AIG’s troubles hurt transit systems, including Metro

Update, see below
I never expected the financial crisis to have such a direct impact on transit, but according to the Washington Post, transit agencies could be forced to come up with billions in cash due to AIG’s failure and take-over by the fed. Apparently, some transit agencies are leasing equipment from banks, and AIG has been providing insurance that the agencies will make their payments. AIG’s takeover triggered a clause in the contracts that allows the banks who own the leases to demand immediate repayment, and many of them need the money to stay solvent due to the credit crunch. Double-Whammy. Weak, and AIG spent how much on lavish parties and excutive retreats?

Here’s how WaPo describes the deals :

In a once-common practice that the IRS has ended, many transit agencies entered into arrangements in which they sold equipment such as rail cars to banks. The banks then turned around and leased the equipment back to the transit agencies.

Both sides benefited. The transit agencies were given a large sum of money up front, which could pay for various infrastructure upgrades. And the banks were able to rely on frequent lease payments while also writing off taxes on the depreciating property.

The deals were approved by the Federal Transit Administration, which promoted the lease agreements, transit agency officials said.

AIG, which collected fees paid by Metro and other transit agencies, guaranteed that lease payments to the banks would be made on time. But AIG’s financial problems have triggered a clause that allows the banks to demand their money all at once.

More than 30 agencies have entered into the deals, including King County Metro, though I don’t know exactly how big the problem with Metro is. I’ll get back to as soon as I know.

The metro mentioned in the article is DC Metro, sorry if that is confusing. But KC Metro is affected, according to this site, as is Sound Transit.

Update 2:
According to Rochelle Ogershok at KC Metro, Metro no longer has any of those AIG deals, which is very welcome news. I was worried about nothing.

News Roundup

The SR 167 high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane, the P-I reports, is collecting about $25,000 a month from a $1 average toll.  I don’t know how applicable these results are to future congestion pricing projects, but $25K a month doesn’t seem like the big bucks various transportation constituencies have been hoping for.

The article says engineers hope that volume will roughly sextuple in four years, which would start to get us into serious money.

In other news, the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration announced that passing I-985 could threaten millions of dollars of federal funding.  Given that this comes from a Bush administration whose pro-transit record isn’t exactly spotless, it just goes to show how reckless and extreme this initiative is.

The Totem Lake Transit Center opens today.  As some one who used to live near there, I can testify that it’s a traditionally underserved area.  Bravo.

Re: Rapid Ride Buses May Not Materialize

I want to clarify a bit what I was trying to say, and what I was not trying to say, in my last post.

  1. It’s a bad thing Rapid Ride won’t materialize. I couldn’t state this any more strongly. We need as much transit as we can get; our buses are currently packed to the gills. Just because I prefer rail over BRT doesn’t mean I’m against BRT, I just prefer rail to BRT. In my last post, I was trying to point out that I think it’s a bit telling that we never seem to get that cheap BRT that we are promised by the anti-rail crowd. That doesn’t mean I would prefer these bus projects cancelled.
  2. If we could get more bus service in any form, that would be a net good thing.I ride a bus to work every day and it’s great. It comes a few blocks from my house, and drops me off right in front of my office. In order to provide service like that, the bus has to stop a couple dozen times between my house and my office. That’s what buses do really well: providing local service. Rail can’t do that level of local service very well. It’s a good thing we aren’t asking it to.
  3. Saying buses are cheaper than rail in the long run is a misleading argument.We’ve discussed this ad nauseam at this blog, see here, here, here and here. The two sentence version: Buses are suited for one sort of transit, rail for another. BRT is trying to get buses to do the type of service rail is best suited for, which never seems to really work. The most common anti-rail argument is that investment in rail is regrettable because we can get BRT to do the same thing for less money.
    But the very crux of the argument is dishonest, because no one has ever seen this BRT that can do what rail does. We’ve seen BRT that can’t do what rail does, Boston’s Silver Line and LA’s Orange Line. And we have seen BRT that costs almost as much as rail (see the Silver Line). But we’ve never seen BRT that can do what rail does.
  4. I don’t think light rail is cheap, I think light rail is cheaper than the alternatives.Roads are very expensive. Adding one lane to I-405 from Lynnwood to Renton will have cost about $11 billion. Adding a lane to I-5 just in the city limits of Seattle would be more than $25 billion. The Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement will be about $4 billion or more, and the 520 bridge will be about the same. Each of those cost considerably more money per mile than light rail does, with the viaduct and 520 bridge each more than a billion dollars per mile. None of these will move as many people as light rail would.
    Light Rail is cheaper to operate per passenger miles than buses are, which is why you want riders going long distances to do so on rail. HOV-lane BRT around here is not going to work if I-985 passes. Even if I-985 fails, congestion and fuel will continue to eat into bus funding, making buses ever more expensive to operate per passenger mile. This is why buses are better suited for local access than rail, and rail is better suited for longer distances than buses are. Investment in light rail will pay off spectacularly, because we’ll be able to put buses that are used for long-haul service back to where they are effective, into shorter local service. Once riders get on rail, the become much cheaper per over the distance, we save money, and can improve service. Light rail isn’t cheap if you have no buses, and buses aren’t cheap if they are asked to do what rail should be doing.

