We’ve had a couple of postmortems now, and I think the time has come not to just talk about what we want next, but how to do it.

I know that King County Metro will have to do something about their budget shortfall, but they aren’t going to solve their problems with the legislature – they need a solution before the session, and they would have to go to a public vote anyway. So this isn’t about them.

The two things I want to work on most are to accelerate Link expansion, and to improve intercity rail. I think both of those provide the most bang for the buck. Here’s why:

If Link takes 13-15 years to complete, I think we’ll be well into the next construction boom as it’s finishing, and the last projects in the basket will end up running into a lot of the same problems Central Link did – lack of contractors, high real estate prices, high materials prices.

The big thing holding Link back is how fast the money comes in. I’m not exactly sure how long design takes, how long public comment periods are, etc, but I think the real issue, what this comes down to, is how long it takes for sales tax to trickle in to provide enough cushion for issuing bonds. I think a fast infusion of cash could cut a lot off our wait time, by allowing those bonds to be issued sooner.

As for Amtrak… I think Brian’s gotten us up to speed on what needs to happen, it’s just a matter of the money to do it. Just next year, we’ll have four cities on the Cascades route with urban rail connecting to the intercity train. Connecting those stations more effectively will have a big positive effect on transit ridership in at least three of the four (not so much in Tacoma until their streetcar goes farther). Making Cascades service more frequent will increase the value of living by Link in Seattle.

So, then, how do we do these things?

First, I think we need to earn ourselves some allies in the legislature. We have a few already, but we have the opportunity to earn more now that several districts have gone strongly in favor of transit. This is a budget year, but I don’t think the state’s current budget situation would allow us to get anything – so we should make friends. Transit oriented development is a great way to do this – for example, it reduces money spent on transportation and increases money spent on real estate, meaning higher property tax revenues per capita, therefore more money per head in the schools. Also, higher density results in lower fertility rates, meaning even more money per head in the schools!

But there are lots of ways to do that. The point is to look good – even if we can’t make a lot of friends, we can make it less politically expedient to be an enemy of transit by showing how much benefit it generates. The point here is to lay down a kind of all-legislator strategy (at least the ones on relevant committees) to prevent the rumblings of ‘governance’. We’ll have to develop a list of real benefits to the state here – or direct benefits to constituents.

The next step will be to actually ask for money. Step one is really about both Amtrak and Link (and Sounder too), the arguments and benefits will be for high capacity transit in general, so they’ll be useful for both. But here’s the interesting part. I don’t actually expect to get any money from the state for Sound Transit – not now, not in 2011. I just expect to use the act of trying to get money from the state as a springboard. When they say ‘we don’t have any money to give’, we can ask for local options, like the authority for more sales tax, or some other tools. We’ll have to figure out what we want here as well – but I bet Sound Transit already has a wish list.

Amtrak will take a study, I think. We can prove that ridership will be high, taking people off I-5, with some investment for expansion. That’s what I’d ask the legislature for first, resources to update the long range plan and make new ridership projections – whatever we need to be more competitive for federal matches.

This seems like stream of consciousness right now – but I hope everyone will start thinking about what we can do to take the next step. We’ll get a lot of momentum next year when Central Link opens, and pushing forward in the wake of that could earn us another victory.

43 Replies to “Developing A Plan Of Attack, Part 1”

  1. A few of my thoughts:

    1) I’m not sure if this is correct (as Reagan told Gorby, “Trust, but verify”), but I was told once that there are some pretty severe restrictions on how ST can redevelop their station and staging areas. If true, this could in part be why the area above the BH Station isn’t a large mixed use TOD site. Changing the rules to allow ST to benefit more directly from redevelopment on ST station property could potentially create some additional upfront revenue and advance the schedule somewhat. But again, “Trust, but verify.”

