What Seattle Gets out of ST2

Over at Slog, people were upset with the “Cross-base Highway” included in the RTID plan that goes to the ballot with Sound Transit’s ST2 package. One major complaint was that RTID does almost nothing for Seattle, and that ST2 does a smaller portion for the city than ST1 one did, and Seattlites should vote against it. If you look at Sound Transit’s ST2 page, Seattle is getting a lot out of that transit package (more on that below).

As for RTID, it is true that only three projects take place within the city limits. The first is the widening of Mercer street near I-5. The second are a bunch of improvements in the southern industrial area of the city, which includes a transit-only ramp off I-5 at South Industrial Way. The last is an replacement for 520 which is partially funded by RTID. The 520 replacement is as useful for the Eastside as it is for Seattle, so that only counts for half a project for the city. The industrial improvements are mostly for freight and shipping, which benefits the whole region (there’s no Port of Kirkland, for example). So Seattle is definitely getting the short end of the stick in terms of RTID spending. For $5 billion in spending, less than half-a-billion is going to Seattle-only projects, and about $1.1 billion is going to half-Seattle, half-Eastside project.

Sound Transit will benefit Seattle much more than RTID. There will be two more subway stations added to the north end of the Link Rail, where it extends past Montlake/University of Washington. The 43rd & Brooklyn Station will be especially useful. This part of ST2 alone will cost $1.126 billion to $1.239 billion. Then, there will be a Northgate elevated station and a station on 145th at the city limits. This adds another $300 million or so, though it will be as useful for Shoreline as it is for Seattle.

For the East Link, there will be an at-grade station on Rainer and about 23rd Ave. That won’t be incredibly useful since that area is mostly well-served by the “Central Link” that already goes through the South End, but it definitely will get a lot of use, possibly even just from Amazon employees coming from the Eastside. Also, the East Link in general will help Seattlites who are commuting East (like me), and Eastsiders who commute into the city. Plus it will be paid entirely out of the Eastside’s Sound Transit money. Finally, there will be the First Hill street car. This costs $150 million and will greatly expand the “network effect” of the Capitol Hill station.

In addition there is an $8 million study of a Burien-West Seattle-Downtown rail (that’s technically getting paid partially out of the South King County budget), and a $5 million study of a Downtown-Ballard-Wallingford-UW line. That’s the one which would have made my childhood growing up in Wallingford/Green Lake so much different. I think that red line in the image actually goes right through the house I grew up in. Finally, there’s a $5 million study of HCT across 520. Let’s hope these don’t take until 2050 or something.

So, RTID is not a good deal for Seattle. But Sound Transit is a great deal for Seattle, so it’s a trade-off. Since ST2 is paid for by a .5% sales tax increase and RTID is paid for by a .1% sales tax increase and a $80 per $10,000 assessed value MVET, if you don’t own a car, you won’t pay much for RTID. At least that makes its payment scheme more fair than any other highway project ever attempted in this state. My only complaint about ST2 is the time frames discussed. 2027 to Overlake TC? Will I still make that commute in 20 years?

Viaduct: Still No Answer

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Sadly, the powers that be did not solve the viaduct issue while our backs were turned.

The current plan, you’ll recall, calls for strengthening some of the most vulnerable sections of the current viaduct, rebuilding the viaduct south of Qwest Field, and then punting on what to do with the downtown core. But as the plan moves forward, the various factions — the rebuilders, the surface-transit folks, the retrofit crew — are scrutinizing every decision to see if it’s secretly helping advance another factions’ case. I made the argument recently that the timeline seems to be designed to prevent the viaduct from ever closing before a decision is reached, thus depriving us of the opportunity to experience a viaduct-free Seattle.

Some concerns seem valid: a new interchange that pours more traffic onto the viaduct would certainly be a step towards a new elevated freeway. But others seem to show a lack of understanding:

“It seems to me that we ought to wait and see what’s going on in between (the two ends) before we spend all that money ensuring there’ll be an elevated freeway in my neighborhood in perpetuity,” said John Pehrson, head of a Belltown Housing and Land Use Committee. “It’s just as noisy, it’s just as dirty, it’s just as isolating as it (would be) in the central waterfront.”

