Photo by Oran

Rail advocates can be forgiven for a little bit of triumphalism. The region would indisputably have been better off this week if we’d had more light rail, and that’s not true of buses or highway capacity.

That said, no one who thinks rail is a bad investment is going to change their mind because it helps out a lot on a few days a year, any more than rail advocates throw in the towel because of an accident on MLK. I think the better point to be made is that the best transportation systems have redundancy.

Sometimes a big accident or storm renders highways impassable and the buses on them unusable. Other times, Link has a mechanical problem or Sounder is stopped by a mudslide. A robust system doesn’t force people to spend 10 hours in a car, because each mode is slowed by independent phenomena. As a region, we have dramatically underinvested in modes not dependent on highways, which is how you get this week. We’re working to rectify that but it will take time.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

121 Replies to “Redundancy”

  1. I… think you’ve made yourself perfectly redundant.

    :p

    Have a good one my STB peeps.. yes even you John Bailo!

  2. Actually, the traffic problems Monday could have been greatly eradicated by an adequate response by WSDOT and SDOT to keep the main highways and streets clear in just a few inches of snow. Some more equipment, and particularly more intelligent management of the equipment, could have eliminated much of the havoc people experienced, at a fraction of the cost of building more train lines.

    To imply that the last few days’ weather would always cause this sort of traffic problems in foolish. The response to this weather was utterly incompetent. For example, the viaduct, 1st Ave. S. bridge, and W. Seattle bridge should all have been kept clear during the entire event, so all that traffic did not have to try to use I-5 to go south out of Seattle. This could have been accomplished by a competent snow-removal and de-icing effort. The fact that all three of these elevated roadways were closed Monday pm is just testiment to the utter incompetence of SDOT’s response to this weather event. That did not have to happen.

      1. I got it completely. He wants to spend around $200 million to $600 million per mile for a “redundancy” system that might come in handy 2 days per year.

        Right?

      2. What’s a multilane “Free”way with Soundwalls penciling per mile these days, Normy?

        Also, what if the money wasted on having TSA at King Street and Portland-Union yesterday could be tossed in the SDOT Snow removal kitty?

      3. Buses are just as “handy” as light rail 363 days per year, and cost a fraction of what light rail costs.

        $160 million to $600 million per mile is just stupidly expensive for a little frill which only a fraction of the public ever uses. It’s particularly stupidly expensive as a “redundancy” system to be used a couple of days per year.

      4. Eric: Link is not close to being a “multi-lane freeway.” Link also does not have sound barriers along most of its route, nor do most freeways. The 22,000 boardings per week day Central Link is averaging is one half of one lane of I-5. How do you get “multi-lane freeway” out of that? lol

      5. What difference does it make what Link’s capacity is? Only about 22,000 boardings per weekday is what it is actually achieving. Do all those empty seats on Link trains provide any value to taxpayers?

        Link is actually carrying less than what half of one lane of I-5 actually carries. That is comparing apples to apples, or reality to reality.

        Do you object to comparing the reality of Link to the reality of I-5?

      6. There’s a difference between utilization and capacity Norman. When the freeways are empty you’re the first to exclaim how great it is, instead of complaining about how big of a waste the excess capacity is. Do all those empty freeway lanes provide any benefit?

      7. Zed, each lane of I-5 carries about 40,000 people per day. Central Link averages about 22,000 boardings per day.

        Therefore one track of Link light rail, at 11,000 boardings per day, carries about 1/4 of one lane of I-5.

        What else matters? I-5 could carry a lot more than it does, as you allude to your “empty lanes” comment. Link could carry more than it does.

        But, the reality is that each track of Link is carrying less than 1/4 of the number of people as one lane of I-5.

        That is the reality. That is what we need to know.

        Theories about how many people I-5 “could” carry, or Link “could” carry are just that — theories. We don’t need theories now that Link is up and running. Now we have the REALITY of Link light rail to compare the the REALITY of I-5. You have some objection to that?

      8. “What else matters?”

        What else matters is that Link moves people without chaining them to Detroit iron and enslaving them to the Saudis. Maybe you’re fine with shipping trillions of dollars of US wealth overseas, just to be used against us later, but I’m not. Maybe you’re okay with the fact that auto accidents are the leading cause of death of children, that autos are the leading source of pollution and that diesel exhaust is the leading cause of childhood asthma, but I’m not. Maybe you’re okay with the fact that the middle class has become a class of indentured servants because of the high cost of automobile based transportation, but I’m not. Maybe you’re okay with the fact that you’ve been brainwashed by trillions of dollars of Madison Avenue marketing into thinking that the only reasonable way to get from point A to point B is by car. Keep it up Norman, you’ve been a great advocate for people who make billions off your back and couldn’t care less about you. You should be proud that you’re such a good lap dog.

      9. Link moves people without chaining them to Detroit iron and enslaving them to the Saudis. Maybe you’re fine with shipping trillions of dollars of US wealth overseas,

        Where do those Link trains come from? Eastern Europe? Cascades, Spain? As for energy; coal is a domestic resource but ..

        you’re okay with the fact that auto accidents are the leading cause of death of children, that autos are the leading source of pollution and that diesel exhaust is the leading cause of childhood asthma,

        Stop kidding yourself, all marginal demand for more electricity comes from increased imports of oil or more burning of coal. Maybe you’re really advocating for more investment in nuclear? That might be the answer but stop hiding behind the facade that trains plug into the wall and that’s an endless source of free energy.

        The automobile has dominated because it’s cheap. Public transportation isn’t cheap so you need to focus on the benefits. The more public transit advocates focus on the “expensive automobile” rather than the benefits of public transit the more I doubt any sort of reasoned position.

        BTW, Ronald Reagan was a big fan of trains.

      10. Bernie, have you ever heard of wind farms, tidal energy, *HYDRO* which supplies most of Seattle’s power, landfill methane (yes, burning it *reduces* greenhouse gas emissions) or… oh, here’s a thought… *SOLAR POWER*?

        Solar power gets more efficient every year, and the current designs are only a few years away from being cheaper, even *without* considering pollution, than coal. Solar is going to be the main source of incremental power within the next ten years. Don’t fool yourself.

        There’s a reason China’s trying to corner the solar panel industry. We shouldn’t let them, obviously….

      11. Nathanael says:
        November 25, 2010 at 9:14 pm

        Bernie, have you ever heard of wind farms, tidal energy, *HYDRO* which supplies most of Seattle’s power, landfill methane (yes, burning it *reduces* greenhouse gas emissions) or… oh, here’s a thought… *SOLAR POWER*?,</blockquote.

        yeah, I've heard or it. How's "*HYDRO* which supplies most of Seattle’s power" working for our salmon spawning?

        Landfill methane, that's your solution to renewable power?

      12. Bernie,

        The Buy American clauses force the sourcing of materials and location of assembly to take place primarily in the USA. The Breda buses were built in Issaquah, the Talgos were built in Seattle, the future SLUT’s and Portland Streetcars are being built in Oregon.

        The same is not true of automobiles. Yes, there are foreign brands now assembled in the USA, but then there are “American” brand models that are now entirely assembled in Korea, Mexico and Canada. Porsche sells more cars in Southern California than they sell in all of Germany. The fact is that if you buy a vehicle at the high-end and the low to near medium-end of the automobile market today, you are sending capital out of the USA to places it may not return from.

        Shall we talk about the sources, sustainability and effects of rubber (tires, hoses and belt) production/use? Asthma and latex allergies high amongst children who live near freeways?

        And then you must fuel it with Wahabist-financing petroleum.

      13. “Stop kidding yourself, all marginal demand for more electricity comes from increased imports of oil or more burning of coal”

        Bernie, your knowledge of the electricity grid seems a little dated. Coal tends to be a baseload fuel so it’s not typically used for “peaking”. Oil is practically non-existent in the electricity generation fuel mix (PSE lumps it in with “Other” in their mix which is only 1%). Any remaining oil plants are most certainly used for peak generation and only in the most dire circumstances.

        These days, Natural gas is the fuel of choice for peaking loads and increasingly, as a baseload fuel. Going forward renewables will continue to climb in share with natural gas filling in when the renewable isn’t available – At least until molten salt storage systems become widespread at solar power plants along with far more long distance transmission capacity.

      14. This is tangential, but can we stop referring to the SLU streetcar as the SLUT, at least on this blog? The former name takes about half a second longer to type, and is significantly less demeaning to half the population.

      15. Annual use by mode coal has been pretty steady over the last decade; 2008 approximately coal 31%, oil 6%, gas 40%, nuclear 10%, hydro 8%, green/renewable 4%. Gas has for the most part covered increased demand. Coal is the one reserve we have so much of the price remains relatively flat. It also doesn’t compete for other uses like home heating, transportion, etc. Natural gas is more expensive than coal but is “cleaner” and environmental laws have “fueled” the switch. Of course they both release CO2 even under ideal burning conditions. Depending on which industry source you listen to one or the other is the “fuel of the future” but coal dominates on the world stage with coal providing more electricity than gas and hydro combined. Even in hydro rich WA and where we’re close to Canadian supplied gas Centralia (Canadian owned) is a 248-megawatts natural gas and 1,376-megawatts coal.