    2) Work with the State to advance the schedule of track and signal improvements on the Vancouver BC to Portland mainline. Most of these projects are already planned. Advancing the funding schedule would benefit both Amtrak and freight operations, and be greener than the alternatives.

    3) Encourage the State to work with BC to advance the schedule of track upgrades north of the boarder. This is an international issue that the State really needs to take the lead on. The goal ought to be to have the trip north on rail be time competitive with bus travel. The trip to Portland already is fairly time competitive, the northern route needs to be too.

    4) Work with the Feds, work with the Feds, work with the Feds. We have our first urban President in decades and he wants to invest in cities while moving the country towards energy independence and being greener. Seattle is in the highly advantageous position of already having a plan and local funding in place that does exactly that. We also have a strong congressional delegation. We should be able to partner with the new admin and hit the ground running.

    5) Encourage Metro to clean up their own mess. The goal should be no service reductions even if this means fare increases. And, yes, if this means abandoning high cost suburban routes in favor of lower cost, higher ridership urban routes than that is what should be done.

    Anyhow, I hope the formating on this works….

    1. Your formatting looks fine. :)

      1) I think you’re right that ST is restricted in what they can do. I hope to sit down with someone from ST in the next couple of weeks to ask about their ‘wish list’, and I’m sure this would be on it. Given what’s happening to MTA right now, though, I don’t want ST to be dependent on something like real estate revenue.

      2) Amtrak work is just a matter of money, but we’ll need federal help here, and there should be some money available as part of the Amtrak bill. I think that projecting ridership now might make it look better than it does in current projections. Better enough to justify more money sooner – better bang for the buck helps with federal grants.

      3) It’s up to the Feds to work with Canada. :( States aren’t allowed to deal with other countries.

      4) I think Nickels’ eye is on the ball there, with Small Starts streetcar projects and green power. I think ST could do a study on the efficiency of Sounder versus automobiles, etc, in partnership with the Feds, to overwrite the crappy USDOT data everyone uses that says rail is inefficient.

      5) Larry Phillips for County Executive. But come to the meetup tomorrow, Kevin Desmond may be there, we can talk to him about this. NICELY. ;)

    2. 4) Work with the Feds, work with the Feds, work with the Feds.

      Exactly. The state has no interest in funding Sound Transit ever. They could be prodded to devote more funding to rail, but certainly not this year with the budget shortfall and all. The feds can deficit spend, there is much talk of a big stimulus plan focusing on infrastructure investments, the new administration is very pro-rail and pro-transit, we need to push for that money.

      It’s early to push for more sales tax increases. A LID funded streetcar plan might succeed. Something that could be interesting to try is congestion pricing the bridges and the I-5 express lanes (basically turning them into an HOT system) and dedicating the funding to accelerating northward and eastward expansion of Link and to funding the 520 bridge.

      1. The key is to get the discussion out there. I know the state isn’t going to give Sound Transit a penny – but we need to take the fight to them.

        They have to say they won’t fund it in public. We need to create *news articles* pointing out that the state won’t help Link, and that Oregon does help MAX. Just saying ‘we won’t get anything’ won’t change that for 2011 or 2013 budgets (they’re biennial), but getting out there and asking loudly will.

        See, if we ask every year, and it later becomes clear that Link is a great success and everyone wants more, we can use that against anti-transit forces in the legislature.

  2. The hat-passing for Amtrak and Sounder should start and end at the door of Burlington Northern. Period.

      1. Norfolk Southern seems to be able to make capital improvements. I know not every company can be well-run, but honestly they’ve been doing it for 20 years now and you’d think BNSF could at least take notes from the investor reports or something.

      2. My understanding is that NS makes spends a lot more on improvements than most large US railroads, which in some cases (with state or federal funding) includes special provisions for passenger rail. Most of the time good tracks just make good business sense– customers want freight moved faster and more reliably just like we want for passengers. “It costs too much” or “Investors won’t like it” rings hollow when your competitor is doing it already.

