Tacoma News Tribune on Transit Expansion

LINK Interior
Image from bgtothen from the Seattle Transit Blog flickr pool.

The big question continues to be whether we’ll get a transit initiative on the ballot this year, and if so, which one. This Tacoma News Tribune¬†editorial has a round up of the situation. The News Tribune doesn’t like the .4% sales tax increase plan, saying it does too little, or the 20-year .5% plan (essentially the same plan from last year’s prop. 1), saying the time frame is just too long. Do they like the .5% 12 year plan? They don’t really say.

I understand that the News Tribune is concerned about the 20-year time frame, and I understand the feeling that the .4% 12 year plan does too little. But is the .5% 12 year plan just right? I don’t live in Tacoma, so I don’t know whether the plan to expand Tacoma Link is popular, though I would guess from the Tacoma Streetcar movement that it is, or whether more Sounder runs are enough to entice them. Sadly, with .5% you can’t get light rail to Tacoma any faster. But if a 20 year proposal is too long, why not think about an acceleration measure a few years later? What else can make them happy?

It’s All Relative

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’m going to try to refrain from ad hominem attacks against former WSDOT secretary Doug MacDonald, who is in the midst of a 3-part series on Crosscut arguing against Sound Transit expansion.

(Seriously, though… diesel is at $5/gallon, causing Metro to cut back service, and the Crosscut editors think we need to hear an argument for more diesel-powered buses? What planet are these guys on?)

MacDonald’s installment today takes bus ridership numbers and extrapolates wildly, arguing that they provide an open-and-shut case against light rail.

But his logic is flawed. He focues on the bus lines that have shown the biggest increases, not the ones that are biggest in absolute number. He says that 550, which parallels East Link, grew at only 7%, while the 535 grew at 31%. This, he argues, proves that light rail is a waste of money. Or something. But if you look at the absolute numbers, the 550 is still has 425% more riders than the 535. Because the 550 is on a core corridor. That’s why it would be better served with rail.

But the real fallacy is the argument that we should spend more on buses because buses have more riders. That’s totally backwards. By that logic, we should never build a highway because a highway has zero riders before it gets built.

In absolute numbers, connecting Lynwood, Federal Way, Redmond, Bellevue, and Seattle with a high-capacity, high-frequency rail link is an incredibly smart long-term investment for the region. Every argument otherwise relies on some kind of logical sleight-of-hand. That should tell you something.

Metro Fare Increase Talk

Image from bill98117 in the STB flickr pool
Here’s Mike Lindblom of the Seattle Times writing about the budget troubles Metro Transit is facing. It’s the same story recently we’ve been hearing recent, more people are riding the bus because of higher gas prices, but at the same time costs have gone up for transit agencies due to the same rising fuel prices.

Sort of luckily for us, King County Exec Ron Sims has promised not to cut service, but unfortunately, that means we might see either new Transit Now service not materializing or a fare increase.

Service increases scheduled for September are not at risk, said Kevin Desmond, Metro’s general manager. But the extent of future service improvements funded by the Transit Now sales tax could be in question. The plan, approved by voters in 2006, calls for bus rapid-transit service every 10 minutes at peak hours to five corridors: Pacific Highway South, West Seattle, Ballard, Aurora and Overlake, to begin in the 2010s.

A guess canceling a planned service increase is not the same thing as cutting service, but it’s too bad either way.

The article mentions how the other agencies are going to deal with the budget problems.

Closer to home, Kitsap Transit has announced a 25-cent fare increase starting in August, along with cuts to routes that carry fewer than 10 people per hour, and a trim of four administrative jobs. That should cover fuel spikes through 2009, said director Dick Hayes. But he thinks fuel will continue to get more expensive. “The decisions get much harder from here.”

Snohomish County’s Community Transit has made no proposals to change service or fares. The agency will launch its Swift bus rapid-transit line on Highway 99 next year, and still is seeking bids this year for new double-decker commuter buses, spokesman Tom Pearce said.

Sound Transit can cover its fuel gap with reserve funds this year and hasn’t planned for 2009 yet. The spike affects not only its express buses, but the diesel-powered Sounder commuter trains, which carry 28 percent more riders than last year, mainly on its south-end line. “We’re not talking about fare increases or service cuts at this time,” said spokeswoman Linda Robson.

One winner is Pierce Transit, whose fleet runs on compressed natural gas, equivalent to $1.21 per gallon.

Go Pierce Transit!

So what should Transit agencies do? Take the poll below.
[poll id=”3″]

Why BRT Doesn’t Make Sense

Buses are often hailed as the cheaper solution for mass transit. I think there are fundamental flaws in most of the comparisons we see between BRT and rail systems, and that it’s unlikely mainline buses actually make sense in long term planning.

