Better Connecting Harborview and Downtown

Map of ideas described in post

Map by Oran

About two years ago, I wrote a post comparing the speed and reliability of two transit pathways between downtown Seattle and Harborview Medical Center, James St and Yesler Way, using data from the Metro routes that currently travel on those corridors. That data showed what anyone who’d ridden those buses already knew: the buses on James St, which directly serve Harborview, are packed to overflowing, but crippled by appalling slowness and unreliability for much of the day, partly from being so busy, but primarily from all the cars on James St queuing to access I-5. By contrast, buses on Yesler run fast and like clockwork, partly because they’re less used, but crucially because Yesler is a very lightly-trafficked arterial with no direct highway connections.

Harborview and the surrounding area, which includes numerous other medical facilities, and the Yesler Terrace housing project (soon to be rebuilt at much higher density), comprise a major ridership center just beyond the periphery of downtown, cut off by a huge hill and a freeway. Better connecting that area to downtown should be a priority for Metro and the City of Seattle, and the combination of James’s incurable congestion, and Yesler’s almost equal directness and near-total lack of congestion, suggest that moving trolleybus service from James to Yesler is the smart way to do so.

Moving the James St trolleybus service entails building new trolleybus wire on streets that have never had it previously, as well as operating buses on a couple of short sections of 8th and 9th that have not previously had any regular Metro service, so implementation will require significant study and civil engineering work. This being Seattle, getting anything built will be a multi-year process, but, happily, this process has at last begun: in last year’s budget, the city allocated $150,000 for a study of transit service on Yesler, which will include a conceptual design for trolleybus overhead wire, expected to be complete by the end of the year. No funding is available for engineering or construction, but SDOT hopes the conceptual design will better equip the city to pursue more funding.

More after the jump.
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News Roundup: Not Nearly Enough

This is an open thread.

Save Seattle Jobs. Vote for Prop. 1.

Aurora Congestion

Congestion on Aurora Ave. N. Photo by Oran Viriyincy.

The city of Seattle is a crowded place.  Anyone who sits in traffic (in a bus or a car) on I-5, Denny Way, Spring Street, or any of Seattle’s numerous other bottlenecks knows that.  People want to be here because there are great jobs and culture, diverse and fascinating people, and lots of fun things to do.  To take advantage of those strengths of the city, people put up with the congestion and delays we see every day on city streets.

But people are only willing to wait so long.  Eventually, as the wait gets worse and worse, people peel off one by one to live, work and play elsewhere.  There is a certain level of congestion and delay beyond which each person is unwilling to go, both because the loss of time begins to cost too much and because quality of life begins to suffer.  And you can’t increase the acceptable level of congestion by fiat.  How much congestion each person will tolerate is an individual decision.  So reducing transportation capacity doesn’t usually increase congestion.  Instead, it usually causes people to avoid the area where capacity was reduced.

Having lots of people in the city (whether they live here, work here, or just visit) is most of what generates and keeps jobs in the city.  People in the city buy goods and services from local businesses and create innovative new businesses of their own.  Without as many people, all those local businesses’ market would shrink, and the city would lose jobs.   In other words, each person who decides not to live, work, or play in the city because it’s too congested is costing jobs in the city.  To keep and add jobs, we have to keep people coming into, and moving around, the city.

The road network in the city is at capacity.  The most dramatic evidence of that: an oversupply of parking exists in downtown Seattle, yet parking-lot operators can’t fill more spots by reducing prices.  The reason is that more cars simply can’t get into the city.  It’s not a single roadway that is at capacity; it’s many of them, throughout the city, as any bus rider or driver knows.  It would take tens of billions of dollars, and result in untold destruction of buildings and city neighborhoods, to expand the road network sufficiently to allow a significant number of additional people to drive into and around the city with the current level of congestion.

