Meanwhile in the Rail news….

While the legislature continues to shoot down R8A, I did some investigation in regards to the Amtrak rail funding and its dramatic change mentioned here previous. It appears that 98% of the rail capital project funding has been completely eliminated. The remaining 2% is going to very, very small projects, such as Tacoma Rail engine facility improvements, a new connection for BNSF/Tacoma Rail in Roy, and a spur to a cement plant in Everett. Yippe…

Stanwood Station however did keep its funding and Amtrak Cascades will serve the station when it opens this Fall. I have heard that the funding for Leavenworth Station has been eliminated but I have not found anything that confirms this officially.

26 Multimodal Transportation Account–State
27 Appropriation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$34,933,000
28 The appropriation in this section is subject to the following
29 conditions and limitations:
30 (1) $29,091,000 of the multimodal transportation account–state
31 appropriation is provided solely for the Amtrak service contract and
32 Talgo maintenance contract associated with providing and maintaining
33 the state-supported passenger rail service. Upon completion of the
34 rail platform project in the city of Stanwood, the department shall
35 provide daily Amtrak Cascades service to the city.
36 (2) Amtrak Cascade runs may not be eliminated.
p. 27 SSB 5352

1 (3) The department shall begin planning for a third roundtrip
2 Cascades train between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. by 2010

While the state will “aggressively” seek federal funding from various stimulus sources, the damage and lack of credibility has been done. What the state has effectively done is damage any chance of securing funding because all projects require matching funding from the state. With the state effectively killing this funding, this no longer gives the state the chance to receive any stimulus funding.

While I understand the need and reasoning for reducing the budget, a lot  more critical things were cut. I am still at a lost however how I-405 manages to get a several million dollar increase in funding, along with the I-5 Pierce County HOV lanes while rail and other projects are being cut.

We talk about alternatives and ways to reduce GHG but when it comes to making progress on doing that goal, a few select people make sure that it does not happen. In this situation, we, the people of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia all want alternatives to driving. We all want an alternative to flying. The Amtrak Cascades service and passenger rail are our ways to that goal. Until we have people in our government that also see that goal, we will never go beyond what we have currently for many more years.

We all know by 2012, gas prices will be at record levels. By 2012, we could have had a very good and integrated transportation system, ranging from buses, carpool, light-rail, and passenger rail. Each mode works together but people will not make the critical change needed until the services are provided. The Cascades program will be very critical and by not investing now, we will lose any forward movement at such a critical time.

Nearly every state is looking forward to adding more passenger rail, except for our region, where roads are now king of our society.

Pressure Mounts on R8A, State Transit Support

The Seattle PI (again, and again) and the Times have today written more coverage about R8A funding controversy that has only gotten worse in the last few days.

What has begun as a matter of the state’s budget withholding $24 million necessary to build the two-way HOV lanes on the I-90 bridges needed to run light rail along that corridor, has recently escalated to what appears to be nearly outright hostility to the light rail plan that voter’s approved last year. One move we didn’t cover, but deserves mention, is the move to disallow Sound Transit from the state’s competitive Regional Mobility Grants even — one of the few ways that the state actually gives financial support to transit.

Larry Phillips
Larry Phillips

King County Councilman Larry Phillips offered a sharp rebuke of the House budget that is the source of all of the concern. Phillips once again looks impressive on transportation is continuing to illustrate that he’d be a great county executive — a position he’s running for. I’ll quote a piece from reporter Aubrey Cohen:

“I frankly don’t understand what the House transportation folks are doing,” [Phillips] said.

Voters clearly indicated their desire to see light rail soon in Mercer Island and Bellevue, he said. “Literally hundreds of millions of dollars are in the bank, waiting to be deployed.”

The state House transportation budget thwarts the will of voters by blocking Sound Transit’s East Link light-rail plan, according to [Phillips].

“While the people of this region are eager to move forward with building light rail and leave behind the endless debating and delays of the past, legislators continue to throw up roadblocks that thwart the will of voters and delay light rail,” he said, referring to a budgetprovision that stalls construction of rail along the Interstate 90 bridge over Lake Washington.

“Thwart the will of the voters,” absolutely. Well said.

Kudos to the PI and the Times, as well Horse’s Ass and Publicola, for covering this story. And to Mr. Phillips for inserting himself into this very important issue.

