Here comes governance reform

At one of the News Tribune blogs, David Seago reports on Gov. Gregoire’s visit to the editorial board. There’s good news and bad news.

The bad news:

The governor said she was prepared to introduce her own RTG [Regional Transportation Governance] legislation for the 2008 session, but she agreed to let state Sens. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, take the lead in crafting a proposal…

RTG means no more Sound Transit, no more Regional Transportation Improvement District – bodies comprised of elected city and county officials from Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.

Daimajin has discussed at length why this is a bad idea. Briefly, I oppose it strongly because (1) new agencies tend to be paralyzed by indecision and incompetence for several years, while Sound Transit is now operating smoothly; (2) Any new entity is likely to both dilute the vote of pro-transit Seattle and lose most of its rail transit focus; and (3) an elected board is unlikely to approve the taxes necessary to build a good rail system.

By the way, Ed Murray is the one you can thank for the ST2/RTID marriage in the last election, in spite of representing one of the most liberal districts in the state.

I was led to this blog entry via David Brewster on Crosscut, who adds:

The first political showdown will be Sound Transit’s decision next February whether to go back to the ballot in 2008, this time with no roads component. House Speaker Frank Chopp opposes the 2008 submission, fearing that some of his Democratic candidates in the suburbs will be forced to take a stand on a tax increase. Olympia has threatened Sound Transit that if they go ahead with the 2008 vote, they can expect to be punished by enactment of a regional governance entity that will weaken Sound Transit’s autonomy and its dedicated taxes. Waiting to 2010 for the Sound Transit II vote may also give enough time for the regional governance entity to be enacted.

How far back has the Prop. 1 failure set us? A generation?

A wee bit of good news via Seago:

And the notion of “sub-area equity,” Gregoire said emphatically, has got to go. That gave us a little shudder, because the principle that the money raised in each county should be spent each county is pretty much Holy Writ in Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Sub-area equity prevents us from building a system that serves the most riders. If key leaders are starting to recognize that, it’s a good thing.

Still, in state races I’m pretty much a single-issue voter on transit, and the Governor has yet to give me a reason she’d be better than Dino Rossi, which is pathetic.

UPDATE: Sen. Murray has a fair response in the comments, that you should read. It is certainly true that he renounced his support for the ST2/RTID marriage quite some time ago, which is something I should have pointed out in the original post.

As for his claims about opposing RTID from the start, he sponsored this bill about RTID, and Section 8 (an amendment added by the Senate) is where the linkage is established. Judge for yourself (I’m no journalist), but to me that’s ancient history. I’m glad to see our Seattle delegation standing up for a 2008 ST2.1 vote, and that’s what matters.

This Governance Reform is a Terrible Idea

I want to add to the great post Frank at OR wrote in response to Ted Van Dyk’s latest Crosscut piece calling for a transportation “mega-agency” with a directly elected board that would have control over both transit planning and roads planning. Frank takes the similar position to the one I made last time, but Frank goes into more detail. Trust me, as with everything he writes, the whole thing is worth the read.

I’ve got something to add to the argument. There are some huge advantages to a federated board relative to a directly elected one. First, a federate board can plan transportation and transit around other major regional agendas. When Bellevue approved this development, they had light rail in mind, and it helped having the Bellevue City councilwoman who approved the development be on the Sound Transit board. There is definitely a synergy between the council members and mayors approving development and planning their cities and the transportation agencies.

Secondly, elected officials working on the same board are going to have an easier time coordinating efforts amongst each other vis-à-vis elected officials in different agencies. Compare efforts like Rainer Valley zoning and the Bellevue Plan to the trouble that larger, directly-elected agencies like King County and the Port of Seattle have had dealing with something as straight-forward as a rail purchase. Months of negotiation and a final solution still hasn’t been reached.

Finally, a directly elected regional officer/board would look just like the port, with little accountability, no oversight, and terrible corruption. Want your city/county council members to have bargain with an agency like the Port?

Sure, an elected office with taxing authority would be able to get work done faster, but it would also be able to do damage much faster. The agency Rice-Stanton envision would have the power to dictate route planning for local agencies, literally franchising routes downward from on high. Imagine if a Ted Van Dyk, Tim Eyman or John Niles became chair of this regional transportation agency? It’d either be roads all roads with Van Dyk, complete tax shutdown with Eyman, or all buses all the time with John Niles. Transit haters could run routes that no one would ride and point to it as proof that transit is a waste. That doesn’t sound like an effective agency.

