A Very Quick Overview of Why R8A Matters to You

Martin had a fantastic post this morning about the I-90 Two Way Transit and HOV project, also known as Alternative R-8A, or just R8A. I want to add to this some history, and exactly why this is a key issue for transit.

In 1976, a Memorandum of Agreement was reached to build I-90. There are some gems in here, but I think the key is that I-90 was originally intended to be converted to rail:

2. The I-90 facility shall be designed and constructed so that conversion of all or part of the transit roadway to fixed guideway is possible.

In 2004, the same stakeholders partnered with Sound Transit to amend the 1976 Memorandum of Agreement. This amendment (and it’s really worth a read, it’s pretty short) established that:

“…all parties agree that the ultimate configuration for I-90 between Bellevue, Mercer Island and Seattle should be defined as High Capacity Transit in the center roadway and HOV lanes in the outer roadways; and further agree that High Capacity Transit for this purpose is defined as a transit system operating in dedicated right-of-way such as light rail, monorail, or a substantially equivalent system;”

Furthermore, they liked one particular alternative for reaching this configuration:

“…all parties agree that building HOV lanes on the outer roadways as identified as Alternative R-8A as set forth in the May 21, 2004 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) prepared for the project, is an essential first step toward achieving the ultimate configuration;”

The final resolution was crystal clear, we need to put HOV lanes on the outer roadway ASAP:

1. Alternative R-8A with High Capacity Transit deployed in the center lanes is the ultimate configuration for I-90 in this segment;
2. Construction of R-8A should occur as soon as possible as a first step to the ultimate configuration;
3. Upon completion of R-8A, move as quickly as possible to construct High Capacity Transit in the center lanes;
4. Commit to the earliest possible conversion of center roadway to two-way High Capacity Transit operation based on outcome of studies and funding approvals.

WSDOT has a fantastic project page where you can see the details of R8A and the schedule WSDOT committed to – with construction ending in 2014. Martin noted that Sound Transit needs this to happen before they can build East Link – so anything the state does to alter this schedule will directly impact our ability to build light rail to the eastside.

So why am I writing this? Because the response we’ve gotten demands some scrutiny. Last time I wrote about this project, it was to point out that Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1978 (PDF), the bill to distribute transportation stimulus funds, reduced funding for R8A Stage 1 (page 42). When I pointed out that Representative Judy Clibborn’s amendment removed money for R8A, Representative Eddy commented with (in part):

I am advised that the language in question reflects an accounting change. “We revised the amount for the I-90 two-way transit stage 1 project down by $2.8 M in the 2009 supplemental budget. This is due to project savings in stage 1. These savings are being transferred to the budget item for stages 2 & 3 of the project. Unfortunately the proviso does not mention this other budget item.”

She goes on to report that the total budget for stages 2 & 3 is being increased by $3.27 M, beyonjd the $2.8 reduction in ‘09 to recognize increased inflation.

A commenter named Allison emailed Clibborn and got this response:

The I-90 two-way transit project is a three-stage project. The first stage was completed $2.8 million under budget, so the savings on stage one have been transferred to stages two and three. – Judy Clibborn

In fact, ESHB 1978 did mention R8A stages 2 and 3 – it didn’t move money from stage 1 to them, it removed another $1.8 million from them (page 47).

A staffer in Olympia tells me the Senate Transportation Committee plans to release their 2009-2011 budget tomorrow at 12:30 pm. Do keep in mind that this is just Senate Transportation, not the House, but it will give us a good idea as to whether these promises will be kept. Tomorrow I’ll look at what’s in the budget, and we’ll figure out what’s next. See you then.

Reps Introduces Bill to Toll 520 & 90 Spans

An example of overhead tolling from the "Build 520" website.

[Update: This post initially stated that tolls on I-90 would only take effect if the speeds on I-90 fell by half during the first three months of tolling SR-520. In fact, tolls on I-90 would take effect if speeds on I-405 fell by half during any three consecutive months after tolling begins on SR-520. I’ve corrected the text below.]