World’s Best Toy

japan march 4 066My four-year-old nephew has been playing with this. If you can’t see from the picture (it’s not a good one), it’s a bridge with a road section on top and a train part on the bottom and it comes with a bus and a little Marine Liner train. I rode the Marine Liner – which connects Honshu and Shikoku – years ago, during a trip I mentioned in a previous post, and it’s cool to see that real kids toys are made from real train lines. According to the manufacturer, Tomika, you can even connect it to other roads and train sets.

I’m pretty sure Tamami is glad that Hinano is a girl after seeing the way I got excited over this toy, if we’d had a boy I’d already have filled bought a ton of train sets and more. But this is better than just a train set: it’s a bus and train set with a suspension bridge! Come on, this is the best toy ever. You’re with me, right?

Walkscore Transit Map

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

It’s still an early beta, it seems, but Walkscore’s transit map for Seattle is pretty awesome. Click on an address and it tells you how far you can travel from that address, via transit, in 45 minutes at any time of day.

Very cool.

Clibborn (and Chopp) vs. East Link

Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island
Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island

Ever since Sound Transit chose Interstate 90 as the preferred alignment for East Link light rail, a concerted effort to “protect” I-90 from the project has come from a few legislators – but mostly the office of Representative Judy Clibborn (41st, Mercer Island), chair of the House Transportation Committee.

I’ve written about this a little in the past, but it seems time to lay out a framework of her sustained attack on transit. She has repeatedly spoken in favor of transit as an idea – but not any of the transit that comes to her district. For a representative whose district voted over 55% for Sound Transit 2, her opposition seems misplaced.

As much as I pay attention to all this, I’m still not sure when her opposition started actively, but the first thing I see in law is a proviso from her in the 2007 transportation budget, ESHB 1094. This proviso requires that an ‘access plan’ be created to allow Mercer Island residents to use the new HOV lanes in single occupancy vehicles after the center lanes are closed to traffic:

“Expenditure of the funds on construction is contingent upon revising the access plan for Mercer Island traffic such that Mercer Island traffic will have access to the outer roadway high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes during the period of operating of such lanes following the removal of Mercer Island traffic from the center roadway and prior to conversion of the outer roadway HOV lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. Sound transit may only have access to the center lanes when alternative R-8A is complete.

The same year, she moved some R8A funding out from the 2007-2009 budget, as mentioned previously on the blog, to 2017 and beyond. Remember that this was early in the year before Roads and Transit came in November – this was almost a pre-emptive strike in case R&T passed.

Clibborn also pushed for an “Independent Review Team” to (hopefully) bolster her claim that light rail over I-90 was like the “Big Dig”. When that IRT released their report, essentially giving light rail a thumbs up from an engineering perspective, she told attendees of the hearing that they should be ready to hear about a “show-stopper.” Sounds like that was wishful thinking.

With light rail seeing support that just won’t quit, and that likely to be bolstered by Link opening this year, she’s exercising a ‘nuclear option’ now. Not only has she defunded R8A, it sounds like the state plans to hold light rail over I-90 hostage. Today’s transportation plan halts negotiations for the I-90 express lanes between WSDOT and ST, pending yet another review from a panel that House Transportation appoints. Oh, goody.

Frank Chopp, D-Capitol Hill, Wallingford
Frank Chopp, D-Capitol Hill, Wallingford

What’s worse, sources tell me that Speaker Frank Chopp (43rd, my district, went over 80% for ST2, also note he appointed Clibborn) wants Sound Transit to fund $1 billion, yes, that’s $1,000,000,000, of SR-520 replacement as payment for the I-90 lanes. Apparently that’s what those express lanes are worth to him, even though they were over 90% federally funded (yes, really!) – and the federal government (the GAO) says that states can’t use the proceeds from air rights sales on interstate highways (PDF, page 5). Here’s the excerpt:

“The statute states simply that any federal share in the net proceeds, which a state receives as a result of the sale, use, lease or lease renewal of such property, is to be applied to other eligible title 23 projects. Logically, the use of the term “federal share” indicates that the federal share retains its character as federal funds. Furthermore, by providing in § 156(a) that states must dispose of real property at fair market value, unless the Secretary grants an exception for a social, environmental, or economic purpose, the statutory text evidences a strong and on-going federal interest in any revenues generated from such disposal. In our view, this is a clear indication that the federal share of these proceeds should continue to be treated as federal rather than state funds.”

Don’t these people realize we’re paying attention now? Sound Transit is not your personal ATM, Mr. Speaker.

