Blowing It

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

SDOT chief Crunican seems pretty contrite about the city’s response to the snowstorms:

“We blew it,” Grace Crunican said, by waiting too long to ask for private contractors to help plow frozen streets. And while the city felt it was meeting its goals to keep major streets “passable,” it failed to see the bigger picture: residents stranded by icy streets, bus service that was forced to a halt and stores and restaurants struggling because customers couldn’t reach them.

It’s worth noting that, according to Crunican at least, the city’s haphazard response wasn’t just because this was a once in 100 year event that there was not hope in planning for, but simply because Crunican herself was driving around in a 4WD car and didn’t notice how bad things had gotten. Also, we don’t have to waste millions of dollars on snowplows that will sit idle, as some have suggested, but instead we can buy just a couple more and get better at hiring contractors. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Murray is Right: Toll Both

This is a few days old, but in the State House a bill is has been proposed that would charge tolls on only SR-520 to help fund the new bridge. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), who introduced the bill, is wrong on this policy. Ed Murray (D-Seattle) is right: We need to toll both the SR-520 and I-90 bridges.

We do not want to force traffic across just the I-90 span, which is a possibility with tolls across only SR-520, and we will not be able to raise enough money without tolling both spans. No one likes spending money, but building cross-lake spans is very expensive. And tolling isn’t just a fee: it’s a tool to reduce congestion at peak hours.

LaHood Proposes Taxing VMT, Admin. Backs Away

Obama’s Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood opened up the possibility of taxing drivers by vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the future rather than taxing drivers at the gas pump. Taxing by VMT is a pretty progressive idea, though it would require a large investment in GPS trackers and other technology. A progressive suggestion like that from LaHood — and a recognition of the failure of the gas tax to sustain our highway investments — is encouraging, no? Well, within hours a spokesman for the Department of Transportation — LaHood’s employee — and the White House distanced themselves from LaHood’s remarks: “It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary.

Of course that same link has other statements worth considering. “Most transportation experts see a vehicle miles traveled tax as a long-term solution[.]” “The gap between money raised by the gas tax and the cost of maintaining the nation’s highway system and expanding it to accommodate population growth is forecast to continue to widen.” “A blue-ribbon national transportation commission is expected to release a report next week recommending a VMT [tax].”

A VMT tax would be a sort of radical change — one that could require millions of cars to be retrofitted — with privacy implications, but how can we fund our surface transporation infrastructure without a radical change?

I think most environmentalists would prefer a VMT tax, but some have made the point that a VMT tax would charge the same regardless of how much gasoline a car burns. That is true, and perhaps a VMT tax should be in addition to the gas tax (perhaps a lower gas tax). But a gas tax isn’t just a free to use gas, it’s a fee to use our public roads. Having electric or hybrid cars pay for their share of the transportation grid makes sense. Charging additional VMT taxes on heavy trucks that damage the roads more — well, that makes sense too. But charging a gas tax on one hand, and mandating that cars use less gas on the other — that’s good for the earth but a very bad way to fund roads and transit.

The Obama administration would do well to listen to its Secretary of Transportation and not rule out possible solutions years too early.

CORRECTION: Sodo Reroutes

On Wednesday I reported that southbound routes that use the busway were going to be re-routed beginning Monday.  It turns out that isn’t accurate; perhaps Metro was able to push back based on the extremely short time available to notify people.

According to this news release, There will be isolated instances of stops closing on 1st Avenue South beginning Monday, but the big 4th Ave and Busway reroute will not occur until Monday, March 2.  Whether my source had it wrong or the plan changed, it’s a much better way to do things.

The specifics of the reroute are listed here.

Streetcar Timing Update

Wildcat Dunny (Flickr)
Wildcat Dunny (Flickr)

After my post complaining about signal timing across Mercer for the South Lake Union Streetcar, I received a reply from Ethan Melone, SDOT Rail Transit Manager.

As reported, SDOT is going to stop the signal acceleration for Mercer, but is going to look at other techniques to make up the time:

First, we will field test signal timing and operations when the Mercer Corridor Project is completed.  This will give us more accurate results than is possible through modeling alone.  With real data in hand, we will work to optimize signal timing to balance the needs of east-west traffic through the Mercer Corridor and north-south transit in the Westlake corridor.  Our signal operations staff will field test a variety of iterations of signal timing and priority and tune the operation of the intersection to a finer level of detail than may be captured in transportation models.  We may be able to achieve the desired balance by increasing priority for the streetcar crossings of Valley Street while reducing priority for crossings of Mercer, for example.  We will also explore the potential for new approaches and technologies–such as schedule-based, fixed pre-emption windows and advanced detection technologies–to further optimize the balance between transit priority and traffic throughput.

