Chicago Freight Bottleneck

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I may have mentioned this before, but Phillip Longman’s Washington Monthly article on freight rail infrastructure is fantastic. It includes this quote:

Another notorious set of choke points is in Chicago, America’s rail capital, which is visited by some 1,200 trains a day. Built in the nineteenth century by noncooperating private companies, lines coming from the East still have no or insufficient connections with those coming from the West. Consequently, thousands of containers on their way elsewhere must be unloaded each day, “rubber-wheeled” across the city’s crowded streets by truck, and reloaded onto other trains. It takes forty-eight hours for a container to travel five miles across Chicago, longer than it does to get there from New York. This entire problem could be fixed for just $1.5 billion, with benefits including not just faster shipping times and attendant economic development, but drastically reduced road traffic, energy use, and pollution.

PBS’s News Hour had a short piece last week on the Chicago bottleneck that’s worth checking out:

PBS puts the costs at $2.5B, but either way, it’s a steal to fix such an obvious bottleneck in the country’s freight infrastructure

78 Days

MUNI 1299
Boeing-Vertol SF Muni train, scan by Mod as hell

In 1978, the first major post-WWII light rail system in North America opened in Edmonton, Alberta. Like Link (since Joni Earl), it was under budget! Interestingly, it’s also high floor.

1978 also marked the year that the PCC cars were retired on MBTA’s D branch, and the horrible, awful Boeing light rail vehicles completely took over the line. They broke down constantly, despite being marketed by Boeing-Vertol as the “standard light rail vehicle“. That didn’t fly… so to speak.

Who’s excited? Should we try to throw a party on a train?

Portland Streetcar Expansion Gets Large Federal Grant

As reported on The Transport Politic, Portland’s new Eastside streetcar extension will receive $75 million from the feds. Since the project is expected to cost $127 million, the Obama administration’s contribution will pay for more than half of the project. Good news for Portland!

Back in Seattle, while we were just talking about the First Hill streetcar this morning (also able to receive Small Start funding), but ever since the Viaduct tunnel decision came down there hasn’t been much discussion about the 1st Ave/Central streetcar line. City leaders agree that now’s the time to invest in our infrastructure, but where’s the progress along 1st Ave?

First Hill Streetcar Alignment

First Hill Streetcar Map
First Hill Streetcar, by Oran

Capitol Hill Seattle is arguing for a 12th Ave alignment for the First Hill streetcar. The post is a good argument for streetcars in general, but I’ve never found the 12th Ave alignment that compelling. Sure, 12th Avenue is an up-and-coming area with plenty of development opportunities on the Central District (eastern) side, and the streetcar could really anchor the district. And I agree with CHS that the Broadway alignment is not the best choice. But I see three big reasons why a First Hill routing, particularly, the Madison and Boren routing shown in Oran’s awesome map, is preferable.

Sound Transit originally had a station planned for First Hill, and the first “preferred” alignment for North Link in 2004 included a station on First Hill between Westlake and Capitol Hill. However, preliminary engineering found a ton of potential problems with such an alignment, mainly due to soil conditions under the hill and the close turn-around south from Westlake and back north toward Capitol Hill. The station was dropped, and Sound Transit added the streetcar to ST2 to ensure First Hill would retain a rail connection to the rest of the region. So First Hill is sort of “owed” the line, and the Madison-Boren routing covers the largest portion of area, providing the best replacement for a station there.

First Hill already has a ton of jobs at the hospitals there, and many more at the many clincs and the handful of medical office towers. If you take a look at Oran’s amazing map, you can see that most of the hospitals, as well as the huge office office on Madison, would be within a couple of blocks of the Boren-Madison alignment. Along with the high-rise apartment buildings in that neighborhood, there is already the potential to be all-day activity on the street that could make the First Hill streetcar get a ton of riders.

First Hill also has one of the best opportunities for transit oriented development in the city. Outside of the low-lying areas in and around downtown, it’s the only area in the city with high-rise zoning. A number of fairly serious high-rises went up in that district during the last development boom, and a streetcar there could drive more development for the next cycle. Since First Hill is currently about half-filled with parking lots, there’s still a ton of space for new TOD and with the higher zoning – some areas as high as 300 feet – the potential development in square footage terms is vastly higher there than on 12th Avenue. The 12th Ave line would also barely touch the massive re-development of Yesler Terrace that will put thousands of units of housing along with a million or so square feet of office space, but going up Boren  would ensure connectivity to most of that neighborhood.

