Cost of Transit Construction Falling?

Can that be possible? Well, with construction falling 0.4 percent in June, contractors are coming back to bid on public projects looking for projects. According to the DJC:

Fast forward to mid-2008 and the bidding climate appears to be improving for public agencies.

The state Department of Transportation has seen an average of 4.15 bidders on its projects through the end of June. That compares with 3.48 in 2007 and 3.1 in 2006, reportedly a record low year.

“We believe more bidders help maintain a competitive environment and the contractors keep a sharper pencil,” said WSDOT communications director Lloyd Brown.

Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said his agency last Monday held a pre-bid meeting for work to relocate utilities near Husky Stadium in preparation for a light-rail transit station. He said six general contractors and three subcontractors showed up, which they took as a positive sign of interest in the project.

Gray said bread-and-butter projects, such as improvements to Southcenter Boulevard, are generating more interest among contractors while structural projects continue to fail to attract bidders. The Southcenter project got four bids last December, including the low bid of $21.32 million by SCI Infrastructure, which was about 2.5 percent below the engineer’s estimate.

Another bread-and-butter project, for utility relocations on the airport light-rail segment, was opened Wednesday with six bidders. That project’s apparent low bidder, again SCI Infrastructure, was 13 percent below the engineer’s estimate of $914,472.

Emphasis added. Thirteen percent below the original estimate! One of the arguments against ST2 I’ve heard is that construction costs will continue to rise. Maybe not? With the construction industry in trouble, maybe Light Rail expansion will be cheaper than expected!

SNCF’s Success

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

France’s state-owned rail agency is going gangbusters:

[T]he new SNCF chairman sees rail stations, mainly in the regions, becoming new transport (and commercial) hubs not just for trains but for buses and trams – “all those places where people don’t want to bring their cars.”

SNCF executives believe rail can take market leadership from air and road on journeys up to four hours long and point to the success of Eurostar (part owned by the group) in increasing traffic so far this year by around a fifth on the back of shorter journey times between London and Brussels/Paris. You can even get to Marseille from Paris in little more than three hours.

Pepy is, therefore, unfazed by the recent move by Air France-KLM to join forces with French freight operator Veolia and launch its own TGV services to, say, Charles de Gaulle airport. “SNCF is not going to be an airline-style operator as we need to operate regional and local services as well.”

This comes via Savage via AutoblogGreen, who both focus on SNCF’s $1.7B profit in 2007. While that’s certainly encouraging, I’d caution against focusing too much on those numbers. SNCF runs both freight and passenger service in France, as a government monopoly. I’m pretty sure that if the US congress decided to nationalize BNSF, Union Pacific and the rest and roll them up into a huge ball with Amtrak, the resulting agency would be profitable.

Still, it goes to show that if you invest consistently in rail infrastructure, you can expand it pretty rapidly when demand rises. On the other hand, if you let it decay for 40 years and then try to throw a hail mary at the last minute, it’s going to be pretty difficult to achieve anything significant.

Things Rosy in Pierce County

Andrew Austin reports that Pierce Transit is paying $0.71 a gallon for their CNG-powered buses. The sales-tax decline is still hurting them, though.

At the moment, the CNG decision seems to be a good one, and someone at PT should get some sort of medal.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter BobbyZ, I found this article from 1996 where the Seattle Times puts a little halo around Councilwoman Maggie Fimia, who opposed the plan to buy CNG buses that was then backed by Councilmembers Larry Phillips and Greg Nickels. Buying those buses, after all, wouldn’t have been “cost-effective.” Where have I heard that rhetoric recently?

TriMet Steps Up Fare Enforcement

Portland’s having more and more trouble with fare evaders, so they’re renovating stations and checking tickets at the entrance to certain stops.

With design 75 percent complete, the $600,000 renovations would reshape where and how riders pay for tickets.

New fencing will enclose fare-paid zones at 82nd Avenue and at the westbound Gresham Central platform. Ticket-vending machines will be moved outside the fencing, and 42-inch openings will serve as checkpoints. Authorities will be stationed there 10 to 12 hours a day to check entrants, Banta said. No specific date has been set for the test program to begin.

“It’s an easier way to check for fares,” he said.

TriMet’s decision to enclose the platforms comes as the agency draws criticism for faulty ticket machines and a system that infrequently punishes those who don’t pay. With soaring fuel costs, increased ticket prices and record numbers of transit users, TriMet and agencies nationwide are increasingly addressing fare-evasion problems.

