National Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Cascadia Prospectus gets serious:

Ridership is up [on the DC-to-Boston Acela line], according to the article, as business people – wary of endless hassles at Northeast airports – increasingly turn to the comfort of Acela high-speed trains. Meanwhile, folks traveling on this side of the country (from Vancouver, B.C., to Portland, Ore.) are riding old Superliner equipment, while the eight-year-old sleek, highspeed, Spanish-made Talgo equipment is laid up because of cracks in the train sets.

Congress and the Administration need to get serious about funding a national freight and passenger rail system. And they should reward states like California and Washington who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars worth of state transportation funds in partnership with Amtrak – not just the politically well-connected Northeast states that have hardly invested any state or local resources. [emph. in original]

I’m much more interested in seeing the states rewarded by the feds for working together on reliable, frequent 100- to 500-mile routes than I am in seeing the feds themselves pour more money into expensive, transcontinental ones.

Slow Posting

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Apologies for the dearth of posts lately. I’ve been out of town and then work got hectic and, well, you know how it goes. In the meantime, I hope you’re reading CIS’s enlightening series on the history of road financing.

… or Clark Williams-Derry’s eloquent summary of the I-5 closure.

Regular posting will return shortly.


It was a beautiful day for most of the day today, and to get out and enjoy it I decided to head to Bellevue Square to start looking for some new threads to wear for the next wedding coming up. I know there is nothing in Bellevue that I can’t get in Seattle, but I wanted to check out the lake and see what the scene was like over in Bellevue. This also meant that I got to take the 550, which is quite fast for bus service. Yes, it costs more, but for the views, express service, and comfortable Sound Transit buses why not? Plus it probably is no secret, I like Sound Transit, I haven’t had any problems every time I have had to take their buses. Except today! It wasn’t anything ST did, but everything the passengers didn’t do. That is: Pay the EXACT fare! Appalled, disgusted, and confused begin to describe some of my thoughts about this experience. I counted today cause it got to be about every other customer, and 5 didn’t meet that requirement! 5. I am not a fan of fare evaders, I pay my fare as do most on the bus. The thing that got under my skin the most enough to cause me to blog about it, was level of disrespect to the driver. If these punks get on a bus they should know ahead of time what they are going to have to pay! All they have to do is look at the fare box! Watching the people who claimed they didn’t have the extra dollar get off the bus and laughing about it with their friends. There is only one word, ignorance. One guy, get this, used his “Sounder” ticket and read ignorantly to the driver that it should count as a transfer on the bus while walking off the bus. What a moron, the Sounder didn’t run today! The offenders today were younger in their teens, one older, mix of male and female. I have ridden the 550 before where 2 offenders did the same thing once in Bellevue except they didn’t give the sob story that they didn’t have the money, they flat out ran off the bus and flipped the rest of us off. Now, I wonder is this something that occurs on certain routes more than others? I see it on intercity routes, and I feel like it would probably occur on those routes more due to increased passengers. I thought while riding, perhaps it is confusing passengers to have ST and KCM buses be different in cost? But then the disrespect makes me think these people know the difference between the two and probably understand the cost breakdown well enough. Seattle to Bellevue is 2 zones, and costs $2.50! They should make no mistakes, $2.50, not $1.30, and definitely not free! Not to take it out on you, I am sure you all express my frustrations as paying transit folk! I wonder if it might make things better if there was a ST ticket vending machine (TVM) like the Sounder uses at multiple locations downtown that people could buy their tickets and show them upon boarding. That way, you won’t slow down the bus, you will have proof of purchase, and I will feel better about the world. Maybe we could even make it a machine that represents all transit agencies in the metropolitan area. What do you think? Have you encountered this before? Feel free to vent if needed, surely I have.

Overheard Conversation

Going back to tunnel security, I was eating lunch the other day and next to me were 4 King County Sheriff Officers, that I believe were part of Metro Transit Division. Seems they are gearing up for securing the Tunnel upon the reopening coming up soon on September 24th. I didn’t invade the conversation they were having, but they were talking through mock situations. It really made my job seem like a boring job. Good to know that they are gearing up for the re-opening. Next time I will barge into the conversation and get more details. Sorry for the delay in posting this has been summer of weddings that I have to be in.

Costly Cities for Commuting

Forbes came out with a list of the top ten cities for the most cost incurred in getting back and forth. Texas, Florida, and Ohio had 2 cities each.

