Light Rail is Best for West Seattle

Map by Oran.I ran Ross’s Open BRT plan for West Seattle because it’s a good analysis of the best the region could do with a budget roughly four times lower than what it takes to build light rail to West Seattle. There are many reasons Sound Transit may need to economize on the West Seattle segment, and in that case they could do worse than to follow Ross’s blueprint.

But Ross’s thesis is much stronger: that BRT would be better than light rail for most riders, largely because an open BRT system would avoid transfer penalties. This runs counter to a lot of work on STB that shows the merits of a transfer-oriented system, which largely involve the operating savings of not running downtown to enable other trips. This aspect doesn’t appear in Ross’s work because he completely punts the issue of operations. This is crucial, because it’s in the operational details where claims of “rail-like” BRT collapse.

(1) One can only assume that Sound Transit 3 would pay for the excellent capital projects Ross proposes. But does ST actually take over operations on the C Line, 21, 120, 37, 55, 128, 116, and all the other buses duplicating each other on the bridge? If so, that’s a lot of ST’s taxing authority tied up in running buses forever. It also assumes an unprecedented level of ST bus service provision in this corner of the region, and other corners without light rail may wonder why they’re not getting the same. Both problems would kneecap ST’s ability to deliver big capital projects.

If Metro keeps running these buses, then that forfeits the opportunity to seriously increase the frequency of buses within West Seattle. This not only would cut headways to board the bus, thus eroding the putative time advantage of no transfer to light rail, but would also improve all intra-West Seattle trips.

(2) On a related note, Ross blithely asserts that his BRT system will have off-board payment. Off-board payment either requires turnstiles (and someone to monitor them) at all stops (which is not going to happen), or fare inspectors, which are one of the big cost differences between light rail and traditional buses. But this is an open BRT system! So are these routes fully equipped and staffed over their entire length, with machines at essentially every bus stop in West Seattle, or do the rules change when they enter the BRT zone? If the latter, then that will impair reliability of what feeds into the zone. Or is it, as I suspect, not really going to be 100% off-board payment?

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Vote By 8 PM Tuesday

[Author’s note: The above video has little to do with city council issues. I put it up as an ode to flailing candidate Tony Provine and nihilist filmmaker Jean Luc Godard. Provine’s bulldozer’s-are-coming mailer is about as absurdist as a Godard flick. The only difference is that Provine is actually taking his delusions seriously.]

The bulldozers are coming for your homes! Okay, not really. But we have the chance Tuesday to toss the most outrageously incendiary and reality-challenged campaigns into the compost bin of history (hopefully without destroying said compost bin).

To vote in person, get in line by 8 pm at Union Station (the building right next to the ID/Chinatown light rail station), at the King County Elections HQ in Renton, or at Bellevue City Hall.

You can drop off your filled-out ballot at any of these sites or any of a couple dozen ballot drop boxes all over the county, by 8 pm.

If you mail your ballot, get it post-marked by Tuesday, and don’t forget to affix first-class postage worth at least 49 cents.

If you haven’t filled out your ballot yet, refresh yourself on our city council endorsements.

Come back here for live-blogging Tuesday night, as we attempt to divine and spin results based on a minority of ballots coming in, since they traditionally trickle in over the next week.

Build Real BRT for West Seattle

This is a guest post.


[This seems a good a time as any to remind everyone that guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of STB staff or the editorial board – Ed.]

What exactly is Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT)? Perhaps, like the Supreme Court said about “pornography”, you know it when you see it. If the Wikipedia definition of BRT is any guide, I haven’t seen it in Seattle. To quote their definition, “To be considered BRT, buses should operate for a significant part of their journey within a fully dedicated right of way (busway) to avoid traffic congestion”. RapidRide is not BRT, falling well short by ITDP standards.

But we can certainly build a real BRT system for West Seattle that has almost every advantage of what we call “light rail” (mostly grade separated, off-board fare collection, station platforms level with the bus floor, priority at intersections, etc.). Unlike the light rail concepts being offered by Sound Transit, BRT to West Seattle would allow riders from all the key corridors of West Seattle (California, Fauntleroy, 35th, Admiral/Alki and Delridge) to enjoy a fast and frequent ride to downtown without having to transfer.

