7 of 9

Map by Oran

I think it’s unfortunate that a big picture argument about reorganizing Rainier Valley routes bogged down as to whether or not the 9 could replace the 7 for trips along Rainier. That’s my fault for not explicitly stating that I was open to adding stops to the 9, although it’s also clear that some people didn’t read carefully enough, because in my plan everyone has a one seat ride to downtown and a one seat ride to anywhere on Rainier, each with 15 minute frequency. There were lots of complaints about “forced transfers” that could be answered with a quick glance at the provided map. Such are the occupational hazards of writing on the internet.

What’s more, there’s a lot of misperception about how often the 9 stops. After checking onebusaway, by my count the southbound 7 stops 29 times between Jackson and Henderson, while the 9 stops 18 times. Thus, the average stop distance is only 50% higher, and 7 stops tend to the close side. However, 9 stops are much more frequent south of Othello, so I think it’s appropriate to add at least a few further north. In my opinion, the 7 stops too often, so if I were dictator I probably wouldn’t replace them all.

All that said, stop frequency on the 9 is a relatively minor point and I would gladly turn every 7 stop into a 9 stop if that was the price of implementing the other changes. According to the Metro schedule, the difference is about 5 minutes. From a marketing perspective, it may very well be that “7 rerouted to Broadway” is a better headline than “7 replaced with 9 local”, although they amount to the same thing.

Pierce Transit Fares Go Up Monday

Photo by Atomic Taco

Pierce Transit’s adult bus fare is going up from $1.75 to $2.00 on November 1st, with proportional increases in other adult fare products. Youth, senior, Olympia Express, and shuttle fares are unchanged. PT will also charge on Thanksgiving and Christmas for the first time.

The board approved the increase in September, the first one since January 2009. Vanpool fares are also changed.

The Big Day: SR-99 Bids, SDEIS, and Cost Overruns

We’ll be having more on this later but here are some excerpts from elsewhere.

Seattle PI: Gregoire: Viaduct tunnel bids at or below estimates

Bids for the tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct came in at or below estimates, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced Friday morning.

Two pre-qualified joint-venture contract teams dropped off their proposed bids by Thursday’s deadline. The exact figures in the bids will remain secret until December.

“I am proud to announce that the two bids to build the deep-bore tunnel are both at or below the price we set in our contract, not one dollar more,” Gregoire said during a news conference at the Port of Seattle offices at Pier 69.

The state estimated the cost of digging the 54-foot diameter tunnel — the largest deep-bore tunnel yet in the world — at about $1.1 billion. But due the risks involved in tunneling through Seattle’s glacial soils and the fact that this will be the largest highway tunnel yet in the world, many fear the project could cost more.

WSDOT already has offered about $210 million in allowances and incentives to the two contracting teams. The money will be shifted from the reserve fund, leaving $205 million.

About $110 million is to cover inflation, which wasn’t included in the original request for proposals. The reason is state officials wanted to wait until contractors had time to work with the design and have another six months to see where the market would go before signing the contract. Part of the reserve fund was intended to cover inflation, anyway.

Another $100 million was to account for higher costs than expected in obtaining insurance and bonding.

State leaders say the reserve still exceeds the 15 percent recommended by expert panels.

It includes $40 million in a pot of money to cover any settlement or damage to buildings caused by tunneling. The contractor is entitled to recover 75 percent of whatever is left over when the project is completed.

In addition, the contract offers cash incentives if the project is completed ahead of schedule — $100,000 for every day up to $25 million. If work finishes ahead of schedule, that most likely means the project avoided costly delays that would tap into reserves, said Ron Paananen, administrator for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement program.

More after the jump. Continue reading “The Big Day: SR-99 Bids, SDEIS, and Cost Overruns”

Federal Transit Subsidy to Expire, Parking Subsidy Intact

Photo by Oran

In 2008 Congress roughly doubled* the ceiling for the amount of transit benefit that employees could take pre-tax from $120 a month to $230 a month. Not conincidentally, $230 a month is the amount employers can spend on free parking or parking subsidy for their employees without incurring tax penalties. The bill moved the status quo from the nonsensical position of net encouragement of driving to at least rough parity.

Unfortunately, the law that equalizes it sunsets on December 31st, and it appears unlikely that Congress will renew the tax subsidy in the current climate. Here in the Puget Sound, fares are generally low enough that only PugetPasses for fares of $3.50 and up will be affected: Community Transit intercounty, ferry, and some Sounder riders. But in systems where fares are much higher, it’s a big deal for transit riders.

