Gas Prices

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

This article has some interesting points to make about fuel consumption:

Americans spend 3.7 percent of their disposable income on transportation fuels. At its lowest point, that share was 1.9 percent in 1998, and at its highest, it reached 4.5 percent in 1981, said Johnson of Global Insight.

Still, despite the rise in energy prices, gasoline remains cheaper in the United States than in most industrialized countries. In France, for example, a gallon of gasoline costs about $7.70 at today’s exchange rates. Also, Americans pay less to drive a mile today than they did in 1980, once the impact of inflation and gains in fuel efficiency are taken into account, said Lee Schipper, a visiting scholar at the transportation center of the University of California, Berkeley.

Schipper estimates that the cost of gasoline per mile traveled will be about 15 cents this year. That is nearly three times the low of 5.6 cents a mile reached in 1998, when fuel efficiency peaked and prices were at their lowest. But it is still cheaper than the record paid in 1980 of 17.1 cents a mile, adjusted for inflation.

As bad as gas prices seem, they’re still not as high as they’ve been by historical standards. But people’s perception in this case matters at least as much as reality, and the perception is that gas prices are pretty darn high. Finally, it’s hard to separate the increase in gas prices from the general slow down of the economy in general.

All that said, it certainly does seem like the fundamentals of supply and demand, not reckless speculation, are leading us inexorably towards $200/barrel.

Oh now it makes sense, that’s per year!

Carless in Seattle explains what I couldn’t figure out from the P-I article on the ULI report last week. I wrote that I couldn’t understand how the shortfall was just $800 per person, less than the cost of the any of the major road or rail projects in the region. But CIS explained the missing piece: it’s $800 per person per year. Wow. That’s a lot of money, more than four times the cost of the failed Prop. 1 measure from last year.

Private Commuter Rail?

Snohomish County has given a private company, GNP Railway rights to operate commuter rail in the portion of the old BNSF railway in Snohomish county. Currently that portion of the former railway is a trail. GNP railway wants to operate commuter rail service from Snohomish to Bellevue or Renton, with a station in Snohomish (the city) where there was one the larger part of a century ago.

In order to accomplish this, GNP would need to make a similar deal with the Port of Seattle, get the capital to add rails where there’s currently just a trail, and build stations along the line. It sounds a little iffy to me, because I doubt the line would get enough ridership to make this a profitable enterprise, but GNP chairman Tom Payne has a history of bringing railroads from the dead:

Payne, a former locomotive engineer, transformed a failing rail line into Canada’s third-largest railroad in the 1980s and 1990s. He operated a tourist-oriented excursion train out of Tacoma in 2006.

I would be awesome if this works, though I imagine some sort of public-private partnership would be needed. This is going to be an interesting one to watch.

Wow, in a country with bad transportation infrastucture, we’re the worst

That’s what the ULI is saying. We’ve got a backlog of about $800 per person in this region, for about $800 per person. Seems low: that’s only about $3 billion, the 520 bridge and the viaduct are each more than that. Dallas-Fort Worth is second at about $400 per person, so we’re twice as bad as the next worst.

American cities are falling behind Asia and Europe in investing in roads, transit, bridges and other systems needed for growing populations, the study said.

Among U.S. cities/metro areas studied, the Seattle-Puget Sound area’s infrastructure-funding gap was nearly twice that of Dallas-Fort Worth, which was second at nearly $400 per capita. ULI, a nonprofit education and research institute that focuses on land-use, population growth, urban planning and the environment, worked with financial consultants Ernst & Young to produce the 60-page study.

“By 2040, the population of the Seattle area is projected to grow by 1.7 million new people, with 1.2 million new jobs … that’s like dropping the population of greater metropolitan Portland into the Puget Sound area,” John Hempelmann, co-vice chairman of the Reality Check Task Force for ULI Seattle, said Wednesday.

“That’s a big number, and a huge challenge, given the lack of infrastructure capacity and lack of funding.”

America is losing the transportation race quickly. If you go to Singapore, China, France, Korea or practically anywhere else the airports are nicer, the trains are nicer, sometimes even the highways are nicer, and it’s generally easier to get around than in most US cities, wonder why? Infrastructure spending:

“It’s kind of discouraging,” he told the audience, that in 1960, the U.S. spent 12 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure and now spends 2.4 percent. Japan spends 10 percent, China 9 percent and India 4.6 percent, Hudnut said.
Earlier this year, he said, a bipartisan congressional commission estimated the U.S. needs to spend at least $225 billion annually on transportation systems alone “just to catch up and keep pace with the rest of the world.”