When I say mainline, I mean corridors that will have long term need for transportation. I think Martin’s brought up some great points about what that means – I don’t, for instance, think that we need to build past Redmond at this point, or past Issaquah – we don’t know what is going to happen there in the coming decades, and we don’t have the money to guess. We have some clear centers that are not going to disappear – some are already walkable and dense, like some of Seattle’s neighborhoods, and some are car-centered today, with lots of parking and one-story clusters of development, but ripe for reconstruction to funnel the new growth coming to our region. There’s no “flexibility” argument here, though – urban corridors don’t pack up and move, they never have and they never will. This isn’t a frontier town, this is a major city.

I’m sitting on a bus right now, in stop and go traffic at 9th and Stewart in downtown – so I want to start with the fallacy that building HOV lanes on our freeways is somehow equivalent to building new rail right of way. I think to some, especially to those who use transit already, it’s clear that these are nowhere near the same levels of service. If I head downtown from work, like today, about half of my commute is spent in downtown traffic – a tiny percentage of the overall distance. No matter what we do to SR-520, the 15-20 minutes I spend getting from one end of downtown to the other will not be affected. In order to provide consistent service end to end, we have to build new right of way end to end.

That right of way costs money – lots of money. With a project like University Link, in order to get anything like three minute service from Husky Stadium to the center of Capitol Hill, you’d have to tunnel for buses just as we are for rail. The cost of laying rails in that tunnel is tiny compared to the tunnel itself. You can look at any segment of our light rail system and make similar observations – in the Rainier Valley, we repaved the entire roadway to make space not for trains, per se, but for dedicated right of way. The cost is due mostly to the level of service, not the technology, but that level of service difference is what creates the consistency and reliability that we value in rail systems. When you actually compare the capital cost of a BRT system that provides the same level of service as a light rail system, you find that your right of way costs are exactly the same.

So, you say, you’ve seen capital cost comparisons that meet these requirements, have exactly the same amount of new right of way, but still show BRT being cheaper? Unless they’re in totally different cities or countries with different labor costs and safety requirements, they’re almost always missing one thing – electrification. In this area especially, that’s a big deal. While the cost of oil has doubled in the last couple of years, the cost of our electricity hasn’t. Electrification insulates us from $4.50 per gallon diesel – or $6, or $10. We’re designing a system to last not decades, but hundreds of years – we can’t just shut it down to change over later. But when you electrify, your total cost of construction for rail versus bus is nearly identical – which makes sense, because it’s not any cheaper to lay concrete roadway than to lay rail, and all of your other infrastructure is a product of the level of service, not the technology.

Okay, so what’s the problem? Why are you so hell-bent on building rail if they’re exactly the same, Ben? Two reasons:

First, capacity. Some BRT advocates will tell you that buses can have exactly the same capacity as rail. They’re either uninformed, or they’re lying. Even with double-articulated coaches as in Curitiba, you’re looking at an 85 foot long vehicle with 57 seats. Curitiba claims they can reach 270 passengers – but at the measure of 6 passengers per square meter standing. With half that standing density, 3 passengers per square meter, our light rail cars carry 200 (with 74 seated). If you went by Curitiba standards, we’d carry more than 325 people per car. These cost about the same amount to operate and maintain – for the sake of discussion, about half the operations cost of a vehicle like this is the fuel, and about half the operator, although that now varies a lot more with the high cost of fuel prices, so my comparison gives buses a slight advantage.

But wait – we can tack three more vehicles onto a Link train behind the same operator. If we want to add another bus, that means paying another operator, so Link scales to four car trains at some 5/8 the cost – and a full metro can go much higher, with as many as 12 cars. We can also go down to lower headways than the buses can without affecting service quality – the big limiter is the time taken to board, which is a lot lower for four simultaneous light rail cars than four sequential buses, even when the buses have multiple doors. Rail can also offer a very finely tuned interface between vehicle and platform – on new systems, no ramps or lifts are necessary for wheelchair users.

I’ve already touched on it a bit, but the last reason is long-term cost. A rail vehicle costs more than a bus, but lasts at least proportionally longer – New York City has subway cars well over 50 years old in service today, and recently retired some that were even older. Most buses last ten years, some fifteen. Our Breda coaches in Seattle are now nearly 20 – but that has only been possible after major overhauls. They are nearing the end of their service lives. At the same time, fuel costs for our bus system have doubled, while our electricity prices in the city (I don’t know about you Puget Sound Energy folks) have stayed basically the same.

