What Ever Happened To ORCA?

Remember ORCA? It stands for One Regional Card for All (I think the namers were LOTR fans), and was a test of a regional smart card that would work on seven transit systems: King County Metro Transit, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Everett Transit Route, Kitsap Transit, Washington State Ferries, and Pierce transit. I never heard anything about it again after that, so I asked the ORCA team, but they never responded.

Does anyone know anything about it?

Transit Quote of the Week

Of course, you might argue that adding highway lanes are never free, since they add to our reliance on automobiles. That’s valid, but it’s worth noting that widening 405 is a pretty mild step compared with building 49 miles of light rail. There’s no real radical road package to oppose here, like, for example, a new I-605 cutting through the Cascade foothills. It’s all pretty basic stuff. By voting “no” on this package, transit supporters would be cutting off their nose to spite their face. (Emphasis added)

From Orphan Road.

NREL Hybrid Bus Study

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The National Renewable Energy Lab study showing the efficiency of hybrid buses over standard Breda diesels in King County’s fleet.

RTID is a compromise

Josh Feit of The Stranger has a very kooky argument against the RTID. Something about net-present value and inflation and loans that basically falls apart when serious thought is put to it. He complains:

However, I am not able to stomach $6.7 billion or $14 billion on roads—roads— when I was told by everyone in town that $3 billion or $11 billion was too much for mass transit.

As Frank over at Orphan Road pointed out, the $14 billion figure is for roads all over the tri-county area. The $11 billion figure is for one line in the city. Comparing the two is virtually meaningless. And if you don’t drive a car, then you won’t even pay much for RTID because it is mostly paid for by MVET ($80 per $10,000 assessed value), with only a .1% increase in sales tax. It’s not much money, $10 for every $10,000 spent.

He also hammers on about the “carbon footprint” of the RTID which is a strawman argument. Here’s a reductio ad absurdum about the carbon footprint argument. Suppose you oppose anything that will increase “carbon footprints” (like roads), and support anything with the potential to reduce it. Then you should oppose RTID because it will increase the “carbon footprint” of the region, and you should support ST2 because it could decrease the “carbon footprint”. But you should also support destroying I-5 because that would decrease the “carbon footprint” of the region. So let’s destroy all roads and outlaw gas and we can live like cavemen with no carbon footprint but the wood we burn to cook our food.

Look, I’m an environmentalist, I’m not gung-ho about RTID, I don’t like the cross-base highway, and most of the projects won’t have much positive effect for me at all. The only one that would have any effect on me, replacing 520, isn’t even completely funded in the proposal. However it is a pill I’m willing to swallow if I am going to be able to take a train to see my little brother in the UD, or to buy some shoes downtown. We can’t sit and wait for the perfect propsal that pleases everyone, we have to accept what will make the best compromise and move forward from there.

Apples and Oranges

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Speaking of the RTID, Josh Feit at The Stranger continues to advocate against the “Roads” piece of the “Roads and Transit” vote coming up in November. In doing so, he raises some interesting points that are worth unpacking.

Feit does make the useful distinction between current (or 2006) dollars and “year of expenditure” (“YOE”) dollars. As we’ve noted before, YOE dollars are really only worth considering when there’s some really unusual financing going on, like in the case of the monorail. With Sound Transit, they’re borrowing money at a pretty competitive rate, so the YOE numbers are only used by anti-transit folks trying to induce sticker shock. (When I buy a $300K condo, I don’t claim it’s a $600K condo, even though that’s what I’ll be paying over the course of a 30-year mortgage) So kudos to Feit for laying it out clearly.

However, he also says this:

Despite my bitterness about the $11 billion number that was thrown around to kill the monorail, I’m happy to shell out $10.2 billion or even $23 billion to get some mass transit in Seattle.

However, I am not able to stomach $6.7 billion or $14 billion on roads—roads— when I was told by everyone in town that $3 billion or $11 billion was too much for mass transit.

Though I voted for the monorail all five times, and still support the idea, I think it’s important to address the reasons why Feit was “told by everyone in town” that the project was too expensive, and why comparing the $6.7B/$14B for roads to the $3B/$11B makes little sense.

