Sounder carries 7 Million!

Before its seventh anniversary Sound Transit’s Sounder has carried more than 7 million people to Seattle from Tacoma and Everett hassle free and best of all congestion free! My guess is that the ridership is about to skyrocket, especially in August when the I-5 nightmare begins. Sound Transit and King County Metro will be re-routing all routes that travel through the construction zones. This will be an excellent time to use Sounder. In fact, Sound Transit is allowing standing room to be used during this project. Again this is one of many reasons that show the importance of having rail separated from traffic. Sounder thrived in the snowstorms of 06-07, cruises right along when there are multiple accidents backing up I-5, and hey heavy rain…no problem for Sounder! I know one thing with backups from Seattle to Tacoma expected, I would hate to be that single occupant driver inching along I-5 in August. I think it is really unfortunate that they can’t add additional trains for the construction, but those that ride the Sounder and convert to using this awesome form of transportation they will be in luck because Sound Transit will be adding additional routes including a reverse route in the September shake up. I do wish I could ride the Sounder daily, perhaps someday it will be running all day and night? Anything you would change about Sounder? Anyone planning on starting to use it during construction woes?


This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The P-I gives us the rundown on the looming construction mess:

The state wants the job done quickly so I-5 is usable when initial work begins next year to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. There was no way to keep more lanes open and allow crews to work safely, state officials said, or to spread it over nights and weekends and get the work done before fall rains begin.

Initially, up to two lanes at a time between Spokane Street and I-90 will be closed, then three lanes toward the end of the job during the work — 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“In terms of the impact to traffic, this is going to be the biggest,” said state transportation spokeswoman Jamie Holter of the $15.5 million project. “There isn’t a place in the state where you have that many vehicles on the road.”

WSDOT is doing everything it can to get the word out, Metro is pitching in with increased bus service. One logical piece would be to reroute through-traffic to I-405. In fact, as I’ve argued before, when they finally widen 405 in 10 or 20 years, they ought to re-name it I-5 and make the route through Seattle — the one that goes down to one northbound lane at Seneca Street — I-405 or I-205, like in Portland.

Who knows, maybe through-traffic isn’t significant enough to make a tangible difference, or maybe even the wider I-405 can’t handle the increased traffic.

Public Perceptions

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One more thought on the BNSF-AAW deal. Ron Sims’ spokesman sounded a little bit defensive about the whole thing:

Triplett said government would be more responsive to citizen concerns than would a private firm: “Who would you rather have decide how many trains should be coming through the Eastside: a combination of King County and Sound Transit, or a private entity whose goals you don’t know about?”

More likely, King County and Sound Transit are concerned about how the project will reflect on them. After all, most of the public isn’t discerning enough to know the difference between a privately-financed rail project and a public one (Orphan Road readers excepted). If All Aboard Washington’s plan didn’t work for one reason or another, the bad press would rub off on ST, like it has with the Monorail debacle. People lose faith in the whole idea of rapid transit.

For example, I overheard someone walking by the new streetcar tracks in South Lake Union who said to a friend, “oh this is for the new Sound Transit streetcar… the streetcar to nowhere!” You have to wonder, will she vote for the Roads and Transit package this fall, or will she be turned off by the fact that Sound Transit is building a streetcar to nowhere, even though Sound Transit has nothing to do with the planning, funding, or operation of said streetcar?

AAW Rebuffed

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Well, that was short-lived.

Just a day after we saw a big push from All Aboard Washington to buy the BNSF track, BNSF has rebuffed their offer. On the plus side, we learn a thing or two about the AAW plan:

  • $30 million in upgrades
  • trains traveling at 25-30mph
  • operational within 60 days

It sound appealing. But you have to wonder: Have they included the cost of safety upgrades? What about park-and-ride lots around the stations? Have the neighborhood environmental impact studies been done? What about increased traffic around those stations? Will it integrate with bus service?

Also, how frequent will the service be, given that much of the line is single-tracked? Either you put one train off on a siding while the other passes, or you run one train back and forth. Either way, service likely can’t be more than one train per hour.

Oddly enough, I happened to be at a backyard barbecue in Kirkland last night, where the Spirit of Washington dinner train passed within 50 yards of the property. It was startling at first, but kinda cute. We waved at the passengers on the dinner train. They may have waved back.

I wondered, how would these neighbors feel about passenger rail running back and forth all day? Maybe they wouldn’t mind, or maybe they would and they’ll just have to deal with it. But that’s something you need to find out in a lengthy, open process. This is why transit projects take lots of time. It’s frustrating, but it’s for the best.