The list:

1. Houston Texas
2. Cleveland Ohio
3. Detroit Michigan
4. Tampa Florida
5. Kansas City Missouri
6. Cincinnati Ohio
7. Dallas Texas
8. Phoenix Arizona
9. Miami Florida
10. Denver Colorado

I was surprised to learn that in Houston, the average commuter spends 20.9% of their household costs on commuting! Doing the math with my costs, I would be spent.
But that’s in part because Houstonians spend a lower than
average proportion of their take-home pay on housing. And that’s the
Transit costs are high because Houston has few policies
hindering sprawl, which in turn allows for cheaper housing. In San Francisco,
which is much denser and has more prohibitive zoning laws than Houston,
residents rank 22nd in commute costs but fifth in the combination of housing and

The article points out that some of the best cities such as New York City and San Fransisco have expensive housing, but cheaper transit costs. I think the main key is that sprawl is going to be costly not just in gas, vehicle wear and tear, and roads. It will place more carbon dioxide in the air which as we know leads to the smog that cities like Los Angeles experience everyday. So there is your trade off, enjoy the cheap housing with views of sprawl, because in a few years, it won’t matter you won’t be able to see 200 yards in front of you. Our very own Seattle didn’t make the list and I wasn’t able to find out where it did land on the list, however, I think there is work to be done here. Seattle labels itself as a forward city in dealing with reducing gases and being stewards to our environment and the Puget Sound. I think that ST2 is going to be extremely important in helping Seattle stay off the these type lists. This will also help reduce the cost of our commute, I imagine we aren’t as good as NYC or SF, but we are working towards getting there or better even. Perhaps we’ll be able to see the Cascades and Mount Rainier for years to come, provided it isn’t rainy and cloudy. As for the cost of living, well that’s another blog, but I only see it going up everyday, at least we’ll have good transit. What do you think the City of Seattle could do? What could a city like Houston could do who is already in the hot seat for costly commutes?

Get Off the Bus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Though I sympathize with Erica Barnett’s plight in not being able to get off the bus before it took her all the way to West Seattle, I think she has to realize that the rules are there for a reason. Once the bus drivers start making concessions for some people, and not others, then every decision to bend the rules starts to come under scrutiny. That is to say, it adds a ton of stress to the driver if every decision has to be weighed. If you just have a blanket rule that you enforce, no matter how absurd it may seem in a particular situation, you absolve yourself from the stresses of each particular decision. More importantly, Metro absolves itself from having to deal with the politics and optics of each potential situation.

(Again, not that I have a ton of sympathy for bus drivers like the jerk who flipped me off in my car for no apparent reason during downtown rush hour last week.)

More to the point, Erica’s a fan of speedy buses. Last fall she asked whether handicapped people should be banned from express buses entirely. So surely she understands that asking the bus driver to make unscheduled stops is not good policy.

P.S. Incidentally, this is also a reason why people like trains. There’s an anonymity. The train starts and stops and you never see the conductor, so you’re powerless to ask them to stop for you, and so you resign yourself to being on their schedule. That anonymity barrier between driver and passenger is helpful in depersonalizing the experience. It’s not about the particular driver, it’s about the system.


This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Let’s forget about fancy-schmancy infrastructure projects for a minute here on OR and focus on sidewalks:

Forty percent of Seattle streets lack full sidewalks on both sides of the road — totaling 650 miles, the city estimates — but installing them is a staggering expense of about $2 million per mile. It’s not just the cost of the pavement: When a curb is built, it changes the flow of surface water, triggering legal requirements for drainage systems, which in turn can involve buying adjacent property. Many cities can build them only as part of a major street-paving project.

650 miles @ $2M a mile, that’s $1.3B to do the whole city, including drainage systems!

A few weeks ago, city staff estimated it would cost Seattle up to $4.5 billion to add sidewalks for all Seattle streets — and this doesn’t include the cost of putting in drainage systems.

Oh. Well, okay, so it’s $4.5B, plus the drainage systems. Well, we better get cracking!

The Seattle Department of Transportation plans to spend about $1 million annually on sidewalk installation, out of the Bridging the Gap levy approved by voters last year.

At that rate, it’ll only take … 450 years to do the whole city. D’oh!

All joking aside, I do hope that the city continues its innovative natural drainage program when it finally does get around to installing these sidewalks.

