Editorial: Tunnel Options in Downtown Bellevue

c3tThere is only one consensus for routing East Link through downtown Bellevue – almost everyone wants a tunnel. Unfortunately, few agree about which one. Only two of the many alternatives (PDF) came out of the public comment process with strong support – C3T (PDF), a bored tunnel running under 108th St and turning east on 12th, and C2T (PDF), a cut-and-cover tunnel running west on Main, up 106th, and east on 6th. Both tunnels surface as soon as they turn east. Also note that B3 and B7 are the big contenders for segment B, so the south edge of both C options look approximately the same.

It’s that surfacing where the trouble starts. C3T would require the demolition of a few houses, much like Capitol Hill station, and potentially displace a small office building next to I-405. C2T would close (and remove) the relatively new Bellevue Transit Center, relegating buses to various reroutes during construction. It would also permanently result in one-way, one-lane access to Meydenbauer Center, which I believe is Bellevue’s largest convention space. Meydenbauer’s front door would face an embankment and elevated light rail. The list of impacts continues – the plaza cut from the Galleria, temporary loss of the pedestrian walkway that replaces part of NE 6th… essentially, every pedestrian and transit amenity in downtown Bellevue would be torn up for the C2T option.

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Metro Tax Update

Image by Oran
Image by Oran

[UPDATE: Rep. Eddy, in the comments, points out that the bill does not require a public vote in King County to raise the tax.  Corrected below.]

The battles over Sound Transit aren’t the only thing going on in Olympia.  For supporters of transit, SB 5433 is a definite step in the right direction, and better yet, has passed the Senate.  HB 1147 is the companion bill, and it’s currently sitting in the House Rules Committee, the last obstacle to going to a floor vote.  The Striker by Rep. Ross Hunter (D-520 Corridor) is the relevant document (pdf).

The bill is titled “Modifying provisions of local option taxes” and specifically increases the taxing authority that King County can dedicate to transit by allowing existing (unused) Ferry District taxing authority to be used for buses and streetcars instead. Andrew discussed the topic here before.

The current ferry district taxing authority is a property tax equal to 0.075% the value of the house.  That’s a huge potential revenue source, equal to approximately $250m a year for King County, and well in excess of any ferry plans the county has.  (This very high tax rate is actually in place for rural counties with smaller tax bases).  The current King County ferry tax rate is 0.005% – one fifteenth of its authority.

The bill would reduce the ceiling for counties with over 1.5m people (ie, King) to 0.0075% for ferries. (Sec. 7).  However, it would also create a new 0.0075% taxing authority for King County which could be applied to transit. (Sec. 8).  King County expects that this would generate approximately $25m in revenue, which would plug about a third of the hole in 2010.

Oddly, 13 1/3% of this levy would be reserved for adding bus service along the SR520 corridor.  I emailed Rep. Hunter about this, and he responded that Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) is behind this provision.  As House Transportation Chair, she is trying to grab federal “urban partnership” dollars.  If early tolling on SR 520 passes, the Feds may buy us some buses and establishing a funding source will help in that effort.  However, it’s unclear how a requirement for new service would interact with the general climate of cuts likely to impact all service areas.

It’s important to note that this bill would not actually impose the tax, but allow the King County Council to vote to impose the tax, in turn, to put such a tax increase to a public vote.  The sources I’ve spoken to are pretty optimistic that this bill is going to pass, and it’s reasonable to expect the County Council will use the authority.then send it to the ballot this fall.

Link and Mt. Rainier

Link approaching Columbia City Station
Link approaching Columbia City Station

I shot this yesterday evening as the high clouds started to move in. I’m looking forward to seeing the many views of our mountain ranges from the train. There are views of all of our areas mountain ranges from the Central Link, imagine when the system gets built out?

The Future of Mixed Use

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One of the few great things about Seattle’s urban development over the past decade or so has been the large amount of “mixed use” developments we’ve seen in the more urban parts of town: multi-story apartment buildings (or, more likely, condos) with ground floor retail. Seattle encourages such developments with a variety of tax incentives that make ground-floor retail very worthwhile to the developer.