Further Delays for East Link in House Transpo Budget

The House Transportation Committee just released their 2009 budget proposal (press release here). Not surprisingly, it includes more delays for R8A, the project that would reconfigure I-90 HOV lanes to make room for East Link Light Rail:

(17) The department shall not sign the final environmental impact
statement for the east link project or negotiate an airspace lease with
sound transit for the use of the Interstate 90 center roadway for
exclusive use by light rail until completion of an independent facility
asset assessment by the joint transportation committee.

You may remember that the last study requested by the state confirmed that the I-90 bridge can handle light rail. Much of our state government remains opposed to building light rail across the water despite overwhelming support from the voters. Perhaps these representatives are under the illusion that if they keep requesting new studies, one will eventually tell them what they want to hear.

Unfortunately there isn’t much time left to influence this budget. There’s a public hearing today at 3:30pm (stream), with an executive session closely following tomorrow at the same time. Full agenda here.

We’ll have more information on all this later tonight.

Capitol Hill Streets for People Meeting Friday

With demolition to make way for light rail beginning on Capitol Hill, and the possibility to see streetcar construction start next year, the neighborhood is in for a long haul of non-stop construction for the foreseeable future.

Since streets around the area will be torn up anyway for this construction, I began to wonder if this might be a great opportunity to rethink how to make them better for not only cars but bicycles, transit, and people, rather than put everything back exactly as it is now.

I quickly found that I wasn’t the only one envisioning better streets, and now that the discussion has started about what to do with the land above the station once construction is complete, it seems like the perfect time to start the conversation.

Anyone interested is invited to an informal community discussion this Friday 7:00pm at Moe Bar (please RSVP). Learn more about the streetcar project, and share your ideas for how to make Capitol Hill an even more vibrant, walkable community.

Transit Heroes

I want to share the story of scene I witnessed, but first I want share with you what I was thinking about when I saw it happen.

Last week, a mysterious hero saved a man’s life after he fell onto the subway tracks in New York. The man fell off the platform onto the tracks and the hero jumped down, picked him up, and put him back on the platform before an oncoming tram came. The hero board the next train, and seemed to slip into anonymity. Eventually the man came forward, Chad Lindsey of Manhattan, magazine proof reader and aspiring actor.

Continue reading “Transit Heroes”

Metro’s 3 Billionth Rider

King County Metro Transit
Photo by flyer_e901

On March 31st, Metro’s 3 billionth rider will board. King County wants photos of you riding the bus for their flickr pool, and you can email the photos to king county, and you can see the already submitted items here (while you’re at it, feel free to add the photos to our flickr pool as well). Metro was formed in 1973 by combining Seattle Transit (which served the city) and the Metropolitan Transit Corporation, which served the suburbs.

3 billion riders in 36 years is quite a lot, from King County’s press release:

Using information published by the Washington State Department of Transportation, 3 billion is the number of all vehicles that have traveled on Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle for the past 30 years.

They also have a slightly weird carbon footprint game thingy in celebration of the event.

Funding Cuts

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

This is very disappointing, but this is REALLY freaking annoying. Are we really going to add three years or more to the East Link schedule for want of $24M? Really? Come on.

WIthout getting too dramatic, you should all read Goldy’s post on the future of Washington State. We really are at a crossroads here. The state is billions of dollars short of its budget. It’s constitutionally prohibited from (a) running a deficit, or (b) cutting education funding, which makes up 45% of the budget, in Goldy’s estimation. QED, very, VERY large cuts have to come from a very small pool of revenue.

Without fundamental underlying changes to the way revenues are collected in this state, we’re going to go off a cliff. Oh, we’ll still function all right, but we certainly won’t be the kind of state that attracts high-paying jobs and lots of investment. Goldy:

The highly regressive retail sales and excise taxes on which we rely for the bulk of our revenues are levied on an ever shrinking portion of our post-industrial, service and information based economy: the sale of material goods. Thus unless we raise taxes, or dramatically restructure our tax system to meet the reality of the twenty-first century, state and local government will continue to shrink as a portion of our total economy, and with it, the services taxpayers have come to expect and demand.

When the Senate budget is released next week we will have an opportunity to examine one vision of Washington’s future… a vision much closer to that of Alabama or Mississippi than the one we hold now. It is a vision that will surely make many Republicans happy.

This is bad, kids. It’s leadership time for Gregoire, Chopp, Brown, and the rest. Time to show your cards.