* The numbers from the linked STB article and the Post article, are off by $5-10. I don’t know if the bill changed before passage or if there was some other sort of error.

Imagine a More Detailed Link Station Schedule

stem-and-leaf schedule for Othello to Downtown
Mockup of stem-and-leaf schedule for Link platforms

The schedules at Link stations show the frequency of service and times for the first and last trains. Some people find that inadequate for planning a trip and want a detailed timetable. Here is my answer to your call, a stem-and-leaf format schedule showing all train departures from a station in a particular direction. I designed it for individual platforms. The size of this exactly matches the existing schedules found at Link stations and can function as a drop in replacement. It can accommodate 24 hour service and up to 10 trains per hour. The tradeoff is loss of first/last train times for the opposite direction and a more cluttered look with no summary of the frequencies. I would keep the existing schedules for mezzanine areas. Or why not have both detailed and summary schedules? That would require redesigning the information panels.

By the way, many schedules at Link stations have not been updated or are missing altogether. Some still list times for the first/last train to Tukwila International Boulevard! I don’t know what the people in charge of this at Sound Transit do all day but it took me about 2 hours to design the mockup from scratch. I could make one for every station, print them out, and go install them at stations in a single work day. Of course I’m bragging a bit; it’ll take more work to make such a major change. However, the missing and outdated schedules are simply inexcusable.

ATU Agrees to One-year Raise Freeze

This afternoon, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, which represents King County Metro workers, agreed to a three-year contract that would waive the COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) increase for the first of the three years. According to Slog, this will save about $7.8 million next year.  This is a very surprising turn of events, given the union’s recent position on wage concessions.  Nonetheless, wage increases for the second and third years have not yet been finalized.

Thoughts from PubliCola, which seem to trend toward the view that a one-year freeze is just about as far as the ATU is willing to go:

It’s hard to say who the winner and loser is here. On one hand, the fact that the union (whose president, Paul Bachtel, was saying as recently as last month that he’d rather cut bus service than give up pay increases) has accepted any concession at all is major news. On the other, the fact that the one-year COLA freeze is all Constantine is announcing seems to indicate that the terms of the agreement are favorable to the union.

You can read the full press release here. And previous thoughts from Martin on the subject.

News Roundup: Scrapping 40/40/20

Photo by caseyrs77

What we’ve missed:

  • Metro’s Regional Transit Task Force has recommended scrapping 40/40/20 — a policy that allocates new bus service disproportionately away from Seattle toward generally less efficient suburban service — reports PubliCola.
  • Seattle car tabs will cost $20 more beginning next May. The funds will be dedicated to transportation projects.
  • The Obama administration has released more funds for high-speed rail. $27 million will go to King Street and Tukwila Stations. Will future money be appropriated under a GOP Congress?
  • Have you noticed that Verizon is sponsoring some ads on our site? This weekend’s Verizon Urban Challenge is a real life puzzle/explorer game — sort of like The Amazing Race. Apparently, a few of the elements in the game acknowledge Seattle’s public transit system. A two-person team can win up to $3,000 and some new phones.
  • “Some unfortunate soul peed and pooped on the train, and it was not a little accident.”
  • The ATU (bus operators union) and county likely to end up in arbitration — a process that’ll likely favor union interests compared to a process without arbitration. The ATU is one of two county labor groups who has so far refused to give up a raise for next year.
  • Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl gave money to Patty Murray’s re-election campaign. Have you mailed in your ballot yet?
  • Buy a used Metro bus for less than $10k. (h/t cookieguru.)
  • The New York Times has an excellent photo gallery that covers the last century of New York City subways.
  • A Ferris wheel is planned for the waterfront.
  • The Market Urbanism blog is worth subscribing to.

This is an open thread.

Bel-Red Corridor Design Update

177 feet - this is not TOD

In (slightly) less flame-worthy East Link-related news from Bellevue, the city council is undergoing discussions on the new NE 15/16th street in the Bel-Red corridor, which will require construction of a new right-of-way for Link.  The street will become the centerpiece corridor for the city’s Bel-Red TOD plan, which has even garnered some recognition from Senator Murray.  From the Bellevue Reporter:

[Council] discussion included the type and size of features to be included on the roughly 1.5-mile long roadway, such as the number of vehicle lanes, on-street parking, whether to have bike lanes or a bike-pedestrian pathway, and landscaping options. These decisions will determine how the various elements fit together and the width of the new street.