First Hill is just too important a part of Seattle to not have a rail connection to the rest of the city. With high-rise zoning, the TOD opportunities are huge, and the area’s already a major employment center. Veering a bit West of Broadway can help the First Hill Streetcar get more bang for the buck and fulfill Sound Transit’s promise for the neighborhood.  12th Avenue can wait.

Meet-Up Reminder

Once again, our meetup will be at the Ocean City Restaurant in Chinatown (609 S. Weller St.) We’ll start at 6pm on Monday, May 4.

We will once again have surprise guests.

And again, to reserve a spot toss in $5 / head via paypal (button below) and let us know at That money will be used for appetizers and any other expenses related to the function. We also ask that you actually get dinner there while you’re at it, since they were nice enough to get us the space for free. It’s inexpensive and delicious.

If you really don’t want to go the advance payment route you can pay $10 at the door.

Deadline for registration is Saturday, May 2.

News Round Up: I-90, I-90, I-90

  • The DJC is reporting new details on new joints that are being installed on the I-90 bridge. Apparently the old joints are broken and need replacing but unfortunately, the new joints being installed are not compatible with Light Rail and will need to be removed again before East Link can begin testing sometime between 2015 and 2020. The work will close the center roadway express lanes for three weeks starting Monday, and will cost WSDOT and the Feds $5.3 million.
  • Metro is offering incentives to vanpool riders during the express lane closure, and notes that commutes will be worse on I-90 and SR 520 mainly in the westbound direction in the morning, and eastbound direction in the evening. The delays could be 30-40 minutes, so plan accordingly.
  • In other I-90 news, the speed limits on I-90 are now variable, and traffic, weather and road work can move the normal 60 mph speed down to 30 mph.
  • The first stimulus-funded transportation project in the state is beginning this week in Ellensburg on I-90.

79 Days

PT buses in Tacoma, photo by by and by

In 1979 Pierce Transit was formed when Pierce County voters approved a 0.3% sales tax increase for public transit. PT currently levels a .6% sales tax and operates more than 50 routes, paratransit, and vanpools as well partnering with Sound Transit to operate Tacoma Link and some Sound Transit Express buses.

Also in 1979, Amtrak introduced the Superliner rail cars on the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago and later that same year, Amtrak discontinued the North Coast Hiawatha from Seattle to Minneapolis.

Friday: Visioning the Region’s Transportation Future

I posted on this before, and I just want to remind folks that on Friday, TCC is hosting a town hall on the future of Puget Sound’s transportation landscape. This is part 1 of a three part series – visioning first, then examining the options, and third meeting with federal, state and local leaders who can help us get there. You definitely shouldn’t miss it! This is a great opportunity to stress the importance of sustainable transportation.

Part 1 will be in the Bertha Knight Landes room in City Hall, from 12:00pm-1:30pm. That’s the really big room right off the lobby. I hope to see you there!

Cost Overruns

There’s been a lot of discussion around the House amendment that puts Seattle taxpayers on the hook for viaduct-replacement cost overruns.  The Senate did carry the amendment through to the final bill, though it may not be possible for the state to enforce that provisionSome even wondered what it would mean if other municipalities had to pay for their overruns, as of course they don’t. The whole thing had me wondering, how is it that “most projects” have overruns?

It seems like if you know that most big transportation projects have overruns, you would make a plan for the likelihood of overruns and factor that into the cost. We do exactly this in the software world, and Office, the product I work on, takes as long to complete (three years) and has far more people working on it than a tunnel under downtown, so it seems madness to me that “most projects” could come in over budget if planning for likely overruns was built in to the cost early. Well here comes Danny Westneat:

[A] professor at Oxford University in England has done a compelling series of studies trying to get at why big public-works projects such as bridges, tunnels and light-rail systems almost always turn out to be far more costly than estimated. “It cannot be explained by error,” sums up one of his papers, matter-of-factly. “It is best explained by strategic misrepresentation — that is, lying.” … It started seven years ago, when he published the first large study of cost overruns in 258 mega-transportation projects. He found that nine out of 10 came in over budget, and that the average cost overrun was nearly 30 percent. Rail systems had an average cost escalation of 45 percent.