But what happens now that condo and apartment construction has ground to a halt? Are we too reliant on condo and apartment developers to create new commercial space? Even when construction eventually starts up again, the post-bubble incentives may be different. There may not be the extra funds to develop as much ground-floor retail. Or, we may want more retail but not have the demand for multi-story underground parking garages that are sadly required in most new multi-story construction projects. Can we decouple commercial and residential development, having joined them at the hip for so long?

I got to thinking about this while reading this Central District News post about stalled projects around the CD. The population of the area grew in recent years, mostly due to increased townhome construction. A few retail establishments have popped up (notably around 18th & Union), but there’s probably more pent-up demand than can be met with existing commercial stock.

Put another way, we don’t need the apartment buildings, but we still ned the retail. Can we we get more of the latter without the former?

Alaska Railroad DMU

Alaska 751 by Brian Bundridge
Alaska 751 by Brian Bundridge

The final car built by Colorado Railcar is Alaska Railroad DMU 751 shown above at BNSF’s Stacy Street Yard. The U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Railroad have teamed up for a new whistle stop service (pdf) that will allow the DMU to be used for recreation and transportation opportunities for users of the Chugach National Forest. It is a very interesting and forward thinking concept to take on and should be interesting to see the outcome of the project.

The DMU is scheduled to be moved from Stacy Street Yard today for Harbor Island where it will be loaded onto a barge to Alaska. It is scheduled to depart sometime Wednesday or Thursday morning. Check out the video of the Alaska Railroad DMU (Quicktime Video). Not bad acceleration for something so big and tall!

There is good news though. Value Recovery Group e-mailed us stating they are in the process in talks to purchase Colorado Railcar and continue development of the program. I am not sure if this also includes the Ultra-Dome cars that are very popular in Alaska as well. This could mean that agencies, such as Portland’s Tri-Met, could expand their fleet, if the company is returned. I’ll be watching this very closely.

More Commute Search Options

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Following up on my recent post about Walkscore’s new transit feature, Brian Ferris from One Bus Away writes in the comments about his indispensable site’s Explore feature, which lets you find restaurants and other things around transit lines.

Also, Galen Ward, of local real estate search site Estately, writes in to note his site’s feature that lets you search for houses within walking distance of transit or search by Walk Score. Very cool.

During a recent foray into the housing market, I spent some time on Estately and found it to be a very useful site. Recommended.

Some Good News From Olympia

Thanks in part to all your phone calls and email, Representative Simpson’s first amendment (PDF) to the budget bill passed will almost definitely pass Monday! This amendment will strike Representative Clibborn’s requirement that the joint transportation committee assess the value of the I-90 express lanes before WSDOT can sign off on an EIS. Please check out the amendment and be sure to thank your reps – there’s a list of those who signed on at the top.

He’s followed it up with a second amendment we also like, which will also move Monday. Jarrett’s senate amendment would have required an asset assessment as well, but it was an unfunded mandate – he included no money. This new Simpson amendment funds an assessment, and ensures it’s conducted by ST and WSDOT, not the joint transportation committee. He also makes sure Sound Transit’s CEO has a say in who the consultant will be, and specifically calls out that it must account for the previous agreements made regarding I-90.

The best part? It has to be done by December 1st, meaning none of this mess would affect the East Link schedule. It essentially ties up all the loose ends that the Clibborn and Jarrett amendments created.

The next part makes me cautiously optimistic. All this attention may have made an impact across the board. There’s another amendment from Judy Clibborn, and it seems pretty simple – it adds $10.6 million to the R8A project in this biennium. She’s been saying this in constituent email for a couple of days, but I wanted to hold off on writing anything about it until I had a reference. The catch (notice how there’s always a catch?) is that it’s specifically restricted to funding preliminary engineering. I don’t know whether that meshes with Sound Transit’s funding for the project, or if there’s even $10 million of preliminary engineering to be done, so we’ll see whether this is entirely positive – but it is a small step in the right direction.

I’m not sure if either of these new amendments have had a vote yet, and as they’re both House-only, we’ll have to follow up with our legislators to ensure that they make it through the conference committee into the final bill.