The Alternative Viewpoint

Without actually endorsing either position, I thought I’d defend two propositions that are taking a beating in the comments:

  • Establish no Ride Free Zone for Light Rail. The $1.75 base fare allows a $2.00 fare from Rainier Beach to downtown — equal to the current peak Metro fare for that commute.  With express bus service being severely curtailed to that neighborhood and its surroundings, and a fair number of poor folks in that area, it was a solid PR move to not have the arrival of light rail result in both fewer transportation choices and higher costs for people in the community.
  • R8A is a North King Subarea Project. Leave aside the train itself, which obviously benefits both subareas.  Whom do the HOV lanes themselves benefit?  The net impact is new reverse-peak HOV capacity on the I-90 bridge.  Clearly, that’s a benefit primarily for Seattle residents, not Eastsiders.

I’m pointing these arguments out as a devil’s advocate.  Please resume savaging them in the comments.

From high hopes to low hopes

For those whom hoped the state would change its act in regards to rail transportation, I am steadily learning that you can not count on Washington State to make the commitment that involves transportation, unless it is roads. Other states however are jumping hard and fast to get on stimulus funding and are matching funds to ensure they get funding for projects. What are we doing however….?

Continue reading “From high hopes to low hopes”

Opinion: WSDOT and Amtrak Cascades

Amtrak leaving Seattle by Brian Bundridge
Amtrak leaving Seattle by Brian Bundridge

Where to begin after the troubling news that was brought forward to us recently? Washington State Department of Transportation reorganized the passenger rail division during a critical time when federal funding is available for key improvements along the corridor. These improvements would wildly benefit thousands of passengers who take the Amtrak Cascades daily. Read on below the fold.

Continue reading “Opinion: WSDOT and Amtrak Cascades”

News Round-Up: Heat on R8A

Link train. Photo by The Lebers.
Link train. Photo by The Lebers.

Whew, these have been some busy news days!

  • Metro’s funding gap — which could result in 20% service cuts unless action is taken — is receiving some additional focus this week, with an Op-Ed piece written by King County Councilman Larry Phillips. Phillips is running for King County Executive and has been showing a strong commitment to transit. This is a great Op-Ed, a must read! At one point it zeroes in on an issue that we brought to his attention a few weeks ago: current policy would have the cuts affect Seattle the deepest, and then when the hours recover we’d get a diminished return. “Unfortunately, the policy that’s currently on the books for cutting Metro service would do the most harm to people who rely on the bus today. This must be changed.” It’s great to hear him take our concerns seriously, so be certain read the full piece.
  • We’re not the only local source talking about the state’s failure to pony up for R8A: Publicola and the Slog have both posted about it, with strong arguments for the state funding the span as it committed. Hopefully we’ll see a mention in the Times or PI soon, and then we’ll need to get action from some of our local State Reps and Senators who are interested in delivering for their districts.
  • Capitol Hill Seattle has a nice recap of Wednesday evening’s Sound Transit forum on Capitol Hill’s future Transit-oriented Development (TOD). After construction is completion for U-Link, ST will have about 3 arces of land to develop on. While most people expect the usual six-story apartment/condo projects, ST is gathering feedback on possible public amenities. One idea that appealed to me is the thought of a daily farmer’s market — that’d be great! ST has a unique opportunity here to define the heart of Capitol Hill and I applaud the community for being so involved.
  • Spender Agnew, a reader from all the way in Minneapolis, has blogged about his city’s rail network compared to some peer cities. One of those peer cities, of course, is Seattle. Quiet an interesting read, particularly the graph that shows the length of the rail network on a time axis.
  • Some neat transit articles in the news: Eastside Business Journal talks about the Bus Buddy program that Sound Transit operates. Pierce Transit is rolling out buses that’ll talk to you — and announce which stop you’re coming up to. Slog talks about some TOD in Northgate that they’re not a fan of – Ben went to this event as well and liked it much more; he’s working on a piece about it. Another story on Slog tells us about the residents around the Othello Link station who worried about losing their local Safeway to re-development.

(Photograph from flickr user The Lebers.)

UW to CHS Tunnels Cost $86mn Less than Planned

Sound Transit today announced that a lowest bid for the University of Washington to Capitol Hill tunnels came in $86 million, or 22%, less than the engineers’ estimate.

The tunnels are the the largest component of the University Link project. That project’s first construction contract came in $10 million under estimates last December.

Bruce Gray of Sound Transit noted these two bids reflected a positive environment for constructions projects. “Every day we see bids coming in lower than engineers’ estimate, as opposed to a few years ago when they were coming in higher than engineers’ estimate.”

