Car vs. Link

Photo courtesy of Greg Briggs
Photo courtesy of Greg Briggs

On September 15 at about 2:20pm, a car made an illegal left turn in front of a Link train, causing a 40 minute service disruption in the Northbound direction.

There was minor damage to the car, but thankfully, no injuries.

Seattle Police cited the auto driver for the illegal turn.  Train and car both left under their own power when the police were done.

I’m glad to see that the local media was relatively restrained in their reporting.  Unlike the frenzy surrounding the first few collisions, this one seems to have been treated like any other traffic accident.

As a preemptive move, I’ll link to my previous comments on the safety of running Link down the center of MLK.

Audit of Metro Trolley Bus Audit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

When an audit was released that listed Seattle’s electric trolley buses (ETB’s) as more expensive per year than a hybrid bus replacement, I was amazed. Although the benefits of ETB’s are many, I’ve considered cost efficiency a large benefit. As the report did not list sources for its data, I took the next step of asking the auditor to view the source data. I was e-mailed two spreadsheets with almost all of the information I wanted.

Observations from the audit:

1. The main source of the cost difference is that the ETB’s are claimed to cost twice that of hybrid buses. I can imagine this if they bought just one, since it’s not an off-the-shelf product. But they’d be buying close to 200 – there has to be economies of scale there, and the components of an ETB have to be cheaper than a hybrid.

2. Hybrid fuel efficiency was listed at 5 mpg. This is in direct conflict with Metro statements in the past of observing 3.8 mpg.

3. “Engine overhaul” is listed at 6.7x as frequent for ETB’s vs. hybrids. This just can’t be right, as ETB’s don’t have engines. If they’re talking about the electric motors, these last a long time and shouldn’t cost the same as a engine overhaul.

4. Overall, operating costs are much cheaper for ETBs than diesels or hybrids. It’s really the initial cost of the buses that seems to drive up the price.

I am following up with a list of questions to the auditor, and will report back when I get a response.

[update] The new bus costs and “engine overhaul” data came from Metro. It’s almost as if Metro is trying to kill ETBs (tries to feign shock).

The scheduling spreadsheet also came in. It’s too dense of calculations for me to follow (without a paycheck for such things, that is).

Layover/service ratios appear to be much higher in trolley buses. The auditor’s explanation for this is that they can’t pass each other and they lack flexibility. But flexibility doesn’t mean that they can’t change routes (though this would help in case of an accident), but that they can’t pull double service for two routes.

My comments regarding flexibility:

1. Anecdotally, the reason passing is a large issue is wheelchair loading. The trolleys don’t have a kneeling ability, which can make a wheelchair stop take a long time. Combine a few such stops and you get a line of trolleys waiting for the one in front. If this is costing so much money, wouldn’t the obvious solution is to design in a kneeling ability into the next batch of trolleys?

2. If there would really be an efficiency gained by adding more routes together, couldn’t we just add more wire to create these routes? Why tear out a system that could in all other ways be much more efficient than hybrids? Go all the way and make as many routes electric as you’d need to remove routing inefficiencies. [/update]

Mount Baker Transit Center’s First Day

Route 8 at Mount Baker TC
Route 8 at Mount Baker TC

The Mount Baker Transit Center opened Saturday along with the Southwest Seattle service revisions. The transit center is very plain with standard shelters. New-style bus stop signs that list routes, their destinations, and the bus stop number (handy for One Bus Away users) have been installed. The new style signs can also be found near Othello and Rainier Beach Stations.

At the transit center, Metro service planner Jack Latteman was part of the street team out helping riders figure out the service change. A few people were confused but most seemed to know which route to transfer to. One old lady asked for the 42 which no longer runs weekends.

Many people are still taking the 7 instead of Link. Latteman explained that many people were afraid to try Link or didn’t know how. Frequently asked Link questions were fare related. Many weren’t sure how reduced fares worked or whether their bus pass was accepted on Link. While there are signs that direct riders to the Link station, there’s no information at the transit center about Link itself. A suggestion would be to install a Link information kiosk similar to those at stations at the transit center.

Latteman answered a question that was raised on this blog as to why the transit center isn’t a timepoint for Route 8. It actually is, at least internally for drivers. He said that was a mistake on part of the timetable production group and it’ll definitely be fixed by the next service change in February. A few other mistakes are the map for the 8 doesn’t show the route directly serving the transit center, the timetable doesn’t indicate which bay the 8 serves, and a timetable symbol reference to a 5-minute layover at the transit center that appears nowhere on the timetable itself. All of these mistakes have been noted for correction.

Route 8 and 48 are scheduled for easy connections at the transit center. The timed connections can be viewed in this Metro document (PDF).

First Hill Streetcar Funding Agreement Coming

First Hill Streetcar Map
First Hill streetcar alignment options, by Oran.

Central District News reports that the Seattle Department of Transportation is nearing a funding agreement with Sound Transit on the First Hill streetcar, which would connect the Capitol Hill light rail station with the International District station through First Hill and edges of the Central District.

Voters approved Sound Transit funding the streetcar line last November. At the time, the city agreed to handle construction at a cost lower than Sound Transit expected to reach independently. The city also agreed to be on the hook for any cost over-runs. Sound Transit would give the city $132,780,000, according to the report.

Initially planned to be built by 2016, the city is attempting to accelerate construction of its second streetcar line. Having a funding agreement in place is the first step toward delivering the streetcar years ahead of schedule. It now looks likely to see a 2013 delivery date for the streetcar, as early missed milestones may have put a planned 2012 date in the territory of too optimistic.

The exact routing of the line is still to be determined, with some groups arguing for an alignment on 12th ave near Seattle University to serve the Central District and an active street while others favor serving the hospitals by remaining on Broadway (see earlier coverage). The funding would cover these planning stages.

Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn has committed to completing this streetcar, as it is voter approved and already funded. His opponent, Joe Mallahan, is decidedly more lukewarm on the project. He told the Seattle Times that he would study and maybe even oppose the streetcar but has been vague on his exact stance since that remark. His new standard seems to be that a cost over-run of perhaps even a single dollar would justify canceling the project. McGinn, on the other hand, caused a stir in the transit community last week by promising to hold a vote for in-city light rail expansion in two years time.

Regional Transit Committee: Cuts, Not Suspensions

The balls in their court
The ball's in their court

[UPDATE 8:22 PM: Arrgh!  Reading Comprehension!  In my haste to get this out, I misread Erica’s post.  Revisions below in italics.]

Erica C. Barnett reports that King County’s Regional Transit Committee is likely to vote voted to recommend that service reductions be treated as cuts rather than suspensions.  Unfortunately, minutes and video of Wednesday’s meeting are not yet available.

Service reductions will likely be apportioned according to existing service levels, hitting the West subarea (Seattle, Shoreline) the hardest.  As we reported several months ago, if these are considered permanent cuts, service restoration will be in accordance with 40/40/20, meaning that Metro must add back about three times more aggregate service than it cut to achieve the same service level in the West subarea.  That would be a permanent relative shift of resources to the suburbs.

The balance of suburban to Seattle representatives on the RTC is 10 to 2, with Dow Constantine representing both City, suburban, and incorporated precincts.  Constantine has come out in favor of the suspension concept.

The RTC’s vote is merely an advisory to the King County Council, which has a less pronounced Suburban majority.  The expected RTC result would will serve as useful cover for suburban councilmembers seeking to vote the narrow interests of their districts.

On a somewhat related note, Goldy argues that regional governance and agency consolidation aren’t such hot ideas if elected officials aren’t going to consider regionwide interests.

Three Musings on the McGinn Light Rail Plan

Portland MAX (Wikimedia)
Portland MAX (Wikimedia)

It’s fun to get out ahead of McGinn on this light rail plan, but let’s remember that even if McGinn wins it’s going to get passed off to the eggheads for a couple of years.  For that reason, it’s most important to understand the principles that is going to guide McGinn’s decisionmaking on this, not try to pin him down on a specific alignment.

Anyhow, a few unrelated musings on the plan are after the jump.

Continue reading “Three Musings on the McGinn Light Rail Plan”

News Roundup

KCM RapidRide, CT Swift DE60LFA, by wings777
"KCM RapidRide, CT Swift DE60LFA", by wings777

Things that fell through the cracks while we obsessed over the McGinn light rail speech:

This is an open thread.

Metro Audit Report Complete

Access Service Area
Access Service Area (King County Metro)

On September 15 the King County Auditor completed their report to the  Council on their full audit of Metro operations.   The first part of the presentation was on September 1, and identified up to $23m in annual savings with little downside, about $60m that would cause pain for riders, and a one-time $105m surplus to get us through the recession.

The entire report is now online; passionate trolleybus defenders, which John and I are not, will want to poke holes in Chapter 4 of Report A (pdf).  There’s also a two-page summary of the whole audit if you prefer the Auditor’s writing to mine.

The chart below summarizes the entire audit.  For comparison, Metro’s deficit balloons to $142m in 2013.  It’s also important to recognize that these savings, if implemented, will take time to realize and not necessarily change the picture in 2010.

Click to Enlarge

Scott Gutierrez has an excellent roundup of politician reaction to the audit results.  Details about the last four lines of the  chart at left are after the jump.

The next step is the release of the Executive’s proposed budget on September 27th.  Triplett’s current plan assumed no savings from the audit (aside from the $105m fleet replacement surplus) but required $90m in suspensions over four years.  Furthermore, about $12m annually of the $51m the auditor claims in new fare revenue is built into the Triplett plan.  Aside from that, any audit savings would presumably be able to “buy back” service suspended in the plan.

Continue reading “Metro Audit Report Complete”

The Portland Green Line Example

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Mike McGinn’s plan for Westside light rail is welcome news. Ben @ STB notes that Sound Transit is planning to study this in 2015, so McGinn might try and find the money to push that up a few years.


But here’s where I start to have a problem with the McGinn proposal:

He mentioned Portland’s newest light-rail segment, the Green Line, which opened last weekend, as a good model. Eight new miles of new corridor were built for $576 million, in the east suburbs and near Portland State University downtown.

The reason why the Green Line was so cheap, as The Transport Politic explains, is that it was built in a highway median that was set aside 30 years ago for transit, much like our I-90 HOV lanes. No such right-of-way exists on the Westside.

The old engineer’s adage is: “Fast, good, or cheap. Pick Two.” McGinn’s promising all three, which should make us all a little suspicious.


This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The CD is getting some more sharrows. I live on a street with sharrows, and I don’t see a huge benefit to them. But if they’re at least a big honking sign saying “bicycles exist” then they’re probably worthwhile.

Biking in this (or any) city is tough. So few people bike these days that anything that increases the number of bikers and/or bike safety even a bit has to be seen as a success. Fortunately, like urban renewal, it’s subject to feedback loops. The more people who bike the safer biking becomes, which gets more people biking, etc., etc.

McGinn and the Viaduct

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I very much doubt Mike McGinn will halt the SR-99 tunnel/viaduct replacement.

The Governor has made it clear that the tunnel is the answer. It’s the State’s highway, and as far as she’s concerned she’s appeased Seattle once already by not giving them another elevated structure. End of story. From what I understand, the business community lobbied her hard not to make traffic worse on I-5. And if there’s one constituency that the Governor has done everything to please, it’s the business community.

This comment thread has lots of suggestions for tactics (such as holding up permits) that McGinn can try if he wants to go 10 rounds with her on this, and that’s all fine, but the Governor will make his life miserable if he tries. She’s got the bigger budget, she’s more experienced, and she can do all sorts of things — cut funds to the city or otherwise gum up the works — that will all but guarantee he’ll be an unpopular, one-term mayor.

McGinn’s bold, and I like that about him. But being bold and being successful are two very different things.

I’m happy to be proven wrong on this, but I don’t think I am.

Leavenworth Icicle Station to open September 25th!

Empire Builders at East Glacier Park
Empire Builder's at East Glacier Park by the Author

Washington State will open a new Amtrak station in Leavenworth, Washington. Icicle Station, which began construction on June 25, 2009, will open a covered platform station on September 25th. Phase 2 of the project will build a new station building and the group is accepting donations for the project.

The station code (LWA) is not currently active. I would expect this to be in the Amtrak system but the end of the week. The next station will be Stanwood station which is slated to open in November/December.

For more information regarding Icicle Station, check out the website. Perhaps someday we will get a daylight train between Seattle and Spokane and/or Seattle-Auburn-Ellensburg-Yakima-Pasco train.

McGinn’s Rail Options: How Much, and How Soon?

I’ve talked here a few times about building the West Seattle – Ballard corridor. There are a lot of routing and design options that I’m sure will be explored in a future post, but what I’d like to explore here is how much money is available, and what would need to happen right away.

Currently, the planning for these corridors is fairly old. The Seattle Monorail Project did some study in this corridor, but to the best of my understanding, these documents are sealed. Prior to that, in 2001, Seattle’s Intermediate Capacity Transit study projected 2020 ridership (PDF) in some potential corridors. There were some interesting numbers in that study that shine some light on what we might build – a West Seattle-Downtown streetcar was only projected at some 12,000 daily riders, for example, but an elevated alternative would achieve more than 25,000.

Sound Transit has studies for these corridors planned to be executed in 2015. As McGinn has made it clear he would work with Sound Transit on these projects, it seems that the first course of action would be to fund them immediately, as they’ll take at least a year, likely 18-24 months,to produce useful data. This is something that should get traction from other local leaders as well – last year, Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips penned an op-ed touting Proposition 1 as the next step in getting rail to West Seattle and Ballard, so I’d imagine they’ll be supportive. If planning were under way immediately next year, a vote could happen in 2011.

Currently, there are several funding options available (with voter approval):

  • A $100 vehicle license fee, which could generate up to $45 $20 million a year.
  • Sales tax of 0.2%, which would probably generate closer to $30 million a year (although that’s a back-of-the-napkin calculation).
  • Local improvement districts, very possible for station areas.
  • Tolls on city arterials – mentioned in Lindblom’s piece, but unlikely.

None of these produce that much revenue alone, so we’ll be largely dependent on federal grants. I want to point out that sales tax revenue in Seattle hasn’t really dropped (PDF, page 27, “North King” at the top), so a project based on that revenue should have stable funding – but that’s less than half of the local revenue used to build Link, so multiple sources would likely be necessary.

Depending on the money available and the results of the public outreach process, the time to wait before issuing bonds can vary a lot. It sounds like McGinn is interested in a Portland or Rainier Valley-like alignment, running mostly at-grade, so some money could be saved through providing city right of way (similar to how Bellevue can raise money for a tunnel). Given McGinn’s campaign so far, I’d imagine there would be significant neighborhood involvement, and that is also likely to drive up costs.

It’s all speculation right now – I’m waiting until the planners look at the corridor before I’d venture any guess of cost or completion year – but if McGinn is elected, his next steps seem clear.

Proposed New Light Rail Route

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Mike McGinn has proposed a new light rail line be built to connect West Seattle, Belltown, Queen Anne, Ballard, Fremont, and Ballard to downtown. I have no idea of his exact plan, but I’d like to speculate. Based on my previous idea for an Aurora trolley line, I present the Aurora Light Rail:

With removing the Viaduct, 99 will have much less traffic. My idea is to reduce it to a boulevard with a single lane in each direction and light rail in the middle, from downtown to the bridge. This allows us to use the existing bridge, as crossing the ship canal may be the most expensive component to a light rail system.

Note also the new pedestrian tunnel from the waterfront to the transit tunnel. A common complaint about using the waterfront as a place for light rail is that it won’t be connected to Link. But it takes only minutes to walk from Link to the waterfront, and an underground tunnel with escalators will reduce this further.

The main detail that needs more thought is at the West Seattle side. I don’t spend much time in West Seattle and am not sure the best route. Ideas?

Also, I haven’t gone as far as thinking out station locations. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

One Bus Away Launches Native iPhone App

The native One Bus Away iPhone App.

The One Bus Away blog has spread word that a native iPhone App for the service is now available through iTunes. Among the features mentioned on the product page are:

  • Real-time arrival arrival information for public transit.
  • Map display of stops and routes.
  • Nearby stops search for location-aware devices.
  • Bookmarks and recent stop history.
  • Search for stops by route, address, and stop number.

I’ve been using a test version of this app on my phone for months and I have to say it’s an extremely useful tool to see when the next bus is coming at a particular stop. Definitely has helped me with peace of mind, and it’s told me a few times that I have time for that chai or frozen yogurt. A must-have for iPhone owners.

More on the McGinn Proposal

[UPDATE: The Post-Globe has Mallahan’s response.  It’s pretty weak sauce.  Click over and read it; they need the hits.]

To add to what Ben said, let no one say that Mike McGinn isn’t bold.  From McGinn’s information handout:

  • Develop plan during first two years as Mayor, submitting all taxes and choice to proceed to city voters.
  • Connect high density neighborhoods – Wallingford, Fremont, Ballard, Queen Anne, Belltown, West Seattle –to regional light rail system.
  • Use existing city and/or Transportation Benefit District taxing authority.
  • Leverage existing city assets to lower costs, but develop dedicated right of way so that trains won’t get stuck in traffic.
  • Build light rail expansion that is materially similar/compatible with Link.
  • Work with Sound Transit and King County Metro to design, build, and operate light rail expansion without creating a new transit agency.

I don’t see a way to interpret #4 other than at-grade in (former) bus lanes, probably with 2-car-length stations instead of 4.

Publicola does a pretty good job outlining the obvious concerns and limitations.    However, Erica is incorrect that Subarea equity requires even expenditure between subareas.  It requires that revenues collected in each subarea be spent there, which shouldn’t be an obstacle to a plan like this one.  We’ll try to gather some facts on the other concerns over the next few weeks.

Contra Ben, McGinn’s handout shows that Seattle votes for transit whether it’s a presidential election year or not.  It’s in the Sound Transit district where off-year measures are risky.

There are basically no details at this point, but if McGinn can pull off anything like the Central Link level of service, all this Streetcar business ceases to be of any significance.

McGinn: City Vote For Light Rail In Two Years

I couldn’t make the press conference, but McGinn made it clear this morning: we’ll get another vote, soon, for light rail to serve the western half of the city. McGinn specifically mentioned Ballard, Belltown, Fremont, Queen Anne, and West Seattle as candidates for possible rail expansion.

He says “within two years”, but I’d expect this means 2012, as the next presidential election is probably the best time for a strong vote.

In order to make this happen, he’ll have to accelerate the Sound Transit planning studies for the western corridor. Currently, Sound Transit has those studies funded in 2015 to be prepared for a 2016 vote.

Also notable — McGinn says he’d like to do this with existing city taxing authority. I doubt that’s possible, but it’s a good start.

But You’re a Blogger, Too

Trolley bus in Seattle. Photo by Oran.
Trolley bus in Seattle. Photo by Oran.

Serial Catowner, over at Orphan Road, takes issue with a lack of will within the transit community and in a few instances singled out this blog in particular:

This comes to mind as it is increasing apparent that Seattle is scripted to lose the electric trolley buses, and neither candidate for Mayor has any intention of building more streetcars. But it’s hard to find any concern about this at Seattle Transit Blog, or any more than the ritual handwringing about the loss of the George Benson Streetcar. In fact, there is a Pollyanna quality to the beliefs that $930 million is available and will be used to implement the surface improvements Nickels was working on.


On the Seattle Transit Blog you frequently see discussions and advocacy for more diesel bus service, and many, if not most, would agree that you can’t put a streetcar on a street that already carries too many cars. Even the day-dreaming seldom takes a pleasant turn- I’ve never seen a post about converting the existing electric bus routes to streetcars, and using the buses to electrify new routes.

I personally have no opinion on the trolley buses, though I’d argue that not many other media sources have even asked about them. I think it’s great the buses are quiet and green, but I don’t how their costs compare. The Metro audit released this week may contain some answers: it claims that replacing the trolley buses with hybrids when they are up for retirement will save $8.7 million per year. However, it’s feasible that diesel will skyrocket in price sometime in the coming decades — in fact, it would be questionable to assume otherwise. The county shouldn’t rid Seattle of its trolley infrastructure if the trolley buses can be shown to be cheaper when diesel prices are much higher. But what if we need $30 a gallon to make trolley buses more efficient? Given that I don’t know the numbers, it’s hard for me — and other bloggers here — to advocate a strong position on trolley buses.

Like the accusation that we’re “Seattle Rail Blog,” this seems to conflate the idea that we have an editorial point of view with the idea that we’re somehow falling down on our (self-appointed) mission.  I’m happy to stack up our coverage of any transit mode — light rail, heavy rail, bus, streetcar, even ferry — against other media outlets in the region. We’re wonks and we like it that way.

However, a command of the facts doesn’t necessarily lead us to an easy opinion; on the contrary, an understanding of the conflicting issues and interests can often make the right policy woefully unclear. If someone can articulate a convincing position on an issue like trolley buses, then they can use their own platform or they can comment here. Regardless, they should probably make the case without relying on someone else to make their arguments for them.

Freeman Attempting to Shape Bellevue Rail Alignment

Bellevue Transit Center, by Oran
"Bellevue Transit Center", by Oran

Publicola has a great piece on Kemper Freeman — Bellevue’s resident anti-transit tycoon — funding anti-surface rail candidates for Bellevue’s city council:

Bellevue megadeveloper Kemper Freeman and other longtime light-rail opponents are supporting a slate of candidates in this November’s Bellevue City Council elections that, Freeman hopes, will stymie plans to build light rail at-grade through downtown Bellevue (where most of Freeman’s developments are centered). Freeman, along with members of the anti-light-rail Eastside Transportation Coalition, has given thousands of dollars to the four candidates—more than $3,500 altogether.

In an interview with PubliCola, Freeman made no bones about his desire to halt light rail construction or at least to force light rail underground through Bellevue or, alternately, away from the city center. “Unless you want to just wipe Bellevue off the map, and that may be what some people want, you won’t support” putting light rail on the surface through downtown Bellevue, Freeman says.

Light-rail opponents, having lost their battle against rail in general, are now concentrating on influencing light rail’s route through the city: If light rail goes through downtown Bellevue along Bellevue Way, they want it underground (a change that would add as much as half a billion dollars to the cost); and if they can’t get it underground, they want it moved away from neighborhoods and businesses, to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe right-of-way just east of I-405.

Read the rest of the story at Publicola. What’s funny is that most transit fans in the region would likely prefer a tunnel through Bellevue, though it is widely recognized that Bellevue would have to pay for the extra cost of a tunnel option. However, candidates that support the BNSF alignment not only hurt near-term ridership but also long-term re-development potential.

Portland’s Green Line: The 5th Line in the Saga

All aboard to Clackamas!
All aboard to Clackamas!

Last Saturday, Tri-Met celebrated its 5th MAX light rail line with the opening of the Green line, an 8.3 mile long system which runs from Portland State University to the Clackamas Town Center. The $575.7 million dollar project was built by Stacy and Witbeck and wide range of subcontractors. Stacy and Witbeck has been the leader for Commuter Rail, Streetcar and Light Rail projects in the United States with over 20 projects under construction or completed. Construction of the Green line took just 3 years from Final Design to Opening day. Impressive, considering the extensive work needed with the Steel bridge, new “diamond” crossings, and all done with minimal service interruptions to MAX and the Portland Streetcar. The I-205 corridor has more than 2300 parking spots available with the largest at Clackamas Transit Center with 750 spots. The I-205 corridor also features a mostly grade separated trail next to the ROW.

Check out the rest of the Green line after the fold!

Continue reading “Portland’s Green Line: The 5th Line in the Saga”