The greatest fear I have out of this project is Bellevue’s reputation for street improvements that are notoriously car-centric— leaving the potential that this new 15/16th Street could become nothing but a major thoroughfare.  Slides from the city council’s presentation (PDF) show the various ROW cross-sections, with some designs ranging up to 170+ feet wide.

As the current NE 16th Street is only a back-road for industrial vehicles, the natural assumption is that the new street will provide capacity for drivers frequenting the corridor– completely new demand that is really unnecessary.  The development slated there is supposedly being drawn in by Link as the primary transport mode, making the purposes of a new street counterintuitive.  If new lanes are inevitable, however, I’d rather pedestrians not have to walk more than 130′ just to get to the other side of the street.

The city is hosting an open house (PDF) on the project November 9th from 4:30-7pm at Bellevue City Hall.

WSDOT Hedging DBT Bet

Update 6:00 – There is a third possibility. Bid come in a few million “under budget” making the project look good to the general public. If you want to get conspiracy theoryish you could say that today’s comments were made to make low bids look like a pleasant “surprise”.

It looks like WSDOT’s public relations machine is getting into high gear on the deep-bore tunnel (DBT). This great scoop from the Seattle PI:

A sluggish economy that’s helped taxpayers save millions on several large transportation projects is unlikely to have much effect on the state’s planned $1.96 billion deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Thanks to a slow construction market, the bids on several large transportation projects have been coming in at 18 to 25 percent below the state’s estimates. But the favorable bidding climate probably won’t mean big savings on the tunnel project, said Ron Paananen, the state Transportation Department’s administrator for the overall project, which is projected to cost $4.2 billion.

“I’m not so sure we’ll see that in this project because of the level of risk assigned to the contract and the nature of the tunneling industry,” he said. “This is a very big contract with a limited number of contractors. We made sure to get the best and put in a lot of protections to ensure any potential damages are minimized.”

Two joint-venture contracting teams are expected to submit their bids by a Friday deadline on how they would build the tunnel and for how much.

With last week’s announcement that WSDOT is throwing the two remaining teams hundreds of millions more, and today’s announcement that the bids aren’t likely to come in under budget because of the poor economy, it’s pretty obvious that WSDOT is trying bring their budget in line with higher costs and reduced expectations of low bids.

WSDOT doesn’t know what the bid are, but I’m sure they have been getting ample hints from the project teams that those teams will need more money. These teams have spent millions of dollars to get to this point, and neither them nor WSDOT are about to give up on this project. It’s in both of their interest to help each other out.

So with an under-budget DBT doubtful, watch for two scenarios. The first is that bids come in “on budget” thanks to WSDOT shuffling of money. The other is the tunnel still comes in over budget but through theses actions is able to minimize harm to the project.

In the next week or so WSDOT will be releasing their Supplemental Draft EIS (SDEIS). With Halloween this weekend and all of the election coverage over the next week or so, this is a great time from a PR perspective to release a such a controversial document and project bids.

Fun at Rail~Volution in Portland

Voices from the Rail~Volution (2010) from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Last week I had the pleasure to speak on a panel about blogging at the 20th annual Rail~Volution conference in Portland. It was a great retreat from work as evidenced by the skyrocket in STB tweeting. Portland really is a great city.

Having been away from professional transportation conferences for a year and a half I was excited to see what the “new” hot topics in the transportation profession were. I wasn’t surprised to find economic development and health on the forefront. With the economy how it is transit advocates are trying to do a better job of communicating  and leveraging the economic benefits of transportation projects. Several presentations focused on how a low car lifestyle is good for everyone’s bottom line. Less money spent on transportation, means more money to spend locally.

Also, the impact of the built environment on our daily physical activity through “active transportation” has started to get a lot of attention. While it might not sound like much the physical activity you get from walking to the bus, walking to the store, or biking to work or school really adds up, especially compared to people who live sedentary lifestyles caused by auto oriented communities. This area of research has exploded over the last few years in academia and is starting to work it’s way into the professional world, thanks in large part to federal funding from FTA, HUD and EPA through their livability initiative. King County and PSRC are both on the forefront of this.

Rail~Volution will be in DC next year. Sounds like a good excuse to visit.

Bus Stop Relocation Oversight

Campus Parkway, photo by Atomic Taco

Metro riders who frequent the University District will have noticed that recent building construction in the southwestern part of campus has forced a bus stop relocation along Campus Parkway.  Both bays for the eastbound stop at Brooklyn Ave have been consolidated into one stop on the west side of the intersection, just outside the Lander-Terry dormitory complex.  The stop has fairly high utilization, yielding mostly alightings from riders on the 71-74 series, as well as the 49.