    1. Norman,

      If you were the manager at WSDOT or SDOT, and a blizzard started hitting right before evening rush hour, when would you close I-5 (or any of the other bottlenecks) in order to treat it or plow it? Keep in mind that such treatment did happen the night before, but failed because the temperature dropped low enough to keep the treatments from working.

      1. You don’t have to close highways to treat or plow them. Traffic can follow right behind the snow plows.

        Here is what happened in Seattle (I’m not sure what WSDOT tried on I-5):

        SDOT put down a layer of salt brine on major streets before the snow began. This caused the snow to melt. However, SDOT did not use enough salt to prevent the melted snow from freezing! So, in effect, what SDOT accomplished was to turn a couple inches of snow on the roads to sheets of solid ice! How stupid can you get?

        Either use enough salt to prevent the melted snow from freezing into ice, or just compact the snow and put sand on it. We did not have a foot of snow, like we did in 2008, so just leaving the snow on streets amd running trucks down them to compact the snow and sand it, would have worked much better in this event, with only a couple inches of snow.

        SDOT used the wrong tactic in 2008 for a foot of snow, and they used the wrong tactic this week for a couple inches of snow and temps in the teens.

        In particular, SR99, the 1st Ave S. bridge, and the W. Seattle bridge should have, and could have, been kept open during the enitre event. Closing the viaduct and 1st Ave S. bridge forced all those people to try to use I-5 to get out of town to the south, which would have caused massive traffic jams even in good weather.

        Alternately, SDOT and WSDOT should have told everyone to stay home Monday morning, since they knew exactly what the weather was going to do Monday afternoon and evening. Those agencies thought they would be able to deal with that weather, which was exactly what was predicted, but, in reality, they had no idea how to handle it, as we all found out.

      2. Norman, you seem to know how to do everybody else’s job better than they do, so I’m curious exactly what you do for a living? Other than armchair quarterback everybody else’s incompetence, I’ve never read exactly what it is you are good at.

      3. Close the road to treat it? Here in Chicago, they don’t close roads when they plow and salt. You learn to steer clear of the big trucks or get pelted with salt pellets. Sometimes the trucks form a phalanx so that all lanes are treated at the same time.

      4. Ah, salting. An excellent method to poison the nearby land (so it will never have agricultural value again), reduce the lifetime of the concrete or asphalt used on the roads, and generally increase your expenses. And it doesn’t even work if it gets too cold.

        In Minnesota, they sand.

      5. Chicago – and other midwestern and east coast cities – spend millions on road clearing equipment and warehouse sand and salt for when the weather hits. Here in Washington, people don’t even want to pay an extra nickle for a can of pop.

        For the few days when we get snow – if we do at all – in the Seattle area, it isn’t worth it (so say the taxpayers) to maintain such an infrastructure.

        They’d much rather bitch about the inconvenience and cry about “government incompetence” when the snow hits the fan.

      6. “Ah, salting. An excellent method to poison the nearby land (so it will never have agricultural value again), reduce the lifetime of the concrete or asphalt used on the roads, and generally increase your expenses. And it doesn’t even work if it gets too cold.”

        Plus salt EATS YOUR CAR.

    2. Obviously if “just a few inches of snow” (completely ignoring the freezing temperatures and the hills) has such a big impact, the only explanation is incompetence. If only the mythical fleet of thousands of plows and deicers had been deployed per Norman’s detailed instructions, it would have been like driving on a sunny August afternoon.

      How many plows, salters, and sanders would WA/King Co/Seattle need to keep every highway, state route, and arterial completely free of snow and ice? How much would it cost to purchase, store, and maintain that equipment that would be used just a few days a year? And who would operate it when the storm does hit?

      1. How many hundreds of miles of light rail would it take to provide redundant transportation for every highway, arterial and state route? And how many hundreds of billions of dollars would that cost?

        What do you think would cost more? Building hundreds of miles of light rail? Or buying, storing and maintaining a few hundred snow plows? I think you could find a few hundred temporary snow plow drivers every other year. Don’t you? I seem to have read that there are a few unemployed workers in the Seattle most of the time.

        How much would it cost to make sure everyone has access to high-speed internet at home? A great number of commuters can work from home over the internet — they just prefer not to. During a snow event, those people can just work from home. That is slightly less expensive than building hundreds of miles of light rail lines, is it not?

        Again, how horrible is it if people have to stay home due to snow and ice 2 days per year, on average? Schools have makeup days to make up for those missed days. Businesses could do the same. Whatever sales store lose on those days they make up in the following days.

        So, why don’t you tell us exactly what an unacceptable tragedy you feel it is to have to stay home a couple of days per year because of bad weather?

      2. What a wonderful idea! I’m sure Norman would have no problem driving the snow plows, and won’t make a total mess of things.

      3. Norman,

        Even Chicago – which HAS miles of “light rail” – STILL maintains millions of dollars worth of trucks, sand, salt, and personnel to deal with bad weather. And Chicagoland doesn’t have our hills.

        Get a grip.

    3. Not one to feed the trolls, but its Thanksgiving…

      I’m from Ohio. In fact, I’m sitting in Dayton right at this moment. Now, we get a nasty snow storm every year – its worse up towards Cleveland and Toledo where the Lake Effect turns a few inches into a few feet, but having a foot dumped on us in a day isn’t a rare occurrence in the southwest part of the state, either. We’re ‘used’ to it – we know it will happen, we plan for it, and generally we know how to drive our vehicles in it. Even better, Dayton is far less hilly than Seattle, so while traction is a problem, we’re not sliding quite as much.

      …what happened in Seattle still happens here, every year, without a doubt. Salt isn’t a magical fix-all. Sure you can pre-treat, and should, but that only buys you an hour or so in a good storm before the salt has been diluted to the point its ineffectual, and that’s assuming the temperature hasn’t dropped low enough to make it useless anyways. “Increase the salinity!” you say. Problem is that salt is toxic to the environment in large amounts – it will kill plants & trees, and damage the cars driving over it. In places like Seattle where you have a fragile ecosystem largely centered on water, the risk is even higher, forcing moderation. Sand helps with traction on packed snow, but it takes time for that much snow to build up and get packed in. If you’ve got a lot of cars driving during snowfall (vs., say, an overnight storm), you’re going to end up with slush and ice, not packed snow.

      “Ok, fine! So you can’t increase the salinity of the brine, but you can manage the equipment better to keep gridlock from happening!” Again, not all that true. Remember, Salt doesn’t just make the snow magically vanish, it just keeps it from turning to ice. So, what you get is this nice grey, watery nastiness called slush. In small amounts, its better than ice. In large amounts, that’s debatable. As slush accumulates, the max. safe speed, min. safe following distance, and capacity of the rood in question drop significantly. Plows, which need lots of space all around to do their job well, end up getting jammed in with the rest of cars (who often don’t know how to deal with plows properly) and ultimately end up as just another vehicle adding to the problem. A plow can’t plow if there’s a car in front of it.

      In short, the issue is rarely not having enough of, or mismanaging snow response equipment. Its having too many vehicles trying to drive too fast with not enough following distance on a road with significantly reduced capacity to allow for that equipment to do its job. The only way to fix that is to reduce the amount of cars on the road – either via administrative means like Snow Emergencies or requiring employers to let workers go home early/stay late, or by providing alternate transit modes that aren’t as affected by snow (rail, streetcar included if traffic isn’t horrible), along with getting people on busses, which can transport far more people while reducing traffic density.

      1. In Seattle, it is possible to keep all the main roadways operating, albeit at reduced speeds, when there is only a couple inches of snow, by compacting the snow by having trucks drive down the main roads, and spreading sand on top of the compacted snow. Then snow tires or chains can keep vehicles moving. This does not work with a foot of snow, as we learned two years ago. But it works with a couple inches of snow. That is what should have been done this week.

        That would certainly have kept the Alaskan Way viaduct, the W. Seattle Bridge and the 1st Ave. S. Bridge open during the entire event. This has worked for all but the steepest hills during the infrequent snow events we have had over the past 30 years in Seattle.

        I am not suggesting any new and brilliant idea — I am merely saying SDOT should have done what has proven to work many times in the past when Seattle gets just a few inches of snow. No, traffic would not have been “normal”. But people would not have been stuck on roads for 8 or 10 hours, as they were Monday pm.

      2. Sand does work on ice — if the ice is cold enough, so that it isn’t part-melting. Minnesota simply doesn’t use salt, they use sand.

        Of course in bad emergencies Minnesota simply closes the roads and tells people not to go out at all. Everyone knows to have a few days’ stockpile of everything.