Was it the Times’ $7B Error?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

You know, it would be a shame if we lost the Seattle P-I But it would be a real shame if we lost the Tacoma News-Tribune, because it seems to “get” local reporting in a way that puts its big sisters in Seattle to shame. Case in point:

But the new error is a peculiar one. Originally, in fact, it doesn’t seem to have been Sound Transit’s error at all; the mistake was reportedly made by the Seattle Times.

In preparing a June 4 story on the total cost of Phase 2, the Times double-counted $7 billion in expenses when it added everything up to reach the $37.9 billion figure.

It was a good-faith mistake. If journalists were whiz kids in math or accounting, they’d probably be earning an honest living doing something else.

But the mistake ultimately became Sound Transit’s. That’s because the Times – to make sure it had the numbers right – ran its arithmetic past the agency’s staff. The staff missed the Times’ $7 billion error, the $37.9 billion figure was published, and the correction that came out last week left Sound Transit deeply embarrassed.

As the article goes on to say, Sound Transit doesn’t use the $37B number. Only the Times does. And even the Times sometimes uses $23B instead! It doesn’t let Sound Transit off the hook completely, but it does cast the story in a different light: The Times uses an alternative accounting measure to tabulate the total costs. When they presented it to ST and said, “does this look right to you?” ST said, “yeah, that’s right,” even though they don’t use those estimates in their day-to-day planning and operations.

If You Build It, They Will Come

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Phoenix, AZ edition:

Buyers also say they like being in the Central Corridor because it provides convenient access to much of the Valley, particularly now that the city is investing in light-rail.”The folks that are living in cities that have light rail . . . have seen what that has done in their cities and they totally (in) believe it,” said Christopher Toci, executive director of capital markets group with Cushman & Wakefield of Arizona Inc.

Mass transit is in part what drove real estate investment firm Crown West Realty LLC to buy Phoenix Corporate Tower at 3003 N. Central Ave. for $69 million last month.

Vice President Bob Olshan said his company plans to put retail space on the first floor because he thinks it would be well supported by the new light rail system.

“We think retail on this side of the street will draw from neighboring buildings as well as this building as light rail comes in and it makes it harder to cross Central,” said Olshan, whose building is across the street form the Park Central office and retail center.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge Re-Opens

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The much-feared delays fail to materialize and drivers sail across the new bridge, toll transponders in hand:

“Everything went GREAT!” commuter Jared Pedroza wrote in an e-mail. “Transponder worked GREAT! The new bridge looked GREAT! EVERYTHING WAS GREAT! I look forward to driving to work now! ITS GREAT!”

Not all responses were quite that enthusiastic, but drivers were definitely happy.

Jane Mouatassim, another Peninsula resident, said her commute was so fast it upset her routine.

“I went through so fast,” she said, “I was almost an hour early for work at Fort Lewis.”

Of course, in a few years, people will start to make use of the new capacity and the bridge will get congested again, but for now, enjoy the easy commute!

Another Push for Eastside Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Last night I noted that All Aboard Wasington might be “making a political statement” with their offer to buy the BNSF Eastside rail corridor. I speculated that maybe AAW and their partners on the “Rethink Rail” project might be making a move to gin up public support for a rails in lieu of trails.

Well, if you look at Rethink Rail’s sponsor page, you’ll notice it includes AAW, Discovery’s Cascadia Center, and Jim O’Farrell of the Talisma corporation.

Well, guess who has an op-ed in today’s Seattle Times, arguing for — you guessed it — an Eastside rail line:

If businesses like ours stay in the region, commuter rail will be the selling point — not whether our employees can ride their bicycles. Meanwhile, our consultants have done the math. For $300 million, including purchase and restoration, the Eastside rail line could be moving commuters in as few as two years.

The “Roads & Transit” package — on the ballot this fall — is just another postponement. The first $37 billion — that’s right, $37 billion — projects building only a single east/west rail line between Bellevue and Seattle. For Bellevue, nothing will go north and south. For the million people already living on the Eastside — and the additional million projected by 2015 — it is as if those directions did not exist.

Worse, the measure will not deliver rail for years — and up to a cost of $500 million per mile. For that price, all 42 miles of the Eastside rail line could receive a premium upgrade, including double track and electrification.

$300M seems like a pretty sweet deal for a double-tracked, electrified route. I’d definitely want to see the numbers in more detail. Do they have the right-of-way to do a second track along the whole route? At minimum they’d have to rebuild that graffitti-covered rail overpass over I-90. Same with the Wilburton Trestle.