What we have currently is a group of local, elected officials who know their constituents and know their areas’ long term plans working together to create transportation packages to bring to voters who ultimately have the say on it all. That seems reasonable to me. What Eyman, Ted Van Dyk, and John Niles want is a regional agency subject to politicization and direct-election propaganda. In their vision, every four years a new group could come in and do away with the progress made in the last go. How is that to our region’s advantage?

The Mother of All Agencies

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Ted Van Dyk “reports” that regional leaders are coalescing around a post-Prop-1 transit plan that looks — surprise! — mirrors Van Dyk’s personal wishes and desires almost to a tee. It’s hard to know where the reporting ends and the navel-gazing begins:

In all of this, a new consensus is emerging about a post-Prop 1 agenda. It centers on moving aside turf-oriented, self-serving agencies such as Sound Transit and transferring power to a more objective, more responsive regional body. It would stress immediate priorities such as addressing the urgent Alaskan Way Viaduct and Evergreen Point Bridge, which are aging and structurally vulnerable. It would not stop light rail construction in place, but it would limit construction to a line running from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to either Convention Place, Husky Stadium, or Northgate. Future funding would be focused more greatly on express bus, bus rapid transit, and normal bus service; dedicated transit lanes; HOV lanes; tolling; and selective repair and expansion of long neglected local roads and lifeline highways. Citywide trolleys definitely would not be part of the scheme.

You’ve got to love the use of the passive voice here (“a consensus is emerging”), implying that the whole thing is just coming together as God and nature intended. It’s a miracle!!

But I really have to take this opportunity to rant against this idea of a regional “superagency” that’s getting so much press these days. The Puget Sound Regional Transportation Commission (PSRTC) — which would combine RTID, Sound Transit, and the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) — was the subject of the Rice-Stanton report (.pdf) that forms the basis of Van Dyk’s article. It is an idea that is intuitively appealing, but fall apart spectacularly upon deeper examination.

Let’s not mince words here: the PSRTC is not just a silly idea, it’s a dangerous distraction from the real transportation problems facing our region. Like the Department of Homeland Security at the federal level, the PSRTC’s main purpose will be to make us feel like we’ve accomplished something, while formerly effective independent agencies (e.g. FEMA) are gutted and politicized as part of the new, unwieldy mega-bureaucracy.

For example, the PSRC, Rice and Stanton argue, “is charged with planning regionally, but has limited authority. Although it articulates a regional vision and attempts to plan for the region, the PSRC lacks the power to prioritize needed projects due to its governance structure.” But this is a feature, not a bug! The PSRC’s insulation from politics and taxing is exactly what makes it so valuable and objective as a planning agency.

Also, the proposed PSRTC would have “life cycle responsibility” for construction and maintenance of “regional projects.” I assume this means it would have its own construction crews and maintenance facilities, or at least be responsible for subcontracting them. But why? Ostensibly, the PSRTC is being created for regional priority road projects like the ones specified in the RTID: I-405 widening, the “Mercer mess,” the 520 bridge, and others. But design and maintenance for those already rests with specific agencies. Unless you’re going to abolish KCDOT, SDOT, and all the other local DOTs, you’re adding bureaucracy, not removing it.

Finally, we don’t need yet another elected board overseeing something. Our ballots are far too large already. As it is, we must elect a couple of Port Commissioners, a few city councilmembers, a school board, some county councilmembers, federal judges, state reps and legislators, and maybe soon an elections chair. We need fewer of what Knute Berger wisely derided as “designer governments.”

What might — might — make sense is to combine the various regional transit agencies (Everett Transit, King County Metro, Community Transit and Sound Transit) into one transit agency, like Portland’s Tri-Met or New York’s MTA. But that would have the effect of giving Sound Transit even more clout, and that must be avoided at all costs, according to Van Dyk and his ilk (despite the fact that the people of the region view ST more favorably than, say, WSDOT).

To be sure, there is a real funding problem in the region. With round after round of anti-tax initiatives crippling the state’s budget (which must also fund important things like education and health care), it’s getting harder to fund transportation projects. But creating another agency doesn’t solve this problem, it just redirects it. If the state, cities, and counties can’t come up with the revenue, they need to raise taxes, or elect leaders who will. Redrawing lines on the map doesn’t magically make money appear.

In other words, creating the PSRTC does not restore these funds. It simply proposes to acquire them from a smaller bloc of voters, including Tim Eyman (who lives within the PSRTC’s proposed boundaries, let’s remember). Does anyone think that he’s just going to sit on his hands while we try to raise $70B or so in new revenue?

I encourage everyone to download the Rice-Stanton report and skip to Page 114, where Commissioner Dan McDonald writes a highly intelligent and accurate “minority report,” that calls into question the logic of the whole thing. A monster bureaucracy like the PSRTC will face stiff political opposition that will be every bit as difficult as simply trying to raise the revenue through existing agencies.