It shows in Americans’ daily lives. Europeans are connecting major cities using high-speed trains traveling 200 mph, Hudnut said.

But Seattle-area drivers spent about 45 hours in traffic delays in 2005 — more than a week of vacation — in contrast to 12 hours in 1982, according to the report.

Some are hoping for a reauthorization of the depleted federal Highway Trust Fund in November 2009, but with a shifted focus from cars to transit.

That’d be a start. But we’d also need to start approving funding for these project on a local level. Let’s hope ST2 gets through this year…

Density Around the World

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Interesting chart, via Ezra Klein, on relative densities of major cities around the world. When folks like me talk about increasing density in the Seattle metro area, we’re talking about going from Houston-like levels to maybe, maybe Stockholm- or Berlin-like levels.

I’m sure there are issues with this chart and the methodology (Is Barcelona really 4 times denser than New York?), but the point is that, relatively speaking, we don’t have to increase density by all that much to see significant benefits in transit use and energy conservation.

Update: Speaking of Stockholm

Where There’s a Will

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Urban Land Institute states what should be obvious: if you keep voting down transportation funding, sooner or later you’re not going to have any money to spend on transportation:

Among U.S. cities/metro areas studied, the Seattle-Puget Sound area’s infrastructure-funding gap was nearly twice that of Dallas-Fort Worth, which was second at nearly $400 per capita. ULI, a nonprofit education and research institute that focuses on land-use, population growth, urban planning and the environment, worked with financial consultants Ernst & Young to produce the 60-page study.

“By 2040, the population of the Seattle area is projected to grow by 1.7 million new people, with 1.2 million new jobs … that’s like dropping the population of greater metropolitan Portland into the Puget Sound area,” John Hempelmann, co-vice chairman of the Reality Check Task Force for ULI Seattle, said Wednesday.

I-695, Prop 1, the monorail… the list of transportation projects ultimately rejected by Puget Sound voters is long (going back to the Bogue plan in 1911 and Forward Thrust in ’68).

But the really maddining thing is that the Seattle Metro area has generated an absolutely astonishing amount of wealth in the last decade or two. We’re home to two of the richest men on planet Earth, not to mention the highest number of millionaires per capita in the country. And yet, despite all this, we can’t fund an infrastructure project (and don’t get started on funding for other priorities like education).

At the end of the day, then, this is our own fault. After all, we have no state income tax, so our taxes end up being more regressive than most places. Partly, of course, it’s a leadership issue. But at the end of the day, trying to lead people in the Northwest is like herding cats. This part of the country, tucked away in the corner, appeals to (and breeds) a certain kind of loner, a do-it-yourself type. As such, we’re pretty skeptical of mass movements and big organizations. That’s too bad, because we have the resources (natural, intellectual, and financial) to really show America (and the rest of the world) how to do things right.

(via CIS)

Great reason to have an ST2.1 vote in 2008 provided by: The Discovery Institute?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

How does a pro-roads organization come to favor rail? Well, they don’t. But they provide a great reason to push for infrastructure improvements immediately. The world is awash with global capital right now (article here). Sure, they want to use this cheap capital for building roads, but the argument is the same for building massive rail improvements quickly.

Here’s the situation. Remember the collapse of the mortgage industry, specifically the sub-prime mortgages? Well the bubble was caused by a glut of global capital looking for a safe place to rest, and the bubble popped when investors realized that sub-prime mortgages were not a safe bet. This capital hasn’t gone away – it’s still there looking for safe, long term investments (see: Dubai for one of the places it has landed). For a great primer on this, listen to a rare This American Life documentary on the subject (here).

What would be a safe, long-term investment for global capital? Discovery says infrastructure fits the bill. We may disagree on what that infrastructure should be, and I don’t think they realize the full financial potential out there, but we agree on the major financial points. This global capital is available now. We don’t know what the financial picture will look like in several years. Actually, this is a great reason to do more than just ST2.1 immediately – let’s build an in-city light rail system while we’re at it. We just may not ever get this good of an opportunity again.

