Guest Post Series: Rough Seas, But Finally Righted

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

Probably Central Link O&M Groundbreaking
Probably Central Link O&M Groundbreaking

After the passage of Sound Move on November 5, 1996 it was time to get to work. The RTA needed to ramp up from a 22 person planning staff to an entity capable of building a multi-billion dollar capital program and operating multiple modes of transit service. This is a step virtually every new transit agency struggles with and leads to a phenomenon known as “growing pains”!

The Board began to make dozens of decisions (PDF), from rebranding the agency as “Sound Transit” to vehicle purchases to route decisions. Environmental Impact Statements were begun, policies were developed, fares with other transit agencies were “integrated”, ground was broken and hearings were held.

In September 1997 the first Regional Express bus service began, in June 1998 I led the Board’s effort to identify Union Station as Sound Transit’s permanent headquarters and Sounder commuter rail between Tacoma and Seattle debuted in September, 2000. Tacoma’s Link streetcar began service in August, 2003.

Due to its size, federal funding and all new right-of-way; the most complicated aspect of the program was Link Light Rail. A very difficult period began toward the end of 2000 as tensions mounted and the Board ordered a halt to negotiations over a contract to build a very long, deep light rail tunnel under Portage Bay. The Board was concerned that the cost and risk of the proposed contract was unacceptably high and a reassessment was in order. This led to staff changes (Joni Earl became Executive Director) and eventually a reengineering of the project (splitting it into the initial Airport segment and the University segment extension) to reduce the risks.

Extraordinary political drama ensued including the last minute signing of a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) on the final evening of the Clinton administration and light rail becoming the focus of the very close 2001 Seattle Mayor’s race. But the Board persevered, Joni restored confidence in the agency and eventually the project was back on track. In fact in February, 2003 Link’s initial segment received the highest rating of any project in the nation from the Federal Transit Administration. This was repeated recently with the University Link extension. Ground was finally broken for the initial Link light rail segment on November 8, 2003.

Fathers’ Day Train Ride

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Quite a bit off topic, but my family provided a train-based Fathers’ Day for me that was wonderful and I thought I’d recommend both experiences for those with interest in old trains.

1. A ride on the Snoqualmie Valley Railroad, open weekends in the summer. This was a short ride on old unused tracks through Snoqualmie and ending in a beautiful view over the Snoqualmie Dam. All of the cars have been restored, several dating back a good hundred years.

2. Dinner at the Orient Express, a Chinese restaurant in Seattle made from 8 rail cars. Don’t let the run-down exterior fool you – it’s beautiful on the inside. This place has been open since 1949, and because we had a group of seven people they sat us in a private room where Roosevelt once slept. The furniture was original, and all of the fixtures were in great condition – even a speedometer (-100 to 100 mph) and steam pressure gage. My niece ran around trying every button and switch. I’m a little sad I missed eating here when it was Andy’s – a diner that was family run since 1949. But then I like Chinese better than diner food, and though slightly heavy on grease for my taste (though not heavy compared to typical Chinese food), the flavors were wonderful and I’d recommend it based on the food alone.

25 Days: Following Congress

LINK O&M Facility
LINK O&M Facility

The Operations and Maintenance Facility is 25 acres.

The initial segment is 25 km long.  How’s that for mixing metric and imperial units?

The entire 775-page Oberstar transportation bill is now available for download.  It’s not clear if anyone here is going to take up the mission to follow this closely, because there’s excellent coverage at Streetsblog Capitol Hill, the transport politic, and Transportation for America.

There’s also some sort of Metro train collision on DC’s Red Line. Details are sketchy at this point.

Update 4:46pm. Four Nine dead.  Apparently one train rear ended another.  The pictures are horrible, in a “how could this have only killed four nine people?” kind of way.

In other news, 8 people were killed by cars in the New York area just last week.  Of course, that’s not going to be picked up by the national media because it’s a totally unremarkable event.

Metro Presents Service Cut Planning Strategies

Photo by Oran
Photo by Oran

On May 20, Metro staff made yet another presentation to the King County Council Regional Transit Committee, fleshing out alternative strategies for service cuts. The slideshow is available online. (ppt)

Metro presented two service cut strategies to build on the six they presented in April (pdf). One is a “refined” option that emphasizes high-demand corridors and eliminates routes to many low-ridership areas, tweaking a previous proposal of this type.  The other is a kind of blanket cut, the “blended” option, which hits peak and off-peak service proportionally. Both envision cuts to each subarea in proportion to that subarea’s current allocation, in accordance with Metro policy.