With any dedicated right of way, ridership is generated largely by the existence of the transportation system. I suspect that this would be the case for true BRT as well, because the factors that generate that ridership have to do more with the pedestrian density generated around stations than with the mode. In the long term I think the immediate space around any system built in any of the Puget Sound urban corridors today will increase in density to the point where the capacity offered by a rail system is absolutely necessary. I think our recent exercise at Reality Check helped make it clear that most of our regional leaders are on the same page in that respect.

Buses are great feeders, but they have no place as a mainline corridor – claims of cost savings are not for equivalent systems and don’t hold up in the long term. If you’re going to build a real transit system, make it rail and do it right.

Love that Passive Voice

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

“Investment in Amtrak’s infrastructure has been in decline,” says the reporter from CBS news in this clip. The passive voice! As if the investment just sorta naturally started declining on its own!

Of course, here in the real world, there was nothing natural about it. The Bush administration and the Republican-controlled congress starved Amtrak of funds for seven years. Very intentionally. Why is that so hard to say?

CBS does its viewers a real disservice by failing to point this stuff out, regardless of which President or party is responsible. Politics and democracy only work if people believe that things are the way they are because of the decisions made by elected officials.

Otherwise, why bother voting if these things just happen magically and people are helpless to stop them?



This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Yes Dan, these people really do live on another planet.

What boggles my mind sometimes is how some of the people who live in the vast swaths of single-family, auto-oriented Seattle fail to see the benefits of upzoning around their area. There are large tracts of Seattle where one cannot walk to a coffee shop (let alone a grocery store, bank, or dry cleaner). The reason for this is that the density in these areas is supremely low. When we upzone MLK around the stations, suddenly these businesses become viable, and lots of single-family homeowners in the surrounding neighborhoods have all sorts of amenities within walking distance.

The piece about schools is totally puzzling. Southeast Seattle is quick to raise hell when the School Board threatens to close their schools. Wouldn’t more students in the area make school closures less likely?

To be sure, I sympathize generally with the plight of Southeast Seattle. As the least wealthy quadrant of the city, it tends to end up with the short end of the stick far too often. So I can see how this beleagured, constantly-under-assault mentality develops. But, as I noted above with respect to schools, increasing the area’s density is likely to give them more clout, not less.

Eastside Rail Open Houses

The Port of Seattle is holding three open houses about the Eastside rail corridor. The Port is considering different options for the corridor, including feature passenger rail, a bike trail or both.
Wednesday, June 25, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Newport High School Commons
4333 Factoria Blvd., SE, Bellevue

Wednesday, July 9, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Kirkland City Hall, Peter Kirk Room
123 Fifth Avenue, Kirkland

Thursday, July 10, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Kennydale Elementary School Cafeteria
1700 NE 28th, Renton

[poll id=”2″]

New Look and Location For the Seattle Transit Blog

We’ve moved. I made the decision to move from Blogger to a different system some time ago, but never got around to finally doing it until this weekend. Here I’ll blog under the name to andrew instead of daimajin.

We’re still working on some tweaks. I will need to create a new logo at some point; the old one is awesome but doesn’t match the new color scheme. I’ll have to add another color to the UI, and there are some small usability improvements I will make. This will happen over time.

I hope you like it. Feel free to send mail and provide feedback, or add comments to this post.

“If I could get rid of my car, I’d be happy.”

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Gas prices, South Sound edition:

Thurston Regional Planning Council senior planner Pete Swensson said home-buying decisions can change when consumers are faced with higher fuel prices.

A likely result is that the county’s urban housing market could strengthen while the rural housing market softens, Swensson said.

Home Hunters Realty of Olympia broker Helen Wilkins agrees. She said that if gasoline prices continue to rise, it could result in a huge influx of people wanting to live closer to town.

“It’s all about the cost of getting to work,” Wilkins said. “We used to measure everything in miles and time, but now it’s five gallons to the office.”

Paul Krugman recently wrote, ” some major public transit systems are excited about ridership gains of 5 or 10 percent. But fewer than 5 percent of Americans take public transit to work, so this surge of riders takes only a relative handful of drivers off the road.”

But sometimes I wonder if the coming growth in transit use in America will be exponential, not linear. As more people move closer in, it will have a multiplier effect: more goods and services closer in, which attracts more people, etc., etc. It only took 10 or 15 years for the American middle class to abandon the cities. It could easily take less than that for a healthy majority to move back.

Update: More on the coming deluge:

In a survey of its agents by real estate brokerage Coldwell Banker, 81 percent said they are seeing more interest from prospective buyers in urban living because of high gasoline prices. Fifty-four percent said access to public transportation is more important to their clients now.