First, as you’ll notice, $14B is twice $6.7B, while $11B is nearly four times $3B. In other words, the monorail’s financing (using very long-term bonds) meant that we were paying a lot relative to what we were getting.

Second, the monorail tax was levied on the city of Seattle alone, while the RTID will be levied on a three-county region, so the costs are more spread out.

Finally, and this is a minor point, the monorail was financed purely with an MVET, whereas this package will be part-MVET, part-sales-tax. The addition of the sales tax widens the tax base and lessens the perceived impact.

Transit Plan OK’d – Where We Go From Here

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Sound Transit’s board has approved the final draft plan for this November’s vote. This was simpley the formal approval of the plan that the board hammered out last month.

It will be an interesting ride, so to speak, from here to November. The legislature and others have made a gamble with this Roads and Transit joint RTID package. It’s already drawing criticism from pro-transit and pro-environmental groups who say it includes too much money for highways, and criticism from anti-tax and anti-Sound Transit groups who don’t want to see any more money spent on rail.

But, to paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, you go to the ballot box with the transit plan you have, not the plan you might want or wish to have. Compromise is part of that. Not everyone gets to design their dream infrastructure. There are some things in this package that seem misguided (like the Cross Base Highway), but this is the cost of doing business.

Barring any great changes in the cost or scope, I’ll be voting yes for the fall Roads and Transit plan, and I encourage everyone to do the same. In fact, between now and November, making the case for a “yes” vote will be our raison d’etre here at Orphan Road.

Why? Simply because every year we wait, construction and property costs increase by as much as 15%, or 5 times the rate of inflation. That means that each year, it costs more to build less. Just to put that in perspective, it means that the cost of a $17 billion package will go up by as much as $2.5 billion just by waiting a year. That alone is more than enough to widen I-405 (estimated at $1B). By approving the package this year as opposed to next, those projects are essentially free.

Of course, you might argue that adding highway lanes are never free, since they add to our reliance on automobiles. That’s valid, but it’s worth noting that widening 405 is a pretty mild step compared with building 49 miles of light rail. There’s no real radical road package to oppose here, like, for example, a new I-605 cutting through the Cascade foothills. It’s all pretty basic stuff. By voting “no” on this package, transit supporters would be cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Hybrids More Fuel Efficient After All?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I thought it was a settled case that Metro’s new hybrid buses were no more fuel-efficient than the diesels they replaced. Now comes an article in Truck Trend (I’m sure yours is in the mail…) citing a government study (PDF) that shows the opposite.

The real-world study, conducted in Seattle in 2006, shows a 27% increase in fuel economy over the old buses. It’s hard to say what accounts for the disparity, although it appears from the study that actual fuel economy for both bus types was lower, and thus the difference more dramatic. Either way, it’s good news King County.

(Incidentally, the study was provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. There’s a funny story about President Bush’s visit to NREL last year.)

Sound Transit Board Adopts ST2 Plan

Today Sound Transit’s board unanimously adopted the ST2 plan that will go to the ballot this November. From the press release:

Sound Transit 2’s light rail expansions build on the light rail in Sound Transit’s first phase, including the line between downtown Seattle and the airport that will open in 2009; the University of Washington extension that Sound Transit is working to start building as soon as 2008; and the Tacoma Link system that is operating today.

The Sound Transit 2 Plan adds service northward from the University of Washington to Northgate, Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood and the 164th Street/Ash Way area of Snohomish County. To the south the system would extend through Des Moines, Federal Way and Fife to the Tacoma Dome, connecting with the existing Tacoma Link light rail system. A long-awaited light rail extension across Lake Washington would serve Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond’s Overlake/Microsoft area.

Check out the finalized plan that will go on the ballot. I am definitely voting for it, even if I’m not a fan of the RTID piece. We’ll never get a sent a transit package that will make everyone happy, and the more ballots we pass, the more we show those who can do something that we want more transit.