Since it’s extremely difficult and destructive to add roadway capacity, and you can’t increase the level of congestion in the road network (or people will just leave), the only remaining way to get more people into and around the city is transit.  (Building more housing also helps get them in, but doesn’t help them move around.)  And transit, even gold-plated transit, is far cheaper for a given amount of capacity than roads built through the middle of cities.  Many more people can move through the same space if each one is not surrounded by 15 feet of steel.  That is why all medium-size and large cities — even ones built with far more car capacity than Seattle — heavily subsidize public transit systems, and see transit as vital to economic development and jobs.  Transit capacity, in a very concrete way, determines the potential for economic development in any developed city.  And actual transit ridership correlates very heavily with actual economic success.

Here in Seattle, Metro has the bulk of public transit ridership.  In 2012, Metro carried 115 million passengers in King County, while Sound Transit carried approximately 28 million passengers in the same period, over a much larger service area.  (Other public transit agencies serving Seattle carried negligible numbers in comparison.)  Both Metro and Sound Transit are essentially at capacity, especially during peak hours, when many of the busiest routes are regularly leaving people behind.  We have no other way to replace even a small part of Metro’s capacity.  Reduce it by 17 percent, and people — along with the jobs they bring — will leave.  They won’t keep jamming themselves into car traffic, because the resulting congestion will be too much for them.  Instead, they’ll just go somewhere else, which is the worst outcome for all of us.

Passing Prop. 1 will keep these Metro riders, and the jobs they bring the rest of us, in the city.  The sales tax and license fee Prop. 1 imposes, while imperfect, are a small price to pay for that benefit.  Please mail your Yes ballot by April 22.

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.

Why Would We Want Metro to Emulate Pierce and Community Transit?

We’ve heard some odd, and often contradictory, arguments from the No on Proposition 1 campaign. One real head-scratcher is that Metro should have acted more like Pierce Transit and Snohomish Community Transit.

Let’s check in on Community Transit. Here is CT’s 2014-2018 Transit Development Plan. As Martin reported, CT made 160,000 hours of service cuts (37% of service) from 2008 to 2013. The service restoration plan based on sales tax revenue going up only brings back 45% of that service between now and 2019.

ct_service

The plummeting of annual boardings from 12 million in 2008 to 9,096,544 in 2013 is shown on page 59:

[Read more...]

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...]

Municipal League *Supports* Proposition 1

The No on Proposition 1 campaign has stepped in it once again with an op-ed piece that twice cites critical analysis of King County Metro by the Municipal League of King County.

There are two problems with this picture:

(1) The Municipal League gave Metro a glowing review in a report it issued in 2013;

and …

(2) The Municipal League has endorsed King County Proposition 1.

The 2013 report is a useful document regardless of the Proposition 1 campaign, and includes some additional recommendations that will probably enjoy a lot of support among this blog’s readership.

Here is the report’s summary:

1. Performance Measurement and Reporting. Metro has made significant strides in sharing its statistics with the public by posting them on its website http://metro.kingcounty.gov/ under the tab About Metro/Accountability.

2. Service Allocation Policy. The newly adopted Strategic Plan and service guidelines seem to provide a promising framework for allocating service based on route productivity and ridership demand, serving those most dependent on transit, and providing geographic value. [emphasis added by this author]

3. Strategic Plan for Public Transportation. The new Strategic Plan for Public Transportation 2011-2021 is a more forthright and easier to understand plan than the previous plan discussed in our 2008 Municipal League report.

4. Clarity and Transparency. Metro has made significant changes and improvements to its reporting which is included in many forms on the King County Metro website, http://metro.kingcounty.gov/. We do offer additional suggestions for improvement in the discussion below [the full report].

Metro’s transparency stands in stark contrast to an opposition campaign that has set up fake front groups that gratuitously/Orwellianly include the word “transit” in their names, is led by a real organization that has been exposed for fake support for buses, and is taking the words of a prominent watchdog organization out of context to make it look like that group is opposing, rather than supporting, King County Proposition 1.

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.

Explainer: Why We Need to Save Metro

On April 22, there will be a special election to fund King County Metro. Below is an updated version of a post I wrote a year ago explaining the context. You can also read the STB editorial board’s arguments in favor of Prop. 1.