      3. Unrealistic. I’ve driven through Ohio during a snow storm. Yes, I followed the plow. Seattle isn’t Ohio. If there’s a single hill in Ohio, I wish you’d name it. Seattle has 7 big ones – and hundreds of smaller ones that Ohio – basically a Paleolithic flood plain – doesn’t have.

        Yes, midwesterners are more accustomed to winter weather, and that plays a role, but that’s not an issue you can lay at the feet of government “mismanagement”. I can remember driving the Ohio turnpike and seeing silos – SILOS for freak’s sake – filled with sand and salt. We don’t have that here, nor the equipment to spread them, nor should we.

        A few days down time is NOTHING compared to the cost of maintaining the infrastructure costs of maintaining a fleet of equipment that is used rarely.

        Get over it, Seattle. Stay home, hug your kids, bang your wife, watch Showtime’s “Boardwalk Empire”, lose a day’s pay or two. STILL cheaper than having that mothball fleet at the ready.

    4. Wait… so when Link has to deal with some kind of problem, you use that problem to call the entire project a waste of money, but you don’t do the same with highways? Norman, I think your hypocrisy is showing.

      Not to mention you just proved Martin’s point, that diversification, even in transportation, is always a good thing.

      1. Link is a waste of money when it is operating perfectly. As I have pointed out time after time: $160 million to $600 million per mile is just unbelievebaly stupidly expensive for a little lite train.

        And then, just to top it off, Link consistently has “mechanical problems” or other things which cause delays, even though it is basically brand-new.

      2. Norman from 50 years ago:

        I-5 is a waste of money when it is operating perfectly. As I have pointed out time after time: $160 million to $600 million per mile is just unbelievebaly stupidly expensive for a massive freeway no one uses.

      3. Oran wrote:

        “Norman from 50 years ago:

        “I-5 is a waste of money when it is operating perfectly. As I have pointed out time after time: $160 million to $600 million per mile is just unbelievebaly stupidly expensive for a massive freeway no one uses.”

        I-5 did not cost anthing close to $160 million to $600 million per mile. I-5 carries over 400,000 people per day past any point on that highway.

        Link is averaging 22,000 boardings per day, and about 10,000 passengers per day past the midpoint on the line. ST is predicting this will only double by 2030.

        So, I would describe your latest post to be extremely ignorant, to be kind.

      4. Any source on how much would I-5 cost in today’s dollars, Norman? And how many people used it in its first year and how many were projected to use it 30 years later when it was built?

        If you can’t answer that, then you can’t have a fair comparison. My point with the “50 years” is that if you were there 50 years ago, you would never have known that I-5 would carry that many people today. Judging from your reaction to Link, I think it’s a reasonable extrapolation of what you would’ve said 50 years ago.

        “Link ridership will only double from 22k by 2030”

        Wrong again, Norman. You left out North Link.

        Anyway, I’m glad 2/3 of the region voted to let Norman pay for part of ST2 expansion. Whether he likes it or not. Mu ha ha ha.

    5. How much does it cost to buy a set of tire chains? Monday afternoon’s problems would have been less severe if people would buy a set of chains and learn how to install them on their cars. It’s foolish to expect the Seattle to Marysville commute to be flawless if you’re driving a car without 4 wheel drive or chains when there’s snow coming down. WSDOT made some mistakes (no express lanes?!?), but people have got to realize that icy conditions require the proper equipment if you’re going to drive. However, if we did have light rail all the way to Everett, I’m sure people would be complaining about how crowded and late the trains were during the snowstorm.

    6. Norman,

      Get a clue. It’s impossible to raise taxes high enough to handle what Mother Nature decides to throw at us. Redundancy is the way to go, and not just for snow storms.

      Move on.

      1. Is that a joke? Redundancy, in the form of Link light rail costs $160 million to $600 million per mile. LOL That is such a stupid amount of money, it’s really amazing that anyone with any common sense would attempt to defend it.

      2. Norman,
        Get over it, you aren’t going to be able to grab Sound Transit’s taxes to pay for whatever your pet projects might be. Even if you somehow stop another inch of ST funded rail from being built ST will still collect the same taxes and spend them on transit.

  3. Redundancy is one of the big selling points of having a light rail line through West Seattle, eventually reaching the airport, and through Ballard, eventually connecting with North Link. However, I hope the mayor has grasped the reality that not even rail fanatics are calling for it to be built overnight.

    NYC can have a major subway line grind to a halt, and still have plenty of mobility for their rail-riding majority.

  4. You know, the only reason we’ve got either I-5, I-90, or I-anything is that the Army insisted. When Dwight Eisenhower first got the idea- with mud coming in over his boots while he tried to push a chain-drive Army truck out of the mud in Iowa in 1919 or so- he knew he’d have to face down a million people who thought there was nothing wrong with dirt roads just because it rained sometimes.

    We were doing just fine with horses. Same with bicycles. Same with streetcars. In 1903, everybody knew automobiles were ok for rich people to fool around town in, but you couldn’t take them ten miles out of town. So here we are now, with the chief limit on our personal freedom to travel being the number of cars.

    Lucky the Creator invented time, and gave us the capacity to think and innovate. Monday night most of the LINK trains I rode were crush loaded. A few weren’t. But everybody on them was moving. Hope a lot of people stuck down below got a good look.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Mark Duublin

    1. “Monday night most of the LINK trains I rode were crush loaded.”

      Did you count heads? If so, you could settle what a crush load on an ST Link car *really* is ;)

      Happy Thanksgiving.

    2. He saw the need in Iowa, he saw the “solution” in Germany. And no, I am not trying to Godwin the thread.

      1. Now if our leaders would just go to Germany and come back and copy their high-speed intercity rail, S-Bahn commuter rail and extensive urban transit we’d be all set.

      2. Oh, please. Give me a socialist break. Yeah right – Iowa is going to go full German financial infrastructure.

    3. Personally i’d like to see the day when the milatary puts one of their interstate defence highways to work solely for their use, and see the disaster unfold as the state patrol/mps close off all the onramps, and clear the motorists from the highway so the milatary can make use of the infrastructure built for them so many years ago.

      1. Actually, the when the military wants to move vehicles from Fort Lewis to Yakima, they have to submit a convoy request to the state, stating the time, start point, end point how many vehicles, and so on. Both the active forces and the reserve and Guard do so on a regular basis. So they are indeed using the highways. The only thing that would make the military require their sole use is some disaster or attack of epic proportions that I would not even want to imagine.

  5. I’m thankful that Norman’s opinion represents the minority and that he is on the losing side of history. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

  6. Without sounding too corny here, I’d like to give thanks that we live in a free country, can express ourselves as we see fit, are mostly employed (above 90%), have many choices in our individual lives and bountiful food, heat and shelter.
    We have much to be thankful for.
    Enjoy you holidays.

    1. I heart Mike Skekan – for this post if for no other.

      Also – this paradigm doesn’t always apply to STB. Glad to live here anyway.

  7. It wasn’t a total loss for WSDOT. According to this ‘blog post I just read about the impact Seattle’s Costco is having on the residents of a Toronto suburb (Subdivisions!):

    http://torontoist.com/2010/11/sheer-madness-at-costgo-gas.php

    I learn that an idling car burns about a pint of gas every ten minutes.

    So the state made a bunch of money off of those parking-lot “free”ways without their enduring any wear and tear!

      1. The highway trust fund is fine, if they would stop raiding it for billions of dollars to waste on transit. If the highway trust fund were spent only on highways, instead of wasting a large chunk of it on transit, there would be no problem.

        You are aware that a significant portion of the highway trust fund has been spent on transit over the past several years, are you not?

      2. Norman, as usual you’re wrong; even if all the non-asphalt-and-concrete spending were returned to the Highway Trust Fund it would still be going broke.

        The core problem there is that the gas tax has been generating less and less income in real terms, first because it’s not indexed for inflation, and second because people are using less and less gas. (When I buy my Tesla I won’t be paying ANY gas tax.) It’s just a badly-thought-out funding method.

        Almost as bad as funding schools with property taxes, but that’s another matter…

      3. “The highway trust fund is fine, if they would stop raiding it for billions of dollars to waste on transit.”

        Funny thing to say since they keep raiding the general fund to keep the highway trust fund above water. Hey, wait a minute. You said “waste on transit” – I thought you liked buses?

      4. “Ending balance for FY 2008 includes $8.017 billion transferred from the General Fund in September 2008, pursuant to Public Law 110-318.

        Ending balance for FY 2009 includes $7 billion transferred from the General Fund in August, pursuant to Public Law 111-46.”

      5. Jim: Those transfers were to pay back money that was taken from the highway fund and transferred to the general fund years ago.

        How much money from the highway fund was spent on transit?

      6. “Those transfers were to pay back money that was taken from the highway fund and transferred to the general fund years ago.”

        Baloney. It’s widely known that the highway trust fund has not been bringing in enough money from taxes to cover expenditures – this has been going on for a long, long, time. This is one area where many conservatives have been willing to at least discuss the possibility of raising taxes, although probably nobody in the Tea Party.

