Photo by Stephen De Vight

This is an open thread.

75 Replies to “News Roundup: Light Rail/Dark Rail”

  1. The “BRT creep” article is spot on. It’s almost exactly what happened to RapidRide. I’m not going to bash Metro too much, as I know how hard up for cash they are, and I’ll take the improved-local-bus-service-with-busses-painted-like-hotdog-stands we’re getting over nothing, but it ain’t BRT anymore.

    1. Normally, BRT’s death of 1000 cuts are designed to save money.

      But here, we continue to waste money giving out free paper transfers, with the result that service is slowed down. But hey, we have to look out for the effort-challenged.

      We also cower to local businesses that refuse to give up their on-street parking on public rights-of-way. Taking away the parking is cheap. Extra service to make up for the added time, not to mention lost fare revenue, loses money. And the fancy engineering involved in designing partial-day parking isn’t free. Has any other city invested in this dud known as “BAT” lanes?

      1. I’ve never been able to understand Seattle’s penchant for using streets for parking, complaining about cross town trips being slow and then claiming places like Bellevue are awful because they built wide streets with half the number of stop lights. I guess it’s because people have gotten away with it for so long (using City ROW for their private free parking) that it’s considered a “right”. The closest analogy I can think of is the folks along Lake Washington that fenced or otherwise eliminated public access to the water and finally a few years back were forced to give back what essentially was an illegal seizure of public property.

  2. No, BNSF’s mudslide policies don’t make a lot of sense. I don’t want to endanger myself or someone else, but waiting 48 hours while freight is moving through the area, albeit slower?

    1. As nice as a train ride can be I can’t see anyone wanting to spend the extra hours necessary to go by train instead of a Thruway bus. The delay through the slide area backs up the entire system so Amtrak would be left sitting on a siding somewhere waiting it’s turn. Plus the schedule would be almost impossible to determine so it would be like airline passengers overnighting it at the terminal while the carriers try to recover from severe weather delays in other parts of the country. It does seem though that the issues surrounding running a train on the part of the line not affected (usually Seattle to Portland/Eugene is open for business as usual).

      1. I was on a thruway bus last week and got passed by the Cascades train going to Seattle (with nobody on it). The train then waited for us in Seattle so those people making their connections could board it. So to recap, we were put on a bus and the train we would have been on left 10 minutes later, the train passed us and waited for us to board it in Seattle. Makes a ton of sense doesn’t it?

    2. Speaking of mudslide policies… North Sounder between EVR and Mukilteo is canceled again today. Ugh… I was going to take Cascades to VAC this weekend so it looks like I’ll be bussing it again. Lame.

  3. 20% layoffs at Pierce Transit. Knowing that a severe reduction in service is immanent, why doesn’t PT make the current restructuring due to the fueling situation permanent? It seems like the cost savings now would mean less drastic measures later. Are they hoping for some new tax revenue to appear before the cuts have to be made?

    1. Because the current structure has too much weekend service, because it’s limited by the number of vehicles you can fuel.

      1. Has PT gotten as far as a plan for their service cuts? I’m wondering if suspension of all Sunday service is being considered. It seems to be the most bang for the buck to shut down entirely for one day. At least that’s what the other transit agencies that have had to scale back have found. I’m not suggesting that the current service which is as you point out relatively weekend heavy be the exact model used but questioning the rational for bumping service back up to normal levels for a few months only to have to then make even deeper cuts later.

    2. A cut of that magnitude has to go through public comment period(s) before it can be enacted, plus the weekend schedule dosent offer as much early/late service as a typical weekday requires. I used to not be in favor of cutting service on the sabbath, but it does have its merits, as sickening as they may be.

  4. Seattle has also helped itself by permitting taller structures. That density enables ideas to flow freely.

    Sort of makes it sound like the gates of the Emerald City are at the start of the ride free area and that the UW of Washington is literally an ivory tower. And I don’t see any lack of tall buildings in Detroit.

    1. Seattle’s record in promoting dense development has been mixed over the years. In 1989 Seattle passed the CAP initiative placing limits (since removed) on high rise construction. Even today, over two decades after the state passed the Growth Management Act, Seattle has population density about 20% lower than the city of Los Angeles. It’s fair to say both Seattle and LA are “creative” cities, but neither is really known for density per se.

      The densest place — and one of the most amazing — I have ever seen is the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, about 50 (fifty!) times denser than Seattle. Do an image search for Mong Kok if you want to see what real density looks like. Meanwhile, Central Paris has few buildings over six stories, but the density is rather uniform, and there are thirteen Metro lines traversing the city. Paris is certainly a rich, well-connected urban environment that fosters a lot of social interactions.