Sounder Reverse Commute

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Starting September 24:

And service will soon get better. On Sept. 24, Sound Transit will add its first “reverse commute” train leaving Seattle at 6:10 a.m. and arriving at Tacoma Dome Station an hour later. At the same time, the agency will add a fifth northbound morning train leaving Tacoma.

By the end of 2008, seven commuter trains will leave Tacoma for Seattle on weekdays – up from four currently – and two will leave Seattle for Tacoma. And the agency hopes to extend Sounder service to Lakewood by 2011.

If voters approve a regional roads and transit measure in November, other improvements to rail and bus service will be forthcoming. Among other things, the $17.7 billion package would extend light rail from SeaTac Airport to Tacoma.

That’s actually a pretty decent amount of trains to run on leased track.


This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this Seattle Times op-ed, which sort of reads like a backhanded compliment of transit and sort of like a veiled threat:

Bottom line: There have to be enough buses, trains and boats to match the demand, but the key is having enough attendants and signage available to take the mystery out of the process.

Confusion over buying tickets, how to pay, and how to enter and exit strange locations will nip off tendrils of commuter interest faster than a crowded ride or two.

Transit agencies skimp on commuter assistance, signage and security at their peril. The spotlight is on mass transit. This is an opportunity to shine and retain new customers.

Does the op-ed page consistently advocate for the kinds of taxes that would be required to pay for those “buses, trains and boats”? I’m not so sure. But set that aside for a minute, what’s up with the “at their peril” line? You better be good, or else… it seems to be saying.

They’re right about the substance, though. Navigating transit systems can be tricky for the uninitiatied. Although Metro drivers are generally very helpful (except the one who flipped me off during rush hour downtown last week — that was uncalled for!) compared to bus drivers in other cities. it’s still easy to get confused. Better, clearer, color-coded signs and better information about where the routes go would be handy.

Frieght on Mercer

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Speaking of Mercer Street and the Viaduct, it occurs to me, looking over the maps, that the future, post-Viaduct plan gets rid of the current off-ramp that connects Aurora Ave N to Mercer.

I’ve often noticed that the freight trucks that use the Viaduct and are headed North will often use Mercer St. to cross town and hook up with I-5. This lets them avoid I-5 where it gets congested around downtown.

I can’t see how they could do that in this new configuration. Once you’re on Aurora North, you’re prtty much stuck on Aurora North. You’ll have options to turn right on Republican or Roy, but (a) those are both hard right turns that will require trucks to make a nearly full stop, and (b) neither offers a straight, 4-lane shot to I-5.

Combine this with the planned SoDo interchange improvements that Will called out yesterday as part of RTID, and suddenly you realize that there will far less freight traffic using the Viaduct in the future. Connecting to I-5 in SoDo will be far more convenient than at any point North.

The New Mercer Street

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One infrastructure upgrade that’s going to have a big impact is the Mercer Corridor Project, which I’m reminded of in reading this Crosscut piece on the new South Lake Union park.

The goal of the Mercer project is to make Mercer a two-way street and thus avoid the traffic snarl of cars trying to get off of I-5 headed to Seattle Center. The project will come in two phases: in the first, Mercer will be come two-way only in South Lake Union. This will happen in the next two years and basically make Valley Street near the park more pedestrian-friendly (and, some have argued, add appease Vulcan, whose properties abut the park). The city’s currently buying back land from Vulcan to complete this phase.

Later, while the Viaduct is being replaced, the section of Aurora Avenue just north of Denny Way will be lowered, re-connecting the street grid between South Lake Union and Seattle Center. (As someone who walks between these areas frequently, it can’t happen soon enough. Walking between Seattle Center and SLU, no matter which route you take, is an awful blend of car exhaust, concrete, and noise. And not the good, I-live-in-a-city kinda noise. The belching-of-truck-engines-roaring-past-you-and-the-iPod-can’t-go-loud-enough kinda noise. )

Unfortunately, what’s going to happen, it seems, is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Making Mercer two-way without the added street-grid connections between it and Denny will probably just end up putting more congestion onto Mercer itself. We won’t see the benefits of the new arrangement until… well, until we figure out what do do with the Viaduct, and then do it. In other words, not for a while.

Vote in 2008?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In his column this week, Josh Feit at The Stranger argues that it would be better for environmentalists and transit advocates to vote “no” on this fall’s RTID/ST2 package, and instead hope for a transit-only vote in 2008.