Even the tunnel and the surface-transit alternatives maintained the section of viaduct through Belltown. There’s simply no other way to deal with the cars coming out of the Battery Street tunnel than to route them on to a viaduct, except for perhaps leveling most of downtown Seattle.

As this process progresses, it will be interesting to watch each side try and work the refs in favor of their proposed solution.

Fremont Bridge Reopens

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


No more debating about whether it’s worthwhile to double back up the hill to pick up Aurora because the Fremont Bridge is down to one lane and it’s backed halfway up Fremont Ave.

Monorail Nostalgia

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

When I saw the headline for Knute Berger’s piece in Crosscut on the Las Vegas Monorail and what it tells us about our own fated elevated system, I was afraid he’d uncovered some serious reliability or other substantive issues with the Vegas line that would serve as a cautionary tale for would-be monorail resurrectionists like myself.

Fortunately, the article contains no such warnings. Instead, Berger focuses on the low ridership of the Vegas line and its out-of-the way location. Neither of those would have been an issue with the Seattle line, which would have been a commuter transportation system along a well-trafficked corridor, not a tourist-trap overpriced joyride like the Las Vegas line. Plus, Seattle’s pedestrian friendly, unlike the Strip, where sidewalks disappear into casinos with little or no warning or simply stop.

Berger does support the idea of extending the line all the way to the airport, which I heartily agree with. Waiting for a cab at McCarran Airport is a daunting task. The circuitous four-mile ride from the airport via taxi reeks of a powerful taxi driver lobby. As a bonus, having a monorail connection directly from the Airport to the Strip would make Vegas seem even more like a Lunar resort colony than it already does.

Link Rail Assembly

Here’s a nice article about the assembly of the Link Rail Cars in Everett in one of Boeing’s huge barns. At the end of the article is a nice list of facts about the rail cars, including the fact that if ST2 passes 188 more cars will be added to the 35 in the original order and the 27 for the University Link. That’s about 250 cars!

Thanks to Andrew for the tip and the second photo below:

Sound Transit Lunch Bus

I went on the Sound Transit Lunch Bus, where we took a tour of the light rail project through SoDo and the South End. It was really fun and the people from Sound Transit were really nice.

Some cool things I learned on the bus tour:

  • The “Rail” Sign on the maintenance facility has the old ‘R’ from the Rainer Beer factory, now the Tully’s headquarters, which is across the street from the facility. The ‘R’ was donated by MOHAI.
  • Beacon Hill is mostly glacial till and sand, so building the tunnel was not as bad as it could have been. Actually, since the machine can only bore 50 feet a day, and they need one tunnel for each direction, it takes almost two years to built one mile of tunnel. That’s one reason the connection to the University will take until 2016. The other is that a mile of tunnel costs about $280 million.
  • One disappointment was the lack of bike parking at the stations. Mount Baker will have about 6 bike lockers, but the other street-loading stations won’t have any.
  • There will be no parking at any of the South End stations, and they are all surrounded by dense-ish development. A lot of the development is pretty attractive! I haven’t been to the South End in years (I’ve been living in San Francisco), and I was happy to see it hasn’t all completely gentrified like the Central District seems to have. When I was in high school in the CD, it was at least half or a quarter black. Now it’s a white neighborhood.
  • I tried to get photos of the actual tunnel and the actual station at Mount Baker, but I was chased out by the contractors. I didn’t realize they worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week!

A couple more things. I was a little bit surprised to see the rail has been laid on MLK instead of Rainier Ave., because “Columbia City” is on Rainier Ave, about half a mile east of where the station has been put. Also, the Mount Baker intersection is about a mile east of that neighborhood’s traditional definition. So that was little bit of a surpise. The bus they took us on had “special” written on the top. I broke my foot in a soccer accident (don’t ask) so I was limping pretty heavily when I got off the bus, and after me a grandma in a walker got off the bus. A teen-aged boy across the street saw us and said to his friend, “Oh, the special bus.” I broke up laughing.