  3. I think our biggest hope for ST acceleration comes from the feds. Any new taxing authority ST gets, in my opinion, would be used for expansion after a public vote. I can’t see that vote politically feasible until 2016. (I don’t think Central Link will be fully appreciated until U-Link opens.)

    Congress is going to pass a stimulus plan to invest in “infrastructure” which hopefully includes transit. (Obama also wants to create an infrastructure fund regardless of the stimulus package). If U-Link (and Link to Northgate) were to get a huge sum of money up front, for example, it could certainly be sped up, right? I believe that what Ric I from ST indicated at the Friends of Seattle event. This project is on the brink of construction

    Any amount for U-Link would lead to a surplus of Sound Move taxes and could accelerate ST2 projects as well. (I discuss U-Link because I don’t think any corridor on ST2 is ready for construction for the next few years. I could be wrong; how far are along the environmental impact studies for ST2?)

    I think we’ve been living through a very exciting time for transit in Seattle for the last few years. I don’t think we’ll be able to see much political progress on ST expansion for a long time. Acceleration is very dependent on how the feds view the U-Link in terms of job creation and if they consider the FTA funding that’s already been promised. I guess if there’s another project, such as UW to Northgate, that doesn’t have years of studies go through then we could see federal money go there too. But federal money was already anticipated for ST2. I can imagine the FTA giving less money to project that has already received funds from any stimulus package.

    1. I don’t think U Link can be accelerated further. With 3 TBMs, I think we’re already going to be limited simply by digging speed. More crews could excavate faster, sure, but the longest part might just be tunneling. Maybe a two year acceleration? That would be great…

      Northgate is only at something like 30% design, so I don’t know how much could be sped up right now.

      1. Northgate is only at something like 30% design

        Seriously? The route alignment is set through Northgate, the properties for stations have been purchased, what’s left? Designing the stations? Surely with extra money we could buy 3 more TBMs and start digging tunnels?

      2. The route north from Huskey Stadium is to tunnel under the main UW campus with a station north of 45th on Brooklyn. Continue north as a bored tunnel to a station north of 65th at Roosevelt, then continue as a tunnel to the hillside next to I-5 near 75th, where it will transition to a retained cut/fill on grade section. Then at around 100th become an elevated structure through to the Northgate site.

      3. Pete, you know your stuff. :)

        Eric L: Knowing where it goes isn’t enough. We have to design the stations, and we’re waiting on some leases, as well. You can’t take a foot of earth without knowing where your foundations need to be.

      4. What is the scheduled completion date for the Brightwater Tunels?
        Are the Brightwater TBM’s large enough for Link tunels?

        Lor Scara

      5. Well dig and ye shall find ;)

        Brightwater is using 2 TBM’s at 5.3M diameter (about 17.4 foot)

        ST’s TBM’s are 21 foot :(

        Looks like when Brightwater is done in 2010, we cna not use their TBM’s as they are to small

        Lor Scara

  4. Unfortunately U-Link is stuck due to tunneling. 50 feet per day makes for slow progress. There is a positive I was thinking on the way home today. By the time the tunneling is started, in thought, the TBM’s could proceed Northward since it is a tunnel to Northgate, correct?

    I do love this post. I’ll actually be at the meet tomorrow if I am feeling up to it. Under the weather right now =(

    Excellent post Ben, thank you!

    1. Hey, you’re quite welcome. I loved your posts on Cascades!

      I think we should figure out how to start Roosevelt-based tunneling for North Link ASAP, just after U Link.

      I think we should talk to Sound Transit about trying to get an acceleration for that into the stimulus package.

  5. technically … the TBMs … if headed North from downtown, could keep heading north until where the line jumps to the surface (northwest of Brooklyn IIRC)

    would make sense to finish that digging and then move the TBMs to the East Side for the under-bellevue tunnel (if the tunnel route is the way they decide to proceed)

    1. As I understand it from the latest Quarterly Agency Progress Report, 2 TBMs will start at Huskey Stadium and proceed south in tandum, toward the Capitol Hill Station. The third TBM will start at CHS and proceed to the end of the PSST, then be dismantled, and returned to CHS to bore the second tunnel toward PSST.

