Non-Transit Related

Thirty-five years worth of change in the skyline for Tokyo’s Shinjuku district (not really a neighborhood, what other word is there) boiled down into ten seconds:

Sorry, I as I site in my windowless office for as yet another beautiful summer day goes by, I read this.


This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I appreciate the micro-targeting as much as the next guy, but is it odd to anyone else that none of the the new Yes on Prop. 1 ads, including the Pierce County ones, mention the controversial Cross Base Highway?

To me, this is more evidence that even the supporters of the plan don’t think it’s going to get built.

(Via CIS)

Anti Prop-1 Campaign

Carless in Seattle has a great round-up of the anti-prop 1 ads that have just started airing. The comparison of the Pierce County ad with the Seattle Ad is pretty interesting.

King 5’s Robert Mak, whose show “Upfront with Robert Mak” is one of the most (unfairly) unintentionally hilarious programs on television because of Mak’s resemblence to Kermit the Frog, discussed the issue and sums up the anti-transit side of the story though in a little bit simplistic way.

“When you find out how little it does, and how much it costs, it’s the largest public works project ever proposed in America,” said Kemper. (STB – What? It’s the largest project works project because of how little it does?)

Some opponents are now running radio ads claiming the extra license tab and sales tax would add up to $157 billion by the time the last bonds are paid off in 50 years.

But transit supporters say the estimates are wrong, because after the year 2027, Sound Transit may choose to reduce taxes if it doesn’t need them.

Anyway now I finally figured out where the $157 billion number comes from, they assume that all taxes that are being collected will be collected for the 60 years that started in 1996 and will end in 2057 without building any more than is in the plan today. If prop 1 passes, the taxes will start to decrease after 2027 – when final construction finishes – unless new construction is approved by another vote.

The other thing, is the $157 billion number is mentioned in year-of-expenditure dollar amounts, which are inflation-adjusted. That means that the 2057 dollar amount is listed along side the 2007 dollar amount even though nothing in 2057 will cost the same as it does in 2007. Confusing right?

We’ve gone over and over again why using inflation-adjusted number make no sense (short recap: 1) All inflation numbers are estimates, so we don’t know the actual number anyway, 2) inflation adjusted numbers over huge time spans vastly over emphasizes later expenditures because inflation has increased those numbers, and 3) population growth increases the number of people who are paying the taxes, so per-person numbers are mis-estimated). By including money that is not being taxed (full taxes instead of debt-servicing from 2027 to 2057) 30 years from now, they are adding the largest possibly number because inflation will make costs 50 years from now so much higher than today. They are also dividing by current population numbers, to come up with a $94,000 per household figure.

Liars and crooks with deep pockets trying to confuse voters because of an ideological opposition to mass transit. Wow.

“Just About Anything”

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Seattle Times on the state of the RTID:

In an Elway poll in June, 57 percent of voters surveyed backed the ballot measure. The poll also found that the road and transit proposals drew more support together than individually.

Elway said he was struck by the level of support “even though most people thought the costs are high, thought it would not be a significant improvement and thought there are many unknowns about the future.”

That suggests, he said, that people are so sick of being stuck in traffic that they’ll vote for just about anything.

The support has dipped a bit from 61 percent in the last Elway poll to 57 now, but that’s within the margin of error. Without a well-funded, unified opposition, It’ll be interesting to see how they stop this train (pun intended).

Speaking of which, one of the most curious paragraphs is at the very end, in section discussing what happens if the measure fails:

It’s possible light rail would reappear on the ballot fairly quickly, but fixing the region’s highways is another matter. Legislative leaders predict few people would want to touch the issue in 2008 because it’s an election year.

That would push any highway proposal off until 2009…

Explain something to me, election wonks: why is highway funding a non-starter in an election year but light rail is not?

Mount Baker Station Shots

I can’t say who took this photos because I don’t actually know. Whoever took these, could you send me a mail from a real address? I don’t work for Sound Transit, and I promise I only want to talk about transit, nothing more.

Where do these numbers come from?

$157 billion? What on earth are these people talking about. Seriously! $157 billion? That is an entire order of magnitude more than the bills actually price tag of $17.8 billion.