Vote Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Ezra Klein warms my heart:

How long till traffic becomes a voting issue? Americans spend more time in it every year. They get heart attacks from it. And now, with gas prices well above $100 — and racing skyward still — how long till road rage, till driving, till a life spent in the car and a paycheck spent at the pump, become voting issues? Arguably, gas prices are already there. But no politicians has figured out how to do anything with that save promise lower gas prices. But we’re not going to lower gas prices. And discontent will only become more intense. Someday, some politician is going to figure out what to do with that, and my hunch in the word “transit” will be a big part of it.

Emphasis added. I’ll go him one better — not only will no one lower gas prices, but even if we did, it would increase traffic.

I just love, love, love how far the national conversation has moved towards a pro-transit agenda. We’ve got a long way to go before we’re spending more money on rail than roads, but we’re getting there.

For more, check out this post on The Overhead Wire regarding the proposed Boxer Amendment to the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill.

A mini-vacation on Metro

This Seattle Times article about miniature vacations on Metro to summer hotspots around town is pretty interesting. Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, Seattle Center … Just kidding. The article is about semi-natural and outdoorsy places such as the Ballard Locks, Golden Gardens and Alki. And since it was in the Times, it was written by someone who lives on the Eastside (this time Kirkland). I honestly learned how to get to Snoqualmie falls by transit (271 from Bellevue TC or 209 from Issaquah PNR), which is awesome for moving my carless life forward. Snoqualmie falls is a great place to take friends from out-of-town, and now I can do it without a car.

The Alki directions miss the mark: West Seattle Water Taxi, guys, come on! This is really the only way to get to Alki in the summer months, I can’t imagine why someone would want to take the 56 there.

Ok, so what other interesting places can you get to by bus in this area? I can think of the Museum of Glass in Tacoma (a worthwhile visit on ST route 594), Magnuson Park (65), Emerald Downs (152), and the Arboretum (48, 11)? Help me out!

Nickels wants you to consider leaving the car at home

Mayor Nickels is back in the act of encouraging people to consider alternatives to car ownership in the city. The City will provide the following incentives to encourage carless commutes:

To find out more about how to participate, go to www.seattlecan.org. Seattle residents who commit to reduce car trips at the Web site are eligible for the following:

• Commit to eliminating a few car trips, and qualify for a drawing for a $50 gift certificate for bus passes or REI.

• Commit to reducing commute trips for several months, and receive a $150 cash card.

• Sell or donate a car, and receive $200 in gift certificates for bus passes or REI; a $100 discount to Tiny’s Organic; $50 off a Zipcar membership; free membership in the Cascade Bicycle Club and Bicycle Alliance of Washington; and a signed proclamation from the mayor.

• For those who already bike, walk or take transit, the city will hold a quarterly drawing for an iPhone.

There used to be flexcar incentives, but when zipcar bought flexcar, they decided to not participate in the program. That’s kind of a shame, zipcar is a great way to ween people off car ownership, but I guess that option is still available.

Final South Sounder Project now with pics!

Starting this Friday, BNSF Railway will start cutting over the new main line relocation project which will move the normal main tracks from it’s current location to the new construction tracks between King Street Station and South Lander Street. The new main line will enable faster trains between Lander and Spokane Street shaving a few minutes off passenger train schedules.

At Lander Street, the main line will curve from it’s current location and shift to the right next to the Seattle School District building. The garbage cars and coal train approaching me were in the way to see the new tracks.

The schedule is as follows

May 1st – 3rd – BNSF installed new crossing gates at Royal Brougham and Lander Street which will protect the new tracks. This also includes quad gates at Royal Brougham to prevent pedestrian incidents. (Completed and Operational)

Friday, May 23rd – MUD Track cut over – This is the Eastern track of the 5 tracks at Lander Holgate Street.

Saturday, May 24th – Main 2 (Northbound track) cut over…since this is CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) trains can run on either main in either direction

Sunday, June 8th – Main 1 (Southbound track) cut over…read note above.

The Lander Main (Main 3 – Work Lead Main for Argo and Stacy Street Yards) is set for cut over June 16. On June 17, track speeds go up! F20/P20 will go to F35/P50 at Stadium. This means 50mph passenger trains between Holgate Street and Spokane Street.