Density Revisited

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Richard Morrill has an article in Crosscut on density:

Studies of the costs of infrastructure and public services show only slight variation with density, with moderately higher costs at very low densities (under 1,500 people per square mile) and at very high densities (over 100,000 per square mile). Lower utilization drives up costs at the low density end, while high costs of construction and maintenance affect highly dense areas. The most effective densities are in the middle range, 5,000 to 15,000 people per square mile, which happens to be where probably more than 90 percent of urban dwellers live.

Compare this with our previous post on density, in which an urban planning firm argued that 50 residents/acre is optimal, at least with respect to per capita energy use. 50 residents/acre translates to about 32,000/sq. mile, which is double the high-end of Morrill’s numbers. Per capita energy use is not the same as “costs of infrastructure and public services,” so it’s not surprising that the numbers should be different.

The thrust of the article is about housing prices, which Morrill says may be inflated due to urban growth restrictions. His proposed alternatives are unclear, though. He wants to get rid of urban growth boundaries in favor of higher density subdivisions, but doesn’t provide any links to the studies, so I can’t really comment one way or another.

Waiting for the Express

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Cascadia Prospectus reports that there’s a new study underway to change the way real-time bus info is captured. The current system involves having the bus pas a series of mileposts, which doesn’t work too well in crowded areas or when the bus has to divert its route due to construction or snow. The new method would involve GPS and/or Wi-Fi, which “would vastly improve the tracking in the urban area.”

Another part of the study would involve counting passengers. Perhaps the algorithm somehow uses the number of boardings to determine how many stops the bus will have to make, and uses that to calculate the arrival time.

This makes it clear just how tricky real-time bus information actually is to implement. With a train, it’s relatively straightforward: trains don’t get stuck in traffic and make regular, predictable stops. But even the most sophisticated GPS bus system can only tell where the bus is right now and then make a guess about how long it will take to close the distance between the bus’s current location and yours.

In most urban areas, though, that’s probably enough if you’re a regular commuter. If the system can tell me that the bus is still a half-mile away, I can make a reasonable guess about when it will get to my stop. Also, if I have the option of taking the local or waiting for the express, all I need to know is how far behind the express is relative to the local. Exact times don’t really matter.

CP also points to this 2003 P-I article on the Mybus pilot program in North Seattle, which goes deeper into the local v. express dilemma.

Streetcar Looking Positive

This Times piece on the streetcar seemed really positive until I read this bit: “Will these newcomers pay $1.50 at rush hour to take a short trip, at an average 9 to 10 mph? The city should find out soon after the streetcar’s grand opening in December.” Ouch! 9 mph? That’s pretty slow, about half the speed of driving.

I have to get numbers, but I wonder how fast the Portland Streetcar or any of San Francisco’s Muni lines are on street level. I remember reading the T-Third Street in San Francisco would go up to 25 mph at street level, but I couldn’t find a link to that article.

The rest of the article is positive, however:

Streetcar boosters point to nearby stories of success.
Sound Transit’s free streetcar in downtown Tacoma beat expectations by averaging 2,835 trips a day, or triple what a downtown bus carried.
Portland’s streetcar carries 9,000 riders a day and has steadily extended its route. Officials call it a “development-oriented streetcar,” because the project helped transform an old railroad yard into the trendy Pearl District.

The City has plans to extend the streetcar up Eastlake to the U-District in the future. My concern is the 15 minutes between cars and the 9 mph will make the streetcar too slow to ride, and would discourage streetcar developments in the rest of the city. Let’s hope it’s a huge success.

Water Taxi Could Run Year Round

According to this PI article, the west Seattle Water Taxi could start running year round. Apparently it gets 122,000 riders a year, which makes it more popular than almost any bus route. Metro is considering other foot-ferry routes, in particular, Kirkland to the University of Washington. I’d take that if they’d let me bring a bike on the ferry.