The Challenges of Serving West Seattle with Transit

West Seattle is a fairly large area, separated from the rest of Seattle by the Duwamish River. If you look at a census map of West Seattle, there are a few pockets of scattered density, but nothing over 25,000 people per square mile. The more densely populated areas are not in a line, either, making it all but impossible to connect the area with one rail line. A light rail line that serves the Junction is likely to miss Admiral, Alki and the Delridge corridor. A rail line on Delridge would miss Admiral, Alki, California, Fauntleroy and 35th.

Link to West Seattle would be expensive. It would have to traverse low-ridership Sodo and Harbor Island, cross water and rugged terrain. Martin Duke estimated the cost of getting to the junction at $2 – 2.5 billion, not including a downtown tunnel.

The city is unlikely to build parking around the stations, meaning that most riders would walk to the station or arrive by bus.  A comparison of population density and the proposed set of stations shows that no set of West Seattle stations will be within walking distance of a majority of potential riders. For light rail to be successful, a vast majority of riders would have to arrive to the station by bus.

Transferring from to bus to train incurs a transfer penalty: exiting the bus, walking to the station, getting to the platform, and waiting for a train (Sound Transit suggests headways of ten minutes). In most of Seattle, the train makes up for that penalty by using its dedicated right of way to outrun buses mired on surface streets. In West Seattle, however, there is easy access to a high-speed freeway if agencies execute several relatively low-cost infrastructure projects. For most riders on West Seattle’s major bus corridors, this would result in a faster trip to and through downtown than with light rail.

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This is a guest post.

Candidate Land Use Positions Evolve

Seattle Zoning Map, Single family zones in yellow.

Seattle Zoning Map; Single family zones in yellow.

STB did its endorsement interviews late in the day, but that wasn’t enough to catch all late policy revelations. I think it would be an overreaction to actually retract an endorsement — they didn’t rest on that thin of a reed — but the changes are notable.

First, in her interview District 5 STB endorsee Mercedes Elizalde strongly implied she was not for linkage fees, before signing up for the Jon Grant/Kshama Sawant drive to amend the delicate HALA compromise in just such a way. Erica wrote about the apparent contradiction or change on her personal blog, so check it out. We’re sticking with Elizalde, who impressed us with her developer wonkery and good service planning instincts. In any case, some of us are skeptical of linkage fees rather than violently opposed. But if this is more of a dealbreaker for you than it is for us, then I’d suggest Sandy Brown as your next best choice in a stacked 5th District race.

Second, endorsees Mike O’Brien and Tim Burgess led the stampede out of changes to single-family zones (SFZs), soon followed by Mayor Murray himself. Here’s Burgess:

While the list of recommendations from HALA is long, one specific policy has received the most attention and criticism from neighborhoods across Seattle. It’s the recommendation that single-family zoning be relaxed in all areas of the city to allow for new duplexes, triplexes and stacked flats, a policy some believe will lead to speculators buying up homes, tearing them down, and replacing them with more expensive multi-family structures. We should take a step back from any policy that leads to that kind of speculation, disruption, and the widespread loss of existing, more affordable housing.

And here’s O’Brien, speaking to Josh Feit at Publicola:

While O’Brien told me he supports “in principle” tinkering around the edges of SFZs (rezoning about six percent of SFZs around transit corridors, urban villages, and SFZ/multi-family borders)—though he still wants to evaluate the specifics of each rezone—he also told me that allowing the possibility of tearing down an existing house for new duplex or triplex construction in the remaining 94 percent of the SFZs “would be taking it further than I’m willing to go—or I think the city is willing to go.”

While only one aspect of a very large plan, the SFZ proposals was probably the biggest qualitative strike for diverse and affordable housing types in Seattle. Duplexes, triplexes, and row homes in single family zones are by far the most plausible path to more large-family housing in Seattle, and critical if we’re not to restrict such housing to the very prosperous and the winners of the subsidized housing lottery. Furthermore, it also further endangers the compromise between all the interest groups on HALA.

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May 2015 Sound Transit Ridership Report

May15MvgAvgMay saw healthy weekday Link growth of 6.6% and total system growth of 5.7%. Weekday ridership was up across the board, with only Paratransit seeing a decrease. Due to weekend tunnel closure for U-Link work, Link’s weekend service took a hit. Link’s 12 month moving average was 33,939 in May. That is a hair’s breadth away from the 34k originally forecast for 2011. At that point ridership growth was supposed to level off. As the chart to the right shows, ridership is still growing at a strong clip. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Link’s initial ridership lag was due to the Great Recession and continued gains will wipe out that early shortfall.

