

Airport Transit Rankings – How Does Link Stack Up?

Link at SeaTac/Airport Station

Arriving at an unfamiliar airport, you see multitudes of signs directing you towards taxis, shuttles and public transit.  So many questions arise: Which should you take?  Do I have enough time to take transit?  The answers to these questions vary widely depending on the airport.  There is a lively and valuable debate over the priority, value and social equity of airport transit links.  However, this post is from the point of view of a traveler, ranking the transport options between the world’s 50 largest airports and their central city by comparing the best transit alternative to a taxi.  After traveling a fair amount in the past few years, I wanted to compare transit outcomes for travelers and identify the best practices.

Airport Transit Graph

Transit Service Type Transit Time Penalty* (Minutes) Average Frequency (Minutes)
Airport Express Rail 3 17
Subway/Metro 15 8
Light Rail 16 11
Regional Rail 18 24
Seattle (Link) 21 10
Express Bus 25 32
Bus 50 32
Multi-modal 53 17

(*) Time penalty over taxi.  Transit time accounts for waiting and transferring time.

The total travel time required to use airport transit is compared to the uncongested midday travel time of a taxi.  Congested taxi travel times were used for some notoriously clogged cities, such as Jakarta and New York.   The transit time is based on a traveler arriving at the airport (the largest international terminal, to be precise) in midday, and waiting one-half the vehicle frequency for the next ride.  The same method is used to estimate time for any transfers, including any shuttles required to access the transit station.

Seattle offers Sound Transit Link light rail service between Sea-Tac Airport and downtown Seattle.  It performs in the middle of the pack (31st out of 50) on the transit time penalty, but much better on frequency (tied for 10th out of 50).  Link is in the ball park for light rail airport service, although a bit on the slow side compared to the taxi alternative.   Light rail and subway systems can offer much better frequencies than the other types of airport transit because they pool demand from a variety of high-demand, all-day sources.  As an extra bonus, although not accounted for in the rankings, a variety of destinations in the metro area can be reached as frequently from the airport as downtown.  Dedicated airport transit services, even at the largest airports, don’t generate sufficient ridership for sub-10 minute frequencies.  In that aspect, Seattle is blessed that its airport is along a natural corridor of transit demand.

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Torchlight Parade Re-routes and Shuttle from Queen Anne

Members of the 1000+ Chinese drill team, the only one of its kind in the US

Members of the 1000+ Chinese drill team, the only one of its kind in the US

Just when you thought it was safe to travel again, the Seafair Torchlight Parade has arrived. Yes, 4th Ave will be closed all evening from 3:30 pm to 10 pm, and 38 34 bus routes will be re-routed. These include routes C, D, E, 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, 21, 24, 26, 28, 33, 36, 40, 43, 47, 49, 66, 70, 99, 120, 125, 131, 132, and ST Express routes 512, 522, 545, and 554, 577, 578, and 594.

Metro will also be operating a shuttle every 20 minutes between Nob Hill on Queen Anne, and Queen Anne Ave and Mercer St, by the Seattle Center, from 3:30 pm to midnight, with frequent stops between the termini.

For those wishing to get across the parade route, use this nifty little map of all the accessible tunnel corridors throughout downtown. Westlake Station is my favorite shortcut under 4th Ave street closures. You can grab the fold-out version of this map at Westlake Station.

For the unaware, the Torchlight Parade is a big deal. Thousands of spectators claim spots along the street with fold-up chairs hours before the parade. Over 150,000 apectators are expected to show up. Sounders fans, whose game against the LA Galaxy got moved to Monday night, will be showing up in force as World Cup heroes Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin serve as Grand Marshalls. Mariners fans will also get to show up this time, as their game today is at 1 pm, instead of the usual 7 pm.

Downtown Seattle isn’t the only location where Seafair will be stressing the public transit system. Renton River Days will impact 10 bus routes serving downtown Renton, including routes F, 101, 105, 106, 107, 148, 169, 240, 908, and 909.

Metro and Sound Transit each have alert services to which you can subscribe.

Addendum: Sound Transit Express routes 512, 577, 578, and 594 are also on re-route until 10:00 pm downtown.

The Case for Express Cascades Trains

Cascades at Kelso (WSDOT Photo)

Cascades at Kelso (WSDOT Photo)

Until its peak year in 2011, Amtrak Cascades had been an unqualified success story, with strong and growing ridership and ever-higher farebox recovery ratios. It seemed like exceeding 1 million annual passengers and achieving near-profitability was right around the corner.  Well, new challenges have arisen and Cascades has begun to struggle modestly, resulting in a small but growing funding problem.

Despite being showered with nearly $800m in capital money by the 2009 stimulus package, the federal contribution to operational funding was cut in 2013 as mandated by the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008 (PRIIA). In a feat of brilliantly backwards federal thinking, PRIIA committed the feds to divest from the most successful Amtrak lines (corridors under 750 miles) while continuing to fund the least successful (those over 750 miles). Such a mandate placed operational funding primarily in the hands of an even more recalcitrant body, the Washington State Legislature, which has shown little interest in achieving anything beyond what is mandated by the stimulus funding (two more Seattle-Portland trains), much less the Long Range Plan.

Cascades Farebox Recovery

Chart from WSDOT’s 2013 Amtrak Cascades Performance Report

Over the past two years, farebox recovery has fallen from 66% to 59%, with the squeeze coming both from stagnating revenue and operating costs that continue to rise by $1m per year despite no added service. Ridership has declined in each of the past 3 years, albeit modestly, from an all-time high of 848,000 in 2011 to 807,000 last year. The lost ridership can likely be attributed to competition from Bolt Bus in the Seattle, Portland, Bellingham, Vancouver, and Eugene markets, and also from worsened speed and reliability from construction that is intended to address both issues. [Read more...]

Sound Transit Selects BNSF site in Bellevue as Preferred Alternative for Rail Yard

The Sound Transit Board voted yesterday to recommend building a 25-acre rail yard in Bellevue near the Spring District real estate development in the Bel-Red Corridor.

Sound Transit looks to triple their current light rail fleet from 62 to 180, as well as expanding their light-rail system from 16 to 50 miles. Because of the projected growth, a new maintenance facility is needed to go along with the current facility in the Sodo neighborhood, as the latter is expected to reach its full capacity by 2020.

The BNSF site in Bellevue’s Bel-Red corridor west of 120th Avenue NE was among the four sites that Sound Transit narrowed down in the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) completed in May. The other sites considered were in Lynnwood and two other Bellevue locations, with one being adjacent to the SR-520 and the other being a modified version of the BNSF site. Detailed version of the site map for the original BNSF site can be found here.


Courtesy of Sound Transit

Courtesy of Sound Transit

The EIS considered a number of factors to measure the impact that would be left by the new light rail operations base including: noise and vibration; land use; visual and economic impacts; social, neighborhood, and social service impacts; and, impacts to parklands, open spaces, and other natural resources.

[Read more...]

News Roundup: To Blame


This is an open thread.