At Holgate Street, shows the new Stadium control point and cross overs and new gates.

Looking the other direction towards Lander Street

The old Main 1 and Main 2 tracks be turned over to Amtrak for switching, storage tracks, etc between Royal Brougham and Lander Street. The photo below showing Sounder approaching on Main 1. The new main lines is on the left on the photo.

Once all of this work is completed, it is to be said that construction will start on the new Amtrak/Sounder maintenance facility. This will be a medium sized facility with a new State of the Art Indoor Wash Rack, Wheel Truing building, Machining shop that will handle medium service repairs, a new PIT track, and 7 more storage tracks that will hold a 14 car train sets. I’ll get more information on this later to make sure this is correct but the last I heard on this was 2 months ago from Amtrak themselfs.

We’ll see.

Want to see the progress of the Seattle Construction Project? Check out this post which has been following the construction projects since 12/31/2005 !!

Editors Note: I do not include the Lakewood Extension as part of the “BNSF South Sounder Project”

Metro Service Changes

Along with Sound Transit, Metro has rider alerts for their service changes. It’s basically a bunch of shuffling of routes around the new Issaquah Transit Center, shifts of stops for the 5X, 358, 230, 914, and 916.

There’s one more trip each for the 212, 221, and 271, a nice bonus for the Eastgate area.

The 74 local will be renumbered as the 30.

Also, in July they’re raising Off-peak Senior, Disabled and Youth Fares by a quarter. I suppose that’s in line with the recent adult fare increases.

End of the Road

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

(inspired by [daimajin]’s post)

I know I’m preaching to the converted here, but I’d like to list another reason for building rail-based transit that has nothing to do with the gasoline that cars burn. It’s the roads that they drive on.

Let’s start with peak oil. Some say we hit it years ago and OPEC has been hiding this fact*, others say we are hitting it now (hence the price spikes), while some say it’s a decade or two away. But nobody says it’s much further than that. When we hit peak oil the price will rise at an exponential rate and never come down.

The road supporters either ignore this fact or tell us that we’ll find an alternative fuel for our cars. Although I mostly disagree (battery power has some potential – the others are dead ends), I won’t debate that here. What I will bring up is the roads themselves.

Roads, at least the top level, are made of asphalt concrete: asphalt mixed with rocks. Asphalt is an oil product. This layer of asphalt concrete breaks down over time and use, and needs to either be patched using more asphalt concrete or regenerated by removing it, grinding it up, and adding more asphalt.

So what happens to our miles and miles of roads when the price of oil goes up? Road maintenance requires a lot of oil. We either spend much more on roads (not new roads here – the same old roads) increasing cost with time, or we abandon roads over time.

Of course, this is an amazing waste of money, time, and resources. Steel rail is expensive, but we won’t run out of steel any time soon. Electric power lines are expensive, but we’ll be glad we have them once the rest of our transportation system starts breaking down.

So this is one of the reasons that building new roads seems ridiculous to me. Any new roads can only expect a few decades before we will have to consider abandoning them.

* Apparently OPEC members benefit from exaggerating their oil reserves. The amount of oil they are allowed to sell is proportional to how much reserves they report that they have.

update It looks like some predictions of peak oil say there will be no peak oil, notably OPEC and our EIA. Of course, OPEC’s model predicted in 2007 that “oil resource base is sufficient to satisfy demand increases until 2030 at a price of $50-60 per barrel, increasing afterwards to account for inflation.” Oops. What’s a barrel of oil at now, $132?

Cost of Doing Nothing is Not Zero

The California High-Speed Rail Blog, a relatively new blog, devoted to the California High Speed Rail project. The site is mostly specific interest, though some of these posts, like the one above are general interest to any transportation discussion.

The post points to this article in the Fresno Bee about the cost of doing nothing. This bit is particularly interesting:

Opponents of the high-speed system often sound as if this is a choice between spending the $40 billion or spending nothing. That notion is just dead wrong.

Take just one instance. Expanding existing highways and airports to meet the transportation needs projected to come with growth in the state’s population would cost two or there times as much — and would make air quality and congestion even worse. In some cases — San Francisco, Los Angeles — existing airports can’t be expanded. Bigger and better freeways? Expanding Highway 99 in the Valley to an eight-lane interstate would cost as much as $25 billion alone — and that’s just to serve the Valley, not the entire state.