        You continue to live in a fantasy world where car drivers pay for “their” roads.

      7. Norman, you’ve presented (among others) two arguments:

        – It’s more useful to spend money on buses than on trains.
        – The highway trust fund would be self-sustaining if it was never used for anything other than highway expenditures.

        Interestingly, though, to the extent that the highway trust fund has been used to pay for transit, almost all of that has been to pay for buses. (It couldn’t have been used for anything else, since there just isn’t very much rail in this state.)

        In 2008, voters approved Sound Transit 2, the highlight of which was 36 miles of new rail track. They voted for this even though ST2 included a large tax increase.

        If trains are so desirable that people are willing to approve large tax increases to pay for them, but buses are so impoverished that we have to make large transfers from the highway fund to keep them running, then to me, it sure sounds like trains are a better use of our money than buses after all.

      8. I think Norman has hit on the solution for the highways:

        Close lanes (reduce service) and increase fares (I mean tolls).

      9. http://blog.seattlepi.com/transportation/archives/229833.asp

        Today’s P.I. just happens to have an article on the highway trust fund, including this:

        “Tymon suggested to the Road Gang that the current $8 billion allocated for transit annually could shrink to $5 billion.”

        So, currently, $8 BILLION per year is being taken out of the highway trust fund and spent on transit! And the light rail advocates claim that the general fund is having to “subsidize highways”!

        WRONG! If the revenues from the gas tax were spent only on highways, and they were not wasting $8 BILLION per year on transit, then the revenue from the gas tax is covering all the cost of highways!

        So, please stop lying that the general fund is being use to subsidize highways — it is not. It is being used to subsidize transti to the tune of $8 billion per year from the highway trust fund.

      10. “Jim: Those transfers were to pay back money that was taken from the highway fund and transferred to the general fund years ago.

        Norman, could you cite the source for the above assertion? There doesn’t seem to be any specific reference in the “General Fund to Highway Trust Fund” documents that refer to this as a payback.

    1. Jim Cusick, please learn at least a little bit about what you write. Here is one article that partially explains that in 1998 $8 billion was taken out of the highway trust fund and put in the general fund to help reduce the federal deficit. That was $8 billion of federal gas tax put into the general fund, and not spent on highways.

      In 2008, that $8 billion which was raided from the highway trust fund in 1998 was returned to the highway trust fund. How is this a “subsidy”, if you are paying back $8 billion which you took from the highway trust fund 10 years earlier?

      From Nancy Pelosi (dreaded Republican transit-hater????)

      http://www.speaker.gov/legislation?id=0251

      “The bill restores $8.017 billion to the Highway Trust Fund. The bill restores $8.017 billion in highway-user taxes to the Highway Trust Fund that were transferred from the Trust Fund in 1998. Specifically, in 1998, in response to concerns that the Highway Account’s $16.5 billion balance was too large, Congress transferred more than $8 billion from the Highway Trust Fund to the General Fund. Now that the Highway Trust Fund faces major shortfalls in 2009 and beyond, Congress should restore this $8 billion.”

      Or, do you believe that it’s ok to steal money from the highway trust fund to spend on other things, but it’s not ok to pay that money back?

      1. Thanks for the link, Norman.
        I didn’t have Nancy Pelosi on my radar.

        The $8 Billion GF>HTF transfer is a legitimate payback,
        but from reading that link, it seems the Highway Trust Fund is was going to be short $7 Billion in 2009.

      2. The 2008 payback was the principal. The $7 billion payback in 2009 is the interest on $8 billion over 10 years at about 6%. The general fund took $8 billion out of the highway trust fund in 1998. You don’t just pay back $8 billion in 2008 dollars and call it good.

        When the government borrows money, it pays it back with interest. That is what the $7 billion in 2009 is — the compound interest on $8 billion over 10 years at about 6%.

        I have read that a couple different places, and it makes obvious sense, but I don’t have a link to articles on that handy, and don’t feel like doing a search for it, since I know it’s true. You might be able to find articles about that on your own……

        The only reason the highway trust fund is “short” at all, is because they have been taking around $8 billion per year out of the HIGHWAY trust fund to spend on transit. There has been enough gas tax revenue in the highway trust fund to pay for the highway projects which have been done, but not enough to also pay for an additional $8 billion per year in transit projects which have been funded out of the HIGHWAY trust fund.

    2. Norman,

      Every agency in America is going broke. It’s because teabaggers value their own selfish (and ignorant) right-wing ideologies over reality. Like ALL Republicans.

  8. Two things I’d like to remind everyone: first, I-5 didn’t routinely fill to capacity until 20 years after it was opened. Second, we don’t build roads and rail for now, we build them for 20 years from now. I-5 is over capacity. To expand capacity, we can either build rail, or bulldoze some more neighborhoods for more “freeways”. As expensive as it is, rail is the more economical option. It’s not opinion, it’s math. 

    1. I once found a nice chart from Japan which illustrated their planning scheme. On the bottom axis was “distance” (of the route), on the left axis was “volume” (of passengers). The two-dimensional space was carved up according to the “optimal mode”.

      Walking is the “optimal mode” for *all* really short distances, occupying a strip on the left side of the chart. Biking is optimal for fairly short distances and low-to-moderately-high volumes, occupying a tall wedge to the right of walking. Cars are the “optimal mode” for low-volume routes over distances too long to walk or bike, and occupy a long strip at the bottom of the chart. Long-distance buses occupy a thin strip above cars, with taxis taking up a wedge above cars to the right of bikes, and minibuses taking up a wedge above that, and then local buses a wedge above that.

      Above and to the right of that — too far to bike, and more people than comfortably managed by taxis or buses — it’s all rail. Lots of different *forms* of rail, mind you; HSR is for long distances and high volumes, streetcars for short distances and high volumes, for instance. The arrangement of the different rail choices is more complicated than the rather easy-to-explain layout of the non-rail choices.

    2. “As expensive as it is, rail is the more economical option. It’s not opinion, it’s math.”

      Excellent point although I suspect there is still a ton of relatively low-hanging fruit left for investments in rail capacity. Even without improving passenger rail speeds, investments that improve the efficiency of freight rail will get more trucks off of the roads via inter-modal operations.

    3. “As expensive as it is, rail is the more economical option. It’s not opinion, it’s math.”

      This is absolutely false, and I notice you offer not one shred of evidence to even attempt to back it up.

      1. “This is absolutely false, and I notice you offer not one shred of evidence to even attempt to back it up”

        You’re kidding, right? Pot calling the kettle black, perhaps?

      2. Not so much. Rail hasn’t penciled out anywhere in the US other than NYC and Chicago although BART comes close. ST with costs per mile absurdly high and ridership well below projections puts supporters in positions claiming things that are just patently false, like highways receive more public subside than public transit, or so silly, like transit provides more “freedom” that you have to ask why won’t anyone produce a real analysis of how Link Light Rail actually is the best value for the buck that we can get with our transit dollars. The telling thing is, transit supporters then launch into attacks on how inefficient bus service is! Attach the car, attack buses but never actually show how rail is better.

      3. Maybe I don’t understand what you mean by pencilling out, but I’m pretty sure both CTA and Metra are BROKE out here in chicago.

        The red line is so unreliable( due to deferred maintenance, aging railcars, and lack of funds) i’ve chosen to take the bus instead most days because it is faster over 6 miles. (it also goes door-to-door, but if the red line was at all reliable, i’d take the bus to it and take it in an instant cause its sooo much nicer (when it works, which it doesn’t))

        I ride bus # 29 to school at IIT from Lake Point Tower. once the 29 gets to state street, the red line runs directly under it for the 3 miles to roosevelt, then it comes above ground at 18th and moves over a block and a half to be in the middle of the dan ryan for the remaining 3 miles to IIT, directly parallel to the 29 bus all the way to and past IIT

        Metra has its host of problems too, I’m not as familiar with them, but i constantly hear that they are broke.

        Chicago would undoubtedly be the most congested city in the nation if not the world without CTA and MEtra, or, if equivalent funds had gone into freeways, it would be the ugliest city on earth, but, i don’t see rail as pencilling out over here as I understand the term.

      4. Well, I admit I threw Chicago in without knowing anything about current finances. As you point out though, it seems the alternatives would have be more expensive. Chicago and NYC built an extensive rail network prior to the rise of the personal automobile. That drove land use patterns. Chicago in the 20th century became much more reliant on the automobile than NYC likely because it is a much newer city and wasn’t nearly as dense at the turn of the century. Others have said it on this blog before. The answer is land use but the question is how much should we spend on high capacity transit hoping it will shape development. Yes, 100 or more years ago you could build commuter rail or a street car and shape expansion. I don’t think that’s true today. Build it where it makes sense regarding existing demand and it becomes self sustaining.