All of which makes you wonder why we’d even do it in the first place.

How to Name Urban Rail Ways

The Overhead Wire has a post about how rail lines should have numbers not colors. For example, in Chicago and Los Angeles all the rail lines names are colors, ie, “blue line”, “red line”, while in New York the “services” are numbered “A”, “7”, etc. I agree that numbers allow for more lines/services, but maps like colors. Almost every city in America (also, Washington, Boston, etc.) with a rail system uses colors.

I prefer names over numbers, because they allow for more information. The London Underground has names, and there’s little question where some of the lines go. The “Waterloo and City” line goes between, well, Waterloo and the City of London. In Tokyo the lines are named, too. The Toyoko line goes between Tokyo and Yokohama, and it’s obvious from the name (if you speak Japanese).

It seems like we are going toward naming our lines, but giving them terrible names: “Central Link”, “Tacoma Link”, “First Hill Streetcar”, “South Lake Union Streetcar”, and “Sounder”. I may be jumping the gun, since we only have really one line and it’s not opened yet, but I propose this if we ever get an integrated system, either light rail or streetcars: we both letter our lines and give them names. San Francisco does it this way, with the “N Judah”, “9 Potrero”, “T Third Street”, “38 Geary” etc. This way it could be the “T Tacoma”, “S South Lake Union”, “F First Hill”, “D Denny”, etc.

What do you guys think? Are letters better than colors? Names better than letters?

Eastside Rail-Trail Deal Done

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

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King County has approved the deal to let the Port of Seattle buy the eastside rail corridor. The County’s approval was important, since they were the ones who had the first rights to buy it.

While there’s nothing final on Boeing Field, the memorandum does say that the Port and the County “shall develop a consultative process for considering major capital improvements at King County International Airport that would substantially affect the Airport’s regional impact.”

The County’s going to move to buy two segments of the trail, but I’m not clear on which segments those are. The P-I’s (and the Times‘) description would seem to correspond roughly with segments A and D of the PSRC’s study (above). But the memo istelf seems to imply that the “Southern Portion” (A+B) will be converted to a trail, while the “Northern Portion” (C+D) will be retained for freight use.

UW Station

If you look at the UW station plans, you’ll see that the station will have one exit facing North with a ramp toward main campus and another facing toward the hospital. It’s deep underground because it has to cross the cut, which means it needs to go under the water. I love the design, especially how the ramp faces the mountain as you walk to the station, but the one bad part of the design is it’s distance from Montlake bridge where the buses crossing 520 ride. Small problem.

Bicycles, South Lake Union, plus others

A lot of noise has been made about how the Streetcar tracks in South Lake Union are bad for bikes. So I went down there yesterday on my bike and I have to say, I didn’t have that problem. I guess if you are riding along the same area where the streetcar is, it could be dangerous to be in the tracks, but why not go one block down? I only crossed the tracks at a 90-degree angle.

Oddly, there are a ton of other, old tracks in the street down there, and they don’t have this problem, I wonder why only the Streetcar tracks get the complaints.

On a completely unrelated note, I went to a Thunderbirds hockey game yesterday and learned that the team is moving to Kent and will play in a venue across the street from Kent Station. They play at Key Arena now, but it seems that next year you’ll be able to take sounder down to Kent for T-Birds games. Oddly, the T-Birds play in a division that has Everett in it, and Everett and Kent are both about the same distance from Seattle, so if the T-Birds move down to Kent, they ought to be called the Kent Thunderbirds, not the Seattle Thunderbirds. At least that’s my opinion.

Nickels and Sound Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’m late in acknolwedging Greg Nickels’ ascention to the head of the Sound Transit board of directors. It’s notable for a couple of reasons. First, it was Snohomish county’s “turn,” as Josh Feit noted. Second, it’s unusual that the board would give so much power to Seattle. It’s sort of like electing an American as President of the United Nations.

Still, if anyone knows how to run an election, it’s Nickels. If Sound Transit does push for a vote in 2008 (as Feit suggests) or 2010 (as David Brewster seems to think), I can’t imagine anyone else I’d rather have at the helm. In fact, it may be Nickels’ reputation in that regard that got him the job.

Traffic vs. People

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Seattle Times warms to a surface-street replacement for the viaduct:

If the goal is reasonable replacement of traffic capacity on the waterfront — and elsewhere in Seattle’s north-south corridor — this may prove the only politically viable way to move forward. Literally. A narrow boulevard that accommodates very little traffic is not a good idea, but neither is an Indiana speedway with no traffic lights. Remember, one goal is to reconnect downtown and the waterfront.