May’s Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday average boardings were 35,878 / 24,958 / 20,746, growth of 6.6%, -10.9%, and .1% respectively over May 2015. Sounder’s weekday boardings were up 11.6% with ridership increasing on both lines. Tacoma Link’s weekday ridership increased 4.5%. Weekday ST Express ridership was up 4.2%. System wide weekday boardings were up 5.7%, and all boardings were up 3.2%. The complete May Ridership Summary is here.

My charts below the fold.
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News Roundup: Failure to Yield

This is an open thread.

Link Excuse of the Week: Save on Parking for Hydroplane Races / Blue Angels

Seafair WeekendThe Seafair tradition continues: Free shuttles to the Genessee Park festival area, from which you get the best view of the Albert Lee Cup hydroplane races and the Blue Angels, will serve Columbia City Station Friday through Sunday 7 am – 6 pm.

If you wish to park & ride, but don’t expect to get to Tukwila International Boulevard Station early enough to find free parking, print out this coupon for $10 all-day parking at the airport. Parking at the event grounds is $35 if bought in advance or $40 cash on site. It’s also a bear getting into and out of the area by car during Seafair Weekend, so save a chunk of time and money by riding Link Light Rail and catching the free shuttle.

There will also be shuttles between Mercer Island and South Bellevue P&R during the I-90 closure periods Thursday through Saturday, but not Sunday.

Check out past Link Excuses of the Week here.

CORRECTION: SDOT Wants a Stop in Uptown Proper


Map by Oran. Station names are his.

Take it away, Michael James of SDOT:

In the Seattle letter, dated July 15, from Director Kubly, we referenced a station “serving Uptown and the Seattle Center”, to be more clear, this is a station in the vicinity of Mercer St. and 1st Avenue N. This station location has been considered in the previous Ballard to Downtown Transit Expansion Study, and in no way did Seattle mean to omit it.

All emphasis mine. For the record, here’s the original paragraph:

In the Ballard to Downtown segment of this corridor, we request Sound Transit analyze and alignment that includes a below grade station with pedestrian connections to the existing Westlake Station platforms, a station serving South Lake Union in the area of Westlake Ave N and Denny Way, a station at State Route 99 and Harrison Street, serving Uptown and the Seattle Center, a station in close proximity to the Elliott Trail bridge (near the future Expedia site), a station in the vicinity of 15th Avenue and Newton (near Whole Foods), a station in the vicinity of 15th Avenue and Dravus Street, a station in the vicinity of 15th Avenue and Market Street, and a station at 15th Avenue and 65th Street.

The words “a station” in front of “serving Uptown” would have greatly improved the plainest interpretation of this sentence, but in any case it would have been good for me to ask. So 350+ comments later the prime objection turns out to be essentially a typo. Those of you expecting betrayal at every corner will have to look elsewhere.

I’ve updated the original post.


Those two words greatly improve the overall coverage of the line. Not only does the core of Uptown get excellent service, but now virtually all of Belltown is within a half mile of one of three stations. That’s not as great as a proper Belltown station, but as I said earlier there’s no real way for a reasonably direct line to Ballard to serve both SLU and Belltown directly. Put another way, I don’t see this is being of much use for Belltown residents for trips of a mile or less, but they would be genuinely connected to the regional rail system.

The SLU routing has the interesting benefit of mitigating the Denny problem that I and many others have sought to solve with a “Route 8” subway. Although there’s a transfer at Westlake, which may or may not be well-implemented, in principle a ride from Uptown or South Lake Union to Broadway & John should take around 10-15 minutes no matter how disastrous the traffic on Denny.

The last thing I’d say is that I like how Mr. Kubly was extra-specific on the highest priority elements of the plan. Downtown has to be a tunnel with short stop spacing, but if the tendrils to Ballard and West Seattle have to be at-grade (meaning MLK quality) to pay for it, then so be it. In my view, that’s the correct hierarchy. Close, tunneled stations in the core exponentially increase the value of the system to virtually all its users. Surface running, while not ideal, has limited consequences for mobility further out.

Council Endorsement Outtakes, Part 2

This is the second in a two-part series. Part 1 is available here.