What are we voting on April 22?
We’re voting on King County Proposition 1: a 0.1% sales tax and a $60/year car fee (with a rebate for low-income individuals) to fund roads and transit in King County over 10 years. 60% of funds raised would go to buses, and 40% to roads.

Why are we having this vote now?
King County Metro is facing a serious budget shortfall in 2014. This means that they’ll need to cut service by 17% to break even. 600,000 service hours will be cut.  65 routes would be deleted, and 86 would be reduced or revised. All in all, 2/3 of Metro routes would be affected.

Wait… didn’t we just do this two years ago?
Sort of, but it was temporary. In 2011 King County passed a $20 “congestion reduction charge” on all vehicles registered in the county. This bought us $25 million a year as part of the deal that also ended the Ride Free Area, but it will expire in 2014.

How bad is it?
There’s a $60M gap in 2014, and a combined $1.2B between 2008, when the recession began, and 2015.

SalesTax-Chart1-490x333

Ok, that’s bad. Can’t they just, you know… trim the fat?
Well, they have been.  In 2008 they reduced operating expenses, gutted the capital fund (which pays for important stuff like running new trolleybus wire, etc.), and increased fares. That bought $30M.  It also arguably made the system more efficient. Then in 2011, they passed the CRC and got the unions to take a pay cut, saving tens of millions more.  WSDOT came through with $32M in mitigation money to deal with Viaduct headaches, but it also runs out in 2014… two years before the Viaduct opens. This mitigation money helps add additional trips to crowded West Seattle routes.  Riding in from West Seattle will suck even more when it goes away. (Update: the mitigation money has been restored for now.) All told, Metro has cut $726M from the budget since 2009. There are probably a few  routes that could  stand to be cut, but doing so now would do way more harm than good.

metro-budget-gap

Oh, and “cutting the fat” ain’t so easy if you’ve ever been to a community meeting where cuts were proposed.  People get angry, they call their Councilmembers, and Metro backs off. Everyone seems to think the fat is in some other neighborhood.

(All that aside, Seattle’s a growing city with a healthy economy and a low unemployment rate. Metro should be increasing service, not cutting it, as Metro’s General Manager Kevin Desmond argues here.)

What about raising money from the fare box?
They’ve done it multiple times.  There’s only so much blood you can squeeze from a stone. Back in 2006, when peak fares were just $1.50, Metro predicted fares would rise just 75 cents by 2016.  As it turns out, peak fares are already at $2.50 and will probably rise again soon.

Okay, how about all that money spent on light rail and streetcars?
Those were built by different agencies (Seattle DOT, Sound Transit) with different funding sources. Sound Transit has a diversified funding base, including a Motor Vehicle Excise Tax or MVET along with a sales tax. That means Sound Transit can weather the recession a bit better.  Also, Sound Transit spends a lot of its money on capital projects like new light rail lines, which (a) can be spread out over more years if necessary, and (b) tend to get cheaper when there’s a recession and construction firms are hungry for work.

Okay fine, but what about the “Transit Now” tax we passed in 2006?
That was great! It got us RapidRide and a bunch of other stuff. But because it was a sales tax, it shrunk during the recession and ended up raising less than projected.  Since those funds were earmarked for RapidRide as the voters approved them, they can’t be moved into another bucket to save costs.

Wait a minute, this is craziness… Why are Metro’s finances in such bad shape to begin with?
Back in 1999, state voters approved Tim Eyman’s I-695, which would have gutted transit funding across the state by eliminating the state’s ability to charge an MVET.  I-695 was declared unconstitutional, but then-Governor Locke and the legislature were so scared of being run out of Olympia that they killed the MVET themselves the following year.  That blew a $500M hole in the state transportation budget. Here in King County, Metro lost an estimated $125M over the 2003-4 biennium, which we replaced by increasing the sales tax from 0.6% to 0.8% (and eventually to the legal maximum of 0.9% in 2006 with Transit Now). But there are two problems with a sales tax: it’s regressive, and it’s tied to the economy. Once the recession hit in 2008, everyone cut back on spending and sales tax revenues went in the toilet. It’s not just Metro: transit agencies all over the state, including the Washington State Ferries,  haven’t really made up for the money they lost after the MVET went away.