      Density helps facilitate connections between people, but density by itself is not sufficient to make those connections. Jane Jacobs and others have written much on this topic. People don’t exchange too many ideas when they’re behind the wheel all the time (though they may exchange gestures…) The topology and scale of the street and transit networks, various other hard-to-name qualities of the public realm, the educational attainment of the population, free speech, a culture that is open to new ideas and many other factors contribute to a creative culture, which is a necessary condition for long term economic success in this century. Seattle does appear to be headed in the right direction today in most of these ways. It’s probably most helpful to continue to focus development in a somewhat limited set of areas that already have a variety of services and that can be well-served by high quality transit — the sort of environment where the young and creative tend to congregate anyway.

      1. Central Paris has few buildings over six stories, but the density is rather uniform

        So we just need a hipster variant of the Eiffel Tower and Capitol Hill will be like Paris in Seattle.

      2. Seattle also needs their version of the Paris metro that runs below the traffic.

      3. LA vs Seattle is an unfair comparison due to the size of households in the two cities. Families are bigger there: 2.84 ppl per household, compared to 2.08 in Seattle.

        You can argue about size of units, one-bedrooms vs three-bedrooms etc, but it all boils down to: kids are people, too, and they don’t live by themselves very much. So saying LA is 12% more dense than Seattle (or whatever) but the households are 40% larger indicates Seattle likely has a denser built environment even if it has lower human density.

      4. Hong Kong probably proves that a city’s density can reach a point that diminishes “livability.” The pedestrian traffic in parts of HK is so dense that it is like walking through Pike Place Market in the busiest summer months–where your stride is seriously truncated and your free movement and pace is impaired by the sheer mass of humanity all around you.

        Part of the problem for HK too is that it’s traffic policies are horribly biased towards cars, perhaps a relic of colonial rule, allowing the wealthy in taxis and chauffeured European luxury cars to plow through crowds of commoners. The law requires that pedestrians yield to cars in almost all circumstances (pedestrian have the right-of-way only in zebra crosswalks, which are extremely rare at unsignaled intersections). You can watch as a$$holes in Mercedes S-Classes and Jaguars honk and drive with great speed through unsignaled intersections while old ladies with canes hobble across intersections.

        Anyway, that’s my rant. For what it’s worth, HK has a fantastic subway system, and ubiquitous electric trolleys and buses, too. Seattle is in no danger of reaching the levels of excessive density of parts of HK (it also lacks sufficient parks and public spaces, but the rich can go to private places or fly their jets to resorts) and could certainly become a lot livelier and livable by continuing to allow denser development around its urban villages, especially areas served by Link (now or in the present).

      5. Paris is one of the most dense cities in Europe. Some say THE most. And yes the transit works quite well.

    2. I’m not going to take the Detroit trollbait, but I will note that IT companies aren’t exactly flocking to set up in Crown Hill. It’s also funny to me that that Glaser article used a photo of the SLUT, which while (I hope) it will eventually be built into a part of a larger, more useful streetcar network, is not exactly illustrative of good transit planning as it stands. It would have been much more instructive had they used a photo of Link and mentioned that we’re building a subway that will be far more useful for shuttling brains around than the current SLUT.

      Interesting stat from the urban planning meeting at city hall today: 65% of Seattle is single-family zoned, the highest percentage of any major metro area. No wonder we have such sprawling suburbs.

      1. IT companies aren’t exactly flocking to set up in Crown Hill

        But Google set up shop in Kirkland, not a city known for it’s skyline. And biotech seems to have gravitated to the SLU area. The author mentions being on the board of the Gates foundation which is what 4-5 story buildings in the shadow of the Space Needle surrounded by green space. Really what the DT core attracts primarily is finance; not to say those folks don’t get really “creative” sometimes :=

  5. So as that article slowly spreads, does that mean we can get Gondolas built throughout the city? Please? ^_^

    1. Yeah, I’m totally on the gondola bandwagon. Had never even heard or thought of the idea before it appeared on Matt’s blog. I wonder if it could be done as a public-private partnership, at very little cost to the city? As long as it works and takes ORCA, I don’t care who runs or builds it.

      1. Orca would be ideal. But I’d still take it if I had to pay in Canadian pennies.

      2. I love the gondola concept and have occasionally imagined one from Capitol Hill to Queen Anne via SLU. Stations could be integrated into new construction — a gondola zoning bonus. Given the growth in the area, the geometric impossibility of adding any new streets crossing I-5, and the abysmal traffic on Denny, a gondola could make a real difference in mobility in that area.