Seattle Transit Blog interviewed 18 of the 47 candidates running for Seattle City Council in the seven newly created council districts and two citywide seats before making our endorsements last week. The Board chose candidates who were most closely aligned with its core principles, which include support for thoughtful transit investment, spending on key bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, density and transit-oriented development, and concentration of resources into high-quality corridors. They also gave points to candidates who shared our skepticism of taxes on development and policy that promotes auto-oriented lifestyles. They did not interview candidates who they knew did not share these values, or in their view didn’t have a genuine chance to win, because they didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.

But what if the endorsement doesn’t tell you enough about why they endorsed a certain candidate, supported another more tepidly, or declined to back some candidates with generally progressive values? As I participated in the interviews as an advisor to the Board, I’m posting a few outtakes from our interviews to help guide you in your voting decision, or just entertain you if you’ve already voted and want to confirm you done right.

District 5 

Sandy Brown

On Move Seattle’s funding for sidewalks

There’s less than five percent of our sidewalk needs that are met in Move Seattle. If that’s what we’re going to do for the next nine years, then it’s disappointing. We’ve got to find solutions that include pedestrian infrastructure. We need sidewalks in Broadview. We need sidewalks in Haller Lake. We need sidewalks in North Maple Leaf. We need sidewalks in Lake City. And we’re still a long way from that.

There is a mixed backing for sidewalks in Seattle–that’s one reason I have felt that [a local improvement district] program [Ed: A hyperlocal tax to pay for sidewalks] could be good. We may not get them in every single street, but they should be included in arterials for our master plan.

On the density proposals in HALA

I think [the upzones] will be very unpopular with traditional Seattle, but it’s the way we have to go. If we set up Seattle in such way that every person gets a couple of parking spots per residence, then they’re going to believe they need to drive those cars everywhere. The idea that we could emphasize transit but then still make it easy and inexpensive to have a car–it doesn’t make sense. We don’t want to coerce people into transit, but we have to help people get used to the idea that transit is now the basic way to get around in Seattle. That’s what our future is.

In my district, there’s a multifamily building that’s going in on Fremont Avenue in north Greenlake with no parking. The neighbors are up in arms, but it’s only three blocks from the E Line. Now, the challenge is there isn’t a great grocery store for about eight blocks from there. We have to make sure that there are necessities that are within walking or biking distance, and that’s not always the case.

Mercedes Elizalde (endorsed)

On why transit service should precede anticipated density

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Inslee Evades Poison Pill, Will Cap Carbon Emissions

Gov. Inslee

Gov. Jay Inslee

In the days following Governor Inslee’s decision to enact a low-carbon fuel standard, thus accepting the Republican provision eliminating some of the State’s multimodal accounts, climate activists found themselves with divergent interests from bike, pedestrian, and transit advocates. STB was gearing up to hold its own internal debate on whether the trade was worth it. But fortunately, the Governor found another way:

The governor asked Ecology Director Maia Bellon to develop substantive emission reductions using existing authority. The process will be open and transparent and all stakeholders will have ample opportunity to express their ideas, options and concerns as the rule development process unfolds.

That process is expected to take about a year.

Unlike the legislation that Inslee proposed to the 2015 Legislature, the regulatory cap will not charge emitters for carbon pollution and therefore would not raise revenue for state operations. The other key difference is the current proposal wouldn’t create a centralized market for trading of emissions credits, though emitters may be able trade amongst themselves…

The conversations surrounded the recently enacted transportation investment package that included the so-called poison pill. That proviso would have moved about $2 billion in funding from multi-modal projects to an unappropriated account if the governor moved ahead with a clean fuel standard.

The governor said today he will not pursue the clean fuel standard.

I understand the regret that this measure won’t raise any revenue, but from an environmental perspective this is nearly the best possible outcome absent legislative commitment to address this problem. The details could sabotage a lot of the good here, but in principle a broad-based system of caps is a more comprehensive, economically efficient approach than tackling fuels alone.

And moreover, there are no direct consequences for multimodal projects, which have good consequences not only for climate change, but for public safety, air and water quality, and social equity.

