Disappointments with the Connect2020 plan

Shoulda hired these guys

A few weeks into Connect2020, riders are enduring the result of some failures of foresight. Planning any train trip requires a 15-minute buffer that makes it nearly unusable for short-haul trips, where the train’s speed advantages matter less.

Long-term failures

The Central Link line is neither futureproof nor robust. The intention to build rails on I-90, though not voter-approved for most of the period of tunnel retrofit for Link, was well-established. A trivial amount of additional track, where it intersects the track in use, could have avoided the current pain entirely.

Furthermore, more liberal placement of switchovers would not only have allowed much lower headways today, but would also have made the system more resilient in the event of car crashes and other incidents on the track (like train maintenance issues).

At this point it is customary to write off all poor pre-2009 decisions as the bad old days. But ST is still poised to make the same mistakes. Already facing unavoidable huge disruptions for Graham St. and Boeing Access Road, it may do so avoidably at the firmly planned 130th St Station, to say nothing of unapproved but likely extensions.

Short-term failures

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Sound Transit’s station ridership in 2040

Link Light Rail Train heading to the SODO Station (image: Lizz Giordano)

A year ago, we reported on future ridership maps that showed a 2040 ST3 system with ridership concentrated in and near Seattle. We subsequently got a closer look at the station (and segment) level detail behind those maps.

The tables below are the high-end estimates for boardings 2040, organized by rail segment. These estimates are from September 2016, and may have been modestly refined since. In particular, I-405 BRT estimates are now higher than in 2016, as project improvements have greatly improved travel time. Variations in future growth vs current plans will surely raise or lower ridership in some places. On current trends, that means more ridership in Seattle and less in some suburban cities, but growth patterns may be different in 20 years.

The busiest stations? All are in downtown, and the two Westlake stations are first and fourth in the rankings, with 48,800 and 28,900 boardings respectively, along with thousands of transfers. International District, Capitol Hill, University Street and UW will all top 20,000 riders per weekday.

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Seattle permitting is glacial

Katherine Khashimova Long reports that badly needed housing projects are taking an average of 60% longer to permit than in 2014 ($), adding as much as seven months of pure bureaucracy.

The word “emergency” is used a lot in public discourse. Different parts of the political spectrum say we have them for the global climate, the national border, and for local households trying to find a home. But if the problem doesn’t warrant any change in existing priorities and procedures, it isn’t an emergency at all. By allowing this problem to get worse, Seattle leaders have let us know what they really think of the urgency of adding housing supply.

The article blames a botched software rollout and understaffing for the problem. Certainly, an administration where housing production was the #1 priority would have reverted to the old system and done whatever necessary to staff the office up.

But more than problems in executing the process, the problem is the process itself. On average, design review adds 89 days to the permitting process. What value are we getting out of this process? Has it made our housing stock more architecturally distinguished? Or has it enforced a sameness (excuse me, “protected neighborhood character”) by incentivizing architects to stick with what’s made it through review before?

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News roundup: have no impact

SounderBruce [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

This is an open thread.

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Metro proposes new network for North Link

Metro map of the proposed network, zoomed out.

In 2021, Sound Transit’s Northgate Link Extension will add three new stations to the light rail line formerly known as Central Link: University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. As with previous Link extensions, Metro plans to restructure bus service to improve connections to the new stations and reduce duplication with new light rail service. Given the large, heavily populated swath of North Seattle that the Northgate Link stations will serve, we expected this restructure to be particularly far-reaching. And Metro’s first proposal does not disappoint.

In the broadest terms, Metro wants to leverage Link for almost every trip where it could make sense, and to shift bus hours from redundant trips downtown into local routes and commuter service to destinations Link doesn’t reach. Riders traveling between the north end and downtown can expect to use light rail for at least part of their trips, while many riders within North Seattle will have new nonstop connections and buses that run more often.

Before we dive into what it means for specific areas (below the jump), we should note that this proposal is about high-level network concepts more than granular details. Metro is offering only general information about the level of service riders can expect on each proposed route, and says that it intends to gather feedback about specific tradeoffs during community outreach that will happen over the next few months. Based on experience of past Link proposals, it’s possible that this one could barely change, that it could be redrawn wholesale, or anything in between—depending on feedback Metro receives. Tell Metro what you think, whether or not you like what you see. Their survey is open until April 7.