      5. Bernie,

        It depends on what your objective function is. If the only variable you consider in transit planning is how many people you can get from point A to point B at the cheapest possible expenditure, then buses probably win. But if you consider things like comfort, minimizing travel time, reliability, and legibility, then your only options are rail or an equally-expensive BRT system (*), and rail actually wins when you need above a certain level of capacity.

        I think most of these advantages are self-explanatory, but just in case:

        Comfort: Steel-on-steel is much less jerky than rubber-on-pavement. (Have you ever ridden a bus that travels via 15th Ave in the U-District?) Trains (and fully grade-separated BRT) have large, well-lit stations, and for both, there are minimal starts and stops due to traffic signals — there’s a lot of evidence that people will often choose a longer route with continual movement than one that is more direct and shorter but has more stop-and-go traffic.

        Travel time: The average speed of an urban trolleybus is 7 miles per hour. From the same source, the average speed of light rail is 15 mph, and the average speed of heavy rail is 20 mph. (Link, as a “light metro”, is probably somewhere in between.)

        On buses, these low speeds are caused partly by station stops and partly by other stops (e.g. traffic lights, congestion, etc.). Trains and fully grade-separated BRT avoid the latter almost completely. (To the extent that Link doesn’t, it’s entirely because of cost; avoiding the MLK crossings but serving the same neighborhoods would have made Link significantly more expensive.) They still have the former kind, but much less than local buses, since they have far fewer stops.

        (Express buses aren’t a useful comparison point here, since they travel on the freeway. Light rail generally connects urban neighborhoods, so pure freeway travel wouldn’t work — a bus would have to make a significant detour for every single stop. Stopping at the Overlake Transit Center, which is practically on the freeway, requires a 10-minute detour for the 545 going westbound. A bus that had to do that for every neighborhood on Link would be lucky to travel 5 mph.)

        Reliability: This goes hand-in-hand with travel time. No congestion means no traffic delays. I know that Link has seen numerous delays and frequency reductions since its inception, but I firmly believe that these are just growing pains. And anyway, if Metro sent out an alert every time that a bus was running 10-15 minutes behind schedule, they’d have to send multiple alerts every day. The chance that light rail (or fully grade-separated BRT) will get you to your destination within 5 minutes of the scheduled time is far, far higher than the chance that a bus will, especially during peak times.

        Legibility: Rail lines (and fully grade-separated BRT) tend to be easy to understand in a way that local bus networks rarely are. You can go into a station and see a map of “everywhere you can get from here”. And if you’ve been to a train station once, you can be pretty sure that it’s not going away. Thus, many people are more open to learning the rail network, which they perceive as being much simpler, than to learning the complex bus network (possibly excepting the one route they need to take to get to the train). This applies 10x for tourists.

        Capacity: Here’s the one advantage that even BRT can’t match. Depending on the car, one light rail car may hold anywhere from 150 to 200 people. String four of those together, and suddenly you’ve got 800 people with only a single operator. Getting that capacity with buses, even fully grade-separated BRT, would take a minimum of 8 times the drivers, which means 8 times the labor costs. And there’s a limit to how many buses you can have in a tunnel at once. In Boston, during rush hour, a Green Line train (with a capacity of about 150-400, depending on whether it’s a 1 or 2-car train) enters Park Street Station about once every 90 seconds. To get the equivalent capacity with buses, you’d have to have a bus enter the station every 22.5 seconds. Suffice it to say, that wouldn’t even come close to working.

        As far as Link goes, during the PM peak, over 2,500 passengers pass through ID Station southbound, or almost 12 riders a minute. That’s about 90 people (a crush-loaded bus’s worth) every 7.5 minutes, or about 60 people (a fully-seated bus’s worth) every 5 minutes. Could a fully grade-separated BRT line have handled that traffic? Sure. Could it handle the traffic once U-Link opens? Less likely. Could it handle the traffic once North Link and East Link and South Link open? Almost definitely not.

        Now, none of this is to say that buses aren’t an effective part of transit planning. But just about everyone I’ve ever talked to who actually rides transit (and many people who don’t) have a huge personal pro-rail bias, for all of the reasons I’ve stated above. I’ve talked to many, many transit riders, and I’ve never met a single one who thinks that buses are a better investment than trains. I have met people who argue against rail and claim that buses are a better use of money, but without exception, those people don’t ride transit themselves — they just want the cheapest way to get other (poor) people where they’re going. So forgive me if I find it hard to believe people when they claim that rail is never a good investment.

        (*) It’s important to note that when I say “fully grade-separated BRT”, I really mean pulling out all the stops. In the case of Link, this would have meant that all the right-of-way along which rail was built — MLK, I-5, etc. — would have been paved and reserved for BRT. The Beacon Hill tunnel would still have been built. Do you really think that this would have been much cheaper? Of course, you could have skimped, and (for example) had the BRT street-running along MLK, but then everything that I said above applies. To the extent that BRT is cheaper than light rail, it’s almost entirely because of skimping. And to the extent that BRT is an acceptable substitute for rail, it’s going to cost you. There’s no free lunch.

      6. “The telling thing is, transit supporters then launch into attacks on how inefficient bus service is! Attach the car, attack buses but never actually show how rail is better”

        Well, don’t lump me in with *that* crowd. In my view the optimal combination would be Link as the trunk line and bus service as cross-town lines that connect to Link. I’ve heard you arguing against East link because there is not enough population density to support it – Driving the 550 made me think you’re nuts, but I could conceive of a BRT system over here that *might* work, given enough 3+ HOV/Dedicated BRT to really get the buses (and maybe high-density carpools and vanpools?) out of traffic.

        But surely you must agree that the density on UW / North Link will warrant investments in rail – or at least a dedicated HOV 3+ lane system for BRT (which arguably is almost as expensive as rail)?

      7. how many people you can get from point A to point B at the cheapest possible expenditure, then buses probably win.

        A to B is a constraint of building light rail. Buses get people from A..Z because they aren’t constrained by having to build expensive and exclusive ROW. If BRT were built like this then yes it would be equally expensive.

        Comfort:

        At least you can ride a bus down 15th in the U-District. Nicer stations (stops) can be done for buses. The Downtown Seattle Bus Tunnel was an example. In that case a short section was built that served the most concentrated portion of our bus system where the roadway was most congested. I think there are still more people accessing the tunnel via bus than rail.

        Travel time:

        The ETB is slow and the SLUT is even slower. You can drastically increase this if you just expand the stop distant to match light rail. Of course you don’t because the service is needed. “Travel Time” has to include how long it takes to get to your stop, wait time (including transfers) along with the actual time on transit. Signal priority can be improved for buses (Swift & RapidRide) Eliminating a lot of on street parking during commute hours at least would also help. Most of the advantage of light rail comes at the expense of purchasing ROW. With a bus system you have the flexibility to only purchase sections of ROW where maximum benefit is to be had (Like the Bus Tunnel).

        (Express buses aren’t a useful comparison point here… a bus would have to make a significant detour for every single stop. Stopping at the Overlake Transit Center… requires a 10-minute detour

        The Montlake Flyer stop doesn’t take a detour (and it’s stupid to be losing this). Kingsgate doesn’t require much time and serves a large medical complex and neighborhoods. Overlake is a disaster mostly because routes still try to serve the failed Overlake Village TOD fiasco. Fortunately ST has seen the light and is breaking this cycle. The big incentive is the high cost per mile; not an inherit advantage of light rail which forces the more intelligent routing. We’re seeing better route choices being made now for buses because of the budget cutbacks.

        Reliability:

        The flip side, as we’ve seen is how the entire link can go down at a single point of failure. Overall, yes but again that’s because of the cost of acquiring ROW and choosing to serve a limited number of points.

        Legibility: Rail lines … tend to be easy to understand … You can go into a station and see a map of “everywhere you can get from here”.

        Well, “everywhere” on Link isn’t very many places. It’s pretty easy to understand Ellensburg’s bus system. When you start to look at the trains in London it’s not so simple (but it does make it way easier than if you had to use the buses). Most people have to learn the bus system anyway, Link is just a nice addition. The only thing I can see tourists using Link for is Airport to downtown. Even when ST2 is fully built out it’s not like the SF cable cars or even the Waterfront trolley. Visitors coming in purely for sports events would be the exception.

        Capacity: Here’s the one advantage that even BRT can’t match. … you’ve got 800 people with only a single operator… BRT, would take a minimum of 8 times the drivers, which means 8 times the labor costs.

        Capacity is where rail makes sense. It costs 3X as much to operate light rail. The reduced labor from the single operator only starts to pay back when the average ridership is 3X the number of people that fit on a bus. At this point Link is about 1/2 way there on weekdays. U-Link should make the cut and quite possibly the section from Northgate to DT. The airport line I’m not convinced will ever really make it. A light rail system is a poor choice for a commuter line. It needs heavy traffic all day everyday to justify the investment. East Link won’t cut it. For most people 520 and 405 will continue to be the better option.