Council Endorsement Outtakes Part 1

Seattle Transit Blog interviewed 18 of the 47 candidates running for Seattle City Council in the seven newly created council districts and two citywide seats before making our endorsements last week. The Board chose candidates who were most closely aligned with its core principles, which include support for thoughtful transit investment, spending on key bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, density and transit-oriented development, and concentration of resources into high-quality corridors. They also gave points to candidates who shared our skepticism of taxes on development and policy that promotes auto-oriented lifestyles. They did not interview candidates who they knew did not share these values, or in their view didn’t have a genuine chance to win, because they didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.

But what if the endorsement doesn’t tell you enough about why they endorsed a certain candidate, supported another more tepidly, or declined to back some candidates with generally progressive values? As I participated in the interviews as an advisor to the Board, I’m posting a few outtakes from our interviews to help guide you in your voting decision, or just entertain you if you’ve already voted and want to confirm you done right.

District 1 (West Seattle)

Brianna Thomas

On her top priorities for funding bus service under last year’s Seattle Proposition 1

In this order, I’ve got to go: Congestion at peak hours. I live in West Seattle. There is one way in, there is one way out, so that’s got to be the first thing I tackle. And then after that, it would have to be just in-district mobility. We’ve got the 22 bus route, which is my bus route [and] the bane of my existence. It comes once an hour, it stops at 8:17 or something ridiculous, and it’s at the bottom of a giant hill. So this is the bus route that I am most invested in. Then, after that the 37 down around Alki. … I would like a bus that goes across the West Seattle Bridge to Beacon Hill. And this is completely selfish, because I have a godbaby over there and it takes me forever to get to his cute face.

On parking minimums

I’m content with rolling them back as long as we’ve got matching infrastructure to go with it in a timely, and I do mean timely, manner.

Next to my apartment building, there are 28 units going in with seven parking spots, and everyone is just like, there’s no way only a quarter of these people are going to have cars. It’s impossible. In District 1, like in South Park, for instance, you’ve kind of got to have a car to get to the grocery store, your job, the bank, the post office. Until we pump up the jam on providing services to these pockets of neighborhoods, it’s impossible to make the argument not to have a car.

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Seattle’s ST3 Input


Map by Oran. Station Names are his.

[CORRECTION: Michael James of SDOT wrote me to clarify that their request does include “a station in the vicinity of Mercer St. and 1st Avenue N.” Apparently the excerpt “… a station at State Route 99 and Harrison, serving Uptown and the Seattle Center,…” refers to two stations, not one. I regret taking the sentence at its most clearly understood meaning, rather than asking.]

If there’s any takeaway from Sound Transit’s Federal Way Link alignment decision, it’s that input from jurisdictions carry significant weight in those decisions. This is understandable both in theory (elected officials ought to be more representative than self-selected public comment) and in practice (local jurisdictions are important to both winning the vote and getting permits to execute the projects.) This can turn out good or bad, depending on the values of the electorate and their representatives.

Last week Sound Transit staff presented the sum of both public comment and local government input on ST3. There are dozens of government letters, but today we’ll start with Seattle, signed by SDOT director Scott Kubly. The letter touches on most of the themes in previous Seattle-area rail discussions, but also sets a clear priority. Here are the bullet points:

  • The main request is light rail from Ballard to West Seattle.
  • Through downtown there must be a tunnel under 4th, 5th, or 6th Avenues because a surface alignment would have serious traffic impacts and “inability to serve South Lake Union.”
  • As a lower priority, evaluation of Ballard/UW rail with “considerations to extend the line east in the future.”
  • “Full evaluation” of Graham St. and N. 130th St. stations. In the latter case, consider the new urban village option there and the impact of feeder buses on ridership.
  • Madison BRT

The meatiest part is the Ballard segment, which would have stations at:

  • 15th Ave & N 65th St.
  • 15th Ave & Market St.
  • 15th Ave & Dravus St.
  • 15th Ave & Newton St. (the Interbay Whole Foods)
  • “in close proximity” to the Elliott Trail Bridge (near Expedia)
  • [UPDATE: 1st Ave N & Mercer St.]
  • SR 99 & Harrison St.
  • Westlake Ave N & Denny Way
  • “A below grade station with pedestrian connections to the existing Westlake Station platforms”

The proposal suggests either surface or elevated options on 15th and Elliott, as well as a new Ballard Bridge with “no more than 4 general purpose lanes”, bike, and pedestrian lanes, potentially not high enough to avoid openings due to shipping.