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Battery bus amendment sets 2035 goal, not requirement

Proterra Bus at Eastgate P&R (image: Atomic Taco)

A striker amendment to be offered this afternoon sets a 2035 date for full electrification of the Metro bus fleet, but also responds to Metro’s concerns about the feasibility of this timeline. The revisions to the language means 2035 is set as a goal rather than a requirement in the ordinance. Metro will develop an implementation plan including fleet purchase plans through 2040.

As we reported yesterday, Metro has concerns about the readiness of battery bus technology which is still in its relative infancy, and about the costs of charging infrastructure. Those cost concerns are multiplied in a rapid transition to electric which could see hybrid vehicles retired prematurely to meet a 2035 deadline. By resetting the 2035 date to a goal, and regularly reevaluating progress in future, the revised legislation resets the balance between the climate goals of a cleaner fleet vs the uncertain technology and the service impacts of large outlays on battery buses.

The revised bill is likely to be voted out of the County Council’s Mobility and Environment Committee today.

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Station renames

Atomic Taco / Flickr

Sound Transit is planning to rename the University Street Station to “Union Street Symphony” ahead of the opening of the Northgate Link extension. ST has correctly determined that having a station named “University Street” and another named “University District” (in addition to a third station named “University of Washington”) will cause confusion to riders. While I agree with the motivation to change the station name, there are some problems with this rename. There is a different solution which addresses these problems while still clearing up the confusion.

The Downtown Transit Tunnel opened in 1990. Renaming a station that has existed in public for 30 years can be a bad idea. There are thirty years of printed materials with “University Street” station referring to a station downtown. There are thirty years of human memories, some people who probably rarely use transit, or who may not get the notice of a transit station name change. Some of these people may live in different cities and countries or using printed materials in different languages. Educating everyone on the new name will be difficult and expensive and will be a serious usability problem for riders. Especially people looking for “University Street”, not finding it, but instead finding “University District” which is many miles away.

A good rule to follow when naming transit stations is the principle that station names should tell you where the station is. In this case, the University Station is one of only two stations in the system whose name actually does that job (along with Sea-Tac station). That station is on University Street. It’s not on Union, and it’s not on “Symphony” (which isn’t a place). Taking the only station in the city whose name references where it is and naming it after somewhere it isn’t seems like a bad idea and move in the wrong direction. Paying $5.3 million to do it seems like a very poor use of public funds.

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County considers fully electric bus fleet by 2035 despite warnings of service cuts

Metro Proterra battery electric bus in Bellevue (image: SounderBruce)

King County Council is considering an ordinance that would accelerate the planned transition to a fully electric bus fleet from 2040 to 2035. Staff have warned too a rapid transition would come at a steep cost, with large near term budget investments leading to service reductions.

The cost worries take two forms. The upfront investments, particularly in charging infrastructure, are large. Battery electric buses have higher total life cycle costs than the hybrid buses they are to replace. The opportunity cost of increased expenditures on fleet replacement and charging infrastructure is less revenue available to provide service. But it gets much worse with an accelerated transition where hybrid buses are unnecessarily retired before the end of their useful life. For some of the hybrid fleet, this would also mean repayment of federal grants that helped finance their purchase.

Beyond budgetary and customer impacts, the opportunity cost of foregone service matters because transit service itself reduces carbon emissions. While Metro’s 10 million gallons of diesel annually is getting the attention of the County Council, Metro is displacing four times that much by reduced driving and congestion. It’s not apparent whether the trade-off of cleaner buses and reduced funding for service would mean more or less carbon emissions.

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Connect 2020 is a reminder to improve 4th & Jackson

Tilt shift of 4th & Jackson (Shane in the City/Flickr)

The recurring message for Connect 2020 riders is that alternatives are your friend during the ten-week period. While many downtown-bound Sounder commuters have traditionally headed straight to the International District Link station (IDS) to reach their final destination, a smaller portion connects to buses at either the near-side or far-side stop at 4th and Jackson. During Connect 2020, Sound Transit has been heralding this much humbler connection point as a good alternative to Link for transferring Sounder commuters. But you don’t need a disruptive service event to make that connection palatable – 4th/Jackson is actually already a superior option for many peak commuters, thanks to high service frequency and ease of access. With a little attention, it could be even better.

By a rough count, both near and far-side stops at 4th & Jackson see a combined frequency of 125 buses per hour in the heart of the peak period, an average headway of 30 seconds, over 12 times regular Link frequency and over 30 times today’s.

Furthermore, 4th & Jackson is simply easier to access from Sounder than IDS. Sounder customers are already there after exiting the stairwells and one or two street crossings. Connecting to Link, on the other hand, means passing Union Station and then going back underground. The transfer is also subject to the bottlenecks not only at the IDS ingress points, but also in the tight pedestrian ways at Weller and, to a lesser extent, outside Union Station’s north entrance.