Feit’s first argument is that there’s still plenty of work to do on ST1, so waiting another year to start on ST2 is no biggie. That’s specious logic. Sound Transit knows how to walk and chew gum at the same time. The more advanced planning they can do, the better. Land acquisition and construction costs are increasing at 3-5x the rate of inflation. Every year we wait adds hundreds of millions of dollars to the project.

Secondly he notes that the “the compromisers inform us cuckoo idealists that political reality wont allow a 2008 vote. Governor Gregoire won’t stand for it.” But the “political reality” has never been about Governor Gregoire. Rather, it’s been about the fact that the Puget Sound region, for various reasons, has always been skittish about big transit projects — from the failed 1911 Bogue Plan to the failed 1968 Forward Thrust to the failed 1995 RTA package to the failed 2000 Monorail. We need to be coaxed along slowly, carefully, and with lots of candy. Because, let’s remember, for all Seattle’s “progressive,” “big-city” pretensions, it’s still a small and relatively rural town in one of America’s most outlying provinces. That’s the “political reality” of the region, and it has little to do with Gov. Gregoire’s re-election campaign.

Finally, Feit notes that 2008 will be a much more favorable political climate for liberals, being a presidential election year. That has some merit, although one has to weigh the more favorable political climate against the increased risk of a transit-only package going in front of all three counties. It seems like a wash at best.

Regardless, it’s hard to see what a “no” vote actually accomplishes. Feit calls out the $1.1B I-405 expansion, for example. But that’s something that’s going to happen eventually. 405 needs to be expanded and there’s more than enough political will to make it happen. If environmentalists think they can kill the 405 expansion, they’re misguided. The best they can do is delay it, which will make it more expensive (and starve even more money from transit projects) down the road.

Vote yes this November.

Update: In retrospect, I was a little sloppy above when I wrote that I-405 “needs” to be expanded. What meant (and what I tried to get at in the rest of the sentence) is that there’s more than enough political and popular will to expand I-405. It would be very, very hard to stop it, given the relative power of the suburbs versus the city in Olympia and a general sense that Seattle gets all the attention. I-405 expansion is the one project that the Eastside really wants and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it might even offer an opportunity for a surface/transit solution to replace the Viaduct.

Transit+ Riders – I-5 lanes = Nice Commute

I was going to post Monday evening, but thought I better wait at least another day and see how things go. As you may have heard traffic on I-5 has been better than expected both Monday and Tuesday and at the time I am writing this it is good as well. Perhaps the coolest mode of transportation in my opinion, the Sounder, carried 6,709 people on Monday and about 1000 less on Tuesday. I hope that the influx of new riders will like it and stick with it, certainly, it has to be better than driving alone. This shows that Seattle has the capability of using transit and taking cars off the road! Certainly Sounder wasn’t the only mode to experience increased ridership, the water taxi had 500+ people cross Elliot Bay, Metro had normal levels on Monday and increased levels on Tuesday. This may be people not able to get on Sounder? Who knows. I have read a lot in the local paper comment sections that this was planned, it is a conspiracy that Seattle chose to do this at the time the ST 2 vote was coming up. I have 2 thoughts on that, first being if it is a conspiracy, that is some effective planning across many sections of government in our state, which is extremely unlikely to happen and invalidates that possibility. Second, if it was a conspiracy, which I don’t think it was, maybe it is a good thing to show people this is a good alternative to riding alone? I see nothing wrong with that? It goes to show you that riding transit is a mindset. Certainly there are problems with transit, but without riders you won’t see any changes. Of course, there has to be a Yes vote on ST2 ballot to help. Transit can work and will work in Seattle. All these people could have stayed in their car and dealt with backups to Tacoma, but they didn’t! I think it’s a sign. More transit!

King County Gets the SR-520 Grant

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

King county has been awarded a $140M grant from the feds to experiement with tolling on SR-520. . We noted in June that the project was a semi-finalist.

The county plan calls for electronic tolling technology and express lanes on the new 520 bridge, which is undergoing mediation to help determine a final design. The electronic tolling would be similar to what is being used on the newly reopened Tacoma Narrows Bridge, state transportation officials say.

The money will help build transit across the 520 corridor — $41 million for an estimated 45 more buses — and $1 million will go to improving passenger-only ferry service for Vashon Island, King County Executive Ron Sims said.

New York City’s congestion pricing proposal is also getting money.