The West Seattle segment is much more vague, with an endpoint at the Junction running elevated, at-grade, or tunneled. The letter specifically calls out “early implementation items’ that could improve bus service to West Seattle more quickly.


[UPDATE: See the correction post for analysis. Original text follows.]

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Call for Suggestions in Other Races

Last week, STB unveiled its 2015 city council primary endorsements. This was the first time we had gone through such an extensive interview process before making endorsements. We don’t have plans to do any more interviews, or make further endorsements, in the primary election. That doesn’t mean the rest of the ballot isn’t important.

So, we are calling for suggestions from our readers as to who we should vote for in other races. Please stick to candidates’ positions on transportation and land use.


Voters to Get Nonbinding Say on 11.9-Cent Gas Tax Increase

Gas prices in Lewiston, ME, 2008 (source: Mikov on Wikicommons)

Gas prices in Lewiston, ME, 2008 (source: Mikov on Wikicommons)

Thanks to a provision in Initiative 960 (Ballotpedia), passed by Washington State voters in 2007, voters will have four non-binding Advisory Questions on the November 3, 2015 ballot. One of the questions will be on whether the legislature should have passed an 11.9-cent gas tax increase, (The Olympian) the main funding source for the $16.1 billion highway spending spree in SB 5987. This is the same bill that granted $15 billion in ST3 authority.

The first 7 cents of that increase is due to take effect August 1 of this year.

Whether the voters say “Yes” or “No”, the gas tax increases remain.

Environmental groups could push for a symbolic “No” vote on the gas-tax question, to express distaste for the highway package. A “No” vote would not overturn any of the provisions of the relevant bills. However, the legislature is capable of undoing some of the provisions in later sessions, but not defunding programs against which the state or a lower governmental entity has bonded. This is why Sound Transit was able to maintain its car tab funding (Seattle Times $) after Initiative 776 passed.

Implications of a Bad Route to Federal Way

The closest option to the Board's preferred alignment. The Kent/Des Moines station would likely be closer to 30th Ave and orientation of the Federal Way Transit Center is undecided.

The closest option to the Board’s preferred alignment. The Kent/Des Moines station would likely be closer to 30th Ave and orientation of the Federal Way Transit Center is undecided.

Sound Transit’s decision about the Federal Way alignment is a not what we would hope. In fifty years no one will care at all what the construction impacts were along 99, but will care at least a bit about the noise generated by all the train’s unnecessary turns. They’ll marvel at the train’s torturous routing south of Rainier Beach, and perhaps (incorrectly) blame lamentably long travel times on it. Most importantly, they will probably care a lot about the difficulty of finding housing close to high-quality transit, and would have liked the extra few hundred such units we might have had in Federal Way. But any process with a lot of democracy in it (and Sound Transit’s process certainly does) will shortchange future voters for present ones, absent extraordinary vision from the people in charge.

It’s natural to have a negative emotional reaction to a decision so contrary to well-understood transit planning principles. It’s very frustrating for studies to agree with experts in indicating the right course of action, and have leaders ignore it for largely petty and shortsighted reasons. However, a few observations are in order.

1. This is about Sound Transit 2, not ST3. There are three stops. Highline CC is funded and scheduled to open in 2023. S. 272nd St is in the ST2 plan but unfunded, and regardless of any ST3 vote the agency will probably find the money somewhere. Federal Way Transit Center (FWTC) would be ST3, but as it’s between SR99 and I-5 the direction of approach isn’t of much consequence. So aside from slightly reduced demand generators for points further South, and a somewhat harder argument for Link to follow SR99 to Tacoma, this has no impact on ST3 at all.

2. It’s mostly about one station.  With the amendments, the Highline station moves perhaps 1/8 of a mile further from the college, and in the thick of Kent’s planned upzone. Approaching FWTC from the East instead of West has few obvious consequences. It’s serving the park-and-ride at S. 272nd and I-5, hemmed in by a wetland and the freeway, that punts signficant development potential. This is regrettable, but perhaps not grounds to declare the whole program a failure.

On the other hand, an I-5 routing also forgoes the possibility of additional infill stations as the area develops.