Last week, Will at Horse’s ass pointed out Kemper Freeman (any relation to this guy?*) is sponsoring a group that straight-up exaggerates the bill by an order of magnitude as well.

Seriously, I read every news article about these issues I can find and I am still confused by what these folks are talking about. But I guess that’s the point.

*Okay sorry low-blow. But people who lie to the community so much deserve some lying back about them.

Why argue real points when you can attack strawmen?

I need to stop reading crosscut, because everytime I go there I find some article written by one ancient geezer or another arguing, despite all evidence to the contrary, how things should stay exactly the same at whatever cost. In the latest in this series, Emory Bundy, the 90-year-old board member of the anti-rail Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, writes “Why fix dangerous bridges when you can build new pet projects?” (His last piece, “The carbon cost of building and operating light rail”, was so unintentionally hilarious I laughed so loud my roommates thought I was losing my mind).

A … point, but one aimed at the Minneapolis story, was made by Joel Kotkin in an Aug. 28 Wall Street Journal essay: “Government officials in Minneapolis spent mightily on a light-rail system that last year averaged barely 30,000 boardings daily. It did not focus nearly as much on overstressed highway bridges, or the bus systems serving the bulk of its mostly poor and minority transit riders. Most other light-rail systems, built in cities with highly dispersed employment, also have minuscule ridership, but consume a disproportionate share of transit funds that might go to more cost-efficient systems, including bus-based rapid transit.”

Anytime anti-transit folks want to argue against a mass transit project, they always either bring up “person rapid transit” an idea so ridiculous to be laughable or bus rapid transit because they somehow think that’s cheaper. And bus transit money would have to go to improving roads, which is all they care about anyway.

But this 30,000 number is quite salient in this case (even though the number I have seen is 37,000 daily riders, which is different than boardings). Ironically, that is exactly the number of daily drivers the old I-35 bridge that collasped had. How much did the Hiawatha line cost to build? $715 million with significant delays and cost-over runs. Replacing just the 1,900 foot collasped span of the I-35W bridge is expected to cost at least $300~$350 million.

And this is why politicians want rail. It’s way cheaper to build and maintain than roads projects are. Just replacing our current batch of crumbling roads is going to nearly bankrupt our public coffers. Why do we want to have to go through that again in another 30 or 40 years? Roads were only cheap when the feds matched dollar-for-dollar the costs of building them back in the 1950s, which Emory himself points out in the piece.

Anyway, Emory continues with another scarecrow comparison of Forward Thrust, the defeated 1968 light rail proposal that was shot down.

Those who defeated Forward Thrust Rail in 1968 and 1970 similarly spared the region, in my view. It is an urban legend that central Puget Sound traffic woes would have been alleviated if only Forward Thrust Rail had been built. Instead, “our money” — a generous federal grant — went to Atlanta, for MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. The message is that Seattle’s loss was Atlanta’s gain. The opposite is the case.

With the aid of that federal money, Atlanta developed rail lines running north, south, east, west, and northeast. Yet today congestion in Atlanta is worse than Seattle’s, and Atlanta’s urban sprawl is worse. MARTA’s ridership is far lower than predicted, and falling. Its operating costs are markedly higher than predicted. Atlanta’s transit market share is inferior to Seattle’s. Its more-costly rail transit absorbs funds that could support more efficient bus transit, or vanpools. Because of misrepresented ridership and operating costs, MARTA’s fares and tax subsidies haven’t generated a robust capital replacement fund, as they were supposed to. So now, with the aging system in its fourth decade, with a new round of major capital investments required, the bank is empty, and red ink is accumulating. Supporters think the best way out is to give MARTA to the State of Georgia, with deeper pockets than Atlanta has, but Georgia is unwilling to take on such an unattractive liability.

Apples and Oranges! (Or Atlantas and Seattles) Atlanta is about 40% as dense as Seattle, has loads of major interstates converging in the city (I-285, I-75, I-85 and I-20, I-575, I-675, I-985), and has no geographical constraints to it’s growth to speak of, being in the center of the Chattahoochee River valley. For every Atlanta, which is nothing like Seattle, there is a San Francisco (a lot more like Seattle) whose BART system is massive success, or a Portland (getting closer!) whose MAX system is one of the most cost effective people movers in the last 25 years.