New York City this month raised fines for ticketless subway riders for the first time since 1984. San Francisco is studying how much money its system loses to free riders. And transit officials in Los Angeles County have approved installation of nearly 400 gates at subway and light-rail systems to curtail an estimated $5.5 million lost annually from skipped fares.

Being a native East-coaster, turnstiles seem like second nature to me, but Schiendelman assures me they’re just not cost effective out here. I’m not sure that’s the case, since a staffer monitoring the turnstiles is also potentially a security guard, which is a nice thing to have for many reasons.

Regardless, I hope Sound Transit is observing these developments closely, as it certainly isn’t too late to institute a more strictly enforced fare system. One of the bigger problems, however, would be how to electronically handle those crappy paper transfers.

Via Portland Transport.

P-I Editorial: If not now, then when?

In the Sunday paper, the P-I had a spot-on editorial in favor of the the Sound Transit expansion vote we’ll be getting on the ballot in November, and pointing out the madness of raiding transit funding to put into the highway fund:

Major investments in public transportation are the smart, obvious move at a time when high gas prices are pushing a record number of Americans out of their cars and packing them into mass transit. Unfortunately, doing so is neither smart nor obvious to the federal government. Running short of gas-tax dollars for highways and roads, the Bush administration is planning on taking money out of mass transit funds to take care of highways.

The New York Times on Tuesday reported that, “the short-term solution would be for the Highway Trust Fund’s highway account to borrow money from the fund’s mass transit account, a step that would balance the accounts as highway travel declines and use of mass transit increases.”

Congress has the power to put the kibosh on this plan by refusing to approve it, and killing this counterintuitive move is the only way to go.

Of course I agree, but I think congress should go one step further. People have already started making the decision that the convenience of driving may not be worth the trade-offs in terms of cost and stress, which is why driving is down and walking, biking, and riding transit are up. It’s time for congress to take a similar re-evaluation and decide whether it’s still cost-effective in terms of mobility to subsidize highways to the extent the Federal Government has been.

The obvious reason why the highway fund is in trouble is because people are driving less, and thus buying less gas and paying less gas tax. But the less obvious reason that highway fund is in so much trouble is that the same amount of highway funding buys you less roads today than ever before. The cost of concrete, steel and real estate are all considerably higher than they were ten years ago, and because of it roads are more expensive than before.

The cost of providing transit has also gone up with materials and real estate prices rising, but transit costs less to begin with in a lot of cases. In our area, just the 520 bridge replacement will cost nearly as much as East Link, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct will likely cost more than as North Link. Neither will get significantly more users than the corresponding light rail systems. With tax dollars tight, it may be time to think about increasing funding for the more cost-effective way of moving people around.

P-I: Fare Increase Off the table – For Now

King County Metro’s 25-cent fare increase request, to go into effect October 1, has been retracted.  However, the P-I’s Gregory Roberts reports that all the side commentary indicates that that’s only because there’s a bigger one in the works.

Sims announced a month ago that Metro would seek a 25-cent fare increase Oct. 1 to soften the impact of rising bus fuel prices, which threw the agency’s budget projections $14 million into the red for this year and $22 million for next year.

But the new sales tax forecasts mean that the problem is worse and requires a more potent solution quickly, he said.

That could bring a proposal for a bigger fare increase, officials said, without specifying how much bigger. And although Sims said last month that service would not be cut to save money, he said Friday that all options were up for consideration.

To take a page from my usual opponents, in principle I don’t have a problem with paying something closer to the actual costs of moving myself around.  Since Executive Sims has utterly failed to find a sponsor in Olympia, fare increases are a superior option to cutting service.

A $2.25 PugetPass costs $81 a month. That would be a 50-cent increase in the Peak one-zone fare.  Prepare your budgets.

Eastside Commuter Rail Roundtable: Part I

Introduction: One possible – but not guaranteed – project on the Eastside is commuter rail line that could run from roughly Snohomish to Renton, or some segment between them. The STB staff have varying opinions on the value of this line, which we fleshed out in this roundtable.

BB is Brian Bundridge, BS is Ben Schiendelman, AS is Andrew, JJ is John Jensen, and I’m MD.

MD: I think we all agree that East Link should be the highest priority on the Eastside. But right after that, the I-405 corridor’s congestion is absolutely horrible. Because the ST2 map leads me to believe that I-405 light rail is going to have to wait for ST4, I say we do something for commuters along that route in their lifetimes. Let’s get this thing built.