Urban Villages

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Seattle Times offers a run-down of the mixed success of mixed-use urban villages in the suburbs. Focusing on Redmond Ridge, Snoqualmie Ridge, and the Issaquah Highlands, the Times notes that, while the villages have succeeded in offering walkable neighborhoods, jobs have been slow to materialize:

“We did envision people taking their bikes or walking to work,” said Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson, who lives on the Ridge. “We need to create an environment where there is a critical mass of a certain sector, like software or aerospace. Right now, the Ridge doesn’t rise to the ideal that most folks thought of.”

The developments were pushed during the 1980s and ’90s as a return to pedestrian centers of days past. Parks, narrow streets and convenient transit stations were designed to get residents out of their cars. Jobs and retail were supposed to encourage people to work and shop where they live. Essentially, urban villages would deliver what isolated subdivisions hadn’t — a sense of community.

I don’t think it’s actually possible to design a neighborhood or village or township where everyone can walk to work, for the simple reason that people change jobs too frequently these days. And with more and more families having two working parents, there’s an even greater likelihood that their jobs will be located miles apart from each other, let alone from their shared house. It’s not uncommon for people to change jobs every 2-3 years, and changing houses that often can be a real challenge, especially if it means disrupting your kids’ life.

Given that, I think we need to define success downard for these villages. If they reduce the number of car trips on evenings and weekends — trips to the bank, grocery store, etc. — they’ll have been successful. Also, links to transit are important. Being able to walk or bike to a transit stop is probably more useful than luring a software firm into the neighborhood, since it will give people more freedom to work where they want.


This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

There’s an interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine on Clearview, the new font that will replace Highway Gothic as the “official” U.S. highway font. Clearview is more legible for old folks, apparently, due to the fact that the lowercase letters open up more.

A way-geeky-way-cool slideshow is also included.

Also of note, the guy who designed the new system, Don Meeker, is a Northwesterner, who got started in highway signage by designing signs for the State of Oregon.


If You Don’t Build It…

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

…maybe they’ll just find another way, argues Cascadia Report, discussing the “nightmare” I-5 closure that began today:

The clear takeaway is that people are more flexible than they think. In this case, there is a strong incentive (not wasting hours in traffic) to find alternatives. It’s exactly what would happen if the viaduct freeway were replaced with a combination of better transit and a more efficient network of surface streets. It’s exactly what would happen if there were tolls based on the amount of congestion on the roads. As long as there are effective alternatives (like far more transit, better carpool lanes) people will take them.

To be sure, August was strategically chosen because, in Francophone Seattle, no one really works this month. But it does show how elastic demand is for our highways. If you make a resource free, people will tend to over-consume it.

Information Infrastructure

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Blogger Jeff Jarvis has a worthy follow-up to my post today about smart transit. Jarvis writes about a particularly grueling commute into NYC:

There were thousands of people in that jam. We all knew what was going on and could have informed the thousands more who followed into the same trap. And I’ll be most of us would have done that out of sheer altruism, in the hope that someone else will help us avoid the next jam. Why have we not yet invented systems to capture and share that knowledge? I’ve been plotting this for years: I met with these and other traffic services a decade ago begging them to come up with the means to gather our knowledge of traffic: We could call into numbers that have logged our usual routes and report our conditions and get the conditions ahead. Or we could set up the means to monitor and report the movement of those phones along routes and cell towers. Or we could simply enable people to call a service and leave trouble reports. Anything. But, no, we knew nothing.

This isn’t limited to transit riders, either. When GPS-enabled cars hit a traffic jam — or even when they just notice that the driver is hitting the brakes an awful lot — the car should upload that information to a server or a peer-to-peer network, so that other cars can aggregate the information and plan routes accordingly. The fact that we’re still waiting for the AM radio’s 10-minute traffic updates in this day and age is absurd.

KC Council Weighs In

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

With the Airport-Trail swap looking dead, King County Council members Phillips and Hague have teamed up with Port Commissioner Creighton to plot a new way forward. They talk about “creative financing deals,” but basically avoid the real question: who’s gonna pony up $100M and buy the durn thing?

There are some hints that Sound Transit might be able to help, but I find it difficult to believe that they’d update their final project list or do anything that might upset the fall vote this late in the game (polling is apparently still steady at 60% “yes”). The authors do hint at the fact that ST can “win votes” by agreeing to help pay for the corridor, but I’m still skeptical that they’d acutally make any promises between now and November.