And, seriously, just how confused is Emory? He talks about the outrageous burden of MARTA for Atlanta when we in this city are looking around at our ridiculously expensive road projects: $4.6 billion for 520, $120 million for South Park Bridge, $800 million for half of the Tacoma Narrows, $4~6 billion for Alaskan Way, $1.3 billion to add just one lane to I-405 when roads projects get diminishing returns anyway. Compared to roads, transit is cheap.

More on Microsoft and Commuting

This may be more interesting to me as a Microsoft employee, but there’s a bit in the PI today on what I was talking about yesterday.

The article highlights just how important transportation choices are to our economy:

It’s one example of the company’s effort to appease employees weary of the Seattle region’s transportation crunch. The stakes are high as Microsoft tries to recruit and retain employees amid intense competition for talent against big rivals such as Google and smaller startup companies.

“They’ve got to figure out how to keep people off those bridges if they want to keep them,” said Seattle commercial real estate veteran Gary Carpenter, executive vice president at Bentall Capital.

Microsoft creating private bus system for employees

Starting soon, Microsoft will start offering a bus system for employees within the region. (Full disclosure: I am a full-time Microsoft employee). This is part of a broader effort Microsoft has undertaken to recruit talent with different lifestyle choices, since not everybody wants to live in the suburbs on the Eastside. For another example, Microsoft is expanding its Seattle office space.

It will be interesting to see what sort of effect this has on the 545 service and ridership numbers. Right now 545 gets about 5,300 riders a day, making it one of Sound Transits most popular routes. I ride the 545 almost every day (the others I work from home) and sometimes it can be very very crowded, especially on morning buses that are not-articulated. Most of the riders who get on at the last Seattle stop at Mountlake have to stand, and often bike riders have to wait a bus or two to find rack space to hold their bikes.

I don’t think many Capitol Hill Microsofties will take the company bus if only because it will not come often enough (545 comes every ten minutes), but I am sure this is going to move a lot of Queen Anne/Belltown commuters out of their cars.

Comprise, yes, but fragile?

Today the Seattle Times ran a cover-page story about the Roads and Transit package. Headlined, “Record-setting tax plan wraps roads, rail in 1 fragile package” it begins:

It’s hard to find a political leader in love with the nearly $18 billion roads-and-transit tax package on the November ballot.

Among the complaints: The plan spreads projects too thinly, doesn’t fully address some of the region’s most pressing traffic problems and imposes the wrong set of taxes.

Yet most of the leaders want voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to pass the biggest tax package ever placed on the ballot in this state, arguing it does enough good to warrant support.

“I don’t think we’ll get anything better,” House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said. “Everybody wants us to have a plan. This is the plan.”

That’s right. We won’t get much better than this. Most people want either roads or transit, and it’s very difficult to please both sides of this debate. Studies have shown that most new roads projects are far more expensive than light rail (for example, increasing I-5 by one lane each way just within Seattle would cost more than $25 billion, which is enough to build an entire subway network), and even widening 405 will cost nearly $4 billion. Building new highways would be even more expensive, and when looking at the cost of replacing the viaduct (cost between $4 and $6 billion) and the 520 bridge (around $5 billion), $10.8 billion for 50 miles of light rail, four miles of street cars, and improve Sounder access make the project seem cheap by comparison.

The big problem for the pro-environmentalist side is that if the package fails, it’s likely that the state legistlature, who’s 100% pro-highway, will push through a roads package and we won’t get another rail package for years:

Horn, with the Eastside Transportation Association, says roads would emerge as a winner if the measure fails. “If it’s not passed this year, the Legislature will have to step up and address it in some way,” he said.

Legislators aren’t sure what would happen.

It’s possible light rail would reappear on the ballot fairly quickly, but fixing the region’s highways is another matter. Legislative leaders predict few people would want to touch the issue in 2008 because it’s an election year.