      But, if they are able to reach, and maintain the 50 feet/day rate (they never quite did this on Beacon Hill I believe), the tunneling portion should take about a year (3.5 mi * 2 tunnels *5280 feel/mi = 36960′. 36960/3 TBMs/50ft/day = ~250 days) Then while the tunnels are being fitted out with plinths, rail, and overhead systems, could they simply drop the TBMs back into the UW station pointed north? Or would the continued removal of spoils from the UW station site prevent the follow on work needed for the station and tunnels to the south?

      1. I believe the tunneling for North Link will be staged at Roosevelt, with extraction at Husky Stadium and around 70th.

        If we managed to accelerate *everything*, I’d imagine we could tunnel northbound in sequence, but that would slow down U Link. I’d say still tunnel from Roosevelt, but be ready to do it when the properties become available, whenever that is.

      2. Is 50 feet a day the maximum rate or an average rate? In tunneling we can hope for the best and expect the worst. We may run into unexpected soil conditions that might slow progress down.

        To finish the University Link tunnels in 250 days with 3 TBMs or 2 years with 1 TBM seems really optimistic considering it took two years to bore the total 1.6 miles of tunnel through Beacon Hill with 1 TBM. Has ST selected a contractor for tunneling University Link? I hope they learned a lesson from Beacon Hill.

        Also, according to ST, tunneling won’t begin until 2011. They have to excavate the stations and shore up I-5 before that happens.

    2. As Pete says, tunneling will be 2 TBMs launched from UW south and one from capitol hill south, with a re-run of the capitol hill TBM again before the UW TBMs arrive.

      And the line doesn’t jump to the surface until Northgate, and goes elevated there.

  6. Frankly, as a former and possibly future Seattleite, I think you’d get the most bang for your enthusiasm right now by pushing the LID Steetcar proposals.

    These would be great proposals to take to the feds, with a lot of local buy-in and small price tags. They’re also innovative and could serve as a model for other cities.

    The streetcars would be a good way to get another take on the ‘urban village’ idea. Promoting more intense development along a streetcar line is a good way to improve walkability and also to take pressure off neighborhoods of single houses.

    Then, you have the fact that the City already likes the idea and has worked on it and put it forward. LIDs are not a new idea, so there have to be tasks that are known to be essential in walking something like this through the process. At the same time, the idea (as applied to streetcars) is largely new to Seattle, so some enthusiasts will also be needed to push the advantages of streetcars and, possibly, find other cities where LID style funding has been used to build them.

    Seattle should be looking to absorb in the future large numbers of retirees who want a residence on a streetcar line with an active streetlife close to where they live and good connections to hospitals and clinics (not to mention libraries and parks). Some real density should be planned in this respect to keep housing affordable.

    So I’m hoping some people in Seattle will pick up this ball and run with it. With an Obama administration looking for good economic stimulus projects, transit and low-income housing are no-brainers.

  7. Am I the only one that thinks devoting our energy to light rail from West Seattle-Ballard is way more important than inner-city, which will happen anyway?

    Those areas are densifying, alot. The main arterials are going to get unnavigable. They NEED grade seperated rail if they are going to continue to densify.

    I think if speeding up tunneling isn’t going happen, we need to get started on the rest of the network with federal funding.

    1. Keo,

      The point of the federal stimulus package is immediate economic stimulus. If the Treasury cut Sound Transit a check for the full amount of a Ballard/West Seattle line today, it would be a bureaucratic speed record if they started turning Earth in five years or so — way too late considering the likely length of a recession.

      There is zero preliminary engineering done.