Vanvouver’s POV on Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Last week Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry highlighted the fact that Vancouver tops Seattle and Portland in transit use. The Vancouver-area papers have run with the story:

Vancouver is more constrained by geography, so like it or not, there’s less space to sprawl and more likelihood residents will be close to transit.

By year-end, 36 per cent of [Greater Vancouver] residents will live within 450 metres of a “frequent transit” line—what TransLink defines as minimum 15 minute service 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

Williams-Derry also concedes higher gas taxes north of the border may have helped give transit an edge over private car use over the long term.

But ultimately, he argues, Vancouver’s success stems from better land-use decisions rather than the design of its transit system.

That second point about “frequent transit” is key. People need confidence that they can “throw away their schedules,” which was one of Ron Sims’ key selling points for Transit Now. People like certainty, which is one reason why rail appeals to us: you see the tracks here, it’s pretty clear that there’s a train going to come sooner or later. Bus stops don’t inspire the same confidence. Hopefully Metro’s RapidRide will incorporate some rail-station-like features that give us the sense that there’s a BRT bus on the way.

For example, I was spending a weekend in Northwest Portland about a year ago, and I wanted to spend the day downtown. I headed right for the streetcar stop. There was a digital readout saying that, since it was a weekend, the next car was coming in, say 20 minutes. I watched a few buses pass me, and thought I probably could have gotten on any one of them and gotten downtown. But there was an uncertainty that I, unfamiliar with Portland, wouldn’t get where I wanted to go. So I waited for the streetcar. And sure enough, it came just when the sign said it would. That’s how transit should work: we can deal with the waiting, just not the uncertainty.

Phillips: Just Grab the BNSF Corridor

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

King County Councilman Larry Phillips wants the BNSF corridor on the Eastside, he just doesn’t think that the County should give up Boeing Field (King County Airport) in exchange.

His stated problems with the Sims land swap boil down to: (a) he wants to keep the airport, and (b) he thinks it’s worth far more than the trail (perhaps five times as much). But it’s actually more complicated than that. Phillips district (PDF), which includes Seattle’s Magnolia and Queen Anne neighborhoods, happens to be right in the airport’s flight path. He’s worried that the Port of Seattle would try to start landing commercial flights there, which would be disruptive for his constituents.

However, he knows that the rail corridor is vital, and that the idea of acquiring it is popular, so he’s trying to convince all the regional municipalities, including the Port, that it’s in their interest to buy the right-of-way without giving up the airport in exchange.

Note how deftly he skirts the issue of commercial flights (and the debate over rail-vs-trail) while simultaneously putting himself in the pro-acquisition camp:

King County keeps the airport we have a proven track record operating and the Port of Seattle has little interest in acquiring; and the region moves swiftly to acquire the rail corridor from BNSF either through a funding partnership or an outright purchase by the Port of Seattle.

Future generations will thank us for our ingenuity as they ride their bikes or take the train through the booming cities on the Eastside.

Clever. Everyone thinks that we should acquire the right-of-way. The question is how do we pay for it. The Port has the money, but they want the airport in exchange. As a Queen Anne resident, I don’t really have a problem with more flights overhead, so I’m less sympathetic to Phillips’ argument on that score. But as a taxpayer, I want to get the best deal possible. So if he’s right, and the airport is actually worth 5x the trail, then obviously we need to find another way to get our hands on it.

Transit News Roundup

The PI endorsed the surface and transit option … well the study of it at least. In this op-ed piece, the paper “strong encourages” the council to “approve the $8 million study”. They also seem to support amendments to the proposal that would keep improvements that would lead to replacement from being started.

They also sort of come out against the streetcar, saying that its usefulness is suspect and that funding it will get in the way of expanding bus service in the city. I agree that the city can’t afford to lose any bus improvements, but the street car could become part of a larger network of cars that will cross the city and improve mobility dramatically. San Francisco’s Muni cars are a huge part of it’s transportation system, though I have to concede in some places they resemble Link more than the streetcars Seattle is building.

King-5 had a piece about how transit ridership is up. All the major transportation agencies in the region have seen year-over-year increases of about 8-10%.