Emphasis added. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

At least in the case of the this SR-99 tunnel, we have a decent idea of what exactly needs to be done. Bored tunnels have become very common, and the technology for building them is well developed. The price tag of the overall project went down not because of “value engineering” but rather because the streetcars and bus improvements were dropped off, so its not exactly like the politicians changed the estimate to fit the budget, but rather they changed the project. So I don’t know how likely overruns are, but this might be worth thinking back to if they arise.

News Roundup: Northwest in the Global Media

Photo by Stephen Devights

Some stories we haven’t mentioned over the last few days:

  • The BBC does a story on American high-speed rail, and highlights Amtrak Cascades. (H/T: Erik)
  • Metro GM Kevin Desmond profiled in Mass Transit Magazine.  (H/T: Orphan Road).
  • Sound Transit awarded the contract to upgrade the Sounder track between M Street in Tacoma to Lakewood, thanks to $4.6m in Federal Stimulus.

80 Days

Civic Center
Muni in the Market Street Tunnel, photo by skew-t

In 1980, San Francisco’s Muni Light Rail began operations in the Market Street Tunnel, the first light rail subway line built in the US after World War II. The Sunset tunnel opened in 1928, and the Twin Peaks Tunnel in 1917.

1980 was also when the famous New York City transit strike took place. Photo gallery of the strike here.

Classification of Transfers by Headway Length

Metro Transfer Mockup by Oran
Metro Transfer Mockup by Oran

After reading Martin’s post about the SW Seattle service changes here, here and here I wanted to add a few comments about transfers. Basically, not all transfers are equal. I know this is pretty basic but this point gets overlooked a lot, especially in places like Seattle, where few routes have less than 10 minute headways. Ever ask how to get somewhere by bus and be told to “take route # to ___  and transfer to blah blah blah blah blah”? Yeah you kind of glaze over and zone out  when they say transfer. In these circumstances lots of people decided to drive, take a taxi or don’t even make the trip.

Continue reading “Classification of Transfers by Headway Length”

Guest Post Series: 81 Days

Sound Move Plan

by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board

With 81 days until the opening of Sound Transit LINK Light Rail, here is the third of my posts on the long road we’ve traveled.

The first meeting of the eighteen member Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) Board took place in September, 1993. I remember very well taking my seat at the table amidst much excitement and high expectations (I am the last of the original RTA Boardmembers still on the Board). King County Councilman Bruce Laing (R-6th) was elected the first RTA Board Chair. A former Hearing Examiner, Bruce was known to all as the epitome of the “honest broker”.

Following the 1988 Advisory Ballot and through the planning process (JRPC) a core of Metro staff formed the backbone of the effort. With the creation of a new, independent government it was time to expand and hire “permanent” staff to conduct the environmental and engineering work necessary to place a measure on the ballot (the State legislation contained a number of requirements to be met prior to going to the ballot, including engaging an “Expert Review Panel”).

The first hire was to be an Executive Director. The RTA Board chose Tom Matoff (former General Manager of the Sacramento Regional Transit Agency) because of his experience in developing Sacramento’s initial light rail project. Tom was a true believer in light rail and felt that a successful, inexpensive  start would pave the way for future extensions, earlier rather than later. This came into conflict with the aspirations of many Boardmembers, particularly those from the outermost parts of the three county district who wanted any plan to include them (this turned out to be quite a drama later).

The emotions were high, the debate heated, but in just over a year (on October 28, 1994) the RTA Board adopted a $ 6.7 billion, phase 1 (based on the JRPC Plan) rail and bus proposal to send to the ballot. The three County Councils were required to vote on whether to continue as part of the RTA and therefore send it to the ballot. After weeks of hearings the three Councils all voted affirmatively in December. The region’s voters would soon be deciding on a Mass Transit plan – for the first time in 25 years!