      1. Isn’t this what China’s stimulus package was all about? It will make people want to invest in our country NOW for the long term. That is why China’s package has made an impact worldwide already.

        We need to get our shit together and study those routes NOW (next two years) so that we can take advantage of what will inevitably be a larger FTA in the Obama administration.

      2. Keo, we are studying these routes with the passage of Prop. 1 just last week! These studies take time, however.

        In terms of why China is better at this stuff — yeah, well, there are just too many differences to enumerate. I don’t think it’s a fair comparison, but it should give Americans pause as we’re witnessing a lot of our technological advantages fade.

        In any case, there are assumptions in the ST2 planning that we receive federal money but we have, of course, yet to earn a single dollar from the FTA for these extensions. Before going to the FTA or any sort of infrastructure fund/stimulus plan for unstudied routes we need to get the federal funds we’re expecting for ST2.

        If we were able to get a billion dollars from the federal government in 2016, at that point I’d definitely say build the Ballard <-> Downtown or whatever route rather than just accelerate. But in 2016 we’ve opened the highest ridership route and would be four years away from opening Bellevue and Northgate.

        But if we got a billion dollars today? Yeah, I’d say accelerate U-Link/Northgate if possible and put to rest our assumptions about federal funding for ST2 to rest. Indeed, the ST2 plan assumes $895 billion in federal funding (https://seattletransitblog.wpcomstaging.com/2008/11/11/developing-a-plan-of-attack-part-1/).

  8. I don’t have time to elaborate but I think that making sure that LINK station areas are developed to their full potential (and that they are sited so that this can occur) should be the highest priority. Although intercity rail is important I don’t think it is right to leave Metro to its own devices. Metro does need to clean house but transit advocates have a responsibility to show that they support Metro and than it is a high priority. Otherwise there won’t be the political support to make the tough decisions that need to be made. Everyone has an interest in a healthy Metro regardless of the general distaste for how it is run (or who runs it).

    1. I agree, a lot of the tone with Metro is a little bit disagreeable for me. When Sound Transit was in serious trouble before 2001, we needed leadership and strength not to watch the chips fall as they may. Metro is a pretty huge deal in our transit network, to say the least.

      To comfort you, I believe that people here feel that Metro is very strong politically and will be able to extend its taxing authority and/or get state aid relatively easy. I mean, all these unveiling of shortfalls and service cuts are undoubtedly making a very public case that Metro needs serious help.

  9. Do we have an idea of just how much money we’re talking about here, in terms of making a difference?

    I suppose it depends on the particular acceleration you want, but are we thinking that 100M extra from the feds could speed up a particular ST2 project by x months? I assume there are also some diminishing returns.

    I’d love to see U-Link sped up, even if it’s just a few years. If the actual tunneling time is really potentially only 250 days, wouldn’t it be great to get all the other parts in line, and open Husky station in 2013 or something?

    I do agree that using energy/time/money may be most effective in pushing the LIDs for streetcars along. If a little federal sweetener can reduce the rates that LID property owners pay (or that the city chips in), you start building those TOD areas that are ready and waiting when the bigger train gets to one of the stations – why wait until 2016 for the capitol hill connector? Think of the good that could do in the meantime if we got it build by 2011.

    1. Cutting time would be in the hundreds of millions range, yes. Depends on what the money has to be spread between.

  10. If they Started construction on the northgate station in 2010 or 2011 and started heading south (and if you really wanted to accelerate it head north from the station at the same time) from the station they would most should be able to open U-link and the extension to northgate at the same time in 2016. As for the east link if they choose to tunnel under bellevue they should start tunneling in 2010 or 2011 as well, assuming they could free up TBM or perhaps bring in another TBM.

    Of course both of these suggestions would hinge on resources. Both funding wise and construction resources.

    1. Prop 1 doesn’t fund a tunnel for Bellevue, I’m afraid. That’s how it got to 13 years. They’ll need a big federal grant if they want to build one.

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