        Of course people with a huge rail bias like to think it’s a better investment. Otherwise they’d have to deal with their bias. It’s a nice ride, it’s neato but a good investment, based on the points you made here is questionable. It really all boils down to capacity. If the demand isn’t there then the rest is just fluff. I’d bet most of the people with a strong rail bias you’ve talked to don’t admit that it’s a trade-off. It’s seen as well funded bus system and light rail. In fact it’s a very real trade-off as we are seeing reduced ST bus service on the eastside to attempt to keep East Link on schedule. How far do we go, eliminate the 550 for a decade so we can have rail ten years from now? Of course that’s not going to happen. It’s everyone else in the east sub-area (those that will see little or negative benefit) that end up getting shafted with the reductions.

        (*) It’s important to note that when I say “fully grade-separated BRT”, I really mean pulling out all the stops… The Beacon Hill tunnel would still have been built.

        No, it wouldn’t. You only need to build where there is congestion. With rail you are forced to limited grades and providing for continuous dedicated ROW rather than being able to concentrate resources where they do the greatest good. If someone had proposed building “BRT” to the airport everyone would have said that’s nuts even though it could handle the capacity and be cheaper to operate. Add in that you want to detour to the RV and they really would think it’s nuts. But, blinded by the light rail bias it somehow seems to be a good investment? Deploying resources where they’re best used is not skimping. How many miles of HOV/BAT lanes, flyer stops, new routes, additional service hours, transit centers, etc. could have been added with the money light rail to the airport cost? Add in a streetcar if you want that followed the East Link alignment instead of the Beacon Hill tunnel and I think you’d still be money ahead and have a better system now and going forward (i.e. the logical extention of rail to the RV is Renton and Southcenter, not the airport).

      8. Bernie,

        Please read what I wrote. Aside from capacity and a less bumpy ride, I very explicitly said, in every paragraph, that none of these advantages are exclusive to rail. Instead, the point I was trying to make was that the amenities that make people like rail, almost without exception, cost lots of money. Building buses to the same standard would cost more money, and conversely, building rail with fewer amenities would be cheaper.

        For example, light rail is *not* constrained by having to get exclusive right-of-way. In Boston, the Green Line serves as a metro with 90-second peak service in downtown, but once it reaches the suburbs, it works more like a streetcar — there’s even a street-running segment!

        People would prefer any system, bus or train, with nice stations over a system without. People would prefer any system with fully reserved right-of-way over a system without. Once you’ve decided on a level of amenities, the decision to use rail or road is almost solely a factor of capacity — below a certain level, buses will be cheaper, and above a certain level, trains will be cheaper (and buses will be unsustainable).

        But it’s simply invalid to compare Link with a system like RapidRide. Link could have been street-routed through Beacon Hill, or along MLK (without reserving the center lanes). Doing that would have made a lot cheaper. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as pleasant to ride, and so it would have seen far lower ridership. RapidRide isn’t cheaper because it’s a bus, it’s cheaper because they skimped.

        Also, note that I’m explicitly not responding to your claim that light rail to the airport was superfluous. (I have to catch a flight, so I’ll respond to that later.) For now, I’m only addressing your claim that rail supporters never say what’s good about rail. Thus, the only points I’m trying to make are:

        – People like transit lines with amenities;
        – The only fair comparison between bus and rail systems are comparisons where the level of amenities are the same;
        – If the capacity is needed, then a rail line, with a given standard of amenities, is more cost-effective than a bus line at the same standard.

        If you do disagree with any of those three points, though, please say so (and explain why).

      9. Bernie,

        What I like about you is that while we disagree, you aren’t out there just trying to spin everything a certain way. You recognize there are tradeoffs, and are making a different value judgment. Even if I don’t always share your perception of the facts, I can respect that.

        I agree that capacity is the killer app for rail, although what neighborhoods meet the threshold is a matter of some debate. I think economies of scale mean the break-even point on operating cost is much lower than you think. And part of it, admittedly, is that many of us would like to see much more density than current regional plans, much less local NIMBYs, envision.

        I’ve been kicking around a draft on this subject, but I suspect another big difference between rail and proposed BRT involves flexibility and branding. In other words, the centrifugal forces on bus hours are simply too strong to build really good lines. Rail is universally understood to mean high quality service and is therefore able to more easily gain support.

        If ST3 turned out to be some sort of true BRT package, I’d probably support it, but I suspect it would have more trouble passing. Meanwhile, I certainly am not going to support picking apart ST2 in the vain hope that something almost as good but much cheaper will emerge.

      10. Bernie, for what it’s worth, I completely agree with Martin. Even if I don’t always agree with you, I always enjoy engaging with you, precisely because your arguments are based on facts rather than spin.

        You still owe me a response, though ;-)

      11. Martin,

        One of the best BRT systems in the country is arguably the Silver Line Waterfront in Boston. They built lots of tunnels and really nice stations. It’s super frequent. And it reduces the number of transfers needed from Cambridge or Quincy to the airport by 2, if you count the Blue Line shuttle bus.

        And yet, compared to the train, it has serious image problems. Sounds like exactly what you’re talking about.

      12. Please read what I wrote… If you do disagree with any of those three points, though, please say so (and explain why).

        Aleks,
        I did read add responded point by point. In summary, if you don’t have the capacity then light rail is an expensive luxury. For all it’s niceties, you are trading better transit overall (or in our case by sub-area). BRT in all it’s glory would do the same job as Link for less money (operations and capital) but nobody thinks BRT to the airport via RV would have been a worth while project. So, Link exists because as a region we voted as a majority, a majority which doesn’t actually ride transit, for the fancy rail system and (although it didn’t say so on the ballot) reduced bus service.

        – People like transit lines with amenities;

        No argument there. People like free health care, a car in every garage and a chicken if every pot. I like the Bugatti Veyron but I’m not going to buy one.

        – The only fair comparison between bus and rail systems are comparisons where the level of amenities are the same;

        I disagree. The only fair comparison is what level of service you get given equal funding. The modes serve fundamentally different needs. Given sufficient demand rail wins hands down. Perhaps a fair comparison would be how many boardings you generate per dollar or passenger miles per dollar but comparing a bus system that doesn’t make sense to a rail line that doesn’t have enough ridership is a silly comparison.

        – If the capacity is needed, then a rail line, with a given standard of amenities, is more cost-effective than a bus line at the same standard.

        Absolutely agree. Central Link is woefully short of that demand. Only during peak commute does ridership exceed what could be handled more economically with buses (operations only, the huge capital expense excluded). East Link won’t come close meeting the ridership to justify rail. U-Link makes sense. The extension to Northgate maybe. But as a system the airport line via RV will continue to be a drain and East Link is just a farce.

      13. Thanks Martin, I’ve learned a lot from reading this blog and while we often have a different point of view I always find your posts provocative because they are factual and often bring out a nuance that hasn’t been drummed to death in the mainstream media.

        As for economies of scale, I don’t know. Surely general admin costs, overhead of “maintaining” a maintenance facility, etc. should lower the cost per hour. But I doubt either development or piggy backing on more productive routes will ever make Central Link or East Link economical in terms of what alternate transit service could be provided with the same expenditure.

      14. Bernie, sorry for my somewhat heated reaction — I was stressed from flying.

        Regarding my second point (fair comparisons), sure, that works too. You can do comparisons in two ways: compare systems that are equivalent in level of service (e.g. amenities) and then pick the cheapest, or compare systems that are equivalent in cost and then pick the nicest.

        The only thing I wanted to rule out is an apples-to-oranges comparison of low-quality bus service and high-quality train service. Of course the former will come out cheaper, but that’s not a compelling argument against nicer service. Sometimes, people are willing to pay $100 for a premium product when they’re not willing to pay $10 for a cheaper one.

        As far as capacity goes, it seems like betting on growth is the right thing to do. In 2009, Sea-Tac saw over 85,000 daily passengers. Plus, there are pilots and other airport workers. That’s a lot of people who could potentially take light rail. And that’s just the terminus. If Link was at capacity now, then in 10-20 years, it would be completely overburdened. Instead, we have a system that will be functioning well past that time. To me, that seems like good planning, rather than overkill.

      15. Aleks, no apology necessary. I didn’t take your response to be “heated” at all. I appreciate the honest dialog.

        Sometimes, people are willing to pay $100 for a premium product when they’re not willing to pay $10 for a cheaper one.

        Sure, Link is the $100 bottle of red wine and I buy the stuff in a box for $10. OK, sometimes I’ll splurge; not $100, maybe $35 := I think Link equates to the “high priced spread” and in the “guns versus butter” trade-off I don’t think it’s worth the cost, especially in this budget climate. We’re losing bus service on the eastside to keep East Link on schedule (yeah, good luck with that). ST buses ain’t shabby and benefit far more of the population paying into the sub-area equity funds. Maybe you think that’s Mad Dog for the masses but who’s to say who is seeing 20/20 ;-)

        As far as capacity goes, it seems like betting on growth is the right thing to do.