That would push any highway proposal off until 2009, and by then the debate over replacing the Highway 520 bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct — both in danger of collapse during an earthquake — could suck up all the attention and money for years to come.

If you care about mass transit, which I certainly do, you want to support this bill. It’s likely to show how little you get from billions of dollars in highway spending, and just how much can be done to change people’s minds when looking at rail projects.

The Microsoft Bus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

And no, it doesn’t run windows, and it’ not cheap, either:

“This is not cheap what they’re doing,” said Kevin Desmond, general manager at King County Metro Transit. “Microsoft employees enjoy good benefits that many employers would give their right arm to be able to provide.”

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, acknowledged it is expensive but declined to say how much the company is spending.

The pilot program will include 14 buses, including seven large coaches with bike storage, and electrical outlets at each seat, in addition to Wi-Fi. Seven midsize coaches will be used for neighborhood pickups. There will be multiple runs in the morning and afternoon, Smith said.

Running one bus for one hour costs the Metro system about $110, which includes the driver, mechanic and fuel, Desmond said. At that rate, it would cost $9,240 per day to run 14 buses for six hours, or $2.4 million per year, not including weekends, the cost of new buses or Wi-Fi service.

Taxing Flexcar

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Flexcar users are understandably peeved that their “rentals” are now subject to the same 18.7% tax rate as other rental cars. Alan Durning does a good job of explaining why these taxes exist:

Many Cascadian cities, with state authorization, put special sales taxes on rental cars. The rationale, as best I can understand, is that rental car taxes are mostly paid by nonresidents: business travelers with expense accounts and vacationers who don’t vote locally.

Flexcar, however, has created a whole constituency of in-state car renters, and suddenly the legislators are caught with their pants down (apologies to Larry Craig), taxing their constituents at a rate that will approach 20% once the RTID/ST2 taxes pass this November.

Fewer Ferries

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Okay, before we all get overtaken with ferry madness, Ernst and Young would like to splash some salt water on the current ferry schedule:

The audit recommended that at times when there are two runs sailing at 45 percent capacity or lower, that one of the round-trip runs be removed, allowing the remaining run, ideally, to have a 90 percent vehicle-capacity usage.

The audit did not specifically identify particular round-trip runs that should be eliminated. But it did include a table of possible routes that could be reduced for all seasons.

This is couretsy of the Auditor’s office that was set up courtesy of Tim Eyman’s recent initiative. It’s not clear that WSDOT is at all interested in listening.

Feel the accountability!!

Light Rail in LA

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’ve been half-heartedly following the recent activity on L.A.’s rail expansions, mostly out of general rail-geekdom, but also because, well, if they can build it there….

This summer’s been a flurry of activity down there in that respect. First you have them breaking ground on the new Westside line, which is the long-planned effort to link Santa Monica to downtown LA by rail. It will run along an old rail right-of-way, which will make it relatively cheap and quick to build, but, of course, it will also mean running at-grade and having to stop at traffic lights. And the rail corridor’s not exactly centrally located:

The first 8.6-mile leg of the line will run from the 7th Street/Metro Center station in the heart of downtown to Culver City. But it will be nowhere near many of the Westside’s most congested destinations, including the Miracle Mile, Grove-Beverly Center areas, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Century City and Westwood/UCLA.

Instead, it will move along an old Southern Pacific rail line through relatively quieter southwest L.A., roughly following Exposition Boulevard.

This first leg got a good chunk of funding today, but it still needs to make it all the way to Santa Monica to really deliver.

Meanwhile, across town, East LA is getting a full-on, grade-separated light rail extension that could change the neighborhood, probably in much the same way that the Central Link will change South Seattle.

More on Amtrak

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The WSJ article I alluded to last week is chock full of great stuff. The high-speed Acela trains are on time 90% of the time, far better than the NY-DC air shuttle. And even non-Northeast routes are doing well:

But Amtrak’s success lately isn’t confined to the Northeast. While the railroad’s long-distance trains continue to suffer from lengthy delays, its ridership is up sharply on some improved state-supported corridors, including Chicago-St. Louis, up 53% in the 10 months through July.