        The aerial tram in Portland was a creative solution to what was originally a non-mobility problem — running of room for expanding OHSU on Marquam Hill — combined with the city’s desire to create a new, sustainable, high-density district served by the streetcar.

        In the Capitol Hill – SLU – QA case, all of the districts are likely to get maxed out anyway, with respect to new development, so at least in real estate terms, the business case for this gondola may not be strong.

        Is there a place a gondola might pencil out in Seattle?

      3. Matt proposed one on Galer St from Westlake to near to top of QA. Upper Queen Anne isn’t anywhere close to being maxed out yet, nor will it be until it gets better transit service. (There’s lots of trolley service from downtown to Queen Anne, but it’s horribly slow at rush hour.)

    2. I’ve been promoting this idea ever since I moved to Seattle, but most people just think it’s a weird idea. Anyone who has ridden the gondola in Portland, however, knows that it can work really well. My dream would be for the Space Needle to be a hub station, since it already has an elevator, but alas it will probably always be a tourist trap rather than the transit station it should be…anyway, I like the point he makes that we could build a cheaper system with smaller pods. The Portland one has to have huge pods because they get a ton of students and employees using it to get to the OHSU campus. It is pretty much the only practical way to get there other than driving. In our case as a supplement to bus service we could probably have smaller pods. If anyone wants to form a group to advocate this, I would certainly love to be involved!

  6. Apparently the City of Bellevue thinks the issues surrounding Councilmember Wallace are serious enough to warrant hiring an independent investigator:
    ,a href=””>Bellevue to hire investigator for councilman’s railway dealings

      1. Yep, this should get really entertaining during the next several Bellevue Council meetings. I suspect Wallace will act like nothing has happened and it is business as usual, but I’m sure other people will have other ideas about that!

  7. Amtrak got $2.2 billion in pure subsidies in 2010 and carried 28.7 million people, for around 13 cents per passenger

    $2,200,000,000 / 28,700,000 = $76.65 per person. What am I missing here if the right answer is 13 cents?

    1. Maybe that was 13 cents per passenger-mile.

      Also, that $2.2G wasn’t all operating subsidies.

    2. What’s silly about this is the very idea of comparing Amtrak with highways. The highways are built to the very highest standards, therefore lots of people use them and cost per passenger-mile is lower. Amtrak is a sub-standard system (speeds are a tiny fraction of what trains are capable of), therefore it is not a very attractive option and it costs more. This would be like comparing highways with air travel in its first decade when planes were small and slow and couldn’t go very far. Highways are mature in this country, trains are not. Trains will need higher subsidies until they are mature. Most countries that have spent the money to build high-speed rail quickly find that it pays for itself since it becomes competitive with air and car travel. Also we may have highway “user fees” in the form of gas tax, but psychologically it doesn’t feel the same as paying a fare. If I had to go online and buy a “ticket” to be able to drive to Portland, you can bet I would think harder about driving. And that’s why all highways should be tolled.

      1. Amtrak also has a number of legacy issues, like railroad pensions that were inherited from the companies whose operations they took over, numerous different unions for the different jobs, and massively money-losing cross-country routes that can’t be abolished for political reasons. If you get rid of all those things and invest in the corridors where rail can beat driving and compete with flying, you’re not that far from commercial viability and certainly within the realm of affordable regional subsidy.

    3. But what about the math? Does the author have a point to make and just failed (miserably) or did he get the the math so wrong he might change his mind if he realized the subside was some 600X more than what he seems to claim? Just seems to me he’s more interested in writing to an audience that agrees with him (selling copy) than trying to make any sort of serious point.

  8. When are the January and February Link ridership numbers going to be disclosed?

    1. Luckily baseball season starts next month – gotta love those “home stand” ridership spikes! Don’t like higher airfares though . . . less touristas = fewer Link patrons.

      1. Or perhaps higher airfares could mean more people on Link, as tourists who would have taken a taxi or Shuttle Express look for cheaper options instead.

      2. Fewer tourists? Hotel rates and airfares are highest in the good weather months, still far and away the high season for Seattle tourism.

      3. “And the Sounders are already playing.”

        Actually, it’s still preseason. First Kick is next Tuesday.

  9. Matt, what are maintenance considerations on cableways? And would local geology let us anchor the towers where we needed them? What about seismic conditions?

    Also, I rode on the one in Portland just after its opening, and noticed an unsettling “lurch” at one point in the ride as the car went over one tower midway through the ride. Design flaw? Or have they adjusted that out of it yet?

    Just curious. I like the idea, but suspect it would have been tried earlier if conditons were suitable around Seattle.