Amtrak and Fuel Economy

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The NYT has a good overview today of the challenges facing Amtrak, including this interesting point about fuel efficiency:

Oil costs hurt Amtrak, too. Fuel is projected to reach 11 percent of Amtrak’s budget this year, up from 6 percent in 2004. The railroad is not radically more energy-efficient than other means of travel. Amtrak can move a passenger a mile with 17.4 percent less fuel than a passenger car can, and about 32.9 percent less than an airline can, according to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

It does save oil, however, since much of the fuel Amtrak uses is in the form of electricity, made from coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

I don’t know what their definition of “radical” is, but that’s certainly more fuel efficient. And, presumably, the total GHG emissions would decline substantially as the electricity that powers the system is made greener.

For example, check out this report:

Picture 1.png

On these routes, rail emits roughly half the CO2 as air travel.

Tri-Met WES unveiling

Tri-Met’s new Commuter Rail “WES” was unveiled by the media yesterday. This is one of the first new generation DMU’s (Diesel Multiple Unit) from Colorado Railcar.

So why a post regarding Oregon in a Seattle Blog? A lot of us here have been curious to see what the new DMU would look like and most importantly, it’s features. These vehicles would be one of 3 vehicles selected for service on the Eastside Rail Corridor. It’s time on WES will prove that they are truly worthy of their cost with other start-up agencies looking at ways to save fuel but also haul a number of passengers. Colorado Railcar offers the Aero model that Tri-Rail has received and a Double Decker version that seats 40 more people than our own Sounder equipment. That alone is savings by using less coaches, less coaches = less fuel to get up to track speed, etc.

The bigger question is since they are still rather unproven in the United States, would other agencies besides Tri-Rail in Florida and Tri-Met in Oregon see a use for them? Portland as usual, will look hard at these and there is discussion to go as far as Salem in the future.

Some features that WES will have –
High Speed Wireless Internet
Comfortable seating
Free Parking
Space for 4 bikes per train (2 per car)
27 minute, 60mph run from Wilsonville to Beaverton – A Direct Connection to MAX
Real-Time Arrival via MyBus.

The entire line was revamped starting last year with new concrete ties, welded rail, new gated crossings and is slated to open this Fall.

  • Seats: 74 (engine car); 80 (trailer)
  • Mobility device spaces: 2
  • Bike spaces: 2
  • Average speed: 37 mph
  • Top speed: 60 mph
  • Travel time (Wilsonville-Beaverton): 27 minutes
  • Service frequency: Every 30 minutes during rush hour
  • Personnel: 1 engineer and 1 conductor

Overhead Lines: A step beyond hybrid


A little technical tidbit came up at the aforementioned Link tour which hadn’t occurred to me.

We were looking over the trains, which by the way are quite handsome, and I was wondering about regenerative braking, such as is done with hybrid cars and buses and such. Specifically I asked the question, based in the context of hybrids, of “where are the batteries?”

The answer, obvious in retrospect, is that there are no batteries, no need for them. When you’re tethered to the network of electrical lines, the power recovered on braking is simply fed out into the network.

This strikes me as a beautiful detail of these systems. That this power flows in and out of the movement of Link, the trolley buses, and back out into the system, to feed your alarm clock, your lights, your water heater. Meanwhile, it dispenses with the need for the complex chemicals associated with creating and disposing of batteries, and may raise the efficiency of the storage and retrieval, moving from the chemical process to the electrical.

Anyway, to dampen the moment of zen, and while we’re on the subject, I have to wonder: why can’t we design overhead lines for the trolley buses which reliably stay put? Any ideas? Do buses elsewhere get their ties knocked off occasionally, as here?

Why Link Will Cross I-90 First

above: a representation of why I-90 is a better choice

I’d imagine a fair portion of the people who read this blog already know some or all of these reasons that Link is going over I-90 before it goes over SR-520, but I thought I’d enumerate them for easy linking and just to fill in any holes.

I-90 offers a direct connection to the downtown Seattle transit tunnel. If you looked at my earlier tour of Central Link construction, I had a google maps link to the south transit tunnel entrance – you can see there the two tracks we’ve built, plus the space to either side where feeder tracks join with the I-90 center roadway. This kind of a connection offers us the opportunity to interline service – both trains going to the airport (or farther) and trains going to the eastside will come into downtown from the south and run on the same tracks in the tunnel.

It so happens that demand for the northern line (Northgate) is very close to the combined demand for an eastside line and a south line, so having East Link enter the tunnel from the south means that our commute patterns will much more efficiently use our infrastructure. This is also the big reason we didn’t pick buses for building from Seattle to Bellevue – they couldn’t efficiently interline with North Link to increase capacity there.