BB: The biggest thing with the Eastside Rail Corridor is getting the train closer to the City Core which is the biggest complaint among those who would take the service. An elevated section would however be expensive but would it be so expensive that it is prohibitive?

BS: Crossing 405 would be a 150-200m bridge, so yeah, I think it would be. And you couldn’t go elevated with heavy rail in the middle of Bellevue’s actual downtown.
The biggest issue is that you’d have to rip out and replace the trackbed along the entire corridor – that’s a couple hundred million, there’s no ballast. Then you’d have to shore a lot of the corridor up against slides. I actually went out and took pictures near Woodinville – there are a fair number of slides visible from the not too distant past.
You’d need platforms, equipment, another 100 million. Then you’d upgrade all the crossings or the cities would say no way – another 100 million. It goes through Totem Lake diagonally next to a large intersection – intersecting two streets there. Upgrades there alone would probably cost you a good ten million. The park and ride necessity to get any ridership would cost you another hundred million.
The thing is, this money would do a lot of more cost effective things for the eastside. The rail corridor simply isn’t the best bang for the buck with that money – you could spend it on more bus service (seriously) and get two or three times the riders per dollar. Sound Transit banked east king money last time because they knew east link was ten times as cost effective as this – the eastside rail contingent didn’t even start to speak up until ST2 was on the ballot, even though they’ve had ten years of BNSF trying to sell that corridor.

AS: Ben is right about the costs of the Eastside BNSF Corridor. On a trip through the Eastside in April, we saw a slew of spots where the train speeds were limited to 20 mph and even sometimes as low as 10 or 15
mph, the Totem Lake double-crossing comes to mind. Those areas require track upgrades that could cost well into the hundreds of millions.
The one big slight on the routing of the track is that it doesn’t go through downtown Bellevue. The common response is that it goes very close, and that the future of downtown Bellevue will be on that side of 405. I cannot see this happening until after ST2 gets built and a station connecting the BNSF track to Link is put in place. At that time, the Eastside Corridor becomes viable. It would connect job centers in Kirkland, Bellevue and Renton with residential centers in Kingsgate, Totem Lake, Kirkland and Newcastle/Kennydale.
The criticism that the rich people whose backyards the tracks go through will oppose the trains is valid, but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. In whole I think that the Eastside BNSF corridor can be a working rail transit corridor, though I believe we need ST2 in place first to make it work.

BS: And with ST2 in place, the cost of the eastside rail corridor would be better spent on connecting Overlake to downtown Redmond, so that ST3 could start building more in the 405 corridor.

AS: Imagining the exact same cost, I’d say connecting Kirkland to Overlake Hospital is more important than connecting DT Redmond to Overlake, though I bet LRT to Redmond would be more cost effective.

BS: The ridership would be higher on DT Redmond to Overlake, because DT Redmond is upzoning and DT Kirkland isn’t.

BB: There’s also a real technical issue there. With Eastside trains running every nine minutes (as assumed in ST2 planning -Lynnwood-Sea-Tac and Northgate-FW are the other two nine minute runs, for three minute central operations and six south of downtown), you’d create a transfer at Overlake Hospital. You couldn’t split the route.

One idea that was brought up to me is the time savings of Everett – Redmond. The train would take 30 minutes at a maximum speed of 45 mph with stops at Everett, Snohomish, Woodinville Jct, Columbia Winery, Redmond Town Center.
But per BNSF, double tracking the flood plains is required.

AS: Kirkland’s not upzoning? Maybe not, but what’s this I’ve heard about Google building a campus literally next to the BNSF line?

There are several other large companies in that area also, Bungie, Clearwire, and Monolith, among others.
Kirkland also has nearly the population of Redmond (46K vs 51k) in less than half the area. (4220/sq mi compared to 1220 sq mi). A fair bit of that population density for Redmond is already served by the Overlake TC station.
The Kirkland BNSF corridor is a good bang-for-your-buck rail because it cuts right through the employment centers, as well as the residential centers.

BS: Monolith is at the S. Kirkland Park and Ride, and has about 100 employees (I worked there during the SOE buyout). Bungie’s got 40 (again, I worked with them during Halo). Clearwire might be 100. Downtown Redmond has 4-500 MS employees alone at Redmond Town Center, and there are a couple of office buildings there that we don’t have either. Downtown Redmond is seriously upzoning – they just made plans

to turn another downtown parking lot into 5 stories, and the town center is looking at developing the east parking lot (by Claim Jumper) and/or tearing down an existing parking lot to replace it with an office building, and building a larger semi-underground garage.