State Representatives Ross Hunter, Deb Ebby, and Marko Liias introduced HB 2319 Monday. The bill would allow tolls to be applied to both the SR-520 span across Lake Washington and the I-90 span. The toll revenue would go to construction of a new, six-lane 520 bridge and the highway work on both sides of the water.

Tolls would only apply to the I-90 span if speeds in the I-405 corridor fall by half for a period of three months compared to the previous year or if the SR-520 tolls are raising less than 80% of the expected revenue. Tolls would be capped at $2.90 (2007 dollars) annually adjusted for inflation and would be variable based on the time of a day, a form of congestion pricing.

The SR-520 toll would take effect on January 1, 2010. By implementing variable tolling before the end of 2010, the region would receive $154mn in Federal grant money.

The bill is being offered as an alternative to HB 2211. That bill, offered by Rep. Clibborn who is chair of the transportation committee and represents Mercer Island, would not toll the I-90 span under any circumstances.

This blog has long asserted that it is necessary to toll both spans for to get the maximum amount of funding for the 520 bridge, to make sure that congestion isn’t simply redirected to I-90, and because we support the concept of congestion pricing as perhaps the singular model to reduce congestion. I-90 tolls shouldn’t be optional, they should be a feature of this bill. But this bill is much better than Clibborn’s version.

East Link in 2024?

Sound Transit
Sound Transit

The most disappointing thing about the PSRC stimulus list is the failure to include any funds for the completion of the I-90 two-way HOV project.  Under current state budget plans, the last tranche of funding ($24m) is programmed for the 2017-2019 biennium.  Since it will take approximately 5 years from the completion of this to opening day of the Seattle-Bellevue segment, this could potentially delay its opening from 2020 to 2024.

The project consists of three stages:

Stage 1 extended the westbound HOV lane from Bellevue to mid-Mercer Island and was completed last October.

Stage 2 would upgrade the same stretch in the eastbound direction, and it’s here that the state’s contribution of $24m is required.

Stage 3 is to complete the HOV lane into Seattle in both directions, and was fully funded by Proposition 1 last year.

Of the $188m total cost for all three stages, the state and ST agreed that the split would be $51m and $138m, respectively. Until 2007, the last chunk of state funding was scheduled for 2009 (pdf, page 20), so that Stage 2 could be complete by 2012.  In early 2007, however, ESHB 1094, implemented a “LEAP” plan that pushed back the $24m (pdf, page 15) to beyond 2017.

ESHB 1094 was sponsored in the House by Rep. Judy Clibborn* (D-Mercer Island), Rep. Fred Jarrett (D-Mercer Island), and Rep. Al O’Brien (D-Bothell).  O’Brien was probably interested in an interchange in Bothell, but it’s clear what the big impact in Clibborn and Jarrett’s district was.

Rep. Jarrett, incidentally, is running for King County Executive this year.

It seems ridiculous to hold up a $4 billion project for want of $24 million, so one has to hope that the relevant parties will find a way.  It may be that this delay is an opening bid by the state, since there’s a pending negotiation over whether or not WSDOT will charge Sound Transit rent for the express lanes.

On the other hand, that assumes good faith on the part of both parties.  If the legislature wants to, it can certainly create enough obstacles to prevent Sound Transit from ever using the I-90 right of way.

As the Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel put it in their report:

Very significant schedule and budget risks continue for the I-90 Two-Way Transit Stages 2 and 3 projects. Sound Transit has funded its share of the projects as well as the entire current estimate for Stage 3, contingent on WSDOT’s commitment to work collaboratively to manage scope. But  WSDOT’s $24 million contribution to Stage 2 is currently budgeted for the 2017-2019 biennium.  Funding authorization by the state is urgently needed to be moved to the current biennium as these projects are on the critical path for East Link over the I-90 bridge and they are essential to provide needed capacity during the 520 bridge reconstruction. Also, we want to highlight that WSDOT and Sound Transit must work earnestly and cooperatively over the next year to resolve the terms of the agreement for the conversion of the I-90 center roadway for use by East Link to avoid further significant risks to the I-90 Stage 2 and 3 projects and East Link light rail.