The refined plan sees annual ridership drop from 109.7 to 95.2 million, a drop of 15.5 million, while eliminating 104 routes. The blended plan sees a drop of 20.5 million annual passengers and only eliminates 40 routes.  Details below the jump.

Continue reading “Metro Presents Service Cut Planning Strategies”

27 Days

When Sound Transit 2 is completed in 2023, it will have been 27 years since the Sound Move vote in 1996.  That’s about 2 miles of light rail a year.

The 2007 Proposition 1 package proposed completion by 2027.  After its failure, Sound Transit came back with a plan that built less faster.

Happy Solstice!  And Happy Father’s Day!

Density and Fantasy

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Matt Fiske has a neat piece on density in, of all places, Crosscut. He argues that the land currently occupied by the soon-to-be-closed T.T. Minor elementary would make a great urban neighborhood in the Amsterdam mold.

Trouble is,The problem with the article is that the Seattle School District has no intention of selling or demolishing the school (which is probably a good thing, as someday the demographics of the neighborhood will change to make it useful again).

STB Flickr Account

LINK Interior
LINK Interior

I wanted (and no one objected) to getting at STB Flickr pro account. From now on any photos we don’t want to post on personal accounts will be posted on the Seattle Transit Blog Flickr account. I have uploaded photos from this weeks O&M tour as well as the LINK media ride from a few weeks ago. I have also added some transit related photos from a recent trip to the east coast. Please continue to contribute to the Seattle Transit Blog pool. Thanks to the over 70 people who have already contributed 2,000+ photo to the pool. Keep on adding and tagging! Below are a few of the flickr sets that we have already uploaded to the new account. This is an open thread. Enjoy!

Continue reading “STB Flickr Account”

News Roundup: $99,000,000,000

Intercity Transit Bus, by majinandoru
Intercity Transit Bus, by majinandoru
Lots of interesting stuff coming in over the interwebs yesterday:
  • Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), Chair of the House Transportation Committee, has a doozy of a transportation bill.  The transit fund would shoot up to $99 billion, from $53 billion in 2005.  The Bush-era FTA cost-effectiveness metrics would be revised to allow for benefits aside from reduced travel time.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! It’s far from law, but there’s tons of coverage at Streetsblog, the NYT, the transport politic, and Transportation For America.  There’s also a 17-page proposal available for viewing (pdf).
  • In an increasingly common refrain, however, the Obama administration is a little chilly towards pursuing major transportation reform this year.
  • Portland’ s proposed streetcar extension becomes the first in the nation to get federal funding. (H/T: Gordon)
  • The APTA named Thurston County’s Intercity Transit best transit system of its size in the nation.  It’s in the middle of three size categories, and competed against 108 other agencies.
  • Headline from Bizarro Washington: Maryland transportation board raids road fund to pay for light rail. (H/T: Yglesias)
  • Seattle Mayoral candidate Norman Sigler wants to find the money to do Ballard-to-West Seattle light rail sooner.   The Daily Weekly’s Damon Agnos gets Ben’s reaction.

The only thing I might have added to Ben’s comments is to point out that there are useful things to do between a study and actually building the thing. For starters, it’s fairly evident that we’ll have to tunnel under Second Avenue, and a rail-convertible bus tunnel would be a nice down payment that’s useful in the meantime, all for about $1 billion or so.

I was also pleasantly surprised to hear Sigler’s $5 billion figure, which for a total stab in the dark, is both a good guess and not as sugarcoated as most political promises.

Blog Service Outage This Weekend

Beginning Friday evening, we’ll be taking the blog down for some maintenance.  A few posts are going to appear over the weekend, but access is likely to be intermittent for a few days.

Over that period, any comments you submit are fairly likely to disappear into the ether, so do so at your own risk.  Commenting may be flat-out disabled for a while too. There will be a short period where comments are disabled, and you may periodically have trouble posting comments for a few days afterwards, depending on where you are in the internets.