        The thing with bus service though is that you don’t have to guess what’s going to happen in the future. I go back to the bus tunnel. It provided and STILL provides useful bus service. What would Central Link have cost if they had to build the DSTT at today’s prices? The original rail lines proposed back in the 70’s wouldn’t have been where they are needed today. Of course rail can shape growth but that’s a whole different argument. I’m a NIMBY who likes my R-1 zoning and my bike ride to work. Not so keen on becoming high density projects for downtown Seattle overflow. My take on land use == move closer to work or deal with it on your own dime. I’ve no inherent problem with Sounder. I’d love to be able to enjoy a nice glass of wine in a dinning car on my way home (hopefully not on the AM commute ;-) to acreage in Auburn but, like tolls on SR-16 and 520 let’s bring the user fee up to a more equitable level [note: sell $100 bottles of wine on a Sounder dining car and we may have just fixed ST’s budget shortfall!!! If it works I want a % of the take ;-)]. Same for Link, if it’s costing 2-3X more per passenger then raise the fare and see who’s willing to “vote with their dollars.”

        In 2009, Sea-Tac saw over 85,000 daily passengers. Plus… If Link was at capacity now, then in 10-20 years, it would be completely overburdened.

        We’re not talking about being overburdened. We’re still a long way from the break even point. Sure the airport is a huge employment base and it provides all day every day demand. I don’t disagree that running rail there was a bad idea. I think U-Link should have been first and that the social engineering which routed the line through an expensive tunnel to serve “poor” RV instead of the employment center along East Marginal Way dooms the line from ever effectively reaching south of the airport.

      16. ST buses ain’t shabby and benefit far more of the population paying into the sub-area equity funds.

        That’s not necessarily true, since higher-quality service attracts more riders. There are a lot of people who ride Link who simply wouldn’t consider taking a bus. (Microsoft’s Connector sees a similar effect — it provides a higher-quality product than Metro/ST buses, albeit in very different ways.)

        I don’t know how many people fall into that bucket, but a majority of Seattleites commute to work by SOV, and I think it’s safe to say that at least some portion of them don’t like buses but would ride a higher-quality service. (Also, the number of people who voted for ST2 far exceeds the number of people who ride buses, so some of those people must be in this group.) So, for that portion of the population, one rail line provides more of a benefit than 1000 buses.

        This is a problem I have with transit planning in general. When evaluating the costs and benefits of system/service changes, there’s a tendency to weight the needs of current customers far above the needs of potential customers. Obviously, everyone who currently rides the bus has decided that it’s a good choice for them, for some reason or another. So it’s easy to say that East Link (or Airport Link) is unnecessary, because people are happy with the 550 (or 194). But there’s a whole contingent of people who never expressed unhappiness with the 550/194 because they never even bothered to learn that there was a bus. A rail line (or high-quality BRT line) might win them over.

        If Central/Airport Link had been built as a rail-spec BRT line — i.e. dedicated ROW, 7 minute headways, tunnel through Beacon Hill — I believe it would have captured much of the same ridership. (In fact, you could have skipped Airport Station and had the buses pull up directly to the terminal, one of the few advantages of a bus that rail just can’t match.) But it also wouldn’t have been much cheaper. You could street-run the bus on MLK, and skip the Beacon Hill tunnel, and it would have been a lot cheaper, but the resulting bus line would be a lot less popular.

        I go back to the bus tunnel. It provided and STILL provides useful bus service. What would Central Link have cost if they had to build the DSTT at today’s prices?

        I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here. Most of the expensive parts of Central/Airport Link had nothing to do with the fact that it’s rail. The Beacon Hill tunnel is simply a way for transit to avoid traffic. If the tunnel had been paved instead, it would have cost just as much. (In fact, now that I think about it, why wasn’t the tunnel paved like the DSTT? Routing some Beacon Hill buses through the tunnel seems like it could have been a good idea.)

        Also, the DSTT is entirely about quality of service. Metro could have just kept routing buses along every downtown street. But traffic would have been horrible for cars and buses alike. The tunnel was an infrastructure investment that made riding through downtown, no matter how you travel, much more pleasant than it would otherwise be. I believe it was a good investment for exactly that reason, and I believe that Central/Airport Link will prove to be a good investment for the same reason.

        And the DSTT *was* making a bet — it bet that downtown Seattle would continue to see heavy bus traffic. Of course, that’s a pretty good bet. :) But whenever you build infrastructure, even something as simple as a bus stop, you’re hoping that it’s in the right place. Obviously, the more expensive it is, the more sure you want to be that it’s needed, but everyone’s wrong sometimes — the NYC subway has abandoned more stations than Seattle has active. I think that the airport is a pretty safe place to bet on.

        We’re losing bus service on the eastside to keep East Link on schedule (yeah, good luck with that).

        I admit that I’m not as convinced of the virtue of East Link. If ST2 had instead proposed a high-quality BRT system, including grade-separation (i.e. HOV 3+ on the highway and dedicated lanes elsewhere), I would have been fine with that. But downtown Bellevue is one of the densest neighborhoods and job centers in Washington State, and it’s only growing, so building a high-quality transit corridor from Seattle to Bellevue seems like a very reasonable thing to do.

        I’m a NIMBY who likes my R-1 zoning and my bike ride to work. Not so keen on becoming high density projects for downtown Seattle overflow.

        You don’t live in Capitol Hill, so I have no problem with that. :) But again, downtown Bellevue is *already* that dense, and Bel/Red is a designated high-growth corridor. It’s not a stretch to assume that either will continue densifying.

        Note that, at least in Seattle, every neighborhood that’s on a built or proposed rail/BRT corridor is one of the designated urban villages. As you can see from the map of all urban villages, even most of Seattle isn’t in one of these areas. Link wasn’t a decision to densify the RV; it was a result of that decision.

        So I don’t have much sympathy for NIMBYs who live in these areas, since there are just so many other places they could live and not be remotely affected by upzoning.

        I think that Auburn will be safe for a while, though ;)

        Same for Link, if it’s costing 2-3X more per passenger then raise the fare and see who’s willing to “vote with their dollars.”

        That’s not necessarily good business sense. Charging a lower rate and eating the losses in the short term could lead to higher ridership *and* higher profits in the long term, once the market is established.

        I think U-Link should have been first and that the social engineering which routed the line through an expensive tunnel to serve “poor” RV instead of the employment center along East Marginal Way dooms the line from ever effectively reaching south of the airport.

        More than social engineering, it was politics. Have you seen the map of the primary results for the mayoral election? It’s McGinn in all the dense areas, Mallahan in the rich residential areas, and Nickels on the entire light rail corridor.

        Most of us who live in Capitol Hill are already light rail supporters, but by advocating for building in the RV first, Nickels may have captured a whole new constituency. Selfishly, he got those people to vote for him, but for transit supporters, the more important thing is that he got RV residents to care about light rail.

        (For a Seattle politician, of course, it makes much more sense to build light rail to a residential neighborhood than a commercial/industrial one. The former contain Seattle voters, by definition; the latter undoubtedly employ lots of workers from throughout the county.)

        Everyone agrees that U-Link and North Link will be the core of the system. That’s why every train will go to Northgate, but only half will go to the airport and half to Bellevue. And conventional wisdom is definitely to build the core lines first. But if getting the branch first was the cost of getting enough public support to ensure that the whole system will be built, I’m okay with that.

        We’re not talking about being overburdened. We’re still a long way from the break even point.

        The thing is, capacity isn’t a continuum; there are big jumps between levels. If Central/Airport Link had been BRT, then at rush hour, it would be running standing-room-only buses every 6 minutes. I would have called that situation “at capacity”. The next step up is rail, which leaves us with enough capacity for 20+ years of growth. For better or worse, there’s no middle ground.

      17. Bernie,
        I’m not sure what you mean by rail “penciling out”. Plenty of cities have what could be considered successful rail systems. In addition to NYC and Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, DC, LA, Atlanta, Houston, and SF all have very successful rail systems. The DC, LA, Atlanta, Houston, and part of the SF system (BART as opposed to Muni) were all built since WWII.

        Now do realize transit systems in the US are all subsidized to one degree or another and most older systems have signifigant maintenance backlogs.

        As far as Seattle goes, the segment approved in Sound Move was S.200th to NE 45th (with an extension to Northgate if the money could be found). The initial plans were to build the North portion (Lander to 45th) first, however the tunnel between downtown and the University District ran into several technical challenges which resulted in building from Downtown to the Airport first.

        If a Marginal Way alignment had been chosen rather than the Rainier Valley line we built I’m not convinced it would have been more successful. While there are many people working in the Duwamish industrial area, the employment is relatively low density with few residents or other attractions.

        North of Downtown I’m convinced rail makes sense all the way out to the Ash Way P&R. Just the number of daily bus passengers alone in the corridor is enough to justify rail, much less any additional riders a rail line might attract.