*UPDATE: A source in Olympia points out to me via email that as Transportation Chair, it’s customary for Rep. Clibborn to sponsor the transportation budget.  That isn’t to say that she was unaware, opposed, or somehow not responsible for the fate of a project in her district.

Demolition Progresses in Capitol Hill

Image from the Slog.

Sound Transit contractors recently began demolishing the buildings that current occupy the area where construction for the University Link projected will be staged. While it may not look like a lot was recycled from the picture above, take note from the Sound Transit CEO:

I wanted to pass along an update on our ongoing recycling efforts at the future site of the Capitol Hill light rail station.

As buildings are being removed to make way for the station, we’ve been working very hard to keep material out of the landfill. So, for example, before demolition salvage teams removed potential re-salable items, such as doors, light fixtures and railings. About 75 percent of the remaining building material such as bricks and wood will be recycled.

A while back, Sound Transit hosted a plant salvage event for neighbors to adopt some of the smaller trees or shrubs and give them a new home in their yard. Our contractor is working with a specialist to determine if any of the larger trees can be moved and used in other projects.

And even the tree stumps are being put to good use. The root-balls and stumps from the trees that are too large to be transplanted are being donated for use in salmon habitat restoration projects in the Puget Sound region.

Related to the project, the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog has posted word of a potential new cross-walk at Olive Way & Boylston. That is definitely needed.

(Picture from Slog.)

Vancouver’s TransLink to upgrade infrastructure

Translink West Coast Express and SkyTrain at Waterfront Station
Translink West Coast Express and SkyTrain at Waterfront Station

Once again, our Canadian friends to the North are continuing an aggressive push in Vancouver’s rail infrastructure.

Under a joint program, TransLink will upgrade infrastructure on its SkyTrain automated light-rail system, as well as several stations along the Expo Line, including the Main Street and Scott Road stations, by lengthening platforms and improving pedestrian circulation and access, and access for passengers with disabilities. The agency also will upgrade the Waterfront and Mission stations on its West Coast Express commuter-rail line to accommodate longer cars and improve passenger access.

Mind you, West Coast Express can already accommodate 10 car trains. The extensions will allow train lengths of 12 cars, like Toronto’s GO Transit.

Several of the Canadian railroads, including BNSF, will be performing major track rehabilitation on the ROW between the Canadian boarder and various points in the lower mainlines. Amtrak will benefit directly from this project with an estimated time savings of 10 minutes with the increased train speed. The trackwork portion is expected to be done in 2010 but after the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

New South Ferry Station

First 5 cars for South Ferry!
First Five Cars Only, by soopahgrover

The New York City Subway opened a new South Ferry Station. Gordon Werner sent along photos of the last day of service on the old station, and the first day of service at the new one. The old South Ferry Station was sort of infamous for its short platform that only allowed the first five cars’ doors to open.

The $530 million station opened last week after a two month delay caused by an engineeing mistake that caused the gap between trains and the platforms to be up to four inches. Even after opening, the station had a couple of glitches: a water main broke and there were signal problems.

I’m hoping Link’s opening goes better…

Welcome to the Fast Lane

Is anyone else encouraged by the Federal Secretary of Transportation’s Blog? Yeah, it’s named “fast lane” but most of the posts are about liveable, walkable communities, high-speed rail, and a smart partnership between the HUD and DOT. The Feds may finally get it: transportation planning and land use are really two sides of the same coin. And nothing will get that message to Metropolitan Planning Organizations quicker than federal grant money. Let’s see Mr. LaHood deliver!

Un-pave the parking lot, put up a (shopper’s) paradise

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’ve been reading Suburban Nation (available at the library once I turn it back in), which has inspired me to come up with a few ideas for Seattle. One section discusses how to bring some of the successful features of malls to downtown. Malls always have anchor stores on opposite sides of the mall, requiring at least two walks through the mall past every store to see both anchors. However, cities put parking right at major destinations (arenas, convention center, etc.), completely ignoring this potential foot traffic.