Bus Reliability Metrics

Greater Greater Washington has an outstanding piece up about how we measure bus reliability:

Every month, Metro’s customer service committee looks at a presentation on operating statistics, including a chart showing the latest bus “on-time performance” percentage. That percentage reflects the number of buses that arrive within a certain time before or after the published schedule — usually around 73-75%. However, on its own, this number doesn’t give management enough information to effectively maintain bus quality. In addition, it doesn’t capture important elements of bus performance, like bus bunching…

London looks at bus on-time measuring differently. Because the bus lines in London are operated by private contractors, it’s very important for the local transit authorities to accurately measure on-time performance because there are real financial incentives or penalties involved. They measure how often buses pass by certain points on the network and track the “excess waiting time.” All that time you have to wait for a bus that’s running late or is bunched with others is added up and averaged over the route, and the excess waiting is compared to how much you’d normally have to wait assuming you come to the bus stop randomly. The reports for bus performance are published on the web.

Do click on that last link to London’s bus reports (excerpt pictured above).  I think Sound Transit’s ridership reports are pretty transparent, although Metro’s are somewhat less so.  But this blows both of them out of the water.

Metro’s definition of “on-time” is between 1 minute early and 5 minutes late, tighter than WMATA’s standard of 2 and 7 minutes, respectively.  Still, they were able to achieve a 75% on-time performance (pdf) in 2007.  Sound Transit’s definition is less than 10 minutes late, which they’ve achieved about 94% of the time (pdf).

The point that GGW makes, though, that on frequent routes the actual service interval is more important than adherence to any actual schedule.  I know that neither agency’s staff is really looking for more things to do right now, but it’d be nice to start adding this framework for routes like the 3 and the 550.

On the other hand, adherence to this metric and this metric only would incentivize some odd behavior — like having some bunched buses simply idle for a while to fix the interval.  What’s better: making sure the wait at the stop is uniformly short, or preventing people from sitting on idle buses?

Old School Trolley Buses Hit the Road Last Sunday

Old-style trolley bus on 3rd Ave. Taken last Sunday by reader Andy Fenstermacher.
Old-style trolley bus on 3rd Ave. Taken last Sunday by reader Andy Fenstermacher.

Were you out and about in Seattle last weekend and noticed something… different about some of the buses on the street? Yep, they looked straight out of the fifties.

Did sleeping in a few hours really cause you to enter a time warp? No, don’t worry, you weren’t caught up in time — you were just caught up in a Metro Employee Historic Vehicle Association excursion. It turns out the MEHVA does tours with many legacy buses they maintain, and their next trolley adventure is in just a few months:

Saturday, September 26: NIGHT TROLLEY TOUR
A 3-hour tour of Seattle’s distinctive and varied nightlife neighborhoods; Pioneer Square, Broadway, lower Queen Anne and the University District. Stops for photos and coffee. Trackless trolleys depart at 7 p.m.

Head to their site for more details.

Regional Rapid Transit news

Canada Line at YVR by indyinsane
Canada Line at YVR by indyinsane

As we count down the remaining month left before the opening of Central Link, I was reminded that in less than 3 months, Vancouver, B.C. will welcome it’s newest Metro system, Canada Line, set to open on September 7th. That same week, Portland will celebrate their 4th light-rail route, the Green Line to Clackamas Town Center. The Canada Line will connect the Downtown Vancouver Waterfront to Richmond and Vancouver International Airport, a ride which on a bus would take 48 to 54 minutes. A ride on Canada Line will take only 25 minutes. The new Canada Line was privately built and funded and will share the fare structure with TransLink for easy fare integration, whom operates SeaBus, local and express bus service, West Coast Express Commuter Rail, and SkyTrain. The Canada Line is estimated to cost $1.9 billion dollars and is currently $200 million under budget and 3 months early. On the heels of this new line opening, TransLink announced the $1.4 Billion CN Evergreen Line which will also run from Waterfront to Longheed Town Centre via the Millennium Line. The Evergreen Line is slated to start construction after the 2010 Olympics and open in 2014.