To pay for the expandeded service, the want to impose a property tax:

The council is expected to impose a property tax of 2 to 3 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for the ferries, costing the owner of a home assessed at $400,000 from $8 to $12 a year. The tax money would make up the difference between the revenue provided by fares and the cost of operating the ferry service, including any connecting shuttle buses.

In 2006, Metro spent $386,474 on the water taxi while collecting $171,102 in fares. The West Seattle shuttle buses cost the agency another $185,808 to operate.

I don’t know if a couple of bucks per ride is a bargain or not for transit, but I wish they’d raise taxes for rail lines (such as the South Lake Union Streetcar).

I talked about foot ferries about a month ago.

Trouble on the Bus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Times is reporting that assaults, both passenger-on-passenger, and passenger-on-driver, all out of proportion to the increase in ridership, which is also at an all-time high. The article offers a smorgasbord of possible answers, from increased incident reporting to more crowding.

Speaking from personal experience, though I’ve never, ever come close to assaulting anyone, I myself get a lot more edgy on a bus than I do on a train. The bus tends to be a more stressful experience. On the bus, I’m still stuck in traffic. Plus, the lurching as it starts and stops is more likely to make me sick.

But also there’s something more intimate in a bus, and not in a good way. Subways and trains are more anonymous. On a bus you can see the driver. You can second-guess his decision to wait to pick up a passenger, etc. Everything in a train is calmer and more regular. There are rarely unexpected stops, the conductor is anonymous and distant. Everything seems out of your control, so it’s harder to get angry about it.

When are Tickets Purchased?

In Metroblogging Seattle’s write-up of BRT in Quinto, Naomi says “You pay as you enter the stop, so that when the vehicle stops, it is quick to enter.” Wow, that’s a great idea, and makes me wonder, how will people pay for Link? The Tacoma link is free, so there’s no precedence there. Way down in the South Bay, VTA has machines on the track to buy tickets and then it’s a proof of payment system. SkyTrain in Vancouver works the same way. BART, and most other heavy rail systems, have turnstyles and ticket machines. Street cars in San Francisco are pay as you enter, like buses in Seattle. I’m guessing Link will work the VTA/Skytrain way and not the BART way, but I’ll make sure when I go to the tour lunch tomorrow and see completed (!!) stations.

Meeting with Sound Transit Yesterday

Sound Transit and someone from WashDot came to work yesterday and talked about the RTID ballot for next year. The first guy talked about all the road work, which is about $7bn worth of improvements on choke points. He made a point to say that they were looking at SR-520 more than the press has been giving them credit for.

After him a rather polite and knowledgeable guy talked about the East Link rail for about 20 minutes before giving over to someone who explained the flexibility of light rail and it’s advantages over heavy rail. Basically, more flexibility when it comes to at-grade sections.

We then had a question and answer, where I asked the most unpopular question, “Vancouver is building the Canada Line in 7 years with $2billion USD, if Light Rail is so great, why does it cost so much and take so long?” The gentleman answered that the environmental rules were less strict in Canada, which I believe. The other differences were the Skytrains’ routes will be smaller and they won’t have to build across a lake. He said the date could be moved to as soon as 2018 (it’s 2027 now) if Sound Transit only had more money. I think if they would put ST2 on the ballot after the central link is finished, people would see its usefulness and be willing to fork over the cash.

Someone asked why the line is not gauranteed to go all the way to downtown Redmond and instead is only slated to go to Overlake Transit Center? Apparently if a tunnel is built through Bellevue it’ll cost about $250~$400 million a mile compared to $150 million for elevated and only $80 million for at grade. That’s a lot of money, and with that it would be difficult to get the train all the way to downtown Redmond. Also, Downtown Redmond is not a major employment center, but there is a major push to get the train to Redmond because parking around Overlake is already nasty and anyone taking the train into Bellevue or the city would have no where to park.