One promising feature of the group’s new approach is a pledge to take a holistic look at the north-south traffic in Seattle. Instead of merely promising to replace daily capacity for 110,000 cars, instead of dumping all those cars onto the waterfront roadway, traffic planners are studying the broader notion of transporting people and products from North 85th Street to South Spokane Street.

The Troubled Ferry System

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The recent problems with the WSF’s Steel Electric ferries has focused some much-needed attention on the nation’s largest passenger ferry system. When former WSDOT chief Doug MacDonald resigned back in April, I wrote that the lack of focus on the ferry system “suggests a fundamental myopia at WSDOT. The ferry system is essentially a very large mass transit system, and the fact that the road-centric WSDOT sees it almost as an annoyance is troubling.”

As I acknolwedged at the time, there wasn’t much evidence to back up that assertion, but it seems to grow more and more correct as this saga unfolds. The ferry system appears to operate in its own little black box, off the radar of both WSDOT and the legislature, who are both trying to claim ignorance and blame one another for the lack of attention, as the News-Tribune reports in a whopper of an article on the state of things. Money quote:

State lawmakers approved the Steel Electrics’ retirement in 2001 and provided money for replacements two years later. But ferry officials opted to build boats too large to work as replacements. They wanted vessels that could serve routes anywhere in the ferry system. To make that work, however, they needed to replace narrow, shallow Keystone Harbor, a place where only the Steel Electrics could operate safely.

The state spent six years and $5.5 million studying a new Keystone terminal before abandoning the idea this spring. They blamed community opposition.

The new terminal was estimated to cost $1 billion over 30 years. It would have served about 3 percent of ferry system passengers.

While the authors are trying to make the point that it’s silly to spend so much money on a ferry terminal that serves so few people, surely there would be some big advantages to standardizing on a single ship design that could be used at all terminals. But, unfortunately, the cash-strapped system, still reeling from budget cuts due to I-695, can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The State clearly had to make drastic changes after the 1999 initiative decimated ferry funding, and, as one sailor in The Hunt for Red October says to his new trainee, “a boat this big doesn’t exactly stop on a dime.”

Read the whole piece to get a sense of just how hard it is to change direction, and give credit to new WSDOT chief Paula Hammond for trying to make it happen.

UW Station

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The northern terminus for the University Link, the station at Husky Stadium is nearing design completion. I saw some of the renderings at the UW open house on Wednesday, but I didn’t stay for the full talk.

The stadium will be mostly underground, as riders will descend 100 feet via several escalators to the station platform. Though there will be a large pedestrian bridge connecting the campus with the entrance near Husky Stadium, to a driver heading down Montlake Blvd. it will be almost invisible.

However, between 2008 and 2014 (or thereabouts), there will be a giant pit in the Husky Stadium parking lot as the station is excavated and built. It will not be a pretty sight. Sound Transit and its contractors are going to do all they can to minimize the mess, but there’s only so much you can do with giant hole in the ground.

On the plus side, ST will use two tunnel boring machines to dig the Northbound and Southbound tunnels between UW and Capitol Hill (the Beacon Hill tunnels were bored one at a time using a single TBM). This will speed up the process considerably.

UW Station Plans, 520, Eastside Rail

There’s an article here about the UW station plans which were on display yesterday. Look forward to a post from me with more on the station design.

Seattle Times ran this op-ed from Theodore Lane and Bill Mundy about how 520 is the right corridor for light rail rather than I-90. I agree a line on there makes sense, but it doesn’t make more sense than one on 520. First, it doesn’t go through Downtown Bellevue, which has nearly as many workers (about 100,000) by itself as the “SLU/University/Redmond” area which has 113,000. Plus, you still hit Redmond and you hit more residents along I-90. Plus, the ST2 plan goes through this, though I guess the 520 proposal could too if it were built right.

Lastly, Ron Sims has let the Port buy the BNSF line. He wanted the tracks torn up, mostly because the thinks they would need to be replaced, and also because it makes it worse for bicyclists. The value of the route for transit has been questioned because it goes pretty far from the major employment centers there.

Light Rail via 520

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Theodore Lane and Bill Mundy take to the Times’ op-ed page to argue in favor of routing the East Link via a new 520 bridge, rather than over the I-90 bridge. It’s an interesting thought experiment. After all, one could build the new bridge with light rail in mind, rather than retrofitting it and scraping off concrete to get the weight down, which is the current plan, I believe, for the I-90 alignment. They further argue that the real employment growth is along the 520 corridor, from UW to Redmond.