One particular downside to the relocation is that the temporary stop comes to just about 500 feet from another existing stop on the same block.  That’s a distance far shorter than the recommended quarter-mile for stop spacing. This means that passengers getting off at the first eastbound stop at 11th Ave can easily out-walk their own bus to the relocated stop when factoring in dwell times.  Most of all, it’s frustrating for those who have to stay on the buses and sit through unnecessary waits.  It goes without saying that Metro could really do away with the 11th Ave stop.

Though it’s just one stop, this kind of oversight has really become too commonplace with Metro.  Send your comments in about the stop spacing to community.relations@kingcounty.gov.

A Look at North Link Alignment Alternatives

Tomorrow is the last day for one to submit comments and take a survey on Sound Transit’s Draft North Corridor HCT scoping document. The corridor’s aim is to serve North Seattle and Lynnwood and the mode will almost certainly be light rail, but by law Sound Transit is going through a more general alternatives process so North Link will be eligible for federal New Start funds. The truly largest unknown for this project is which alignment alternative is the best: along I-5, Aurora Ave, or 15th Ave.

View North Link in a larger map

Each alignment has its own advantages and disadvantages that should become clearer as this process moves forward. Sound Transit has already studied these alignments in an issue paper. While the paper is a good starting point, there are still many unknowns.

All three alignments would serve stations at Northgate, Mountlake Terrace, and Lynnwood — the difference is what happens in-between. Below I’ll outline what the three alternatives could look like and some advantages and disadvantages that I see for each. More after the jump.

Continue reading “A Look at North Link Alignment Alternatives”

Link Rider Alerts and Real-time Arrival Info

NB-Westlake Seattle xx min, SB-SeaTac/Airport 9 min, etc.
Mock up of Link variable message sign displaying next train times, by the author

Sound Transit recently hired an employee to deal with incident response and provide passengers with service status alerts from the Link Control Center. The rider alerts are better than nothing but sometimes you can have days like this or this when the number of rider alerts becomes overwhelming.

Scott Gutierrez at the PI reports on the recent proliferation of Link rider alerts notifying passengers of train delays. Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray explains in Gutierrez’s article:

The agency still is setting protocols on when mass alerts are necessary and when updating electronic signs at boarding platforms is enough to get the word out. A few times recently, alerts were issued about problems that were handled quickly and had minimal effect on service, he said.

On Monday morning, for example, an alert was issued about a mechanical problem that caused delays of six minutes to one train and three minutes to the other.

“That’s why we’re seeing a little more frequent rider alerts. We’re working out some of the kinks as to what rises to the level of needing a rider alert,” Gray said. “We probably don’t need an alert if it only means a five-minute delay.”

The problem is not Sound Transit providing too much information; it is Sound Transit providing the information in the wrong format. Having real-time train arrival information at stations (and elsewhere) solves the problem of issuing too many alerts for minor delays. Instead of posting an alert that trains are delayed 6 minutes, the delay is simply reflected in the predicted arrival times at each station for each affected train trip. If the delay gets severe, then broadcast an alert. While some might want to know why their train is being delayed, what everyone wants to know is how long the wait will be, which is useful information even under normal conditions.

Rainier Valley Mobility

[Update: To be clear, Metro would have to add at least a few stops on the 9. I don’t think the impact is big enough to alter the math.]

Although Metro executed a pretty major service revision in Southeast Seattle in response to Link’s opening, that change manifestly failed to provide frequent, efficient worthwhile Link connections to the great mass of people east of the line, particularly in the Rainier Avenue corridor. The, 7 one of the system’s workhorses, was left essentially unchanged and does not provide a transfer opportunity until it reaches Mt. Baker, by which time the transfer is essentially a wash time-wise. If that weren’t bad enough, the transfer from transit center to Link station there is a difficult one.

Aside from the core mission of serving the stations, connectivity within the Southeast hasn’t improved. Unlike more radical plans like my double-loop circulator proposal, trips between the dense, linear corridors along Beacon and Rainier Avenues can still involve three bus trips, with headways as long as 45 minutes.

Oran’s frequent service map (detail at right) illustrates the problem very well. Frequent service is siloed into three parallel corridors along Beacon, MLK, and Rainier. There is no frequent east/west connectivity at Columbia City, to the west only at Othello, and to the east only at Rainier Beach. If you live near, say, the Group Health on Rainier, forget it.