If we were to cross 520, we’d have two choices, both of them bad: One, we could build a surface level station to transfer at Husky Stadium, and force a transfer for commuters to already full trains coming in from Northgate. We’d create crush loaded trains. The other option would be to build a direct connection into the tunnel toward downtown – which would cost hundreds of millions on its own, potentially have large construction impacts on a residential area, and could be risky due to the depth. Such work would probably also delay University Link.

Even ignoring the capacity and technical issues in Seattle, the eastside would have a problem of its own. 520 is significantly north of downtown Bellevue, so trains would have to turn south first to serve the Bellevue downtown core, then north again to get to Redmond. When using I-90, we don’t have to go out of our way to serve south Bellevue, and the time between downtowns is lower.

Issaquah poses another problem with a 520 crossing.. We’re already planning to build to Redmond, but if we chose 520, later construction to Issaquah (part of the Sound Transit long range plan) would really necessitate an I-90 crossing anyway. With an initial I-90 crossing, it’s much simpler to continue east in or near the interstate right of way.

A 520 crossing would also impose any delays attached to construction of the new SR-520 bridge on Sound Transit’s schedule. The risk added by working with WSDOT on the project would likely also make Sound Transit less competitive for Federal Transit Administration grants.

All this, and I-90’s center roadway was built with conversion to high capacity transit in mind. I think it’s always been the clear choice, but hopefully this convinces more people who were worried about the decision!

Vanpools up over 10%

Metro’s reporting that their supported vanpools have increased by over 100 vans in the past year, to a total of 1,058 vanpools and vanshares.

I would imagine that the total number of people moved has increased even more: as the costs of driving increase, it follows that the size of existing vanpools would increase, especially since the inconvenience of setting up your own vanpool is larger than simply joining an existing one.

Given how many employees have commutes that are very poorly served by transit, vanpools are an important part of the system, and cheap because the labor is free. I was unaware that King County’s was the first such program in the nation. I’d be curious to know what burden these vanpools place on the park and ride system; it would make a lot of sense to make agreements with churches that aren’t near transit lines to allow parking there, freeing up more spaces for transit riders.

Gas Stations

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

There are a lot of interesting nuggets in this BusinessWeek article on gas stations.

The context is that gas stations are in a bind. They have to keep prices low or people will just drive across the street, keeping margins very low. But since credit card fees are based on the total cost of sale, the fees are now exceeding the margins. So, stations lose money on every gallon sold. Like movie theaters, they make their money on the extras, except instead of popcorn, it’s cigarettes and auto services. Gas itself is often a loss leader (and most filling stations are not owned by the company whose logo graces their pumps, they’re franchises).

So, the result is predictable. Stations are going out of business:

Plenty of filling stations have already gone under. Last year, 3,184 of the nation’s 164,292 gasoline stations closed their doors and went out of business, the biggest drop in five years, according to National Petroleum News. In the mid-1990s, there were more than 200,000 stations in the U.S. Experts think there are more closures to come.

[One] station, which sells almost 2 million gallons of gasoline a year, picked up 500,000 gallons’ worth of business last year when the other stations disappeared. If filling stations keep closing or selling out, “I could end up with a near monopoly here,” he says.

The immense network of filling stations has been one of the gas-powered auto’s key advantages over other alternatives. Could that be going away, too?

Rail vs. Air

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Funny, when the service is equivalent, and people are given the chance to take a high-speed train instead of a plane, they will:

[T]he country where high speed trains are growing the fastest is seeing the effects as well: The Madrid-Barcelona high speed link in Spain (AVE), which started operating in March, has reduced by about 18.4 percent the air traffic between the two cities.

That’s almost 1 in 5 flights, eliminated! Think of the relief that brings to overstretched airports. And, of course, it makes perfect sense. When you can go 400 miles in 2 hours — downtown to downtown, with no security checkpoints — why would you ever fly?

Dump the Pump day tomorrow, and last day for public comment

Tomorrow is national Dump the Pump day.

The day is designed to encourage people to get out of their cars and ride public transportation to raise awareness of the financial and environmental benefits of public transportation. Public transportation has the ability to save people money, conserve gasoline, and reduce the harmful greenhouse gases emitted into our environment.

On June 19, public transit agencies from coast to coast will join together to encourage their communities to dump the pump by leaving their cars at home and riding public transportation

Also tomorrow is the last day to give public comment on Sound Transit’s ballot expansion plans. Make sure to go there and give your opinion if you haven’t. I’ve told them I want light rail at least to Overlake.