So my question is does Bellevue really need a tunnel? I know that they no longer consider themselves a suburb and want to be a real city with a subway and high-rises, but they are limiting the usefulness of their own train line by insisting on a tunnel. We’ll see how this goes, but I think if we have at grade stations in the city, they can handle at grade stations in Bellevue.

Finally, someone asked if there was any possibility of new park and rides in the city. The answer was, “No, the city of Seattle is against new parking lots, and areas around train stations will be for dense mixed-use developments.” That was my expectation, too. I think Nickels and Sims are planning on putting a lot of buses toward the stations, so park and rides won’t be very necessary.

Sounder to Boeing Field?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Discussing a potential Boeing Field site for the Sonics arena, David Brewster notes:

Sound Transit’s new line passes right by, and there is a transit station planned (though currently deferred) just south of the Boeing Access Road, right by I-5, including a 350-car park-and-ride lot. The Sounder commuter rail line also passes right by, and the Sound Transit station plan is to enable transfers between light rail and commuter rail on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. Throw in the proximity of Highway 99 just to the west and you have about as ideal a situation for getting people to and from the site as you could imagine.

The light rail stop we know about, but this is the first I’ve heard mention of the Sounder making a stop there. No Boeing Field-area stops are proposed in ST2. Still, I’m sure Brewster has better sources than I do, so chalk this up as an interesting new development.

More Reasons…

I was pretty upset yesterday, so I forgot to mention one thing: the 3% statistic for transit is based on Vehicle Miles Travelled. Not commuter trips (the ones that cause congestion), not the total number of trips, but of Vehicle Miles Travelled. I’m sure it is much higher because people who drive travel from farther away and even people who take transit might drive when they get home.

The goals of transit are not always at odds with the driver. Some of the goals of good transit are reducing the number of miles travelled because transit allows more density, reducing the number of commuter trips made in single occupancy passenger cars and reducing the cost of living by letting people live without cars. Frank over at Orphan Road discusses the hidden cost of highways in this context and Carless in Seattle discusses the major factual error in the piece.

The Hidden Costs of Highways

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Daimajin does a good job of dispensing with the Op-Ed in yesterday’s Seattle Times by George Kargianis and Phil Talmadge on the “hidden costs” of light rail, so I won’t duplicate efforts.

However, the reason the piece was truly infuriating — to me, anyway — is that it claims that there are hidden costs of light rail (which are speculative at best), while ignoring the hidden costs of highways, which are well-documented but little-understood.

Talmadge and Kargianis repeat the oft-told canard that transit funding is is disproportionate to the number of riders:

Transit ridership in Central Puget Sound amounts to less than 3 percent of the total daily travel. Yet, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan for 2030 allocates half of total transportation expenditures to transit and hopes that transit’s market share will increase to 4.5 percent of daily travel. Meanwhile, our roadway system, with the other half of funding, would serve the other 95 percent of travel. The disparity between ridership being served and proposed dollars should be apparent.

But this fails to take into account two things. First, transit takes millions of cars off the highways, which frees up the road for people who do drive. This saves gas and increases productivity for the millions of people who’ve never seen the inside of a Metro bus.

Second, and more importantly, we’re not comparing apples to apples here. Sound Transit is providing the whole enchilada: the rails, the trains, the buses, the drivers, the repair guys, the fuel. Everything. All you need to do is buy a (very cheap) ticket. The road money just gives us concrete and asphalt. What we don’t see in the RTID are things like:

  • the cost of buying a car
  • hiring a mechanic to maintain it
  • car insurance
  • fuel
  • parking

And that’s just off the top of my head. But these are real costs of highways, borne by all of us, but rarely recognized. Sometime soon I’ll try, to the best of my ability, to calculate this. But when it’s all said an done, I’m quite sure that we’ll find that transit is quite a bit more cost competitive than Talmadge and Kargianis claim.