However, there is another alternative that roughly maintains the operating costs in this part of the city while improving the situation for most commuters. I have neither the ability nor the inclination to do a full service-hour analysis, but I will estimate the number of simultaneous buses necessary to operate each route during midday operations to show that the changes roughly pencil out.

More after the jump. Continue reading “Rainier Valley Mobility”

Winners and Losers in Amtrak’s New Ridership Report

Empire Builder at Mukilteo – Photo by the Author


Amtrak carried a record 28.7m passengers and took in $1.7B in revenue in FY 2010.  [For a North American market-share comparison, Amtrak’s passenger volume falls between Alaska Airlines (15m) and Air Canada (30m)].  Though most media outlets have reported this as significant year-on-year growth for Amtrak (up 5.7% from FY 2009), it is more accurate to view these statistics as a successful recovery to pre-recession levels.  After all, 2010 ridership is only.015% higher than 2008, or 450 additional annual passengers.

Furthermore, system-wide statistics obscure both important regional trends and homogenize an Amtrak system that offers widely varying levels of service quality.   Far more interesting are the train-by-train breakdowns listed in the report.

Mirroring some trends in the broader economy but bucking others, ridership fell in Western Michigan (Pere Marquette), Indiana (Cardinal), and California (Capitol Corridor), but grew substantially in Eastern Michigan (which introduced longer trains), the Pacific Northwest (Cascades), the Northeast Corridor, and North Carolina (Piedmont, which added a second daily train). Below is a chart that maps annual passengers, annual growth, and revenue per passenger.

Chart by the Author

The report affirms that our trains perform very well relative to the Amtrak system as a whole.  Cascades service benefited greatly from the additional Vancouver BC service, with ridership up 13% from 2009 and 10% from 2008.  The Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight, meanwhile, have the highest ridership among long-distance trains.

StreetFilms: Select Bus Service

Select Bus Service from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Direct comparisons between Seattle and New York have a lot of problems, but I think here’s a case where the differences aren’t really relevant. New York is implementing bus service that is high-quality in nearly every respect, and doing it cheaply. It’s cheap because they’re simply taking existing right-of-way and repainting it for buses.

Importantly, my understanding of SBS is that off-board payment is universal. It’s totally understandable that Metro has a budget crisis going on. But as someone who prefers great service in a few places to lousy service everywhere, I’d much rather they go cut some unproductive routes to pay for a good RapidRide level of service than the status quo.

I’ll always prefer rail in high-density corridors as the gold standard of service quality, but many of my problems with BRT would fall away if I had any confidence that agencies (and governing boards) could avoid the temptation to water it down to enable a low-frequency spread of service over the entire area. Swift (no longer operating on Sunday) and RapidRide (minimal off-board payment) don’t give me that confidence. That’s usually the fault of the King County Council rather than the incompetence of agency planners, but it’s an institutional problem nonetheless.

For more information, the Wikipedia page on SBS is pretty good.

Metro to Reorganize Eastside Service

KC Metro (click to enlarge)

With RapidRide B running from Downtown Bellevue to Overlake late next year, Metro is using the opportunity to reorganize service on the Eastside, resurrecting some ideas that have been floating around since at least 2006. This is also driven by the State and Federal requirement to add service over 520.

Routes suggested for added service: 212, 233, 245, 249, 255, 271

Routes suggested for revision: 221, 222, 230, 233, 240, 246, 249, 250, 253, 261, 265, 266, 272, 926

Suggested new route: 275

Routes suggested for deletion: 225, 229, 247, 250, 253, 256, 261, 266, 272, 926

The gist of these changes, I believe, is consolidating the buses that run all the way into Seattle and forcing transfers at hubs like Eastgate to get into Seattle. That’s a boon to transit-dependent people and reverse commuters (like me) for whom peak-only service is inadequate or useless; properly executed, there should be little pain for current one-seat rides who should retain a painless transfer to get to Seattle. In any case, less emphasis on peak routes and more on high-demand corridors is essential to a comprehensible system usable at all times of day.

You can share your feedback with an online survey, workshops on Nov. 3rd and 4th, by phone at 206-205-8788, or by email. Eliminating service, even when replaced by something arguably better, will always generate negative comments, so if you like these changes it’s important to make your voice heard.

Timeline for the changes is below the jump.

Continue reading “Metro to Reorganize Eastside Service”