    Mark Dublin

    1. It’s been tried thousands of times all over the world. At ski slopes. They maintain them fine there (other than inspection, I would think there’s be little maintenance of the cables themselves – there would be some maintenance required on the machinery, but electric motors and pulleys aren’t exactly bleeding edge technology). It’s also not rocket science to design a smooth ride – I haven’t ridden on Portland’s yet, but if it’s really an issue than I’d probably blame the designers. Again, there’s nothing inherently different in planning the routing in a city or climbing the cliffs of a mountain.

      I also don’t see geology as being a huge problem. At ski slopes they just throw a big hunk of concrete on the ground to anchor to. It seems easier to get concrete in the city than lugging it way up the side of a mountain. I would assume the base of towers would require some careful design, and this isn’t my area of expertise. But again, they’re doing this in a dozen cities in South America. That means a dozen engineering teams solved any of these problems.

      Oh, and of course this idea isn’t new even in this country. There were gondolas at the Seattle Center during the world’s fair. There are gondolas in Disneyland and probably a few dozen other theme parks.

      Hey look, a whole website about the world’s urban gondola systems.

    2. The lurch on the Portland gondola exists was still there when I rode it yesterday, and I think is due to the fact that the very bottom of the cable is at a much steeper angle than the rest.

      1. The lurch is because of tower spacing. The longer the distance between towers and the steeper the angle the bigger the plunge. Try the tram at Jackson Hole sometime!

      2. Well, I’d imagine you’d have to also factor in the diameter of the cable (i.e. more tension on the line) and the weight of the tram (did I mention I think the US trend toward big trams is a poor choice? little trams = high frequency and smaller stations and towers. I guess we add less lurch to that list). But tower spacing makes sense.

      3. Well, you really want gravity holding the cable down on the pulleys. So, given the changes in terrain (i.e. flatter to steeper) there’s only so much tension you can put on the line before you lift it off of certain towers. There’s limits on how stiff you can make the cable too since unlike say a suspension bridge this has to turn a relatively sharp bend around the bull wheel at each end. Weight distribution in the cars can be tricky as well. Ski areas have very strict rules about down loading because the system is engineered primarily as a “lift” and there have been some well publicized failures leading to the demise of companies like Yan. A public transport system would have to be able to accept almost any type of asymmetrical load which limits how “tricky” you can get with tower spacing, changes in terrain, bends, etc. It also means that the “lurch” or drop at certain towers is going to be better or worse depending on loading of all cars on the cable.

      4. That doesn’t totally make sense to me. Traditional ski lifts have only lower pullies (generally underneath the cable), but it seems like gondolas and high-speed lifts have upper and lower pullies to keep the cables in place.

        The rest of your points seem fine. Of course I’m sure we could fix any technical challenges that arise – physics is involved, but it shouldn’t be rocket science.

      5. “Traditional ski lifts have only lower pulleys”

        Not true. It depends on what direction the forces are acting on the cable. At the bottom of a slope the pulleys are on top of the cable and at the top of a slope the pulleys are on the bottom.

        Cable cars (trams or aerial ropeways), like the one in Portland, also function differently than ski lifts or gondolas in that the cables that support the cabin are separate from the cable that supplies the motive force. They are also generally permanently fixed to the propulsion rope and the two cars act as counterbalances. Gondolas can detach from the propulsion cable at the base stations in order to slow down for people to load and unload without affecting the movement of the other cabins and because of this feature can operate continuously and have multiple stations. Trams can only operate on a point-to-point system.

        I’ve been on aerial ropeways all over the Alps, and they all lurch, usually in the transition from the first tower to the base station. This happens because of the momentum of the cabin and the sudden change in direction as it goes over the tower. I’ve seen many people lose their breakfast on the Klein Matterhorn tram, it sways a good 20 degrees right before it docks at the top.

        It’s also impossible to apply enough force to a suspended cable to eliminate all of the sag, think back to engineering physics in college and recall the catenary equation. :-) It’s especially apparent on tramways with very few towers, like the one in Portland.

      6. Right and right. Lift routes are designed to minimize the number of top pulleys required (gravity always works). All of the technical challenges can be overcome to build a lift just about anywhere. But you’ll always have some amount drop and swing which will be better/worse depending on loading and the wind. I’m not sure if it technically correct but I think of trams (like Jackson and Snowbird) as being two cars that move back and forth. They’re counterbalanced but for the most part all the lifting is up the hill. A transit system would likely be much more counterbalanced. Long trams like Jackson and Snowbird are around 15 minutes. I’d guess anything in Seattle would be half that and 7 minute headways doesn’t seem too bad. A Gondoobie is essentially continuously loading because the ability to detach from the tow cable but if heavily loaded you end up waiting just as long as you try to fit 4-6 people in each small car. It also requires a fair deal of physical mobility to load and attendants to keep things moving quickly and safely. It has a lot more moving parts, would require more labor for upkeep on all the individual cars (think graffiti). For all these reasons a tram might be more appropriate. I suspect, though don’t know for sure that a tram would be cheaper to construct.