3. This is consistent with past dynamics. No one really wants elevated sections near their property, especially if it doesn’t come with direct station access. And in fact virtually all of ST’s planned or built elevated track to date has been shunted next to freeways, airports, or industrial wastelands, for better or worse. You may recall the gyrations trying to get the ill-fated Seattle Monorail through Belltown. So this isn’t just a quirk at Des Moines City Hall.

4. Interest groups drive service priorities. Zach already pointed this out, but it’s worth elaborating.

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Sound Transit Chooses I-5 for Federal Way Link

[CORRECTION: The original post used an outdated TOD estimate to claim a 60% loss between the alternatives. With the amendments yesterday and updated totals, the true reduction in TOD potential is 29%. I regret the error.]

On Thursday afternoon, the Sound Transit Board voted unanimously to recommend I-5 as the preferred alignment for Link from Angle Lake to Federal Way Transit Center. You can watch the Board discussion beginning at 2:02:05. I-5 will now have preferred status heading into the FEIS, after which the Board will make a final decision sometime in 2016. There were 4 amendments, the first of which chose I-5 itself while the next 3 served particular needs at each of the station areas at Highline, S. 272nd, and Federal Way TC.

Critically, the cities of SeaTac, Des Moines, Kent, and Federal Way were unified both in their opposition to SR-99 and their support of I-5. Board Members McCarthy, Butler, Roberts, and Earling all talked at length about pleasing the local jurisdictions, but mentions of the actual utility of light rail service on I-5 vis-à-vis SR 99 were curiously absent.  In defending her vote, McCarthy said she’d “be hard pressed to go against” those communities, and that “all the metrics” support I-5.

But other than political expedience and capital cost – I-5 saves approximately $300m on the $1.5-$1.8B project – what metrics could possibly favor I-5?  Sound Transit chose an alignment that serves fewer riders, that contradicts its own TOD policy and has 60%  29% less TOD potential, ignores the preponderance of public comment and the pleas of Highline for direct access, has fewer stations, worsens walksheds, does little for intra-South King mobility, and is no faster than an SR-99 alignment. From an agency in the business of maximizing mobility, this decision is a disappointing failure to learn from the mistakes of Denver, Portland, and our own Lynnwood Link when it comes to freeway rail alignments. Sadly, it also continues to treat South King County as a pass-through community, rather than a destination in its own right.

Highland Community College. The station will likely be near 30th Ave S, roughly 1/4 mile walk to the college.

Highline Community College station area. The station will likely be east of SR 99 near 30th Ave S, roughly 1/4 mile walk to the college. Board members spoke of building a “world-class, UW style” bridge to get students across the 6 lanes of SR 99.

The 3 subsequent amendments sought to mitigate the difficulties they had created just minutes earlier by choosing I-5. Amendment 2 provided for continued analysis of an immediate deviation away from I-5 to Highline, with analysis of station locations between 30th Avenue and SR 99, including on the west side of SR 99 (requiring a Rube Goldberg-esque 3 crossings of SR 99 between Angle Lake and Highline). Amendment 3 directed Sound Transit to deviate from I-5 to locate the Federal Way station on the east side of the transit center near 23rd Avenue South. Amendment 4 requires Sound Transit to undertake an Access Study of the 272nd/Star Lake Station, a study necessitated by the action the board had just taken to worsen station access by choosing I-5.

Against their own misgivings, O’Brien supported I-5 “out of solidarity” while Chair Constantine conceded that “a majority of the Board has a valid point” despite his own initial preference for SR 99.  Mayor Murray was not present to vote.

The future Star Lake station area, approximately 1/2 mile from SR 99.

The future Star Lake station area, approximately 1/2 mile from SR 99.

The doublespeak from South King County boardmembers in particular was disappointing. Long vocal about the ‘promises made’ to get their piece of the rail pie, they also described the ‘devastating impact’ the train would have have if it were located anywhere near anyone. Echoing a McDonalds owner who in public comment decried Link’s potential impact to his drive-through customers, County Councilmember Peter von Reichbauer argued for the preservation of the strip mall sprawl of SR-99 and the low-wage retail jobs that prevail there:

“There is so much passion coming out of Highline…[your advocacy for a station] has had an impact…and these amendments reflect your deep concerns. But we recognize that the demographics of the college have changed, and their needs have changed. But to me there’s no better social program than a job, and the displacement that would occur  along 99 if we [build along 99] would affect my district dramatically. We’ve seen large corporations leaving South King County for Seattle, and the displacement that would occur for many small businesses would be devastating for our communities.”

