Tom Rasmussen

The effort to establish stronger Council oversight over the revision to Seattle’s Transit Master Plan has passed out of the transportation committee. What’s perplexing is committee chair Tom Rasmussen’s comment about light rail:

Rasmussen expressed surprise that McGinn wanted light rail to be in the plan. “Typically, light rail is something that occurs regionally rather than city by city,” Rasmussen said. “I wonder if the Bridging the Gap Oversight Committee would want that money to go to light rail planning” rather than other modes of transit like electric trolleys, streetcars, and buses.

Rasmussen is obviously entitled to be skeptical of city-funded light rail, even though we would strongly disagree.  But how could he possibly find this surprising?  McGinn’s promise to send light rail to the ballot was a prominent event in the general election; less famously, Council President Richard Conlin said favorable things about the plan shortly after the election.

Combined with his prominent role in the pro-tunnel faction and wobbly response to the Nickerson road diet, Rasmussen is not scoring many points with those interested in more and better alternatives to driving.

Also read Frank on this subject.

37 Replies to “Rasmussen Apparently Unaware of Last Mayoral Campaign”

  1. There are a couple of other interesting things to note here.

    Regional light rail planning occurs regionally, but this isn’t regional. Light rail from West Seattle to Ballard would be entirely in the city limits – and previous planning in this corridor HAS been done by the city, for instance, in the 2000 Intermediate Capacity Transit study (which did study light rail).

    It’s also telling that he calls streetcars “another mode” of transit. They’re just different investment levels – he seems to be saying more that he doesn’t think we should spend that much money on non-car transportation.

    1. “It’s also telling that he calls streetcars “another mode” of transit. They’re just different investment levels…”

      I’m going to have to disagree with you there, Ben. Streetcars are not simply scaled down light rail, just as a local bus is not just “scaled down” BRT. The fundamental distinction between is not rubber vs. steel, but local vs rapid.

      BRT and Light Rail are share the following two characteristics:

      1.) Dedicated right of way, potentially including grade separation.
      2.) Wide stop spacing (averaging 1 mile or more).

      This is necessary because even with dedicated ROW, if transit stops every 1/4 mile, it is impossible for its average speed to exceed 12 mph (assuming acceleration at 0.5 meters / second^2 and an average dwell time of 20 seconds), regardless of top speed. The only way to achieve average speeds higher than 12 mph is to increase the spacing between stops.

      These two characteristics allow both BRT and Light Rail to serve a particular purpose very well: moving people at high speeds over long distances. The difficulty, however, is that almost by definition these modes do not place a station within walking distance of all the land along the line. They leave gaps between the stations, sometimes very large gaps.

      Thus, rapid transit serves a completely different purpose than local transit. Rapid transit is about moving long distances between a very small number of very high density nodes. Local transit is about all the spaces in between those high density nodes. Local transit is about short trip, either to nearby destinations or to a transfer station on the regional system.

      Building a streetcar to Ballard is radically different from building grade-separated light rail. The speed difference is a factor of 3, which is the difference between an 8 minute trip from Ballard to Downtown and a 25 minute trip. When you layer 5 minutes of walking and 5 minutes of waiting you’re looking at 18 minutes with light rail and 35 minutes with a streetcar, which is the difference between being time-competitive with a car and not being time-competitive, but that’s for a close destination like Ballad. Extend up to Crown Hill and you’re looking at 8 miles, 14 minutes on light rail, but 42 minutes on a streetcar.

      On the other hand, as with University Link, Light Rail would bypass nearly everything in between. A streetcar system could serve the dense communities along Westlake and in Fremont and connect Ballard not only to downtown, but to these other communities as well.

      Link-style light rail is also nearly an order of magnitude difference in capital cost. At $200 million per mile, light rail from Ballard to West Seattle is a $2 billion project. That much money could buy is nearly 70 miles of streetcar track, which is enough to build the entire streetcar network as currently envisioned 4 times over (albeit at a higher operating cost).

      Building Light Rail from Ballard to West Seattle and building streetcars are fundamentally different investments serving very different areas in different ways, creating a fundamentally different transit experience and shaping the development of a fundamentally different kind of city with fundamentally different kinds of neighborhoods.

      I don’t know if Rasmussen really knows how true his statement is, but one thing is clear: when we are talking about spending billions on transit that will shape 10’s of billions of dollars worth of private development that follows it, we had better consider all the possibilities, including their radically different costs and their radically different results.

  2. I want light rail to Ballard and West Seattle too, but this mayor has no plan, no cost estimates, and probably little chance of pulling off a major funding package to finance it. The cost for this line would likely be around $2 Billion and I don’t think we can afford it right now. This is why ST put planning money in the ST2 plan for 2014–so it could be included in an ST3 plan for a vote in 2016.

    Bridging the Gap was passed to address a 30 year backlog on street maintenance, not to fund light rail planning that is unrealistic.

    All that being said, Rasmussen is not very good on non-motorized transportation.

    1. Bridging the Gap has transit planning funds, as I understand it, and that’s what this would come from.

      It makes sense to accelerate the ST2 planning money this way, because it lets us start a campaign to get this into ST3 early.

    2. “Bridging the Gap was passed to address a 30 year backlog on street maintenance”

      Ah, that’s the beauty of how Nickels sold it, everyone thinks it’s for what they want. It’s streets, bikes, transit, and neighborhood grants. The technical definition is streets “No less than 67%” (70% actual so far), bike/ped “No less than 18%” (22% actual so far), transit “No more than 15%” (8% actual so far), and $1.5m per year to neighborhood fund. The 2009 total program budget was $299.6 million.

      This is from page 13 of the
      http://www.cityofseattle.net/Transportation/docs/btg/BTG3-YearAnnualReportLETTER.pdf

  3. I think the Mayor can pull off this package of Light Rail to West Seattle and points South and a Street car to Ballard. I’d prefer Light Rail to Ballard with the possible extension further North, but we could run a street car along Westlake to Freemont to Ballard and a future Light Rail line from Westlake Center to Queen Anne to Ballard and points North later.

    By 2011, the local economy should have seen the last of the economic shocks and we’ll be looking to do some forward thinking development. Seattle residents with the Gulf Oil disaster will be ready to make some changes to help us change from an oil based transportation to an electric one and this project will be seen as a good first step.

    1. Fremont has been underserved by transit forever. Ballard has fast 15th Ave W and the promise of RapidRide. Fremont has slow Dexter and the lowest bridge on the canal (meaning the most frequently opening), and it only got direct service to the U-district a few years ago. Fremont-Ballard service is either out of the way (17, 28) or spotty (46). So arguably, a streetcar to Fremont and Ballard would be a good move for the north-central part of the city. The route is pretty clear, there’s ex-streetcar ROW on Westlake, and it’s politically expedient to “redeem” the controversial SLUT by making it go somewhere, and increase the frequency. The main problem is the Fremont Bridge, it would have to wait whenever the bridge goes up. But Fremonters are used to that.

      1. It seems like what you’re saying is there is no quick route connecting Fremont to anywhere but the reason is the roads through and to Fremont leave it isolated as a quirky little island; which is exactly how I think many or most Fremont residence like it. As far as making use of the SLUT I’m not sure that’s going to get you anything faster or less convoluted than there already is. You start at Westlake (which isn’t DT where most of the people are trying to go. You spend 15 minutes getting out to the end of the line and then backtrack toward westlake. By the time you’re actually traveling north on Westlake you’ve already burn 20 minutes to go about 1 mile. There’s not that much along Westlake and not much potential development. The bridge openings for boats isn’t a big deal. The drawbridge operator can hold up boats to give the streetcar priority. Of great concern however is the age of that bridge. During hot weather it’s in danger of swelling shut. Cutting off the ship canal by leaving it down isn’t an option (against federal law). Plus, streetcars of yesteryear are featherweights compared to the SLUT rolling stock. Given the age and condition of the bridge I’d have to doubt that it’s up to carrying that sort of load. I’d also have to wonder about how well the roads through the Fremont business district would handle vehicles as large as the streetcars.

      2. I think a new high bridge is fundable for both West Seattle and Fremont, though in that case you’d need to start it up on the Dexter hill and probably connect to somewhere like 36th. In Portland they’re building a ped/bike/MAX bridge for $134m:
        http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2009/04/adams_applauds_max_bridge_desi.html

        On the other hand, there is a lot of potential development on Westlake Ave N. South of Galer St is part of the SLU Urban Center and will probably be upzoned next year after the SLU EIS is completed. Current zoning is 40′ I think but depending on the EIS will be anywhere from 65′ to 300′ for residential (those would be “pin towers” max one per block with a 40′ podium and FAR of 4.5). The SLUT could easily be sped up by eliminating stops, especially the unsponsored ones at Mercer and 7th Ave, and giving it more dedicated ROW.

      3. A new high bridge would definitely be the way to go. All of the draw bridges are getting long in the tooth and operational costs are not insignificant. They also introduce delays (hate waiting for those damn bridges when coming back through the locks ;-) and are dangerous (try riding a motorcycle across in the rain as it is, I’d hate to be dealing with trolley tracks in addition to a wet metal grate). I don’t know enough about the street grid, terrain or traffic patterns to know where one would go. I do wonder if serving Seattle U might not be a priority.

        Realistically I don’t see much that can be done north of Aloha. Westlake is between a cliff and the water. Like building along a freeway you’ve lost half your potential (except you can put an overpass over a road and you can’t bridge Lake Union). You’ve got view obstruction issues which present cliff dwellers would fight tooth and nail to preserve. And, while they are older buildings they’re still pretty pricey real estate to buy and bulldoze. A developer would find it tough to secure enough adjacent property to build something grand enough to make it pay.

        You could speed up SLUT by eliminating stops and perhaps eliminating the “spur” that heads out toward Eastlake but you’ve still got headway issues which would be very difficult to even maintain at 15 minutes which sucks because most people are going to have to transfer at Westlake Plaza. Why not run a new track all the way down Westlake to 5th Ave and decouple the couplet. At that point about the only thing left of the SLUT is the rolling stock.

        Maybe better to not try to make lemonade and just run a new line out 5th which would serve the Seattle Center. I don’t know if this is feasible but maybe use Taylor to wind your way up to Queen Anne at which point you’ve gained the elevation required for a high bridge across the ship canal. I’m not sure where you could locate the actual bridge. Maybe 3rd although that sort of misses Fremont. It’s also starting to be a really expensive project that slowly winds it’s way through nowhere. Which comes back around to the idea that serving Ballard makes more sense than Little Bohemia.

      4. Well, since we’re dreaming… I would extend the streetcar up 5th Ave through downtown and meet up with the First Hill line. I’d keep stops at no more than .5mi so that it might be a reasonable ride from, for example, apt at Galer St to a job at Columbia Center, or apt downtown to job in Fremont. We’d have three levels of transit service in the center city: local access (bus), medium (streetcar), and Link. I’d also like to retool the ETB lines to be more like the Rapid Trolley Network plan, again with “station stops” every .5mi or so. But, I don’t have a couple billion to spend on all this, and Paul Allen doesn’t return my calls! (Incidentally, the Seattle Channel show on SLU mentioned that Vulcan has spent over $2b on buildings in the last decade, so indeed the city is wanting to keep him happily spending–I’m thinking the council desperately wants to believe in streetcars.)

        As for development potential, you’re right about the screaming about views. But, there are about 18 square blocks between Aurora and Westlake between Roy and Galer, hillier as you go north bus it’s not until you get close to Fremont that it’s a cliff. Many of them are large parcels already owned single entities like the Casey Family Foundation and Korry Electronics which is planning to move. (None are owned by Vulcan.) The best potential in my opinion is the parking lots around 8th Ave N and Valley St. If the Mercer/DBT stuff gets done Valley will be a quiet street, and it would be insanely close to Lake Union Park.

      5. If the First Hill streetcar is successful then I would think extending it all the way up 5th Ave to the Seattle Center (and Gates Foundation) would make sense. The existing SLUT route gets you half way to Galer. The southern part looks like it’s the best candidate for development but that’s probably decades worth of growth given how under developed the whole SLU area is at this point. The conversion of Valley to a “green street” is one of the few aspects I like of the current Mercer Mess Redux. Keep Paul on your speed dial. He’s probably just playing his guitar too loud to hear the phone :=

      6. Well remember that they existing SLUT will be extended up Eastlake to the U District in the future, a route which I think has the potential for very high ridership with the very fast growth of the Eastlake corridor.

    2. I’m very concerned that the Mayor will try to do light rail on the cheap and compromise its effectiveness. As such, I strongly agree with you, Gary: light rail to West Seattle now, and an affordable streetcar via Westlake and Fremont to Ballard, then get Light Rail right with ST3. The two lines to Ballard would complement each other, with the Streetcar serving local neighborhood to neighborhood trips and the eventual light rail picking up the long distance commutes. This would be far better than ending up with a compromised light rail system that doesn’t stop frequently enough to serve local needs, but lacks grade separation and thus also fails to provide the real speed advantages of true rapid transit. Both local and rapid are necessary, but a compromised halfway system serves neither purpose well.

  4. Streetcar to Ballard for now. Ballard to Brooklyn Link in the future, as the first part of a Ballard, Brooklyn, 520, Bellevue, Issaquah line.

    1. I’m posting this knowing that I’m going to start sounding like Norman, but what is the fascination with streetcars/trolleys?

      Trust me, I’m all for rail, and hopefully those who have seen me post in the past know this, but I’m only for it if the majority of the line, if not all of it, is grade separated. A streetcar will offer very little benefit, time-wise, if it still has to deal with the traffic it is trying to alleviate. I’m just thinking back to my Philly days by taking a 10 or 13 trolley to West Philly from downtown. The underground section of it was great, but when it hit the streets, it ran into the same problem as buses – unpredictable traffic and traffic lights. Portland’s MAX was the same way. Maybe it was the time of day I rode it, but it seemed like we would drop passengers off, move about 10ft, and then wait at a traffic light.

      Anyway, I guess I’m slowly starting to get to my point of – let’s design something right, even if it costs more in the short-run. I’m thrilled that the Link to the U District is underground and happy that ST had the balls to do this.

      1. Mike, did you ride MAX outside downtown Portland, or have you ridden Link on Martin Luther King Way? Link very, very rarely stops at lights, and on most rides, it won’t stop for a single one.

      2. MAX up to the Portland Zoo from downtown. Not too far from downtown, but darn it took a while to get there.

        In my experiences, it’s hit or miss with the Link on MLK. Sometimes, you’re right – the lights and signaling process works like a charm, and others it has failed. I don’t ride it much, so mileage will vary. However, the point with grade separation is that there is no traffic variable except for other trains on the same line.

        What is different with the Link is that it’s not a streetcar in the traditional sense. It still has its own ROW. A streetcar, much like the SLUT, shares its tracks with traffic and thus is not much better than a bus.

      3. Streetcars are good because although they provide the same type of service as buses, they almost always get far higher ridership than the bus routes that they replace, and they serve as a catalyst for development.

      4. alexjonlin said it well. It’s critical to realize that streetcars and grade-separated rapid transit are about serving totally different purposes. One is not a cheap, lousy version of the other. It’s not that “A streetcar will offer very little benefit, time-wise…” A streetcar offers no benefit time wise. Time is not a reason to build a streetcar.

        Streetcars are about increasing the quality of the ride, not decreasing its duration.

        Quality matters, as evidence, consider the relative popularity of Amtrak Cascades from here to Vancouver, BC compared to its primary competitor, Greyhound. The greyhound takes 3 hours to reach BC, while Cascades takes 4. Greyhound offers more trips per day takes you to the exact same final destination and costs about 1/2 as much, yet Amtrak carries more people on the train. The difference is the quality of the ride. Of course, if Cascades were faster and cheaper and more frequent, it would be even more popular than it is now. Likewise, a grade-separated light rail system will carry more passengers from end to end than a streetcar will, but a streetcar will carry more people in between.

        The two modes, Streetcar and Light Rail, are complements, not substitutes. They both work better when the are deployed together and integrated: light rail for long distance, streetcar for shorter trips and as a feeder to the rapid transit system.

      5. The train costs more but it’s not earning a profit. If people had to cover the full cost of the train ticket I think Greyhound would be the clear winner. On a personal note my son’s attending Western. He’s taken Amtrak once and Greyhound numerous times. Cost is a factor (even thought cost of the train ticket doesn’t come close to the cost of service) but the real kicker is timing of service. To be sure the train ride was a treat but it’s not cost competitive. The “quality of ride” argument cuts the same way for streetcars. You’re taking away service hours from the system to provide that quality of service. This is favoring one route over everyone else. The only real justification for a streetcar is if ridership demand exceeds the capacity of a bus. An increase in ridership is irrelevant when the cost per boarding is still higher. An airline would fill every seat if it offered first class service at coach pricing. That’s what streetcar projects like the SLUT are doing. Any wonder Metro’s in a whole? To be sure many (most?) bus routes on the eastside aren’t much better.

      6. Your analogy of comparing Greyhound/Amtrak to buses/streetcars is flawed. There is a huge difference in services that are offered on Amtrak that a streetcar will never fill. You mentioned it in your reply – the time it takes from Seattle to Portland is significant and you would want the most amenities possible (cafe cart, extra legroom, being to walk around without being jerked around, etc). These are not and should not be concerns for intercity travel at all as most trips are short. You want to be able to carry the most people as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is why people still choose cars over public transportation because it does neither.

        I also disagree with your comment about *streetcars* being a catalyst for development. Your taking people from relative proximity from point A to point B (Ballard to Brooklyn? Already served by the 44. A streetcar will offer no benefit for development) Our Link implementation, on the otherhand, is an example as a catalyst for development as you’re bringing people from a further reach to areas that would have taken them much longer to reach. Look at the Othello station area as an example.

        Streetcars look nice, but we’re a cash strapped city. Let’s take the money that we do have and divert it into a transit system that will be quick, efficient, and reliable. Once you have that, ridership will go up.

      7. The first MAX line (Gresham) was built in the typical US light rail manner. Build as cheap as possible on existing streets, with stops every few blocks. They put a stop in front of everything without considering what that would do to travel time. The only “rapid” thing about it is the freeway segment, and at least for a while it was running only every 30 minutes on Sundays.

        The subsequent lines were made better with greater stop spacing and fewer traffic crossings, but nothing could be done about downtown or the Steel Bridge without putting in a tunnel or removing stops, which they didn’t do.

    2. I think there needs to be Ballard to Brooklyn Link in the future, but I think that we’ll need to build a grade-separated Ballard-Downtown route first. That’s a very large ridership route that deserves a fast, subway-like connection to the largest urban center in the whole Northwest. If you have just a streetcar to Downtown and a Link line to the U District from Ballard, you’ll still need to have frequent bus service, and you won’t get nearly the ridership you could get with a direct-to-downtown line.

      1. One of the selling points of a subway type system is that transfers are relatively easy and convienent. Even if we were to start construction now, by the time a Ballard Brooklyn would come on line, frequencies will be pretty high on North-Central Link no?

  5. Yup, I think you are pretty close here.

    I agree that a WS to Ballard LR line will need to be built at some point, what I tend to disagree with is the mayor’s apparent intent to build it on the cheap. I interpret this as building something closer to streetcar instead of something more like Link – and that I disagree with as it would short Ballard and WS yet again.

    At this point I’d do detailed planning of a Central Link quality LR line from WS to Ballard with a focus on establishing a firm routing. Then I’d work with other partners to get this funded at a latter date (ST3? Stimulus? Additional Federal?, etc).

    While working the long term funding issue for LR, I’d have the city step up to build the in-fill infrastructure NOW. I.e., build the East-West transit lines that would connect these two predominately N-S LR lines. An expanded streetcar system would be a part of this, and it is something the city can get going on now.

    I do tend to disagree with the mayor’s attempt to raid the Bridging-the-Gap funds to pay for this though. He needs to deliver on his campaign promises without raiding other, voter approved, funding sources.

    1. This was not “raiding,” part of Bridging the Gap is supposed to go to transit. It also wasn’t a big chunk of money, it was $800,000 of Bridging the Gap revenue. If you look at page 13 “Cumulative Levy Spending Breakout (2007 – 2009)” in the 2009 report at http://www.cityofseattle.net/Transportation/BridgingtheGap.htm you can see that transit has been the lowest priority. The requirement is “No more than 15% of revenue” but actual spending has been 8% (and I have to add that some of the transit money has gone to projects like Spokane St Viaduct and Mercer Corridor that in my opinion are of questionable utility to transit). The 2009 total program budget was $299.6 million, so the $800,000 for transit planning would be a drop in the bucket (around .003%).

      1. Planning for a WS-Ballard LR line was not part of the Bridging-the-Gap ballot measure. And $800k is a pretty small number to plan an entire Link style LR line.

      2. Rasmussen specifically did not want McGinn to spend $800k on updating the Transit Master Plan, and Bridging the Gap did not specify what the “No more than 15% of revenue” could be used for.

      3. Exactly. How can the mayor hope to accomplish for $800K what ST has budgeted $8M to accomplish? Does the mayor know more about planning LR than ST? And we are supposed to take this approach seriously……?

        If the mayor really cared about transit in Seattle he would work with ST to get the full $8M study moved up, while at the same time taking the $800K and fully funding the Aloha Extension study phase.

        But no…….that approach might actually accomplish something…

      4. Shouldn’t someone actually, you know, ASK the Mayor what his thinking is?

        Is it possible that he’s not looking to pay for the study with Bridging the Gap money, but use the money to help accelerate/support Sound Transit’s already voted on and approved funding for a study?

    1. The enabling legislation passed by the Legislature for the tunnel funding agreement very clearly says that tunnel overruns should be paid for by the “Seattle area” – it doesn’t call out either the “City of Seattle” or the “tunnel area.”

      I think it is open to legal debate what is meant by the “Seattle area”, and one interpretation of that phrase would be to include most of King County in the “Seattle area” since that is pretty common usage.

  6. I think the problem at this point is that McGinn has zero credibility on transportation issues. When you constantly are thowing out pie-in-the-sky transportation ideas, no one knows which ones are serious. Especially when there’s no plan.

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