Crosscut: Trolleybuses, not Streetcars

Matt Fiske’s proposal in Crosscut to replace the City of Seattle’s streetcar proposals with expanded and improved trolley bus service is pretty good fodder for armchair planners out there.  I understand our own Adam Parast is working on a characteristically well-informed post on this subject, but I wanted to make a few quick, less-well-informed points:

(1) When a region finally makes a decision and starts getting momentum behind a project, beware of poorly developed alternate proposals that suddenly materialize.  As we’ve seen with constant battles between Link, other technologies (BRT! Eastside Commuter Rail!), and other alignments (rail over 520 first!), a lot of the support for these ideas comes from people more interested in killing whatever is on the table rather than seeing through an actual transit solution.  Regardless of Mr. Fiske’s intentions, expect a lot of his support, such as it is, to evaporate once the streetcar project dies.  All that said, I see no reason to assume he isn’t operating in good faith here.

(2) As back-of-the-envelope proposals go, it’s as good as most others.  You won’t find this blog suggesting that massive increases in bus service are a bad thing.  However, there are no cost estimates associated with this proposal.  While it’s true that the per-mile capital costs for buses tend to be lower, the system Fiske proposes is far more extensive than the streetcar plan, and the operating costs promise to be much, much higher.

(3) Even with all the improvements Fiske proposes (which aren’t cheap), you’ll still have less ridership per mile than a streetcar because the ride will be rougher, payment will be on-board, and because of the general stigma that buses carry for a portion of the population.  This is not to disqualify his proposal outright, but to require some idea on how ridership of the two proposals compares.

As it is, the Fiske proposal is much more ambitious in terms of service, with no reckoning whatsoever of both up-front and recurring costs.  In the absence of those basic facts, it’s not really productive to debate the costs and benefits of this versus other city transit projects.  I’d be on board with Fiske if he said “this is a good idea,” but his thesis is that this is superior to some other project, and for that he needs a lot more evidence than he has.

And furthermore, why no Route 7?

The Voters Must Be Wrong

That’s what Doug MacDonald and John Stanton, along with the Washington Policy Center, want you to believe. You’re wrong. You make poor decisions. You can’t govern yourself. You need “governance reform”.

That’s why they want to ask the region to build more highways, even after we said no. We said very clearly that we don’t want more roads *and* transit, we just want more transit. The difference between the yes votes in these two elections was in the double digits – crystal, I’d call it.

Then why do I see SB 6064, “Transportation Accountability”? Oh, I see, it would create a “balance” in our transportation dollars, to “prioritize” transportation projects – meaning take money from somewhere and, you know, spend it on something “higher priority” (like expanding I-405). Which money? From committee testimony last week: “the bill does subsume the roles, powers and duties of Sound Transit.” Oh, money we voted for to fund specific transit projects.

What’s going on here is simple. RTID is gone and dead. The state’s plan to ask local voters for a bigger share of highway money failed; we’d rather build more transit than build ourselves into gridlock. The state has put themselves in a poor position by expanding roads before they figure out how to maintain them – and now, Doug MacDonald is admitting his abject failure as transportation secretary by trying to steal money from transit. Sure, ten years ago, we thought Sound Transit might actually need reform – but it turns out it just needed new leadership, and now it’s kicking ass. These guys are manufacturing a crisis.

So, who’s sponsoring this garbage? It looks like nearly the same crew. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, who apparently still believes that her constitutents are in the Sound Transit district, and Fred Jarrett of Mercer Island, Bellevue, and Newcastle, who as usual wants his constitutents to be able to drive to work alone in his fancy I-90 express lanes. There are some other choice names – have a look at the bill information (linked above). I love how towns like Eureka and Country Home are really interested in state projects being paid for by Seattle. I wonder if they realize they don’t pay enough taxes to cover their own highways anyway?

The icing on the cake is the wording in the bill digest (PDF). A plan to take money from electric rail transit and put it into highway expansion is apparently “for the benefit of … the environment by reducing fossil fuel use and carbon emissions.” No, really. It’s that insulting.

Do you live in the 41st? Please help me out and call Fred Jarrett – remind him that his constituents voted for Mass Transit Now, not “Expand 405 Now”. The 10th? Mary Margaret Haugen is lost in the tulips, please tell her as much. And Ed Murray? Really? Why are we talking about this again?

And next time you hear these guys talk about ‘bus rapid transit’, please remember that they aren’t pro-bus. They’re just pro-asphalt. My favorite quote from John Stanton, completely separated from reality: “we don’t have enough money for roads.” Maybe we would if we weren’t trying to tunnel under the waterfront.

High Speed Rail News Round-Up

ICE Train Line
ICE line (with a non-express intercity train) near Dusseldorf, photo by davipt
  • The Transport Politic has a list of competitors for stimulus money grants for high speed rail. I think the analysis for our local Amtrak Cascades service (the line between Oregon and BC through Washington) is a bit off: there are a few projects that would greatly increase (pdF) both the speed and reliability of passenger rail on that corridor. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cascades gets some of the money.
  • The President’s budget includes another $1 billion a year for high speed rail, on top of the $8 billion in the stimulus package. US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said that Obama wants to make intercity rail his legacy. This is a huge improvement over every previous President since the 19th century, but it’s not going to be enough to revolutionize transportation the way Eisenhower did with the Interstate Highways.
  • Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is trying to get into the US’s passenger rail market via the Stimulus plan’s $8 billion in High Speed Rail money. Though I’ve never been on Virgin’s West Coast Main Line in the UK, but I’ve flown Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic and I’d say that what Virgin brings to transportation may just be the thing to make intercity rail attractive again in the United States.
  • The San Jose Mercury news is reporting on the dispute around running high speed trains through the suburbs on the San Francisco Pennisula. California approved the first stage of a $40 billion high-speed-rail project through out the state, and part of that plan was to run high-speed trains on tracks next to the existing Caltrain right of way. This has alarmed some wealthy NIMBYs (the worst kind, in my opinion), but according to the opinion of the author of the Mercury News piece, putting much of the line in a retained cut, so called “trenching”, could temper the controversy. It’d also cost a ton of money, adding to a project that is already very ambitious in scope and extraordinarily expensive. Caltrain runs 40 trains a day along that line, topping out in the 80 mph range, so putting a train going twice that couldn’t be that big a deal, could it?
  • The Overhead Wire, based in San Francisco, has a round-up with more California HSR links, and some good analysis.