So, to round up on the three big Sound Transit-related legislative issues:

  1. R8A funding appears to be partly replaced. This is good, the Clibborn amendment is similar to what the Governor requested in her budget, and there’s a good chance this will remain.
  2. This asset assessment thing isn’t dead, but the big danger of halting negotiation between WSDOT and ST seems to be averted. Clibborn has still said the valuation of the center lanes could be between “$0 and $2.8 billion” – and while she’s told constituents she expects it to be at the lower end of that range, I’ll be following up with some information about what might help determine that.
  3. Regional Mobility Grants are still okay in the Senate at $40 million, but gutted in the House. These are awarded competitively, and Sound Transit does very well. These could help with R8A, with Sounder to Lakewood, and with bus purchases. The House version shuts Sound Transit out entirely and overrides the competitive process. What concerns me here is that Clibborn could easily say she’s only willing to take her R8A amendment or the regional mobility grant language from the Senate. I don’t know that we’ll be able to get any information about this process before it’s over, but we’re trying.

Overall, there’s been some great progress here! If you have time, I urge you to take a moment to thank Representative Simpson for pulling transit out of the fire here, and your own legislators if they helped him out.

Whoops: The amendments are going to a vote on Monday, the first one hasn’t actually passed yet – but it has enough cosigners to do so. It looks like both of Simpson’s amendments strike Clibborn’s section 17, so the first one will probably be replaced with the new one.

Paper Mills Get $8bn in Federal Transpo Money

This should help give you an idea of just how broken the way we fund transportation in this country is: Paper Mills are looking to get about $8 billion in Federal transportation cash in 2009, according to the Nation, and the FTA will get $10.23 billion. International Paper alone will get close to $1 billion, twice as much Federal funding as Central Link’s total full funding grant award ($500 mn awarded over years) and a significant amount more than University Link’s full funding grant award ($813 million, also awarded over years). The money is technically a tax credit for using alternative fuels, but in this case the paper industry is adding fossil fuels to their natural bio-fuels but it’s still cash, and the cash did come from SAFETEA-LU, the last Federal Transportation bill.

We have a surprisingly low-quality government.

A Fix for Bad Roads: Don’t Make More

Matt Yglesias linked to this Streetsblog interview with John Norquist (this is a great one, read the whole thing if you can) about efforts on the Federal level to improve road planning. Both pieces are very interesting, Norquist knows what good roads are and Matt Yglesias understands what good policy is. They also both include this graphic, from here.

Street comparison, from Congress for New Urbanism
Street comparison, from Congress for New Urbanism

It’s clear that in the first image, you can’t cheaply build effective bus service for all residents of the culs-de-sac: no one bus stop can serve all culs-de-sac, and if you build many bus stops, the service slows and the bus becomes a poor alternative to driving. What may not be as obvious at first glance is the hidden costs of the roads pictured in the for image for local governments. Those culs-de-sac roads go no where, and therefore dump all drivers and pedestrians onto major arterials. Short trips like the one above can no longer be easily made on foot, and then even more cars are pushed onto the arterials. Those arterials become more congested and require more maintenance, more traffic mitigation infrastructure and the occasional widening project.  Other hidden costs are the problems ambulances would have getting out of the culs-de-sac, and the costs of salting and paving these semi-private roads.So that second image is better not just for pedestrians, it’s also better for cars and much better for taxpayers.

Yglesias rightly points out that the place to make changes in the rules that allow for the creation of these “bad” roads is in the state or local level. Well, Virginia has made a huge move here, stating that it will only provide maintenance services for roads in new sub-divisions that meet new guidelines for narrower roads and more connections to the larger road grid. For the state of Virginia, it has become too expensive to continue widening and the maintaining the major arterials and has developed a “connectivity index” framework for judging whether a new development will get maintenance help from the state or not. Virginia will not only refuse to fix pot holes on new roads that don’t fit within their system, they will refuse to plow those roads for snow. The Greater Great Washington post linked to has details on the specifics.

Personally, I’d be happy if no new exurban developments whatsoever were started in Washington State, but I know that’s not realistic. We need to find a similar street-design framework for Washington State that encourages or requires new subdivision developers to build roads that connect commuters and are accessible by bicycle and pedestrian traffic as well as cars. Of course NIMBYs and developers will complain, but that’s their job, and we’ve done it their way long enough. If a relatively conservative state such as Virginia can pass legislation like this, we can do it in Washington, too.  It wont be easy, considering that even the Democratic leadership in Olympia is beholden to the irrational subdivision developer group the BIAW, but with the state look at an ever widening deficit, the time may be right to pass progressive transportation legislation that saves the taxpayers, and their local governments, money.