I am very much pro-bus, which is why I take the bus to work everyday when I could drive, thank you very much. However, I do have a problem with the Doug MacDonald, et al. argument that, every thing being equal, buses can do what light rail can do cheaper. It’s a dishonest argument, and the first bit of proof that BRT is not cheap is provided by the fact that we don’t seem to be able to get any cheap BRT.

The only people I can imagine who would be happy that Rapid Ride might not arrive are the anti-everything set, who claim to be in support of BRT, but, of course, were against the vote that was supposed to fund Rapid Ride to begin with. They might be happy because they can continue to make the the argument that  BRT will be cheaper than rail, and instead of having an example to compare light rail to, they can continue to compare Link to BRT systems in far away places like Lima, Peru and Bogotá, Colombia. They know full well that BRT can’t do what light rail can, and they can remain against any form of transit that actually works.

Rapid Ride Buses May Not Materialize

I have been saying this for a while, but it looks like Metro is finally being honest that the increased bus service, called Rapid Ride, promised as part of the sales tax increase voters approved in 2006 may never arrive. From the DJC (behind paywall):

King County’s RapidRide express buses, which are due on the streets starting in 2010, may never materialize.
Even if the county’s transit division solves its current $83 million budget crisis, by 2010 it will need an extra $60 million per year to run the transit division and county officials do not know now where that additional money will come from.
“After 2010 we have a significant budget gap and we have to figure out a solution,” transit division manager Kevin Desmond told King County’s regional transportation committee last month. “A way to save money would be to reduce service.”

Right now, King County’s transit division is $83 million in the red. To help plug the gap, County Executive Ron Sims is proposing to raise Metro bus fares by 50 cents next February. Earlier this year, Metro raised bus fares 25 cents.
Sims also says Metro should increase bus advertising, cut $65 million in capital projects, sell or lease some land and use up its budget reserves.
High fuel prices and low sales tax revenues have played havoc with Metro’s budget. 

The anti-light rail mantra is always that buses are cheaper than light rail. How can they honestly make this claim? Metro increased its share of the sales tax by 10% to .9% and is unable to increase service by the same amount because buses are becoming ever more expensive. The “buses are cheaper” argument is as bankrupt as Metro.

Sure the price of oil is down this month, but it’s still a whole lot higher than it was ten years ago, and it will be still higher in 10 years. Congestion continues to get worse, and with it, buses are ever more expensive to operate. If I-985 passes, HOV lanes will only be available for a short part of the day, and only about half of the dialy commute. With that BRT is impossible. 

Light Rail doesn’t compete with cars in traffic. Light Rail doesn’t run on fossil fuels. Light Rail can carry far more people for far cheaper after it’s constructed. Light Rail really ought to be the future of public transit in our region.

“Never Misses a Chance to Miss a Chance”

That is, “Seattle never misses a chance to miss a chance” on light rail. This article at Crosscut by Jon Talton is awesome. Talton breaks down the anti-light rail arguments one by one, and – in addition to the quote above stolen from that article – there’s this great quote: “The only thing keeping it from succeeding here are the myths propagated by foes”.

Nice, definitely read the whole thing.


I don’t have time to write a real post today, but these links should satisfy your transit fix:

Now THIS is how bus transit should be done!