We have a similar effect here, replace “high speed rail” with “transit” and “airports and highways” with just plan old “highways”. Adding one lane each direction to I-5 was projected in the late 90s to cost $25 billion, just within the city limits. The I-405 widening is an $11 billion project, and increasing capacity on I-90 would cost more than SR 520, and just that will cost about $4 billion.

We can’t hope to pave our way out of congestion, and if we tried, we might end up worse off, with a sicker economy and a less healthy region. Transit in general, and light rail specifically, is the cheapest way to move people around this region. We can’t afford to do nothing.

New Service Allocation (if I had my way)

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

How should new service hours be allocated and how should that apply to BRT and LRT investment? King county’s 40-40-20 is killing Seattle, and ST is a rail agency no question about that. So what about better bus service in Seattle?

I know this is somewhat of a circular argument but I think one reason everyone wants rail, myself included (besides all of the other ones) is because our bus system is so bad here we have no concept of what a good bus system is like. Metro has just recently gotten onboard with feux to semi BRT (depending on how you look at it) and ST doesn’t even pretend to have BRT. I want ST to build LINK but I think that we need to build it where demand is, not where politics or sub-area equity take it.

I don’t want this to become LRT vs BRT I just think we need to think outside the box and really decided what our end goal is. LINK will help a lot but what if we want to get to 10% or even 15% market share? How could this even be done? With gas prices it doesn’t seam to outrageous to ask these questions. I know one thing and that is unless the federal government helps out there is no way we can afford that much LINK.

So this is what I think needs to happen. Metro need to dramatically improve service frequency and hours according to demand, not subarea. Also it should take it’s 10 highest ridership routes (besides the current rapidride routes) and give them all BRT treatment. I also think they need to come every 10 minutes during the day not every 10 or 15 like rapidride. As I have said before the system should be design to get people to their destination but it needs to encourage transfers, just like rail. And for god sake please fix E/W access in this city. Metro has underinvested in quality bus transit, rather just focusing on trying to get as much service out the door. This is understandable but they need to get beyond that. Things are changing and I really think that we need visionary and bold leadership form ST and especially metro.

Kent Station in the DJC


The Daily Journal of Commerce (subscription required) ran a very positive article on Kent Station (built around the Sounder station) and how it is effecting their downtown.

When Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke talked to city residents in 2005, she was shocked to hear some people say they hadn’t been to downtown Kent in 15 years. Kent Station, the 18-acre mixed-use development that is about to break ground on its fourth phase, has changed that.

“Downtown was sort of becoming forgotten,” Cooke said. “Clearly the reality of Kent Station has helped residents see what’s possible for Kent… It was a wake up call to residents that they actually deserved such services.”

Kent Station, owned by Seattle-based Tarragon, is the public-private centerpiece of Kent’s effort to revitalize downtown. Before it was built, the site was home to a functioning glue factory. Today, it’s a 240,000-square-foot hub of retail, education and entertainment with a Sound Transit commuter rail station nearby. When complete, the project will stretch across 470,000 square feet.

Looking back, Kent Station’s success can seem like a well placed bet. “I’d like to say it has been fun,” Hanson said. “All of us were kind of at the edge of our seats thinking when Kent Station was built… where are the people going to come from?”

Wolters said he’s always looking to learn from other cities’ experiences. Overall, he said it is important to attract a variety of uses to create the needed dynamic. He said Kent chose to pursue retail and entertainment, then housing. Other communities, like Burien and Federal Way, are doing both at the same time. Working with Sound Transit to develop a commuter station nearby, was also crucial to the project.

I think losing a glue factory is kind of sad, but it’s cool to see how transit orient development can take root even in low-density suburbs.

Our ever expanding rush hour…

Traffic today was horrible. My 545 bus took 40 minutes, about 15 minutes more than usual starting at 9:30. I got this picture at 10:15 from WSDOT, and you can see traffic still is a disaster. I was listening to Mayor Nickels on the Dave Ross show, and the traffic man said it was 70 minutes from Federal Way to Seattle on I-5, and 50 minutes from Lynnwood to Seattle. 70 minutes at 9:45 am.
What was that thing about light rail being too slow?