Here’s the idea. With Link and Sounder we have less demand for parking at our stadiums. How about removing the North parking lot (which is single-level anyway) and put in small-footprint 5-story buildings complete with pedestrian-only streets? Instead of walking from Link or Sounder through a (boring and dangerous) parking lot, we could be walking past dozens of stores and restaurants. When there’s no game, this becomes transit oriented development and extra shopping for downtown.

On top, put offices or condos. Who wouldn’t want to live or work a block from transit?

(second image is my attempt at laying out what this would look like. ok, so I’m no architect, but it’s a start.)

A Brave New World

[UPDATE 3/22 3:25pm: I see some people are taking this post as a rebuttal of Ben’s, and it really isn’t.  We both agree that the afternoon post on the Times website was sensationalistic and would stoke unfounded fears, and (I think) we would agree that the next morning’s story was much better in that regard.  Aside from a philosophical difference about the usefulness of discerning people’s motives, the real point of this post was a reflection on instant-reaction journalism vs. the more traditional kind.]

I’d like to offer a somewhat feeble defense of Mike Lindblom and the Seattle Times in the whole  substandard steel fiasco.

Yesterday morning’s article, which I presume was the one in the print edition, meets what I’d consider to be basic standards of fairness and accuracy.  I won’t claim to know Mr. Lindblom’s innermost biases and prejudices, which we all have, but I believe he considers himself a professional that wants to get the story right.

In the past, newspapers have had a few hours for things to cool off before the print deadline.  Today, however, there’s a lot of pressure to get things out there as soon as you learn about them, without adequate time for reflection.  On a much smaller scale, we experience it blogging.

And speaking from that experience, the pressure to immediately react is what sets free our preconceived notions.  I’ll sometimes write a draft in the heat of the moment and then let it sit for 6 or 7 hours.  When I edit it later, the end product is almost always far better than what I had first written.  I’m more able to ask critical questions about my own assumptions, and how other viewpoints might change perceptions of the story.

For all their history and tradition, modern newspapers are grappling with the same issues in their online editions.  In a perfect world, I’d prefer a group on the transportation beat that didn’t always assume the worst about Sound Transit.  At the same time, however, I think they’re professionals and are going to figure out the new rules of the road with the rest of us.

Port Suspends Eastside Rail Purchase Indefinitely

Wilburton Trestle
Photo by Slack Action

The Port of Seattle had announced today they will suspend their purchase of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Eastside Rail property due to the bad credit market. The Port had planned to make the $107 million purchase in December of last year, but postponed that when credit markets took a turn for the worse and their ability to raise capital was severely weakened. The Port has also suspended a plan to build a $413 million parking garage (apologies, that post did not take the Blogger to WordPress transition well) late last year.

The Port of Seattle still does plan on purchasing the 42-mile right of way at some future date after the credit market issues have been resolved. King County Executive Ron Sims had worked a deal with the Port for a swap of Boeing Field for the BNSF corridor and some cash. Sims had wanted the line to be converted into a bike and jogging trail, much like old interurban rights-of-way had been converted previously. The County Council never gave the deal final approval. (It seemed Ron Sims knew about the County’s budget problems for a lot longer than he let on).

The Eastside BNSF that was last used for passenger service in 2007, when the Spirit of Washington dinner line stopped operating. Sections of the line had continued to be used for freight, particularly in the Woodinville and Bellevue areas, but that activity has since ceased as well. Sound Transit released a cost estimate of operating commuter passenger rail service on the corridor last month. Shortly after, I argued that commuter rail on the Eastside BSNF line will never materialize due to a very high cost-per-ride estimate. The line was severed in South Bellevue to make way for I-405 widening, and a new tunnel or overpass of the freeway would have to be completed for the north-south traffic to be able to run the length of the line.