Chicago-St. Louis is about 300 miles, a bit longer than the NY-DC route. That’s the sweet spot for passenger rail, 100- to 500-miles. The downside, the WSJ notes, is that we’ve essentially let our passenger rail infrastructure atrophy for the past century, so there are some major bottlenecks that need to be fixed, which would collectively cost billions of dollars:

Acela will never clock the steady 180 mph speeds reached by the fastest European and Japanese trains as they travel on dedicated tracks from city to city. On the Northeast Corridor, Acela is stuck with curvy tracks that it must share with freight and commuter trains. Space for more and faster trains is limited particularly in New York, where the Northeast Corridor squeezes down to just two tracks under the Hudson River.

Still, for $625 million in upgrades to tracks, equipment, signals and electrical power systems, Amtrak could shave 15 minutes from the Acela’s 2¾-hour schedule between New York and Washington, Mr. Kummant told Congress last month. Further time savings would come at a higher cost. Mr. Kummant says that to save an additional 10 minutes would cost $7 billion for new tunnels in New York and Baltimore, new bridges at other locations and track upgrades at five stations.

Still, there is a plan on the table, which seems reasonable to me, to hand the Northeast Corridor line over to the states it serves, in a model that would probably match the Northwest’s successful Amtrak Cascades service. Those states would be at a huge advantage relative to us here in the NW, since they’d be getting a rail corridor that’s exclusively for passenger rail, while we have to share ours with BNSF.

Sounds Gains Some Riders

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I-5 is open again, but some folks are sticking with Sounder:

The Sounder averaged 7,423 riders a day in the three weeks before the construction, but ridership jumped to a daily average of 9,480 during the I-5 lane closures.

Some riders returned to their cars during the project, seeing that a drop in the number of vehicles on the road had eased the pain of the highway commute. Still, based on morning and afternoon trips Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday morning’s commute, the average daily ridership remained about 8,120.

Add that to the Mukilteo station breaking ground, and things are looking up for Sounder. In terms of daily trips, it’s a blip compared to what light rail will provide, but it’s still significant in our overall transit strategy.

Sierra Club vs. RTID

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The club loses round 1:

The Sierra Club, the main force behind the NoRTID campaign, asked the court Friday to decide whether the “con” statement in the King County voter’s pamphlet is legal. The group says it omits an environmental point of view on the RTID portion of the ballot measure, falling short of fully informing voters.

Townsend said the “con” statement, written by citizen activist Will Knedlick, Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman and Phil Talmadge, a former state lawmaker and state Supreme Court justice, is primarily an anti-light rail and anti-tax stance, failing to adequately address the issue of more roads and highways.

I think it’s generally problematic that Sound Transit gets to choose who writes the “con” statement. But then, I think voter initiatives in general are problematic, and this is just one more reason why.

Overall, though, while I respect (though disagree with) their focus on killing the roads piece of the joint proposition, I wonder if the Club is thinking too short-term here:

“We’ve tried to get the two issues separated,” said Mike O’Brien, the local Sierra Club chairman. “When we heard about the shotgun wedding the Legislature created, we knew there was going to be a problem.”

Decoupling the issues — annulling the shotgun wedding, to borrow O’Brien’s words — is a bad idea in the long term. Environmentalists should want holistic, integrated transportation planning, one that includes rails, roads, trails, buses, bikes, hovercrafts, etc. Because that’s how we’re going to get the kind of transit systems that folks like the Sierra Club want to see.

For example, if you look at RTID/ST2 in a vaccum, you see that the funding is split roughly 50/50, about $10B each. An anti-rail person might look at that and say, “hey, why is half the money going to rail when it only serves 1% of trips?” Let’s bracket the “only a few thousand people” line, which has been thoroughly debunked, and focus on the the money. Sure, if you narrowly look at RTID/ST2, we’re looking at 50/50, but if you step back, and look at the hundreds of billions of dollars that we’ve spent on streets, boulevards, highways, byways, and driveways, at the state, county, and local level for the past 100 years, all of a sudden $10B on transit seems like a drop in the bucket.

In other words, we should only consider transportation spending relative to other modes, and the way we do that is by looking at it as one huge pie that gets divvied up.