He also mentioned the possibility of moving from 15 to 10 minute headways (using 3 streetcars) once Amazon moves into SLU, but that requires some money from Metro, so one can’t help but be skeptical.

Metro’s $80mn in Capital Cuts

University Street bus tunnel station, 2001
University St Station, Seattle Muncipal Archives

In the “we’re broke!” Press Release from Metro, a quote from outgoing King County Exec Ron Sims mentions $80 mn in capital project cuts, this is $15 million more than Sim’s mentioned last summer. I wanted to get to the bottom of what those cuts were, and I’ve been given a list from someone inside Exec’s office. Most of these were the same cancelled projects we heard about in September. An interesting exercise for the reader is comparing the list of cancelled projects below to the list of projects that Metro has requested stimulus money for.

  • The Waterfront Streetcar maintence barn was cancelled, which should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. I’m just surprised it wasn’t already considered cancelled.
  • Metro had planned a contribution to the construction of the “Lander Street Overpass” over the BNSF lines, but the contribution will not be coming any longer. This one’s obvious, since the city has already shelved the project.
  • Another cancelled project is a Downtown Seattle bus layover facility. That would have let Metro park buses during the day after they drop off commuters and pick them back up in the evening without having to leave downtown.  A similar Downtown Bellevue project has been reduced in scope
  • Some ticket vending machines were cancelled, and I have been fearing that these cuts were for Rapid Ride’s ticket machines. My source confirms that most of these ticket machines were for Rapid Ride.
  • A number of on-board cameras that were to be install on buses have been cancelled, and most of the “security lights” for park-and-rides have been postponed.
  • Many BRT corridor improvements technology improvements, including the ticket machines on board the buses.
  • Improvements to the vanpool distribution facility have been scaled back. Metro operates the nation’s largest vanpool/ridershare organization.
  • Another $13 million in reductions the County Council has required them to make that have not been announced.
  • 11 layoffs at the “capital investment” division.

Transit Oriented Communities Bill Update

Publicola is now doing the best reporting on this subject:

Service Alert: Gas Leak halts North Sounder Trains

If you are taking any of the Northbound Sounder trains to Everett, service is temporary interrupted due to a gas leak near the railroad tracks.

Please take alternative transportation to get to your destination.

From Sound Transit

Due to a gas leak along the tracks north of Seattle, Sounder northline trains are significantly delayed. Estimated departure times for these trains are unknown at this point. Please visit us online for more information as it becomes available. Please be aware of the following bus alternatives:

Community Transit bus Route 404 departs 4th Ave S and S Jackson St and will serve the Edmonds Station.
Community Transit bus Route 417 departs 4th Ave S and S Jackson St and will serve the Mukilteo Station.
Sound Transit Express bus Route 510 departs 4th Ave S and S Jackson St and will serve the Everett Station.

FTA Preliminary Grant Allocations

Here are the preliminary calculations for Grant Allocations for Transit Money in the federal stimulus. The first thing that jumps to me is that this is about $25 million less than I thought we would get. Shows what I know. Our area is getting $124.7 million in “transit capital assistance”, $6.7 million in “fixed guideway infrastructure assistance” and the state is getting another $14.3 million, some of which could be spent in our area.

This stimulus bill is officially a major disappointment from the transit side, high-speed-rail grants notwithstanding. The formula that the FTA used gives $4.57 per person in urban areas over 1,000,000, but $8.42 per per person in urban areas under 200,000 and $5.89 in rural areas. If you look at $124.7 million in light of King Country Metro cutting $80 million in capital projects, and other agencies are in the same boat, it ends up basically being a wash compared to what would have happened if the economy hadn’t spun into collapse. There still are two “discretionary grants” that Seattle-area projects could qualify for, the $100 million in transit energy efficiency grants, and the $1.5 billion discretionary grants for all transportation projects.  Let’s hope we get something out of them.

Via The Transport Politic.

PBS NOW on Mass Transit Cutbacks

This PBS Now episode discusses the service cut backs transit agencies are making, and seems really appropriate in light of Metro’s possible cut backs.