I’m certainly sympathetic to O’Farrell’s proposal. A right-of-way like this — located near population centers and major freeways — doesn’t come around that often, if ever. But I think his frustration with the authorities is a bit misplaced. They share his enthusiasm for a rail corridor, they just want to integrate it into our long-term transportation plan. That means having Sound Transit do a study, not just going off half-cocked and laying track. But Ron Sims signed a statement of dual-use, and the PSRC plan calls for using it as a trail only temporarily (and using signage to indicate to trail users that it is, in fact, temporary).

In other words, everyone at every level basically agrees that commuter rail is destined for this corridor. The key is doing it effectively and responsibly. That may slow the whole process down, but like I said before, a right-of-way like this doesn’t come around that often. The same impulse that makes us all eager to grab it should likewise make us realize that we have just one chance to do it right.

All Aboard?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

All Aboard Washington is bidding on the former BNSF Eastside rail corridor. This is a little strange, no?

The Port of Seattle, we know, offered to buy the corridor from BNSF and then swap it with King County for Boeing Field. The Port was willing to pony up $103M to acquire the line. Has All Aboard Washington come up with a viable offer?

Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. According to (subscription req’d), AAW had a budget of $31,000 or so in 2002, the last year for which figures are available. For one thing, it’s odd that the Form 990s are so out of date, especially considering that someone from AAW went in and edited the record in March of this year and added the org’s goals for 2007, which include “Preserv[ing] the Eastside Line for some form of passenger rail service instead of ripping it up for a trail.”

But leave that aside. Did an organization with a $31K annual budget and 550 members really plunk down $103M or something close to it? That would have to be involve some serious fundraising. Either that, or the executives at BNSF decided now is a good time to commit hara-kiri at the next shareholders meeting by making one of the more boneheaded business decisions of all time and accepting a much, much lower offer than the one from the Port.

More likely, AAW is making a political statement. They want it known that their membership is eager to have the corridor preserved for rail, and so they’re doing what they can to keep it the issue public. But the one thing that I can’t figure out is this:

Burlington Northern Santa Fe says it wants to sell the line because there isn’t enough business on it. The company’s spokesman, Gus Melonas, said the group’s offer is “under review by senior management.”

Again, bracketing a collective suicide pact among senior management, what’s the offer? The only other thing I can figure is that the folks behind Rethink Rail, who include the more-deep-pocketed Discovery Institute, along with AAW, have gotten some money together. But $103M is a lot of money, even for the creationists and freight-transit-lovers at Discovery.

Ridership Forecasts

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The process of forecasting transit ridership 30 years in the future mystifies me. I understand there are all sorts of sophisticated computer models and such, but it seems like it’s so massively dependent on so many other factors (how do we know what gas will cost next month, let alone next year, for example?) as to defy prediction. But hey, that’s just a layman’s reaction.

Nonetheless, while persusing Appendix C of the ST2 plan (c’mon, I’m not the only one, right?), I noticed that Sound Transit is being pretty conservative with its ridership estimates.

The way they’ve saved their PDFs makes it impossible for me to extract the text without retyping, so I’ll summarize. They note that they have not taken into account the phenomenon of “rail bias,” which is the fact that passengers are more willing to ride a train than a bus, even if the bus is just as fast. Or, as the document puts it, “passengers know trains can take them only where the trasks are laid and that if they go in the wrong direction backtracking is easy.”

More significantly, the model doesn’t take into account “land use changes resulting from transit investments.” In other words, it doesn’t assume that developers will build residential and commercial developments around train stations, even though that’s pretty likely, and, in fact, already happening around the light rail stations in Rainier Valley.

It’s reasons like this that make you pretty optimistic about ridership projections. Especially when you consider that the Tacoma Link Light Rail beat its 2010 ridership projections just three months after it opened.

Light Rail $7 billion less than Original Estimate

ST2 hasn’t even been approved and the cost has already come down by more than $7 billion:

It will cost an estimated $30.8 billion to build an expanded Sound Transit light rail system, operate it for 20 years and repay financing costs over 50 years, according to a revised calculation made by Sound Transit.

This is more than $7 billion less than the agency reported earlier.

Urban-area Puget Sound voters will be asked to approve the new amount as part of a November ballot and would continue to pay for it until bonds are repaid in 2057, the agency said.

Sound Transit said when it reviewed the initial calculations before the larger number was published that it didn’t catch the fact that it double-counted $7 billion in costs, inflating the total. The amount double-counted was the portion of construction costs to be financed through bond sales. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said someone outside his agency, whom he wouldn’t identify, pointed out the error.