But that’s about where the interestingness ends and reality kicks in. The idea that you could save money by to Overlake directly loses weight when you consider how many fewer people you’d serve by going that route. Lane and Mundy try to account for this by advocating a “Bellevue spur.” But once you’ve built a two or three-mile spur into downtown Bellevue, you’ve removed much of the cost savings that was the basis for the route in the first place. Further, such a spur would abandon Seattle’s Central District and Mercer Island completely. Not so for the I-90 alignment.

It should be said that Ron Sims, in his now infamous op-ed, also pooh-poohed the I-90 alignment as “slow and cumbersome.” But Sims was arguing against Eastside rail altogether. And it’s hard to see how a grade-separated light rail would be any slower or more cumbersome than the expanded bus service he was advocating as an alternative.

Bottom line: if we’re going to do light rail across the lake, I-90 is still the best bet.

Train to the Mountain

I’m finally getting around to posting information regarding this project. I was unable to attend the meeting but I did get some notes from it. It has hit some curve balls and there is concern on the train departing Tacoma after the demise of the Spirit of Washington Dinner train and the Golden Pacific Railroad both which suffered with lack of destination.

Upgrading the Rail from Tacoma to Elbe would cost around $11 million dollars and from Tacoma to Ashford would be around $24 million dollars. This would use the existing Tacoma Rail locomotives and 3 passenger cars they have.

Here are some key notes;

• The train is feasible as long as the one-way travel time to Paradise is three hours or less.

• In order to be successful, the train would need to capture just 1 percent of the roughly 1.5 million visitors the national park receives each year. Assuming this is around 15,000 passengers a year.

• Upgrading the track to Elbe would cost just $11 million, while extending it to Ashford would cost approximately $24 million. In either case, visitors would ride a shuttle bus to Paradise.

• Tacoma Rail should start looking for a third-party operator interested in running the train, and Tacoma officials should continue to seek federal funding to pay for track improvements.

• A tourist train would provide park visitors with an environmentally sensitive alternative to the automobile.

By upgrading the rail from Tacoma to Elbe/Park Jct. and the rail recently upgraded from Mineral to Morton would improve the timeliness of freight rail to Morton.

It was also made public that the Mountain Division has $4.55 million in outstanding loans from the city’s general fund, and is asking for an additional $1.7 million. In addition, it has $2 million of outside debt. This is not including the cost for repairing and/or rebuilding the Nisqually River Bridge which would restore freight service into Morton and the 3 lumber mills looking for rail service.

There is also talk of having Boeing getting rail service into Fredrickson for the Next Generation 737’s coming around in 2012.

On top of all of this, there is study out for a $72.5 million dollar trail from Freighthouse Square to Elbe. Who and why would somebody be crazy enough to ride this is beyond me but it would follow the rail corridor into Elbe.

Train to the Mountain Article

Trail to the Mountain Article

City of Tacoma backs Elevated Sounder routing

The City of Tacoma has voted 8-0 on their support on the elevated railway crossing over Pacific Avenue in Downtown Tacoma. This will allow Amtrak and Sounder serve to use the Sound Transit corridor between Freighthouse Square and Nisqually (Lakewood for Sounder)

This link was supposed to open in 2001 but political and businesses have delayed the design along with seeking additional funding for the bridge.

Funding brings up a good question considering Sound Transit does not have the additional money for the rail link and over pass at least according to the Open House at Freighthouse Square.

The City of Tacoma also wants “air rights” by which would allow the City to build a “lid” similar to the Convention Center over I-5.

Check out the article for more information.

Light Rail, Jim Ellis and the ST board

Streetcars and buses are great, but the we still need real rapid transit and in this region that means light rail. As we know, the Sound Transit Board is meeting today to discuss the future for light rail, the main question being whether to come back to the ballot in 2008 or later.

David Brewster at Crosscut seems sure it will only come back in 2010. I’m not so sure. I think if Dino Rossi moves into the governor’s mansion in 2009, there won’t be a Sound Transit in 2010 to go to the ballot. That Brewster piece about Jim Ellis is fascinating btw.

More No. 8 buses

According to this there will be more no. 8 service along with more no. 70 bus service. The 70 will run every ten minutes, and the 8, which I sometimes take from Denny and Stewart when it’s raining, will start running every 15 minutes from 6-7:30 up from 30 minutes.

What’s interesting is that $109,000 of the approx. $800,000 needed to fund the increased service comes from SLU business. Seems scary to me, like wealthy business can throw money at the city and the city will buy them more bus service. What do you think, should we worry about county bus service for hire?