This look at Boulder’s Bus system is pretty interesting:

Boulder boasts seven high-frequency bus lines with catchy, character-verb names like: STAMPEDE, DASH, BOUND, and BOLT, with all of the buses having their own color scheme and identity. It all started back in 1989 when Boulder endeavored to provide a real alternative to the car for its downtown commuters and as a result gave residents direct input into the process. In addition to creating comfy, frequent, pleasant buses, the city also instituted the Eco Pass, a transit card that allows residents to ride buses system-wide for free – more than doubling transit use between 1995 and 2005, from 15% to 34%.

BAT Lanes on 45th St

The City of Seattle’s gradual introduction of “Business Access and Transit” (BAT) lanes throughout the city is one of the more under-reported and commendable trends.  The North Seattle Herald reports that NE 45th St is now up for consideration using Bridging the Gap funds, on the Westbound side between 7th Ave and University Way.

There are a ton of buses (including many from Community Transit) that use this stretch, so this kind of investment could have a very big impact on the overall performance of the system.  If Proposition 1 passes and these lanes are ultimately approved, it’ll serve as the backbone of a feeder system into the Brooklyn light rail station.

I haven’t found an obvious outlet for citizen comments on this, but the BTG Citizen Oversight Committee might be a good place to start.

Shock: Bellevue Downtown Association endorses Prop 1!

This is hilarious, as one of the largest property owners (maybe the largest property owner) in downtown Bellevue is Kemper Freeman Junior – who’s responsible for 2/3 of the money in the opposition campaign.

He’s the odd one out – maybe they didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to call transit users communists and make thinly veiled racist comments about transit and poverty? Or maybe he’s the only one who’s insane.

I don’t think the Mass Transit Now campaign put this up on the web, so I’ll just copy their press release here:

Seattle—The Bellevue Downtown Association endorsed Proposition 1, becoming the latest in a long line of Eastside civic, political and community groups that support the mass transit expansion plan.

Later today, Mayor Greg Nickels, chair of Sound Transit, will debate transit-opponent Kemper Freeman, a Bellevue developer who has put $100,000 of his own money into the No On Prop 1 campaign.  The support of Proposition 1 on the Eastside highlights the growing gap between Freeman and the business leaders, neighbors and representatives who recognize the immediate need for transit solutions.

The BDA said Proposition 1 was a necessary step in providing near and long-term transit solutions for the fast-growing number of downtown Bellevue workers, residents, and visitors.

“Our ability to grow and thrive as an urban center is linked to accessibility,” said BDA Board Chair Jill Ostrem. “We approached this decision asking, ‘What’s best for Downtown Bellevue?’  Connecting downtown with the region through safe and reliable mass transit is essential to our community’s future success.”

The measure will expand regional express bus service on I-405 next year and deliver light rail transit to Downtown Bellevue and Overlake Transit Center.

Ostrem said: “With this endorsement, the BDA pledges to work with Sound Transit, the City of Bellevue and the downtown community to ensure effective and efficient implementation of these investments.  In addition, we will continue to engage at the local and regional level on high priority congestion relief projects and transit solutions.”

Wow, guys. The BDA seems to have their heads on straight. I even think Junior’s a member. Maybe their sanity will rub off on him? Nahhh…

Westneat: Foot Ferries “ridiculous”

Foot Ferry
Danny Westneat asks King County whether they should spend the taxes raised last year for foot ferries to shore up the budget gap the County has right now. I asked same question of Ron Sims last time he was on KUOW’s Weekday (at the end of the hour), and Sims’ answer was that under the state constitution, the County government can repurpose the money. Westneat makes a good point about the ferry services being a special project – though I wouldn’t call them ridiculous necessarily – and another point that some of what will have to be cut are pretty dramatic:

Sheriff Sue Rahr was the one who made them wax apocalyptic. To cut $9 million, she said she’ll have to ax 29 detectives, 24 deputies, four sergeants and two marshals.

Which means cops will no longer investigate any property crime in unincorporated King County in which less than $10,000 was stolen. The domestic-violence unit will be down to three people. No more policing of drug trafficking, period. And if you call a precinct, you’ll only get voice mail because they’re cutting the people who answer the phones.

But I think Westneat’s solution is a little misguided, here’s what he wants to do:

It came to me when I realized last year’s tax increases by coincidence almost equal this year’s draconian cuts.