So what can we do about it?
Ideally we’d bring back MVET funding, at least here in King County. The thing about an MVET is that it’s progressive and predictable (versus a sales tax, which is regressive and volatile), since it’s based on the current value of all the cars in the county.  This would get us back to a healthy mix of tax revenue so that no one source can send the budget into a tailspin. However, the legislature declined to give us this authority.  What we can do instead is vote on a sales tax and a flat fee on cars, which is exactly what’s on the ballot April 22.

You’ve convinced me. How do I vote?

Look for your ballot in the mail.

Sunday Open Thread: Your Commute Without Buses

Thanks to the Transit Riders Union for posting this cartoon that explains, in simple terms, why getting rid of buses only makes traffic congestion worse.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWoTR7V36tU?feature=player_embedded&w=640&h=360]

You can sign up to volunteer for the Yes on King County Proposition 1 campaign here. A calendar of volunteer opportunities is also available here.

Seattle Displacement Coalition Argues for Mass Displacement

The Seattle Displacement Coalition has made a name for itself advocating for the preservation of Seattle’s neighborhoods at all costs, which is hard to square with their statement last month.  It seems to me that the policies advocated therein would lead to more displacement, not less.

For example, SDC argued against any increase in zoning within the city limits, saying that the city currently has “enough zoning capacity citywide to accommodate 188,000 more housing units.” Tapping into that capacity, however, would mean tearing out every remaining single-family home in Seattle’s low-rise zones, of which there are currently several thousand. It’s unclear where the SDC thinks all those newly-homeless families should move to, but suffice it to say they’d be quite displaced.

Furthermore, the SDC, which presents itself as being pro-family, argued against more jobs in the downtown core, and instead suggested that we “locate more of those jobs out there in the burbs.” Locating employers in far-flung suburbs, however, can cause havoc on a two-income family. If both partners have jobs in different suburbs, the commute can be quite long.  And long commutes are bad! A recent Gallup survey found that people with 90-minute commutes tend to have persistent neck and back pain.  Umea University in Sweden found that “couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce.”  It’s hard to think of a policy that would be more harmful to the region’s families.

To minimize displacement, the right strategy is quite simple: put more jobs and housing in walkable areas served by good transit.

PSBS Has Vendor and Funding

PSBS Station Public Input

PSBS Station Public Input

This morning Puget Sound Bike Share (PSBS) sent out a substantial and very exciting update confirming rumors that a new, financially solvent bike share vendor has been selected and that the private funding necessary for a full initial launch has been secured. Details on funding will come in May, and an online survey for station locations has been posted online. Earlier this week PSBS published a job posting for a general manager, hinting that a concrete implementation and financing plan had come together. News release below:

Puget Sound Bike Share Confirms Supply Chain Partners for Bike Share System Equipment

April 3, 2014 – In preparation for its 2014 launch, Puget Sound Bike Share announced today that it will be moving forward with world-class partners Alta Bicycle Share and 8D Technologies to provide bike share station hardware, software and operational solutions.

Alta Bicycle Share and 8D Technologies’ software for Seattle will build upon solutions tested and successfully deployed by bike share networks in Washington D.C. / Arlington, Boston, Minneapolis, Melbourne (AUS), London (UK), Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal (CAN).  Seattle’s will be the first program to launch with the new Alta/8D hardware solution.  Consistent with Puget Sound Bike Share’s plans to launch Phase I of the program in South Lake Union, Downtown, Capitol Hill and the U-District, the agreement includes delivery of 50 stations.

An order for 500 bikes will be placed with a well-known global manufacturer later this month. [Read more...]

New Empire Builder Schedule Begins April 15

Wikimedia

Wikimedia

Since we last wrote about the Empire Builder’s woes, things have only gotten worse. When writers start doing novelty pieces about “riding the worst train in America”, you know things have gotten bad. In February 2014 the median arrival delay in Seattle was 4.7 hours, and the average delay was 5.6 hours (see chart below), excluding the 4 days the train didn’t make it to Seattle at all. After delays of up to 16 hours, even Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari was saying the kinds of things you never want your PR person to have to say:

“You’ll get some people who’ll say ‘never again’ after going through that, and you and I can certainly understand why.”

Empire Builder 1
While previous issues still occasionally cause delays or cancellations, such as Pacific Northwest mudslides or high water at Devils Lake (an intractable problem in an endorheic basin), the blame this time around falls squarely on North Dakota’s oil boom and the constrained track capacity it has caused. While track expansion projects are underway, causing additional delay themselves, the problem will persist indefinitely.  Yet Amtrak has a mandate to run the train, and run it it will. To that end,  Amtrak has released a revised schedule that it hopes will at least be somewhat realistic. Beginning April 15, eastbound trains will now leave Seattle three hours earlier, at 1:40pm, and westbound trains will arrive in Seattle 90 minutes later, at 11:55 am.

I’m a strong supporter of intercity rail, but we do ourselves no favors to downplay this terrible performance or to sugarcoat the human misery these delays cause. As someone who particularly cares about eventually giving Spokane better than its current graveyard service, seeing our fate so miserably tied to North Dakota’s  is a shame.

Lost in this mess is the fact that the Empire Builder runs rather well here in Washington (see chart below and compare above), and we shouldn’t let miseries in the upper Midwest deter us from seeking better service across our state. This new schedule will have the (accidental but pleasant) effect of giving Spokane decent eastbound service, with a 9:00pm arrival time. (Westbound will get  worse, however, with a 3:45am departure.)

Empire Builder 2

Meanwhile, on this side of the Cascades, we have 7 trainsets making only 13 daily runs, an overcapitalized and underused fleet that awaits the completion of the Point Defiance Bypass and other projects. I would love to see WSDOT fund a temporary pilot project to give daily roundtrip service to Spokane through 2017 using one of those surplus sets, just to give Eastern Washington a taste of intercity travel that is better than either uncomfortable buses or unreliable trains. If the train performed poorly, we could cut it. If it performed well, we could fund it.

News Roundup: Nerdy and Dry

This is an open thread.
 

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.

January 2014 Sound Transit Ridership Report – Oh My!

090216-st-suluFor once the most impressive aspect of the monthly ridership release isn’t Link’s continued and unprecedented strong growth but the release itself.  For the first time since I’ve been following this Sound Transit gave their ridership report a radical makeover.  So radical, I had to ask Sound Transit what the deal was.  I’m going to start off with my usual monthly summary, then the questions/response with Sound Transit’s Dave Huffaker about the update, then my usual charts.

January’s Central Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday boardings were 27,951/21,929/17,182, growth of 12.1%, 36.8%, and 35.1% respectively over January 2013. Sounder’s weekday boardings were down 1.7% due to disruptions on both North and South lines although strong weekend service brought total ridership up to 4.7%.  Total Tacoma Link ridership was down 6.7% with weekday ridership declining 5.3%. Weekday ST Express ridership was up 5.8%, with most growth occurring on East King and South King routes. Complete January Ridership Summary here>

It appears Central Link has reached a pretty historic milestone the last few months in that this is the fourth month in a row that Central Link has added more boardings, year-on-year, than all other Sound Transit services combined.  ST Express added 83,638 boardings, Central Link 112,228.  (Credit to Brent White for pointing this out).

Now for more information on all the new goodies in the new report:

Me: Would you mind giving me a bit of an explanation of what changed, why it changed, and do you see any more changes coming in the future?

Dave: Thanks for your interest. I am excited about our new format for our monthly ridership and performance information. As you may know, we previously had two separate reports that the Operations Department presented to the Operations & Administration Committee—one was the monthly ridership report, the other was our monthly modal performance data sheet. While they both provided a lot of data, I never felt that they conveyed the data in a real user-friendly way, and they also didn’t have the same look and feel to each other.

Much more of Dave’s response below, followed by my usual charts. [Read more...]

Vote Yes on Prop 1 (Really)

[April 1st fun's over, back to our regular programming. - Ed.]

Martin recently participated in a forum for employers about Proposition 1, the ballot measure to maintain Metro’s current service levels and fund road maintenance. Towards the end, one attendee asked the panel, “What are the reasons people are giving for voting against this? It seems like a no-brainer.”

That attendee was exactly right. That we should keep bus service hours at least at their current levels is such a blindingly obvious requirement for an economically robust, environmentally clean, and socially just region that it seems tedious to write down the reasons why. However, to summarize: transit is open to people of nearly all incomes and abilities; is better for public health than car use; levies few externalities on others; uses less precious road space per person; and provides a refuge from accident deaths, air and water pollution, and the perils of road users texting while driving. It is critical to the operation of our most economically important neighborhoods and a crucial discriminator for our economy in the global competition for talent.

As  Metro’s ridership grows to record numbers along with our region, and cars continue to make less sense, the demand for transit will only increase. Clearly, a cut in the taxes we pay for transit (a No vote allows the $20 tab fee to expire without replacement) is moving King County in the wrong direction. Moreover, Prop. 1 frees King County from the hostage situation where the legislature will not let us save Metro without also approving massive, sprawl-inducing, climate-altering highway expansion.

The arguments against this vote – both sincere and insincere – simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

  • Metro has already made significant efforts to reduce its budget hole – including winning concessions from its unionsraising fares three times, cutting low-performing service, and cutting back in places where it shouldn’t, like cleaning bus stops, security, and customer information. In fact, the transit-hostile state legislature was so impressed with their measures that Metro was the only agency to win temporary authority for a $20 license fee to avoid cuts two years ago.
  • Although a vehicle license fee and sales tax would not be our first choice, they are the only option for the County; moreover, a low-income license fee rebate and low-income fare will largely blunt the impact on low-income car owners and leave low-income bus riders significantly better off.
  • Predictions about the future are hard, and while cuts might not be exactly 17% if Prop 1 fails, they will still be on a large and unacceptable scale.
  • A needed restructure of the route network is easier to execute when service is growing — which allows new service patterns to coexist with the old, build their own constituency, and prove their worth — then when cuts force everyone into a defense of what they currently have.
  • All of our transportation modes are subsidized, especially when they get into trouble. For starters, the sales tax exemption for gasoline is a huge giveaway to drivers (over $650m per year statewide) paid for by the rest of us. To single out a sustainable form of transportation to pay its own way makes no sense.

Proposition 1 is indeed a no-brainer. The high-level principles are clear, and the tactical arguments against are nonsense. We urge you to vote yes before April 22nd, and to donate your money or time towards passage.

The STB Editorial Board currently consists of Martin H. Duke, Matthew Johnson, and Frank Chiachiere.

Vote No on Prop 1 [April Fools']

PRT on Ballard Ave (artist's rendering)

PRT on Ballard Ave (artist’s rendering)

[UPDATE 11:11 amApril Fools', obviously! If you would like to know what we really think about Prop. 1, here's our actual endorsement. The title above is altered if anyone is in any way confused.]

STB staff writers are free to take whatever positions they’d like, and many have done so by arguing forcefully for the passage of Prop. 1 to maintain existing service levels.

However, in the opinion of the editorial board, buses are not the future of public transportation. Newer technologies are on the horizon that will not only be cheaper to operate, but will actually turn a profit. It makes no sense to double down on a tax structure that will one day be irrelevant.

I’m referring of course to Personal Rapid Transportation, or PRT. Imagine a vehicle that delivers you with no wait from where you are to where you want to go. This vision is possible with just a little leadership from our elected officials.

We can’t help but notice that Prop. 1 gets us no closer to the future. In fact, it dedicates valuable taxing authority to ephemeral service hours when we could be using it to make a permanent investment in transit.  The Editorial Board is disappointed to learn, via a public records request, that not a single councilmember from either the City of Seattle or King County has visited Morgantown, WV.  Had they done so, they’d find a shining example of the kind of transportation that could revolutionize our Emerald City. It’s one of many ways in that Morgantown is a city Seattle should emulate.