        The East Link corridor is more of a question mark. I do think it will show more ridership out of the gate than Central Link has, at least based on the number of riders on the 253, 271, 545, and 550. On the other hand the demand isn’t quite as compelling as the Downtown to Lynnwood corridor.

      18. Here’s the list of US heavy rail systems by ridership. The Washington Metro is #2. In fact, DC’s total ridership is over 50% more than Chicago’s, despite the latter’s far greater population.

        In Boston, too, rail is pretty indispensable. It’s also in high demand, as evidenced by the multiple lawsuits filed by different groups after they didn’t receive promised transit service (e.g. the red-blue connection and the Arborway restoration), the enthusiasm that transit projects have received (e.g. the Green Line extension to Medford), and the criticism that the Silver Line has seen. And finally, the T gets much better bang for its buck on rail than buses.

        Most of the MBTA’s problems are due to its age (the Green Line has been running since the 19th century), which means a huge maintenance debt. I imagine that Chicago has similar issues.

      19. And the DSTT *was* making a bet — it bet that downtown Seattle would continue to see heavy bus traffic. Of course, that’s a pretty good bet.

        The difference is you’re building to meet a need that already exists. That’s very different that trying to predict growth or “create” demand by building the infrastructure first. The “Bus Tunnel” was an incremental approach. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing choice. You can direct resources at the choke points and get far more bang for the buck. If the bus system reached peak capacity DT build a second tunnel. Many rail advocates have pointed out that this is going to be required anyway. You’d certainly have a lot more happy campers with say a 1st or 5th Ave Bus Tunnel for a lot less than a Beacon Hill tunnel and a line to SeaTac that meanders through the RV. It might even have made the AK Way DBT a non-starter as a believable transit + surface solution. Bottom line, it’s almost always better to bet on the sure thing and spend the money where it’s already needed.

        I admit that I’m not as convinced of the virtue of East Link. If ST2 had instead proposed a high-quality BRT system, including grade-separation (i.e. HOV 3+ on the highway and dedicated lanes elsewhere), I would have been fine with that.

        Interestingly HOV 3+ was a hot topic at the Bellevue City Council Study Session this evening. What none of the council members seemed to grasp (or want to admit) is that HOV 2+ moves no faster than the GP lanes through DT Bellevue during rush hour. In fact it’s often slower. That means there is zero incentive to form a carpool. Ergo, way more SOVs creating a parking lot on 405 and spill over traffic on the surface streets. A move to HOV 3+ and HOT lanes (HOT lanes were part and parcel of the Phase I hopefully moved forward by Olympia next year) would mean the HOV/HOT lane would actually be moving. A lane moving at 35+mph with HOVs and transit moves infinitely more people than four lanes at zero mph. I believe WSDOT claims there will be a net reduction of spill over traffic to the surface streets and no net LOS to I-405. The council seems convinced that two more lanes of “public parking” on 405 is the answer. Of all the bright folks on the council none seem to believe in the concept of induced demand :-(

        Bellevue is *already* that dense, and Bel/Red is a designated high-growth corridor. It’s not a stretch to assume that either will continue densifying.

        There’s only like 5,000 people that live in DT Bellevue. There are a lot of jobs (about equal to SeaTac, the UW or the Microsoft campus) but the bulk of the commuters are accessing the city from the north and the south, not from the west. There are a huge projects on indefinite hold in DT Bellevue. The roads investment is steering the logical next area of growth toward Willburton (NE 4th extension and 120th NE, aka the “Road to Nowhere”). The City also has grand plans for Factoria. I don’t see any urgency in building DT Bellevue levels of infrastructure in Bel-Red on the assumption that muffler shops are going to magically transform into hi-rise office towers with luxury condos. There is one, count ‘um it, that is proposed and it’s financing is looking more and more dubious (dependent on starting soon or lose it’s “seed” money; tax dollars used to fuel speculative development). It’s almost as if there was a real estate bubble := But hey, let’s just keep paving and spending like that never happened.

      20. Bernie,

        If you bypass the Rainier Valley you lose something like half the short-term ridership. It’s true there are bad implications for South Link, but that segment may not be built anyway. I think there’s a strong case that we should be serving inner city neighborhoods first, and the long-term development and ridership potential of MLK is much higher.

      21. you lose something like half the short-term ridership.

        It’s only because light rail doesn’t scale down that that’s a issue. RV would still have it’s bus service; maybe electrified, maybe even a streetcar line that could run all the way to Tukwila or The Landing in Renton. If we had built the direct route to SEA I think the employment centers, a really good transfer point from West Seattle and the ability to push farther south (both cheaper and less travel time) would be a wash. You’d also connect the two airports. Southwest has already lobbied to use Boeing field in place of SEA and it’s occasionally used as a backup during really bad weather conditions. Plus, there’s no reason high density housing couldn’t be built near Georgetown.

  9. With the snarling traffic in Mexico City, the local government has decided to build a second deck around the main freeway that encircles the city; along with expanding the existing metro system. As for Seattle, there might come a day when a Viaduct option in needed as a second tier to I-5. Rebuild the viaduct! (but over I-5)

    1. I’d be fine with that. I’d rather we remove some car capacity, but moving it away from our waterfront would be a good compromise.

    2. There simply isn’t the money to do that. With Freeway Park and the Convention Center I’m sure any scheme to double-deck I-5 through downtown would be even more expensive than the 99 tunnel.

      The best bet for I-5 is to discourage people from using it during peak travel times.

  10. I see a lot of sidestepping from the actual point the martin was trying to make, in this comment thread. People, (especially Norman) please read blog posts before you post a comment, otherwise you risk making your self look really stupid. (As Norman has done in this post)

  11. Alternative transportation failures: Bicycling

    Without adequate snow tires, bicycling was a bust. With the streets turned to ice, drivers can’t avoid bicyclists, and as a bicyclist I was off the road.

    It is possible to ride in these conditions, but like the city of Seattle, I have not fully invested in winter riding capacity. And as last winter was a no snow, that was the correct investment. Having lived in Snow country in years past, I realize what the gear is that would be required to ride, but the reports were from 2008, that plows filled the bike lanes when streets were plowed and that it was doubly dangerous because no one expects bicycles on the road in these conditions.

    Fortunately I’m able to work from home when it’s necessary, although my office connection was also overloaded from people with similar problems.

    I’m glad that the switch warmers worked out. We’ll see if they were cost effective or not. ie, is three days in 2 years a reasonable outage? Or must we insist on 24/7 no matter what the weather.


    1. “Without adequate snow tires, bicycling was a bust”

      That was my thought this time around so I didn’t ride once it got icy. Next time, however, I’m going to try out some zip tie tire chains. Keeping a couple packages of zip ties handy would be far less expensive than a set of snow tires – apparently, the system works pretty well.


      but the reports were from 2008, that plows filled the bike lanes when streets were plowed and that it was doubly dangerous because no one expects bicycles on the road in these conditions

      Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. We all need to look for opportunities to ride where we can and make sure the city knows that cyclists will be out and act accordingly. For my part, I could have easily ridden to the Park & Ride or probably even all the way to Mercer Island like I normally do. Sadly, I chickened out once the ice started forming. Next time though I’m going to at least give it a try.

      1. Nice! Now I want more snow so I can try it. Of course you need chain stay and brake clearance (unless you’ve got discs). However, you could go with a narrower tire since the traction is coming from the “chains” and what I found doing a couple of cyclocross races in the snow is if it’s deep snow (or ice crust) the narrower tires are much easier to “punch through” and like snow tires on a car the smaller footprint digs in better.

      2. You have to have disk brakes to make this zip tie/chain thing work. Also it’s going to still be bad on ice. But does look cool, and way less $$ than the studded tires.

      3. @velobusdriver

        I’d strongly recommend against that. I didn’t RTA, so I’m not sure if it’s suggesting you put zipties on the front tire or not, but regardless, once you lose traction on the front tire (which is extremely easy to do in snow/ice) you’re done for. Even if the zipties were to dig into the ice, you’ve already lost control. I love my two wheeled vehicle (scooter and bicycle), but they are inherently unstable.

        Try riding a bike in loose sand or gravel and make a slight turn of the front wheel and you’ll know immediately that it’s near impossible to regain control.

      4. Yeah, after Gary pointed it out it was pretty obvious. Of course with zip ties and rim brakes you’d stop really fast! Who needs brakes anyway… they just slow you down. The faster you go the more stable you are; it’s a safety thing. And there’s always Flintstone brakes :=

  12. I find it a weird kind of reverse logic where the thing that is preferred and in high demand is somehow “worse” than a thing which is not used enough.

    So, yes, highways came to a standstill…and so did buses. But it mattered because people needed to use these critical resources.

    LINK, meanwhile, blissfully rattled away in Tyco style — because it only served a very few people and did only a few things.

    1. I didn’t ride the trains but from what others have said, they were quite full. Several stories have surfaced of folks either not driving or walking a longer distance so they could ride Link instead of taking a chance on other modes.

      Ridership numbers for this week will be interesting to see.

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