If you listened to Ron Sims on KUOW this morning, he said that if Metro makes service cuts, it won’t be until 2020 or 2021 before service levels get back to what they are today, even longer for Seattle if cuts are based on currently service levels, and adds are only made based on 20/40/40. Yikes.

Metro’s Policies Will Deepen the Wound

Following up on what Martin wrote about Metro service cuts, I want to point out that the long-term impact of Metro’s expansion and contraction policies will likely reduce the cost-effectiveness of their service.

An hour of new service when the economy improves will result in lower ridership than an hour they cut now. In the graphs bgtothen made of ridership per annual service hour, there are 86 Metro routes. In the top half (43), only seven are shared with the south or east Metro subareas – thirty-seven are city routes alone. Metro’s most cost effective routes are all in Seattle.

If Metro wants to keep its costs from expanding further, these policies need to change. While there is, of course, a political reason for the 20-40-40 rule, it will only serve to cost the agency money in the future. I hope our King County Executive candidates take a stance on reducing this wasteful policy.

ALERT: Reroutes on the Busway

This hasn’t hit the Metro website yet because the new stop locations haven’t been determined, but Metro learned today that from the city and the contractor that the Spokane Street work is going to close the Eastbound surface  lanes of Spokane St. between 4th and 6th Avenues beginning Monday, February 23.

Southbound routes using the busway or 4th Ave and then turn left on Spokane St. to get on I-5 will instead turn East at Lander St. and proceed down 6th Avenue to the freeway.  Southbound stops on 4th and the busway at Lander St. and all points south will be closed, with substitute stops on 6th not yet determined.

The work is expected to last approximately 80 days.  The SDOT project page is here, although as of 9:20 pm last night there was nothing on this subject.  Be sure to check the Metro website over the next few days for more details.

Tolling I-90

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I know a few graduates of Mercer Island’s public schools, and they’re pretty sharp folks. Which makes me wonder…are Judy Clibborn’s constituents really this dumb?

Given the pending removal of two I-90 bridge lanes for a light-rail line, “I heard people say I don’t use the 520 Bridge and you’re taking my bridge and making it have less capacity … and then you’re going to take that money and put it on a bridge that I don’t use,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who said putting tolls only on the 520 span is an issue of fairness.

Transit is an ecosystem, folks. Tolling 520 but not I-90 would just increase the traffic on your precious “free”way.

But beyond that, pardon my French, but for fuck’s sake, you live on a goddamn ISLAND! You have a special little exemption to use the HOV lanes even if you don’t have any passengers. Where do you get the stones to demand perpetually free, state- and federally-funded access to your precious little mound of dirt?

Wow. Just… wow.

Metro Operating Cuts

Student Downtown Lunch Bus Rush
Photo by Oran

If you live and work in Seattle, the Metro budget crisis is probably worse than you realize.  According to my source, King County policy is to cut routes in proportion to the amount of service hours currently in each service area.

These numbers are off the top of my source’s head, but Seattle would take about 62% of the cuts, the Eastside 17%, and South King 21%.  Moreover, unless the routes are “suspended” for a short time, future increases would of course be subject to 20/40/40, resulting in a permanent shift of resources to the suburbs.

UPDATE: I finally dug up the policy statement that covers both this rule and 20/40/40.  Open this pdf and scroll to strategy IM-3.

Another interesting tidbit: “two-way” routes that serve two subareas count as 50% against each.  For instance, Seattle “pays” half the cost of the 150 and 271, while the Eastside would bear all the costs of the 229 or 257.

In the current context, that means the Seattle share of cuts may not come entirely out of one-digit and two-digit routes.


This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

 Last Summer, while visiting Montreal, I met a retired couple in the hotel sauna who’d arrived there by Amtrak from New York.  Gas was over $4/gallon, flights were expensive, so they decided to give the train a shot.  Well, you can imagine how that went.  The cafe car ran out of food about halfway through the journey, the toilets stopped being serviced at around the 8th hour of the 12-hour trip, etc., etc.  Needless to say, they didn’t have a great experience.

Amtrak has atrophied from eight years of neglect under the Bush administration.  Here in Western Washington, (and maybe in the well-funded Northeast Corridor) we’ve been spared the brunt of it thanks to state funding.  But it’s gotten pretty grim out there on some routes.  

All of which is a long way of saying that I’m very glad that the new Amtrak CEO seems like he’s ready to turn the agency around.

Of course, if we hadn’t neglected the service for the last eight years, we wouldn’t have to dig out of such a big hole.  But President Obama seems really serious about funding rail transit, so better days may be ahead.