Why not use that money to solve this “crisis?” Why not, at the least, cancel those ridiculous foot ferries?

They are the old Mosquito Fleet walk-on ferries, between Kirkland, Renton and Seattle on Lake Washington. And Shilshole to downtown Seattle on the Sound. The council raised property taxes to reincarnate them last November.

None of these cities are on islands — a large part of why the last such ferry petered out in 1939. Each run today will carry maybe 300 riders. Yet we’re steaming ahead with it. Even as we cut 59 cops. And call it all “a recipe for disaster.”

In my mind, if we’re going to spend the foot ferry tax on something else, let’s spend it on Metro buses, since at least both are transit. Metro is dealing with it’s own budget shortfalls and at least keeping the money on transportation wouldn’t be as significant a re-purpose. In addition, those county service cuts will mostly effect unincorporated King County, while the foot ferry taxes are imposed over the whole county. I don’t like the way the taxes were imposed, in a semi-secret council vote immediately after an election, but that doesn’t mean the money should just be spent on any thing else that seems pressing today.

Ultimately, I believe Sims is trying to push these unincorporated areas that rely on the County to provide municipal services – that is, those services provide by city governments in incorporated areas – to either allow themselves to be annexed or incorporate themselves. I don’t mean that Sims is playing politics with the terrible economy, the county doesn’t have the power to move the funds from ferries to police (or to buses) because the state constitution bars them from doing so. But let me ask this question another way: why should taxpayers in the rest of the county pay for police in unincorporated areas?

Those in cities already pay for their own police forces, and subsidize the police in unincorporated King County by paying for the majority of sheriff services. We pay city taxes to get city services, and we pay county taxes to get county services. If unincorporated King County wants city-level services, they should become a city either thorugh incorporation or get annexation.

Making the Tube Map

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Here’s a sweet documentary about the development of the London Underground map. The map was something of a revolution because it emphasized clarity over geographical accuracy. One goal was to get people to use the system on evenings and weekends, when it was underutilized. so they made the stations appear equidistant, and released a series of promotional posters, which you may have seen in the Columbia City/Hilltop/74th Street Ale Houses.

(via Confabulum, via Ryan Avent)

Amtrak Bill Signed into Law

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


The legislation, pushed by New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, would allocate $1.6 billion for rail safety, renew and expand the Federal Railroad Administration, and invest nearly $13 billion over the next five years to expand and upgrade passenger rail in the U.S.

Of that $13 billion, Amtrak would get about $1.6 billion a year — $300 million more than what it now receives — for operations and capital projects like replacing tracks and repairing tunnels. States would also receive funding to

$13B over five years is a drop in the bucket, obviously, but it’s a start. Amtrak Cascades should benefit handsomely from this bill.


As in the primary, STB is endorsing candidates and initiatives for the November general election. This is officially a non-partisan blog, so we’ll be evaluating candidates based on their attitude toward transit.

Strong Endorsements (Strongly pro-transit)
Sound Transit Proposition 1: YES
I-985: NO
U.S. Congress, 1st District: Jay Inslee
U.S. Congress, 6th District: Norm Dicks
Washington State Attorney General: John Ladenburg
10th District Senate: Linda Haddon
21st District House: Mary Helen Roberts
41st District Senate: Fred Jarrett
44th District House, Position 1: Hans Dunshee
47th District House, Position : Geoff Simpson
U.S. President/Vice President: Barack Obama/Joe Biden

Lukewarm Endorsements (Transit-neutral, but far better than their opponents).
Governor: Christine Gregoire
Secretary of State: Sam Reed
41st District House, Position 1: Marcie Maxwell
41st District House, Position 2: Write-in

Supporting arguments after the jump.  Admin is listed as the post author, but in fact this is a collective effort.
Continue reading “Endorsements”

Service Changes

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Erica Barnett ends her exhaustive accounting of Metro service changes in SE Seattle by noting:

Is it me, or does an awful lot of service on Rainier [Avenue S.] get eliminated under Metro’s plan?

I wonder if this has anything to do with the planned “road diet” for Rainier Ave., which Barnett noted back in February, between Columbia City and Rainier Beach. If the road goes down to one lane in either direction, then buses will start to really back up traffic (can’t drive around a bus if there’s only one lane) on that corridor.


Here’s a few links about transit around the blogosphere: