Electric Cars and the Future of Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Yonah Freemark wonders if affordable electric cars like the Nissan Leaf will decrease the American public’s well-known appetite for more public transit.

Freemark argues that even electric cars have environmental problems: electricity comes from dirty sources, electric cars have short lifespans, and they still encourage sprawl.

I think this is right, as far as it goes, but I’d make a couple of broader points. First, smart growth is good in and of itself, and we need to make that argument independent of vehicular powertrains. As I argued a couple of years back:

The link between miles driven and GHGs (Greenhouse Gases) is only going to get more tenuous over the next few decades. As that happens, environmentalists will lose another weapon in our arsenal. We need new arguments for smart growth that are directly about smart growth (like preserving wetlands, for example) instead of related issues like carbon emissions or national security.

In other words, there are other reasons to advocate smart growth that have nothing to do with the environment. For example, as David Brooks wrote this week, commuting sucks:

The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting” [Emphasis added].

[I think of this every day as I walk home over I-5 and gawk at the sea of red lights.]

The other point I’d make is that energy-efficient electric cars will simply hasten the arrival of congestion pricing. The highway trust fund is running a deficit. Raising the gas tax is politically treacherous. One way or another, we’re going to need to finance the roads on which these electric cars will drive. If we can’t finance it through an energy tax, we’ll have to revert to a VMT or congestion tax. There are no free lunches.

Bonus Fun Fact: I just clicked on the Sightline blog post that I referenced a couple years back, and noticed a smart commenter named “Michael McGinn” in the comments section. Heh.

CT Changes to Route 247 and 277

The Community Transit Board will meet tomorrow to discuss further revisions to the plan for routes 247 and 277.  From the press release:

The Community Transit Board of Directors will consider modifications to Routes 247 and 277 for the June 13 service change when it meets at 3 p.m. Thursday, April 1, in the agency’s Board Room, located at 7100 Hardeson Road in Everett. The meeting is accessible by Everett Transit Route 8.

The plan shortens Routes 247 and 277 serving Boeing-Everett to accommodate the transit agency’s shortened operating day. However, at the March meeting the board requested more information about the possibility of starting Route 247 near downtown Stanwood and providing trips on Route 277 from its current starting point in Gold Bar. The board this week is expected to make a decision on these possible modifications.

News Roundup: 82% of U.S. Wants More Transit

This is an open thread.

Bel-Red Open House Tomorrow

There’s been a lot of argument about East Link Segments B and C, but since the “Bel-Red” alignment* was chosen, there hasn’t been very much chatter about Segment D.  That may change with Sound Transit’s open house about this segment tomorrow:

East Link Light Rail Preliminary Engineering Open House

Bel-Red/Overlake Corridor
Thursday, April 1, 2010
5 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Highland Community Center
14224 NE Bel-Red Road, Bellevue

* Not actually on Bel-Red Rd. at any point.

Next Meet-up

Our next meetup will be on Wednesday, April 14th at 5:30pm, at the Taphouse Grill (1506 6th Ave), about a block from the Westlake station in downtown Seattle.  This is an all-ages location.

Their excellent happy hour ends at 6:30, so you might want to get there on time-ish.

Americans Love Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Public Transit spending is more popular than health care reform:

More than four-in-five voters (82 percent) say that “the United States would benefit from an expanded and improved transportation system,” including modes of transportation like rail and buses. An overwhelming majority of voters agree with this statement — no matter where they live. Even in rural America, 79 percent of voters agreed with the statement, despite much lower use of public transportation compared to urban Americans.

Some in Washington believe that building or expanding more roads is the best way to tackle congestion — but the majority of Americans don’t agree with them. Three-in-five voters choose improving public transportation and making it easier to walk and bike over building more roads and expanding existing roads as the best strategies for tackling congestion. (59% to 38%).

Gregoire Vetoes 520 Light Rail Planning

Update 3/31 @ 11:20am: The governor’s office tells us that this veto just affects the “legislative intent” section of the bill, not the underlying contents which still directs a work group to study high-capacity transit over the bridge. However, the underlying legislation — with the “intent” section vetoed — does not direct “any final design of the state route number 520 bridge replacement and HOV program accommodate effective connections for transit, including high capacity transit, including, but not limited to, effective connections for transit to the university link light rail line” as the intent section did. I don’t know if other legislation has this provision.

And while the legislation does direct a King County work group to study high-capacity transit over the bridge, it does not require the bridge accommodate any plans from that group. However, we now understand what the governor’s office meant when it defined a section as “vague;” unfortunately, that section had a stronger requirement for high-capacity transit than the rest of the bill, on my reading.

The Seattle PI report we link to below has not been changed as of this writing.

Original report: The Seattle PI reports on another of today’s vetoes, this time not so transit-friendly.

The governor also vetoed a section of the bill [authorizing the 520 bridge replacement] that directed planners to come up with a final design that could handle both carpool lanes and light rail. However Shelton said the governor still supported ultimately seeing whether the replacement span that connects Seattle with its Eastside suburbs could ultimately accommodate high-capacity transit. She felt the language in the bill first section was “vague.”

“We still have work groups addressing those issues,” [a Gregoire spokesman] said. “The work is still going to get done.”

Light rail across SR-520 is a long time away from being seriously considered. Even in the long haul, though, it would be an up-hill lift to build light rail across the bridge if it meant removing capacity — even if that capacity were just HOV lanes. I think if we were to add light rail to the bridge, it should be done in addition to the HOV lanes on the bridge. So that section of the legislation made sense to me; what’s possibly vague about it?

Governor Vetoes Private Provider Provision

Around noon today, as we urged previously (along with pro-transit representatives, transit agencies, and USDOT), Governor Gregoire vetoed the provisions in the supplemental transportation budget (SB 6381) tying state transit funding to allowing private transportation providers to use transit-only facilities. There’s been no news item posted on her website yet, but we’ll post more as we get updates.

UW Favors Rainer Vista Extension

According to the Seattle Times, UW is continuing to push for a more expensive Rainer Vista extension plan that will connect the university to a cross walk on Montlake which leads to the Husky Stadium light rail station.

UW officials are pushing for what they consider to be a more elegant idea. The university calls it the Rainier Vista extension, which would add $12 million in cost.

Instead of a skybridge, transit riders would use a new crosswalk on Montlake Boulevard, aided by a new, midblock traffic signal. State traffic engineers warn that change could worsen traffic on Montlake.

Riders could reach the campus via a new “land bridge” to be built over Northeast Pacific Place. The bridge would help create a visual connection with the UW’s Drumheller Fountain.


The transit board likely will consider the issue in May, according to project director Ron Endlich. The UW proposal is estimated to cost $18.8 million, of which the UW, Sound Transit and the city each were to contribute $4 million. The transit agency also would contribute $6.8 million “in savings” by not building the skybridge.

The university since has tried to trim those costs. In recent drawings for bidders, the “land bridge” has been slimmed to 35 feet wide instead of a 100-foot-wide version that was shown at a public forum Dec. 2.

The Seattle Times has a busy graphic showing what the plan would look like here (.pdf).

We spoke briefly about a similar plan in early December and later analyzed that plan’s safety and directness. We concluded that a similar plan is a slightly more direct walk for pedestrians than Sound Transit’s current design, but we don’t have any analysis of the plan that UW is proposing today. My base reaction is that whatever reasonable request the university makes, it should be considered.

A Word That Killed, “Yeah”

[UPDATE 3/31] LaHood continues the his theme on distracted driving here and here. Man I love this guy.

On Friday Governor Gregoire  signed stronger legislation which bans text messaging as well as talking on a cell phone without a hands free device. I previously wrote about this here, here and here. From the HeraldNet;

“In the end, this is a public safety bill for me,” Gregoire said, surrounded by a small crowd of people including the chief of the Washington State Patrol.

“To those who have said to me that it’s no different than having a cup of coffee, the coffee doesn’t talk back to me. Coffee doesn’t have anything to say to me. A cell phone does,” she said.

“What if I am a young person and my boyfriend or girlfriend is breaking up with me. Am I really concentrating on what I am doing?” she continued. “While I wish we all could be able to talk on a cell phone in a car, I really do, the fact of the matter is, it’s without question a public safety issue.”

The article goes on to say,

In signing the bill, Gregoire said the law will help troopers who have found themselves driving in a marked car on a freeway and seen drivers on their cell phone “looking directly at them, flaunting it.”

When that happens, she said, “There is something wrong with the enforcement capacity of Washington State Patrol. I find that troubling.”

Secretary Ray LaHood, which has been an unassuming champion of this cause since he was appointed, has been holding up Washington State as a model of what the rest of the country needs to do. AT&T has kicked off a public education campaign and the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission which has been active on this issue will as well. As someone who has been rear-ended by someone distracted by their phone as well as a bicyclist whose safety relies on the attentiveness of drivers, this legislation is a huge step in the right direction. It certainly isn’t the end all but it will undoubtedly increase the safety of all road users in Washington State. A big thanks to Senator Eide for being such a strong champion of this safety legislation over the past few years.

Bellevue Supports C9T

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


This is a few days late, but since I gave Bellevue’s City Council a hard time over the idea of the B7 alignment, I should note that they’ve decided to support C9T, a tunnel through downtown. If the city wants to find the money for the more expensive tunnel, I’m sure they’ll find the money. The key thing is having electeds who support the project, and not trying to actively sabotage it.

This is big news.

All Viaduct Options Unpopular, Especially Surface/Transit


[UPDATE 4:16pm: There are some comments that a differently structured poll, or one with more background, would have produced a different result.  I think that is a stronger indication that governance by poll and plebiscite is a shaky proposition, rather than that the public “really” favors a surface option.]

Publicola publishes results from a poll that, looking back, it’s amazing to believe hasn’t been conducted before: a three-way contest between the three viaduct replacement options:

Surface-transit finished a distant third, with only 21 percent support…  The remainder of the Seattle electorate splits almost evenly between the rebuild and the deep bore tunnel, with neither generating anything close to 50 percent support.

The numbers are bad for surface/transit across all demographic groups.

As someone who has drifted from shrugging acceptance to strong opposition to the tunnel project, I could quibble about how the cost overrun provision affects opinion, and so on.  But I’m not really interested in spinning away the apparent fact that my favored policy is unpopular.

Instead, I’d just say that it’s hard to sell “surface/transit” when the “transit” is a combination of buses already stuck in traffic plus some ephemeral promise of better transit in the distant future.

Holding out for Grade Separation


We still don’t know much about the light rail plan Mayor McGinn will likely put before the voters that we didn’t know before the election.  However, one thing that is for sure is that it won’t be grade-separated from end to end, and that’s enough for some to make blanket statements that anything less than full grade separation is unacceptable, that we should wait to do it “right”, etc.

The Transport Politic makes a strong, Seattle-centric case for at-grade light rail, but here are some other political and financial observations:

  1. The unspoken assumption of the absolutists is that ST3 will deliver full grade separation if we were to wait for it.  In reality, that may be the case if we wait for the Sound Move bonds to get paid off in the 2030s and 2040s.  Otherwise, we’ll get whatever additional taxing authority the state gives us.   That may be billions more, or it may be less.  Dealing with that kind of uncertainty, it makes sense to accomplish whatever we can so that our ambitions can fit in whatever package Olympia gives us.  More after the jump. Continue reading “Holding out for Grade Separation”

Streetcar, Tram or Light Rail – ROW or Station Spacing?

Yonah at the Transport Politic weighed in on rail transit categorization/semantics last week, using the potential West Seattle to Ballard extension as an example.

The dividing line between what Americans reference as a streetcar and what they call light railis not nearly as defined as one might assume considering the frequent use of the two terminologies in opposition. According to popular understanding, streetcars share their rights-of-way with automobiles and light rail has its own, reserved right-of-way.

But the truth is that the two modes use very similar vehicles and their corridors frequently fall somewhere between the respective stereotypes of each technology. Even the prototypical U.S. light rail project — the Portland MAX — includes significant track segments downtown in which its corridor is hardly separated from that of the automobiles nearby. And that city’s similarly pioneering streetcar includes several segments completely separated from the street.

As a result, some have labeled this plan little more than a streetcar, whose slow pace and minimal capacity make it more useful as a development tool than a transportation one. Others are convinced that the project will morph into a multi-billion dollar mini-metro like Link, a high-cost concept into whose face city budget experts are afraid to look.

But Mayor McGinn’s proposal is neither of those things — it’s an effort to build a cost-effective rail transit line on the model used by cities across Europe, known typically as tramways.

Jarrett over a Human Transit has a different take, arguing that station spacing is a more important factor in determining what kind of rail transit something is.

More after the jump Continue reading “Streetcar, Tram or Light Rail – ROW or Station Spacing?”

Amtrak Cascades Stimulus Update

Photo by Mike Bjork

When stimulus funding for Amtrak Cascades was first announced earlier this year, it was unclear even to state leaders exactly what projects would be funded – just the goals the feds said they’d like to achieve. The state was asked to resubmit a full project list after the amount ($590 million) was awarded.

Our goals are relatively simple. Two more daily Seattle to Portland round trips should be added, and both speed and reliability should be improved – with on time performance aimed for 88%.

To do this, there are several bottlenecks along the route that must be improved. Trains should get out of the single-track Nelson Bennett tunnel in Tacoma and onto the Point Defiance Bypass, a bypass track is necessary to get around freight congestion in Vancouver, and new tracks are necessary around Kelso and Longview to keep freight trains out of the way.

WSDOT has finally submitted this full project list, broken down by when construction could start (as this is a stimulus package, after all), and we’re now waiting on the Federal Railroad Administration to give us the thumbs up.

Way down at the bottom of WSDOT’s press release is something else I’d like to make sure we all remember. There’s another $2.5 billion available for high speed rail from the 2009 federal transportation appropriations bill. We’ll be in the running for some of that money as well, especially if we break ground quickly on the “shovel ready” projects from this stimulus funding.

New Amtrak Maintenance Facility

As part of both Amtrak Cascades planning and Sound Transit 2, I’ve seen references to a new maintenance facility to be built in SODO to handle all the planned new service.

A year ago, Amtrak made a request for ARRA funding to build this base. It was supposed to start construction a year ago, in fact, but we’re hearing now that the construction contract has just been issued, with expected completion in 2012.

That comes just before Sound Transit and Amtrak will both likely expect new trains for their respective services.

Speaking of Sound Transit, getting Sounder to Lakewood is pushed back to 2013 now, in order for Sound Transit to afford all the changes made to the design of the new track through South Tacoma.

Second Train to Vancouver B.C. Extended Until September

Amtrak Cascades by Timberline1955
Amtrak Cascades by Timberline1955

Great news for travelers to Vancouver B.C.! The second train to Canada will continue operating until September 30, 2010. During the 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games, more than 11,000 passengers rode the new service.

“The success of this additional Amtrak Cascades service reinforces what we already know – that intercity passenger rail service is a valuable transportation resource and people are using it,” said Paula Hammond, Washington transportation secretary. “As we continue to grow this service, it will provide more travel options for Pacific Northwest travelers, reduce congestion at our border crossings and help our environment.”

The future of the train service depends on whether the ridership was primarily for the Olympics or if there exists sustained demand for a second train. Canada’s Border Services Agency will waive a $1,500-per-day border inspection fee, money that Washington state doesn’t have budgeted, if it finds the daily ridership sufficient to justify the extra customs agents at Pacific Central Station.

East Link Update: Tunnel Possible, Surface Viable

At yesterday’s Sound Transit board meeting, the City of Bellevue presented revenue options that could help make up $104-150 million of the $285 million gap between budget and the tunnel option (C9T).

Despite attempts from Wallace and Freeman Jr. to derail East Link entirely or keep it out of town, City staff and the transit-friendly council minority seem to have prevailed in helping close the gap. Do remember that Sound Transit has been working to reduce this (and have gone from $500 to $400 to $285), so it’s nice to see the City finally stepping up with options to meet in the middle.

At the end of the joint city/ST analysis we reported on last month, we noticed an option for the north end of the B segment was presented to save $100 million more – it could reduce the gap from $285 to $185 million. At that point, $150 million from Bellevue puts a tunnel in striking distance of reality.

That’s not the only news from yesterday – a peer review panel released its report on the feasibility of surface light rail in Bellevue, and found it totally viable. This is the same conclusion we drew from the joint analysis – while Bellevue traffic will be bad in 2030, it will be just as bad with or without trains. They’re more interested in having great connectivity between light rail and the transit center, as 30-40% of light rail riders at that station will be transferring.

That seems to lend itself to C11A as a great alternative – so if a tunnel isn’t affordable, a great transfer at Bellevue Transit Center is easily within our reach.