The economic downturn has halted construction in other areas, meaning that there is less private demand for the contractors who are capable of work of this scale. Sound Transit engineers priced the tunneling project at $395,334,000. The lowest bid, from Traylor Frontier-Kemper Joint Venture, came in at $309,175,274.

Things aren’t completely rosy in the ST financial world. The same recession that has made the bid environment more favorable has also led to a projected $2.1 billion funding shortfall for Sound Transit 2 before it has even began collecting tax revenue. Still, these great bids reflect that it is the best time to make public infrastructure investment.

No Link Free Ride to Affect Just 2,600 Daily Tunnel Users

Earlier this morning we reported that Sound Transit plans to charge fare in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel for its Link light rail service, while buses in the tunnel will still operate for free for intra-downtown trips. While this means a cheaper base fare across the system, our commenters wondered what sort of affects on ridership this would have.

Greg Walker, Sound Transit chief policy and planning officer, said it won’t have much of an impact. “We project about 2,600 people daily” will be deincentivized from paying a fare for light rail compared to jumping on a free bus, Walker told us. The plan only affects “non-transfer, cash-paying” customers who are taking a trip entirely within downtown. He noted that it’s not possible to know how many of those 2,600 people will skip riding light rail.

Walker said that the 2,600 number is “less than 10% of the overall ridership on the line.” Since ridership numbers are hard to predict, he said that’s “within my margin-of-error for ridership projections.” Walker expects that Link ridership will exceed projections, even with this loss, since most other new light rail projects across the nation have exceeded their projections as well.

Legislature Blocks East Link

Today at 12:30, the state Senate Transportation Committee released their 2009-2011 budget proposed project list (see LEAP Transportation Document 2009-1, Highway Projects).

R8A, the I-90 HOV lane project that MUST be complete for East Link to be built, is completely missing. This blocks a $4.5 billion investment that we’ve already funded.

On the other hand, there’s plenty of money for I-405 widening, a project regional voters voted against in the 2007 Roads & Transit measure.

If no change is made here immediately, this decision will delay East Link, as well as up the price tag by hundreds of millions for every year of delay.

Update: Senate Transportation includes Senator Fred Jarrett, who has thrown his hat in the ring for King County Executive. I want to point out that his district voted for Proposition 1 by a fair margin (although I think this map has the preliminary results, not the final counts, but it’s close enough). King County as a whole went over 60% for Prop 1 – a 20 point margin. Now, Senator Jarrett supported Proposition 1 during the campaign and he was one of very few legislators to do so. This is his chance to show that support — he could be a hero for the Eastside come November. What’re you going to do, Fred?

Update 2: I used to live on the very edge of Senator Ken Jacobsen‘s district. He’s also on Senate Transportation, and I sent him an email just now asking to help make this right. If you live in the 46th, you can too!

ST to Decide on $1.75 Base Link Fare, No Free Ride

A fare chart by Oran
A fare chart by Oran

The Sound Transit Board on Thursday will likely vote to set the base Link fare at $1.75. The fare would be modified with a distance-based surcharge of $.05 per mile rounded to the nearest quarter (you can read about the introduction of the distance-based fare in our archives). The maximum fare from Downtown Seattle to Seatac Airport would be $2.50.

This option was chosen over an alternative which would have had the base fare at $2.00 but given downtown riders free access to light rail in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. Sound Transit staff notes that while this option would have created higher ridership because there wouldn’t be an incentive for cash-users to avoid the rail fare, the rest of the network would be subsidizing the Link trips within downtown.

Linda Thielke, a Metro spokesperson, said that the bus agency has “no plan” to change the ride free policy in the tunnel. This will create a unique situation where riding buses in the tunnel is free, but riding light rail costs money.

Light rail riders have to either purchase tickets for the appropriate destination before boarding, or tap on and then “tap off” with the upcoming Orca smart fare/pass card. Each of these methods would be much faster than the current on-board payment system on buses which can cause crowding.

The Mayor’s transportation adviser, Andrew Glass Hastings, noted that Metro decided “to keep ride free in the tunnel to maintain headways and not impact their service.” Indeed, we have argued in the past that the absence of bus fares downtown can keep things operating smoothly.

You can read the full resolution on the Sound Transit website (pdf). My favorite part is the 52% farebox recovery ratio expected in 2017 once University Link opens. High ridership and long trains operated by one person will do that.

Follow-up: We have some numbers showing the effect on ridership.