Councilmember Phillips pushed back, even though he too voted yes:

“You start to ask yourself, ‘why don’t we just continue down 99 to Highline?’…When we start to zig-zag to serve interests along the way, we start to lose sight of the overall approach to what we’re trying to do, and riders will ask, why are we zigzagging? There is a system view of this we need to be taking.”

So where does this leave us? There seems to be a clear process lesson for advocates, namely that organizing is far more important than making a better argument, and that absent coordinated efforts to make the case on the ground, anti-urban inertia will continue to rule the day. It becomes difficult not to be cynical about Sound Transit’s corridor studies, which seem to exist to provide a veneer of rigor over what is plainly a political process. To achieve better outcomes, we have to organize and show up.

But as I’ve argued before, Link’s southward march needs a coherent mobility vision that focuses on mobility within the subareas they serve. A political goal of regional connectivity cannot and should not be divorced from the cold math of who can access stations, where they are going, and how long it their trips will take. Whose trips would Link make better, and how? A freeway alignment would be more defensible if it provided faster trips than prevailing alternatives, but Link won’t: both SR 99 and I-5 alignments will be 15-25 minutes slower than existing express buses from Federal Way to downtown, and ~10 minutes slower from Star Lake to downtown (though either option improves trip times from downtown to Highline compared to current Metro service). Sometimes there are unavoidable tradeoffs between providing competitive long-distance trips and maximizing local development and connectivity. But if an I-5 alignment does neither, what problem is the Sound Transit Board trying to solve?

Metro’s Battery Proterra Bus Begins Testing

This is a guest post.

Last year Metro won a $4.7 million federal TIGGER grant to purchase two Proterra battery-operated buses and two charging stations. Last week Metro finished installing and began testing a fast charger at Eastgate Transit Center. Currently a Proterra factory unit is being used (not the one that visited earlier this year) but later three different vehicles will be delivered. Metro originally intended to purchase two charging stations but decided against a second station and instead applied that funding toward the purchase of a third bus. The first vehicle is expected to be delivered this fall with the other two coming later in the fall.

Proterra Testing

The vehicles won’t go in to revenue service for quite some time; initial testing will last a few weeks after arrival and more in-depth testing will occur for up to a year for Metro to determine how they perform in Metro’s service area. This data will be used to decide how they might fit in with their future fleet plans. While no final decisions have been as to what routes will see some electric action, routes 226 and 241 are the most likely candidates. They are interlined on an 18.25 mile route and terminate at Eastgate TC. If the buses are able to go the distance, 221 and 248 are other possibilities since they both have layovers (in one direction) at Eastgate TC. During the testing period, the vehicles will likely be placed on a variety of routes to gather as much performance data as possible. While the exact numbers will depend on the batteries’ state of charge, Metro’s contract stipulates that the vehicle will need to be able to charge in 10 minutes or less and be able to maintain a 23 mile service route off that charge, and Proterra has been able to meet that requirement.

This project is more of a R&D project for Metro than a rush to put new technology in to revenue service. Metro is using it to determine whether or not battery technology could be used on replacement 40′ buses. A PowerPoint presentation from Metro’s vehicle maintenance outlines the goals and some of the construction of the vehicle. An interesting note is that BYD and New Flyer also bid on the contract (Design Line, E-Bus, Nova, and Skoda dropped out).

A few photos of the testing can be found here.

This is a guest post.

Fundraising Drive: Last Call

It’s getting to the end of the month, and this is the last time you’ll hear from us asking to support our first annual fundraising drive. In our last ask, we challenged the community to get us to 100 donors, and you delivered!  We now have over 100 donors to STB, which is both inspiring and humbling. So thank you.

This week we dropped our city council endorsements.  It was a crowded field this year, surely due in part to district elections.  For the first time, we sat and met with most of the major candidates in person, to hear first hand their priorities for the myriad transit and land use issues facing the city.  It was a revealing week for us, with some truly impressive candidates in districts where we did not expect them.

We want to do more of this kind of in-person, first-hand reporting and analysis in the year to come, and we’ll get there with your help.  We’re almost 2/3 of the way to our goal, and we can make it there by July 31 with your help.  Will 50 more readers step up and get us over the hump?  We’re counting on you.  Thanks in advance.