The mayor’s previous posts: Counting Down to Link, Light Rail’s Beginnings

Diversity, the Street Grid, and Obama’s Election

Nate Silver from the always wonderful FiveThirtyEight political blog gave a fascinating TED talk about racism’s role in the 2008 election. Through the course of his speech, Silver recognizes the differing patterns of diversity in cities compared to rural areas and briefly talks about the benefits of the street grid in facilitating diversity. He raised one particular point that struck me: cul-de-sac development was, in Silver’s opinion, a contributing factor in the rightward shift of the nation’s politics in the 1980’s. While I’d need to see more information to back up this hypothesis, it is an interesting theory.

You can watch the full speech below:

We always say that it’s impossible to talk about transportation without talking about land use. Is it possible to talk about land use without talking about communities? How do you think the street grid or lack of it affects your community?

Olympia Update: Transit Does Pretty Well

Olympia Capitol at Night
State Capitol at night, photo by jwiv

With the legislative session coming to a close, we have some good news to report.

To start with, SB 5433 passed the House with both an authorization for King County to use ferry district taxing authority for transit (discussed in more detail here) and the Simpson amendment to allow transit agencies to ask for transportation benefit districts (discussed here). TCC just broke that the Senate was tied tonight, with Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen making the tie-breaking vote to pass the bill. This is great news for all transit agencies, but especially for Metro.

The transportation budget passed. The I-90 asset assessment remained essentially as Rep. Simpson wrote, funded and inclusive of ST in the process – and moved up a month to be complete by November 1st. Rep. Clibborn’s $10.6 million for R8A preliminary design work survived – and I understand Senator Jarrett supported this as well, although he wasn’t on the conference committee. Regional Mobility Grants survived partially, with $33 million of the Senate’s original $45 million, but I’ll take it – $8 million is included for the $39 million we still need to get Sounder to Lakewood. There was also funding for a third Amtrak Cascades run to Vancouver starting next year, and the final version of the bill kept in the House’s “Seattle pays for overruns” Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement provision.

Given how bad things looked a month ago, this isn’t bad! In addition to the obvious thanks for Rep. Simpson taking the lead here, I also want to recognize that Rep. Clibborn and Senator Jarrett both played roles in making sure all this funding stayed in place, so thank you to them as well. Perhaps we’ll never know what goes on in those conference committees (ahem, transparency initiative?), but we seem to have fared well enough.

Of course, now that we’ve gotten an inch, next budget session I expect Oregon-like funding for light rail and hourly bullet train service from Canada to Portland. Also a pony.

82 Days

Sounder waiting to go
Sounder in King Street Station, photo by Oran

When Sounder opens to Lakewood, it’ll be 82 miles long. With daily ridership last quarter probably over 10,000 (it was over 9900 in the fourth quarter of 2008), I’d imagine the ninth train plus that extension should get us over 12,000 – if we don’t hit 12,000 before the extension opens in 2012!

In 1982, both the Tohoku (March) and Joetsu (November) shinkansen lines opened, providing high speed rail service north of Tokyo. We’ve got a long way to go in this country before opening two high speed rail lines in the same year!

Meet-up Details

Once again, our meetup will be at the Ocean City Restaurant in Chinatown (609 S. Weller St.)  We’ll start at 6pm on Monday, May 4.

We will once again have surprise guests.

And again, to reserve a spot toss in $5 / head via paypal (button below) and let us know at  That money will be used for appetizers and any other expenses related to the function.  We also ask that you actually get dinner there while you’re at it, since they were nice enough to get us the space for free.  It’s inexpensive and delicious.

If you really don’t want to go the advance payment route you can pay $10 at the door.

Deadline for registration is Saturday, May 2.

Stanwood Station Contract Awarded

Stanwood Station, photo by WSDOT
Stanwood Station, photo by WSDOT

Interwest Construction of Burlington has been awarded the contract for Stanwood Station. Construction on the $5 million dollar project will begin mid-April and due for completion in late September. Service will start in October serving 4 trains, 2 Northbound and 2 Southbound trains.

The platform will be an unattended open air platform, like Tukwila Station. The station area will have room for expansion for a enclosed building and could be turned into a full multi-modal station.

The platform will be 17×750 feet which will accomodate the future 14 car long Talgo trains or a 9 car long bi-level train. The last passenger train that served Stanwood was in 1969 when Great Northern Railroad stopped in the town. Fares is expected to be around $13 to 20 dollars.