They Hate Transit, I Hate More Highways

I’ve waited all day to discuss this. Basically, there are three arguments in this opinion piece:
1) No one uses transit here, so why bother spending money on it.
2) Trains across the I-90 bridge is dangerous. 3) Acquiring the center of the I-90 bridge for trains is not a good use of road-space, and may not be legal.

Few people use transit here because there is very poor transit here. The statistic “Transit ridership in Central Puget Sound amounts to less than 3 percent of the total daily travel” is not given in any context, so we do not know what counts as “daily travel.” Is it walking+biking+transit+driving? Does it count freight? How about airplanes and boats? Anyway, Metro buses have over 100 million rides per year, which is 58 for every resident of King county. Unless people average more than five trips per day, that number is more than 3 percent in King county. (Five trips per day would be 3.2% of travel done on transit, any fewer trips per person would increase that dramatically).

The argument here is sort of like before paved roads will built, saying “only 3 percent of daily travel is done with automobiles, why waste the money on the infrastructure? We need more horse paths!” The idea is that with better transit more people will ride it, and once a beginning infrastructure is built, more infrastructure will be added later. Transit makes cities more affordable to live in, because travel is enabled without a car. It makes them more environmental friendly, because of the above, but also because it enables higher density which reduces the number and distance of travel trips, which reduces fuel foot print. Transit also increase property values, and encourages tourism. There is a strong “network effect” on proper rail systems. To quote Calgary Transit: “Since the inception of LRT service, each new LRT line or LRT extension has produced a 15 to 20 percent increase in corridor ridership, resulting from the diversion of previous auto drivers to transit.”

If it is true that by 2030 only 4.5 of travel will be done with transit, I would say that is would have been a waste but, again, I don’t know where that stat came from, and if Ron Sims is talking about getting 50,000 commuters out of their cars by 2016, that would be mean trips in King County would be at least 6% transit by 2016 (50,000 people is 2.9% of the county’s population), even if people were making five trips a day. Anyway, even small reductions in volume reduce delays significantly for highways.

The second argument that putting trains across the I-90 bridge is dangerous I won’t argue with. I am sure Sound Transit won’t build anything knowing that it is not safe, and I trust their engineers more than pundits with an axe to grind.

The point that commandeering the center of the I-90 bridge is not a good use of road space is only obvious if you compare the number of trips across the bridge on the train and on the current center roadway. Any other comparison is apples-to-oranges. The argument that “The I-90 bridge would suffer a vehicle capacity loss of one-third compared with today” is pointless because we all know that the center HOV part does not actually carry one-third of traffic across the bridge! The vast majority goes in the other two lanes and the authors surely know that.

The piece asks:

Aside from the cost of converting the center corridor to light rail, one has to ask by what right would Sound Transit acquire this center corridor? This would constitute a “taking” of state highway property now belonging to all Washington taxpayers.

No, it wouldn’t. I-90 is an interstate and is thus owned by the federal government. The 18th Amendment (section 40) mentions money raised by special tax or levy, not money paid by the federal government. Thus this argument has no bearing. I don’t know the exact legality of acquiring this part of the bridge, but the 18th amendment has nothing to do with it. I will ask Sound Transit to respond to this today.

Up tp 500 more Hybrid Buses

As has been reported elsewhere, Metro will buy up to 500 hybrid buses as a result of Transit Now! passing. These buses will be required to run through the transit tunnel, where the old, bus-trolley system was removed for the light-rails trolley system. By trolley system I mean the wires on top of the bus from which they get power.
Orphan Road pointed out that the fuel savings never materialized for the hybrid buses, but they are more reliable, require less servicing and break down less often than conventional buses. So while the hybrids cost about $200k more than normal buses ($718K vs $520K), “[t]he hybrid fleet as a whole is saving $3 million a year in maintenance costs over the [dual-mode] Bredas.”

This press release says, “Metro’s goal is to get up to 50,000 drivers out of their cars and riding buses by 2016.” Pretty cool, but I think trains could take another 100,000 out.