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A look at the Redmond Link stations

Aerial image of the Downtown Redmond station (image: Sound Transit)

Now that Redmond Link has officially broken ground, significant construction will be beginning in the Spring along the 3.4 mile extension from Redmond Technology Station to Downtown Redmond. Two new stations will be added in Downtown Redmond and just across the freeway at Southeast Redmond. The station designs are making their way through design review. The scope of the review is limited and most structural elements of the line are excluded. But it is an opportunity for the rest of us to see what the stations will look like.

The Downtown Redmond station sits astride 166th St (image: Sound Transit)

The downtown Redmond station is an elevated structure in the Redmond Central Connector corridor (once part of a spur line from the Eastside Rail Corridor) and spans 166th Ave NE. There will be bus stops on either side of the station along Cleveland St and NE 76th St. The station will have entrances on either side of 166th and will parallel the Redmond Connector trail which is being relocated very slightly to the north.

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The ST3 Sounder plan is still not very clear

SOUNDER
Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

Ever since voters first had a look in 2016, the exact plan for South Sounder expansion in ST3 has been vague. Key elements are subject to negotiation with BNSF, who owns the track between Seattle and Tacoma. However, staff briefed the Sound Transit System Expansion Committee last Thursday on the recommendations they’ve been able to form since the last report in September, in the form of a draft Strategic Development and Implementation Plan.

Rider feedback is what one would expect: they would like trains to be reliable, less crowded, have the stations be nicer, and have more trips. Notably, there was more excitement about trips adjacent to current trips (in the peak, the shoulder of the peak, and evenings) than opening up entirely new times of day or weekends.

Staff is recommending progress on every axis of Sounder expansion (stations at Tillicum and Dupont in 2036 are already baked in the cake). They would make gradual station improvements over the next 20 years, especially at King Street Station where volumes are highest.

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News roundup: designed to get your attention

Pioneer Square Station
wings777/flickr

This is an open thread.

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Protecting bus lanes

Photo collage by CMAP

Automated bus lane enforcement may have died in the state legislature, but that’s no reason the city can’t get creative when it comes to enforcing bus lanes.  

While true grade separation is the holy grail of reliable transit, an at-grade bus lanes can be protected much like a bike lane.  

Chicago’s regional planning agency collected the above collage of protected bus lanes around the world.  In each, the bus lanes is elevated or protected from general traffic, making it difficult for cars to enter.  

Meanwhile New York City’s DOT tweeted out an image of one recently:

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Sound Transit previews NE 130th options

Preliminary design for the NE 130th Link station (image: Sound Transit)

At Thursday’s System Expansion Committee meeting, staff shared options for opening the NE 130th Link station ahead of the currently scheduled 2031 date. An early opening will be less expensive in capital dollars and avoid rider disruptions later. But the earlier expenditure has some modest impacts for Sound Transit’s indebtedness at an arguably sensitive time for other projects.

Three options are now on the table. The default is to proceed with the ST3 plan to build an infill station in 2031 after Lynnwood Link has opened in 2024. Seattle would prefer to build the station concurrently with the Lynnwood line and have the station open by 2025. Staff offered a third partial build option which would build just enough of the station to avoid the worst construction impacts, but defer other construction until later so the station opens years after Lynnwood Link.

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No realtime data for Connect 2020

With Link headways now around 15 minutes all day, real time data would allow Link’s quality of service to at least match that of a frequent bus route. Unfortunately, that’s not to be.

ST’s David Jackson, answering when we could expect an accurate GTFS feed:

Because of the lead time required for the GTFS data to go live and our very recent headway tweak, GTFS won’t be accurate for Connect 2020 trains.

It doesn’t appear we’ll even have accurate schedules, much less a clue as to a train’s actual position.

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Metro to expand low income fare subsidy

King County Metro 44
King County Metro 44 (image: Flickr, Kris Leisten).

Metro is considering a program of income-based fares that would fully subsidize fares for riders with very low incomes. A public launch is targeted for July 2020.

The program would expand on the current ORCA Lift which offers 50% discounts across local agencies to those with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level. Currently, that cutoff is $24,980 for a single person or $51,500 for a family of four. The expanded program is expected to include unlimited fare-free travel for those with incomes below 80% of the federal poverty level. This cutoff would be $9,992 for a single person or $20,600 for a family of four. (updated for an error in the original calculation).

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