  10. One question–what is the purpose of the yellow strobe light under the rear route-number sign on Metro’s and ST’s 60-foot hybrids?

    1. My memory is that those amber strobes first appeared on the Breda dual-modes when the DSTT opened and were an extra emergency flasher.

    2. The strobe is for emergency use only. It’s to be activated by the operator only in case of a downed wire or a disabled coach in the tube for instance.

      1. I thought it also strobed when the wheelchair lift was activated (or ramp in the case of the lowfloor coach)

      2. Z, The strobe can only manually activated by the driver and should only be done for an emergency during tunnel operations. The 4-way flashers are automatically activated when a low floor’s ramp is deployed or when the coach is kneeled.

  11. Back on the fuel issue and government subsides. A couple of interesting links, one from Exxon/Mobile railing against subsides for ethanol. Another from a Texas congressman (big oil state) claiming that “clean coal” is a conflict in terms. Now if there were only a halt in permits for mountain top mining instead of off shore drilling. That leaves pretty much just natural gas, diesel and electricity for powering buses. The only quick source of new electricity is burning coal (45% DOE stats), or gas (23% and gaining). Long range nuclear could produce more than the 20% or so that it does now. Hydro is “tapped out” at about 7% and I don’t see other renewables (wind, solar, tidal) surpassing hydro any time soon. So, for the next few generations of buses both short term and long term economic trends (not to mention safety) would seem to point to a gradual transition to electric power while continuing to use diesel where catenary or battery power isn’t feasible. The best use for natural gas is to continue the push toward replacing coal fired plants with natural gas.

    1. The TVA is restarting construction on the partially built Bellefonte Nuclear Reactor in Alabama. Even though it is an old design, and is in disrepair (abandoned 23 years ago) it is cheaper to restart construction due to much of the studies/paperwork/permits already being taken care of.

      This should be watched by Washington especially due to the fact that Bellefonte is the same design as WNP-1. With Obama pushing for more nukes (and putting money up) it’d be a shame if we let opportunity slip by us.

      1. I’m not opposed to nuclear power but that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid of it. Japan is currently having trouble shutting down one of it’s reactors following the earthquake. I wonder if US reactors are built to as stringent a seismic code as those in Japan? Of course they also have an oil refinery on fire but the threat of regional perhaps global disaster isn’t the concern it is with a nuclear plant. As for Washington’s abortive “whoops” program one environmental effect that is often neglected is the dumping of excess heat into the Columbia River.

  12. Random Link stuff: I talked to one of ST’s public outreach people, and they stated that North Link (UW to Northgate) is not going to be funded by New Starts (they’re not applying), nor is its completion date dependent on federal funding, although they intend to compete for other, much smaller, state and federal grants like CMAQ.

    This is excellent news for anyone who cares about Link’s future, as we are pretty safe from the dips****ery currently taking place in Congress; especially those of us who live in the inner city, as after Northgate there’s (frankly) nothing much I’m ever likely to depend on (especially with the I-5 alignment that I’m horribly afraid ST will choose.)

    I also earned my Link ambassador badge by personally leading my lost colleagues visiting from the East Cost from the Best Western in Pioneer Square to the (almost invisible) 2nd & James DSTT entrance this morning. I long for 2016 when ST can take over the tunnel and start running it right.

  13. Took a transit excursion today and tried out Sounder for the first time. I road from Columbia City Link Station to ID and walked to King Street. Caught the Sounder and was in Kent in about 20 minutes. That was amazing and the ride was smooth as silk. Return was via Metro 180 to Sea-Tac and Link back to Columbia City.

    I know this has been debated before and more or less shot down, but I really think an intermodal station at Boeing Access Road combined with frequent Sounder service to Kent/Auburn and coordinating bus routes with Sounder would make a lot of sense.

    1. It’s not that it’s been shot down, it’s just that BNSF says there’s no space on their ROW for the Sounder platform. It is indeed a shame.

      1. Bruce, not aimed at you, but there’s clearly space right next to the north end of the overpass, though this may be either UP land or state land, not sure which. Even a stop at midway through Boeing Field would work, if they wanted it to.

  14. For all of you fans of the Vultron Trans-Dot signs used on Metro’s MAN’s and Bredas (while they were still dual-mode) I made THIS.

    What do you think?

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