Metro Transit

– Boardings were up 8.9 percent in April 2007 compared to April 2006, translating to about 30,000 more weekday riders.

Pierce Transit

– Boardings were up 8.7 percent in April 2007 compared to April 2006.

Sound Transit

– Bus boardings were up 10 percent overall in April 2007 compared to April 2006.

– Sounder commuter train boardings were up 27 percent in the same period.

Community Transit – … double digit increases in April 2007 compared to April 2006. That’s similar to the jump from the same time last year.

Apparently, gas prices, traffic fatigue and new employment is the cause. But as more people take transit, the demand for more transit will grow, and the political movement behind building more will grow.

Finally USA today discussed the 100 million more people who will live in America by 2040 (a couple million of which will live in the Seattle region), and how transit projects are being approved all over the country.

Shilshole to Downtown Ferry?

Everybody loves the Elliot Bay Water Taxi. This Ballard News Tribune piece about transportation brings up the possibility of a Ballard to Downtown Ferry.

A new King County Ferry District ordinance, passed recently by the Metropolitan King County Council, could potentially fund a feasibility study for a passenger-only ferry route from Shilshole to downtown Seattle. The district could also support the operation of Vashon-Seattle ferries and year-round Elliott Bay Water Taxi service.

Funding to study the Shilshole Ferry idea could be included in that plan, he said.

That study would raise many questions about how the route might operate, such as dock site, customer market, operating issues and parking.

The piece also mentions the idea of a Sounder stop in Ballard, which would likely slow down the trip to and from Everett but would probably add a lot of numbers to the route. It wouldn’t be that expensive either since the line goes through Ballard already.

Financing Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One of the most frustrating pieces of getting new transportation solutions online in Washington State is our regressive and limiting tax structure. We currently use sales taxes to finance Sound Transit (in addition to MVET). Our overall tax system is in dire need of reform. In the meantime, car taxes and sales taxes end up being used as the path of least resistance.

In what might be a first effort to break through that logjam, David Goldstein had a provocative post yesterday arguing that we can, in fact, tax gasoline, so long as it’s a sales tax and not an excise tax:

The other day I suggested that Washington state dramatically increase the motor fuel excise tax to pay for a massive investment in rail and other mass transit infrastructure. It was admittedly a bit of a thought experiment, as our state Constitution mandates that all motor vehicle fuel excise tax revenues be dedicated towards ‘highways,’ and of course, amending the Constitution remains exceedingly difficult.

But then I got to thinking. Article II, Section 40 specifically refers to ‘excise taxes.’ There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we can’t also levy a sales tax on motor vehicle fuel, and there’s nothing to mandate how such revenues might be spent. Thus all the hooey we’ve been fed about how we can’t spend gas tax dollars on anything but roads and ferries is exactly that… a bunch of hooey. A simple majority in both houses, and the stroke of the governor’s pen is all we need to create a dedicated fund for building mass transit. And of course, the people are free to vote yea or nay via referendum or initiative.

This isn’t just amateur legal analysis on my part. I checked with a constitutional scholar who assured me that my reading was correct, and that similar proposals have indeed been debated from time to time. And it’s not such an original or off the wall idea; nine other states already levy both sales and excise taxes on gasoline.

Read the whole thing. Even Sound Transit acknowledges that we could have the Eastside link up and running 10 years sooner if we had the financing right. That’s worth considering.

Update: Josh Feit has a lot more data supporting the idea that Washingtonians don’t pay that much in taxes after all.

Less Talking

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

There’s more in that P-I article to pick at:

Officials promise that everyone will have a chance to weigh in on the ultimate solution. Seattle expects to hire a consultant, who will talk to the various political interests and recommend ways to hear from others.

Michael Mann, deputy director of Seattle’s Office of Policy and Management, said he expects the consultant to be hired and to recommend by the end of this year a schedule for involving everyone in the search for an agreeable viaduct replacement.

We don’t need more discussions. We need to see alternatives in action. We all know how the downtown works and looks with a viaduct. Let’s see what it’s like with nothing, as Danny Westneat argued in the wake of the March vote.