The business park in east Kirkland really just doesn’t cut it. You don’t have any high density residential, and those are your prime users – MS employees and Bellevue DT employees. Connecting to that Kirkland business park doesn’t add much because you don’t have good residential on the line in a decent distance.

MD: That’s Part I. There’s more to come as the conversation continues…

Good Bill in Congress

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon, at right) has authored H.R. 6495 – The Transportation and Housing Choices for Gas Price Relief Act of 2008. A co-sponsor is Washington’s own Rep. Jay Inslee, who’s probably the strongest member of our House delegation on these kinds of issues.

Currently, employers are able to deduct up to $115 a month from federally taxable wages for vanpool and transit pass subsidies. Meanwhile, they can deduct up to $220 a month for providing parking to that employee. This is, of course, a massive hidden federal subsidy for driving to work, well above the same provision for transit. HR 6495 would equalize this subsidy.

Blumenauer’s website has a comprehensive list of provisions, but here are some other highlights:

• Allow employees to cash-in their parking benefits to spend on other choices that better meet their needs.

• Extend the same transportation fringe benefits to bike commuters as provided for those who commute by car or transit.

• Help transit agencies cope with rising fuel prices and increasing demand by providing federal funds for fare subsidies, service improvements, fuel purchases, and technology assistance.

• Make it easier to get federal funding for streetcars by requiring the FTA to consider a Streetcar project’s contributions to land use, density, economic development, and carbon emission reductions in considering it for federal funding.

• Provide federal grants to improve communities’ transportation choices, such as travel demand management strategies, carpool or telecommuting projects, upgrades to streets to facilitate bicycle and pedestrian use, intelligent transportation improvements to reduce congestion, and car-sharing and bike sharing programs.

• Require the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to develop a standard that measures the transportation costs associated with a home’s location, enabling Real Estate agents to provide this information to prospective buyers.

I don’t have any sort of read on whether this bill is going anywhere, but this legislation is potentially transformative for land use, and for the relative viability of rail projects with respect to bus projects.

Via Streetsblog.

Neighborhood Parking

The city is proposing rules that would restrict the number of parking permits given out per household under the neighborhood “zone” parking system. The residential “zone” system restricts on-street parking to four hours for those with a permit for that particular zone. In order to get the permit, you need to live in the zone’s area. Currently, there is no limit on the number of passes per household, which can make parking difficult to find in the more dense areas, such as where I live on Capitol Hill. Under the new rules, households would be limited as follows:

Limited to one permit per household:
Zone 4 on Capitol Hill
Zone 7 on First Hill
Zone 13 on Lower Queen Anne
Zone 21 in the Pike-Pine area of Capitol Hill
Zone 24 in the Cascade neighborhood near South Lake Union

Limited to two permits per household:
Zone 2 near Providence Hospital
Zone 5 in Wallingford
Zone 6 in the east University District
Zone 8 in Eastlake
Zone 10 in the west University District
Zone 15 in the Belmont/Harvard area on Capitol Hill
Zone 17 on north Beacon Hill
Zone 20 in Ravenna/Bryant
Zone 22 near Lincoln High School

Limited to four permits per household:
Zone 1 in Montlake
Zone 3 in Fauntleroy
Zone 9 in Magnolia
Zone 11 on North Queen Anne
Zone 12 on north Capitol Hill
Zone 14 near Garfield High School
Zone 16 in Mount Baker
Zone 18 in Licton Springs
Zone 19 in Roosevelt/Cowan Park
Zone 23 in Madison Valley
Zone 25 in Westlake

This is fine and dandy, though I think if you really want to let residents get a fair shake a parking, you’d make all parking in the neighborhood zoned. In my area, Summit Ave is all zone 4 parking, but Bellevue Ave has no zone. I finally got the city to recognize Mercer street and put zone 4 parking there, but in order for the residential zone system to have any teeth, it needs to be something that is all over, not just in part of a neighborhood.

What does this have to do with transit? If the zones aren’t put in place down in the Rainier Valley, I’d bet all of those station areas, particularly the Rainier Beach station, will turn into informal park-and-rides. What do you think? Should the city allow for these sort of informal park-and-rides? Or should neighborhoods be allowed to control their parking?