520 Overpass and Transportation Subsidies

Overlake Transit Center, eastbound
Overlake bus stop, photo by rideyourbike

Full disclosure: I work for Microsoft – and love it – at the Overlake Campus. I can’t imagine using this overpass for anything except visiting the new company store, which I do just a handful of times a year.

A project that would build a 520 overpass near Microsoft’s Overlake Campus is slated to receive $11 million in PSRC highway stimulus money, and apparently this is upsetting some “tax payer watchdogs”. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a national organization who lobbies against corporate subsidies, says that Microsoft should be footing even more of the bill than they already are. Currently, Microsoft has agreed to contribute $17.5 million for the project, which will cost somewhere around $40 million according to WSDOT.

Now it may be true that the majority of the trips across the overpass will be made by Microsoft’s employees and partners, but so what? Every transportation investment is a subsidy for the residents and businesses the project serves. If we stopped subsidizing transportation projects that served businesses, we’d have very little transportation infrastructure at all. Microsoft is chipping in nearly half the project’s cost, so I don’t see a whole lot to complain about. Or would we rather Microsoft spent the $17.5 million on transportation projects for a development center in India*? The answer seems obvious, and the complaints about this particular project seem misguided.

In other Microsoft news, that is one big garage. It’s scary to think a garage that big could ever get full. (H/T to Frank)

*Nothing wrong with that. The question is “would we rather”…

Sound Transit Reports $2.1 Billion Gap for ST2

New sales tax forecasting from Sound Transit has indicated that their $17.8 billion transit expansion project passed by voters last fall now faces a $2.1 billion funding gap because of the deepening recession. Sound Transit is funded by a 0.4% sales tax (increaseing to 0.9% on April 1st) and an MVET on car purchases. Consumer spending and car purchases fell significantly as America entered into its worst recession in recent memory.

Sound Transit says that it has been conservative in its budgeting and may be able to make up some money with a variety of tools “including cost and scope control, taking advantage of the lower borrowing costs, and a more positive bid environment for our construction projects.” Earlier this year a contract was awarded for light rail to the U District that fell 34% below ST’s estimates. The poor economy has also dampened the effects of inflation that had been built into ST cost estimates.

Sound Transit is not currently planning on any changes to the construction plans but awknowledged that if revenues continue to fall and the recession deepens they may have to “also look at budget reductions, schedule adjustments, and increased bonding.” Pete Rogness, an ST staff member briefing the Sound Transit Board Finance Committee, said that delaying construction or implementation of some of the projects was “very much a last resort.”

It’s a shame to see something we all worked so hard to pass immediately be affected by the recession, but it’s also not surprising. Every level of government that depends on taxing revenues is seeing major drops in their collections. The ST2 plan creates about 69,000 jobs across all sectors — which is reason enough to keep things on track. Thus, an increased federal role in transportation spending would be even more useful in an environment like this.

The Seattle PI has more coverage.

Substandard Reporting

[UPDATE 4:15pm: Looks like Lindblom’s getting raked over the coals for this one. It’s been edited yet again.  The Seattle P-I managed to get the story right without all this hassle. Maybe it’s because the P-I doesn’t have a vendetta against Sound Transit?]

[UPDATE 2:57pm: The latest online version of this article is slightly less inflammatory, although still misleading up until paragraph 5.  Let’s hope this trend continues going into the print edition.]

These days, when I read a Seattle Times article about Sound Transit, I play a little game – I count the paragraphs before the fearmongering is replaced with the real story. Today I got to 6 before realizing that today’s installment is really about stretching the definition of the word “in.”

Lindblom’s story starts by describing the concrete columns that support Sound Transit’s trackway in Tukwila. The reader is led to believe that the columns are structurally unsound – most of us have seen construction, and are familiar with the concept of using rebar to strengthen concrete. A quick skim of the article is simply scary – this rebar doesn’t meet design specifications?