Wow. I guess that should make it easier for voters to swallow!

Street Signs!

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

As SDOT replaces their aging and hard-to-read street signs with bigger, shinier versions, they’re selling the old signs fo $5 or $10 a pop, depending on condition.

The list of available signs includes some big guns like Dexter Ave N and Rainier Ave S, but nothing truly iconic like Pike or Denny or Yesler. I’d hold out for Greenwood Ave or Ballard Ave, near where I used to love.

Anyone else have a favorite street name in Seattle?

ST Costs Go Down?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

This is not the type of thing you expect to read about a massive construction project:

Sound Transit confirmed last month that the total cost, including construction, inflation, debt payments, bond and other costs would total $37.9 billion. That figure was initially published by The Seattle Times after being confirmed by the agency and was later included in other media reports.

Sound Transit said when it reviewed the initial calculations before the larger number was published that it didn’t catch the fact that it double-counted $7 billion in costs, inflating the total. The amount double-counted was the portion of construction costs to be financed through bond sales.

Double-counting is, of course, a big problem. We like accuracy in our numbers. Still, the whole thing is sorta like the “Community Chest” card in the game Monopoly: “bank error in your favor, collect $7.1 billion.” Not the kind of thing you want to happen all the time, but better this way than the other.

Mostly, though, I think it goes to show the futility of trying ot project debt payments that far out in advance. The Times, in its story, adds:

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick … says the best figure for the public to use is $10.8 billion, which includes only the capital cost of trains, tracks and other construction, in 2006 dollars.

When inflation, operating costs, finance fees, cash reserves and administration are included, the total for Sound Transit’s plan through 2027 is $23.6 billion, in year-of-expenditure dollars. The $30.8 billion figure includes additional debt payments after 2027.

$10.8? $23.6? $30.8? Pick a number. The important thing is that Sound Transit has a good bond rating and is able to borrow money at a reasonable rate.

Dat’s a Lotta Dough!

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In some newspapers, you might see the phrase “300K” as shorthand for $300,000. But only the streetwise Staten Island Advance can refer to transit projects with such local color:

“Senate committee OKs 300Gs for light rail study”

The article goes on to note that Sens. Schumer and Clinton delivered the cash in briefcases full of small, unmarked bills in the trunk of a 1987 Lincoln Town Car.

Free Rides, Again

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’m skeptical about the idea of getting rid of the farebox on the bus altogether, despite the purported merits. Nonetheless, this is funny:

Skagit Transit in Washington State recently calculated that it takes in $121,300 from fares but spends $133,385 to collect them. The irony here is that the system started out fare-free and changed to a user-pay system because taxpayers did not want people to have a “free ride.” Now it costs taxpayers more than when it was fare-free.

But like I said, I’m skeptical. Free fares would essentially turn bus drivers into concierges of homeless-shelters-on-wheels. Even more so than they are already.

Pay Stations at Night

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I actually like the new pay stations that Seattle’s been installing the past few years. For one, there are more spaces now around Seattle Center, where I often have to go for an hour or so during the day for my job. I’d rather pay a couple of bucks than circle for 20 minutes looking for a “free” space.

Additionally, I could never seem to keep a sufficient stash of quarters in my car’s ash tray to use the old coin-op meters. Between my coin-op laundry machine, the parking meters, and my geeky desire to collect every one of the new state quarters, I spent way too much time worrying about hoarding quarters.

But it seems like I’m in the minority, Rick Andrerson notes. People hate the new stations, and they’re going to hate them even more when the city starts making you pay 24/7. That last step seems extreme to me, and it seems really extreme to one of Anderson’s sources:

“I would hate to live there if I didn’t have a dedicated parking spot. Now they are talking about 24-hour paid on-street parking. Won’t that make life interesting? Well, if the mayor and city council in Seattle think my friends and I from the Eastside are going to bus down for an evening at Elysian Brewing or any of those other good places, they are mistaken. I can just as easily spend my money on the Eastside and not have to pay the extortion.”

“Extortion” is a strong word, but the commenter has a point, in regards to making people pay after 6pm (which is currently free). The bus service just ain’t there yet. Service during rush hour is great, but going via bus from one neighborhood to another even inside Seattle can take 30-45 minutes at night. All of a sudden meeting someone for dinner is a 3+ hour ordeal.

In other words, if the point is to simply raise revenue for the city, that’s fine I guess. We’ve got to raise revenue somehow. But if the point is to get people out of their cars for after-hours travel, it just isn’t gonna happen.