New Green Line @ 5th and Oak by Brian Bundridge
New Green Line @ 5th and Oak by Brian Bundridge

Starting September 12th, the 4th MAX line will start shuttling passengers from Portland State University and Clackamas Town Center. This $575.5 million dollar project will add another 8.3 miles to the expanding system. Tri-Met opted to order the popular Siemens S70 Avanto light-rail vehicles with a few slight modifications. The biggest difference is the vehicles will always be in pairs since the vehicles are single ended cabs (Meaning only 1 end of the car has a operator cab, the other is more seating). Like the Canada Line, the new Green Line will shave 20 to 40 minutes compared to the current buses.

The Green Line is also part of a multi-phase project that will allow expansion of the route to Milwaukie/Oak Grove. With the Green Line near completion, the dubbed Orange Line will continue onward from the PSU terminus to Park Ave Park and Ride in Oak Grove. The Orange Line will be the most expensive MAX line due in part that most of the line will be elevated and a new MAX/Streetcar bridge will be needed. Cost is expected between $1.2 to 1.5 billion dollars and add 7.3 miles to the system. The line is slated to open in 2015.

Train Frequency and the Downtown Tunnel

Link Inaugural Ride (by Ben)
Link Inaugural Ride (by Ben)

Every once in a while, someone asks me how long it will be before the buses are kicked out of the tunnel downtown. I bet we’ve talked about this before in the comments, but we could do with a discussion of frequency and routes.

At launch, peak train frequency will be 7.5 minutes. It’ll be listed as 7-8 minutes on the schedule – Metro’s scheduling system doesn’t handle 30 second increments. I was hoping for 6 minute peak headways, but we’ll get them eventually. As the first year of operation is only projected to average out with 20-25,000 on weekdays, I think we can wait a bit for 6 minute peaks.

I’ve been told that somewhere around 5 minute headways, there’s no longer safe time for buses to get through and load between trains, and at that point they’ll go back out to third avenue and elsewhere. That may happen when University Link opens, as ridership demand skyrockets. As we saw during the tunnel closure, surface congestion isn’t that bad with the extra buses, and a number of the tunnel routes will be replaced by rail soon after anyway. Perhaps at that point, we’ll consider further separating the bus corridor from cars.

When ST2 lines are built out, the expectation is that we’ll drop to 3 minute headways. The ST2 planning documents I’ve seen show three ‘lines’ – Lynnwood to Sea-Tac, Northgate to Federal Way, and Northgate to Redmond, each running on nine minute headways to combine to three between Northgate and ID Station. But we’d end up with headways of 3/6/3/6 minutes in the Rainier Valley, and I’m not sure 3 minute headways there would be feasible.

A little bird told me that a better option might be two six minute headway lines – one all the way from Lynnwood to Federal Way, and one from Lynnwood to Redmond. I like this better, it would cause far fewer passenger headaches. Oh, and wouldn’t it be awesome for the two lines to be Purple and Gold? It’s not my idea, but I like it.

Okay, how about the longer run? We should be able to get headways down to 2 minutes north of ID Station. At that point, in fifty years, we’re probably going to want to increase speed to Sea-Tac anyway. This is pure speculation, but I’ve mentioned in the past that it’s interesting that we leave and return to the Duwamish valley with Link. An elevated bypass along Marginal Way could save a couple of minutes for trains to the airport, serve SoDo better (with a stop near Georgetown), and allow us to add stations at Graham St. and S. 133rd without affecting longer distance users.

Consider this an open thread.

Amtrak Cascades – More Track work

Rail Grinder by Brian Bundridge
Rail Grinder by Brian Bundridge

Starting Monday, June 29, 2009, BNSF will be starting on a bridge maintenance project between Vancouver, WA and Portland, Oregon. Amtrak Cascades trains will terminate and originate from Vancouver Station with bus transportation to Portland Union Station to connect to trains bound for Eugene, Oregon. There will be a small detour in place that will add about 30 to 60 minutes to the Coast Starlight (Trains #11/14) and the Portland section of the Empire Builder (Trains #27/28)

Continue reading “Amtrak Cascades – More Track work”

Sound Transit Ramps Up Safety Campaign

We’ve caught wind from the Slog that Sound Transit has released a PSA warning folks to be cautious around light rail. It’s a surprisingly creepy ad, which must be the point. Quite a different tone than Zap Gridlock!


Students at Rainer Beach High School have gone a different route, and offer up a more fun take on light rail safety:

And the Seattle Times is hard at work, penning up a short piece about Link safety education in the Rainer Valley.