It turns out this isn’t about rebar at all. It’s about a steel casing, essentially a concrete pour form, for 12′ of the foundation depth (the foundation continues much deeper than that). This casing is left after the pour to add extra reinforcement. Discretionary reinforcement. From the Washington DOT Bridge Design Manual, Section 7.8.2:

“The volumetric ratio and spacing requirements of the AASHTO Guide Specification for LRFD Seismic Bridge Design for confinement need not be met. The top of shafts in typical WSDOT single column/single shaft connections remains elastic under seismic loads due to the large shaft diameter (as compared to the column). Therefore this requirement does not need to be met.”

Because these columns are big, this casing isn’t even actually necessary. There’s a highlight from “grayb” (which I assume is Bruce Gray) in the design memorandum (PDF) so kindly linked by the Seattle Times:

“Because the provision for confinement is discretionary and not prescriptive for large diameter piles, it is the designer’s conclusion that 36ksi steel is adequate for both [10′ and 12′] diameter casings.” [mine]

The headline and the article are blatantly overblown. The grade of steel used in the non-required casing for the columns is lower than it should be. The existence of the 50ksi requirement at all is (from the report) “a detailing exercise at the discretion of the design engineer,” not a structural issue.

You know what all this comes down to? Sound Transit’s engineers dot every I and cross every T, and a reporter that tries at every turn to smear the agency just gets caught with his pants down when he fails to read the reports he writes about.

Metro’s Bleak Budget Aided by Stimulus

The Seattle Times reports that Metro’s substantial stimulus grab will help with their budget shortfall:

Over the next two years, Metro will receive $25 million for maintenance and $46 million to replace aging diesel buses with hybrids.

“It helps us from reducing service this year and prevents us from reducing jobs here at Metro,” general manager Kevin Desmond said Wednesday, at a briefing to elected officials in the county’s regional transit committee.

A steep plunge in consumer spending — sales taxes subsidize 71 percent of Metro’s operating budget — is creating a $326 million gap between Metro’s income and its plans for huge service expansions for 2008-11.

To stay afloat, Metro boosted fares by a quarter per trip last month and will raise them another quarter next year. The agency canceled some maintenance and capital projects last fall, but none that riders on the street would notice.

Those moves and the stimulus trimmed this year’s shortfall to a manageable $17 million, likely to be covered by cash reserves. The overall budget is around $600 million this year.

However, the real crisis for Metro is the revenue shortfall for next year. That budget was recently projected to have a $100 million dollar revenue gap, which would translate to a service reduction of 20%. We asked Metro what affect the stimulus would have on next year’s revenue gap, but we didn’t hear back from them in time for publication of this story.

Update: Metro got back to us. A spokesperson for the transit agency said, “In general, the stimulus money will help free up some revenue that can be applied to operating expenses in 2009 and 2010. But this revenue will not make up for the deep loss of sales tax revenues. As far as future transit service reductions, Metro will be developing options in the coming months for dealing with the budget shortfall. It’s too early to say how service would ultimately be effected.”

Taking Sounder to the Sounders FC?

Sounders at King Street Station
Sounders at King Street Station by Brian Bundridge

There has been a few e-mails regarding taking Sounder to see the Sounders FC and your in luck, at least for one direction.

Those who live near the South Sounder line can hop on the 4:45pm train departing Tacoma to Seattle and get to today’s opening game of the Seattle Sounders FC vs New York Red Bull. You will only have 20 minutes or so to spare but thankfully Qwest Field is a very short walk!

Continue reading “Taking Sounder to the Sounders FC?”

Author Poll: LINK Completion

Last week (before the latest revelations about the Central LINK float disappearing), I sent out a poll to the STB authors asking them to estimate the percentage chance that LINK construction meets certain deadlines.

In their estimates, respondents were asked to consider all types of risk: engineering, political, financial, economic, volcano, Godzilla, etc.

I got replies from Andrew, Ben, Brian, John, and I did one myself.  For your reading pleasure and future ridicule:

Continue reading “Author Poll: LINK Completion”