Moreover, if bus service is worth paying for then we should all chip in to pay for it. The King County Council’s low-income car tab rebate and new low-income fare are a huge giveaway to the working poor from scarce transit dollars. Unless we nip this sentiment in the bud, they’ll expect that the legislature actually tax them less than their job-creating, hardworking bosses when PRT comes up for a vote.

The desire for a stopgap is understandable. But King County voters should keep their eyes on the prize and demand a solution to our transit problems that won’t be obsolete in five years. Vote no on proposition 1.

Bubbles and Housing Stock

Paul Constant, The Stranger:

On the other hand, Seattle sure does feel awful bubble-like lately, doesn’t it? There’s so much construction happening everywhere that I’m reminded of Seattle in 2000, or 2008. And worse, it’s all aimless, unfocused construction of the kind where everyone is building the exact same type of building over and over again—luxury condos, with retail on the ground floor—and some of them are certainly doomed to fail. How much retail-on-the-ground-floor does Seattle need? Shouldn’t we be smarter about growth, and consider holistically what this city needs? Even worse, all of the construction is aimed at the wealthy, and in today’s America, we all know that there are only a limited number of wealthy people to go around.

I call your attention to the post because Paul’s remarks do a good job of illustrating how most people think about housing supply and demand.

Paul is absolutely right to sense the outward manifestations of, if not a bubble, then at least a general frothiness in the Seattle real estate market. Cranes are everywhere. 10,000 units opened this year and nearly 15,000 will open in 2015. Housing prices are rising. Houses are getting multiple bids, often well above asking price. Coincidentally, housing prices are now almost exactly where they were when Seattle Bubble author Tim Ellis started his blog in 2005.

However, none of that proves we’re in a “bubble” per se. My best read of the market right now is that we have low supply and high demand driving prices up. In 2007, there were over 12,000 single-family homes on the market in King County. Today there are just 3,000, despite the increase in population.  Real estate bubbles are typically fueled by large numbers of people borrowing easy money to buy a home that everyone assumes will appreciate wildly. Today, relatively few people qualify for a mortgage and even fewer can find a house to buy (in Seattle, anyway). 

Also, to my eye there appear to be far fewer “luxury” developments than the last housing boom. What I see are mostly apartment buildings targeted at renters, not ornate condos like Escala in Belltown. I do agree that the style of multi-housing is fairly monotonous: 6-story “breadboxes” with retail on the ground floor. But that has more to do with the zoning codes than anything else. Will all that retail fill up? Hard to say. There are only so many tanning salons and Potbelly sandwich shops to go around (and many retail categories, from travel agents to bookstores, simply no longer exist). In the long run, though, I’m not sure how much it matters. On Capitol Hill, the auto repair shops of yesteryear have been converted to serve truffle fries and roasted brussel sprouts. Spaces can be adapted.

I also think it’s interesting to say that some of these developments are “doomed to fail.” Fail for whom? We overbuilt in 2000 and 2008, but the housing stock that was created during those periods was all filled up by 2003 and 2011, respectively. Some developers took it on the chin, no doubt, but that’s the game. Meanwhile, Seattle got more housing. In the long run, yesterday’s luxury housing becomes tomorrow’s middle-income housing.

Again, I don’t bring this up to pick on anyone. I think Paul’s expressing a common sentiment when it comes to real estate development. I just think it’s worth considering the costs and benefits of development from a few different angles.

Reminder: Meetup April 2nd.

Just a reminder that on April 2nd from 5:30-7:30pm Seattle Transit Blog is co-hosting a meetup at Hattie’s Hat in Ballard with Seattle Subway, in order to help raise money for Move King County Now.  City Councilmember and Sound Transit Board member Mike O’Brien will be speaking, STB writers will be present, and light snacks provided.

Details/RSVP here.