ST Mulling Its Own Bus Base

Atlantic Base (photo by Robin Kiley)

One of the interesting nuggets in the Citizen Oversight Panel report was the following:

ST Express Bus Base. This project will involve constructing new ST-owned maintenance and operations capacity to accommodate up to 300 buses to support existing and future ST Express services. In the past all of ST’s buses have been stored and serviced at partner agency-owned facilities. This ST2 project was supposed to begin development of a siting study in 2010 but was delayed as part of the agency’s program realignment. It was authorized in January 2011.

According to spokesman Geoff Patrick, this is not a firm plan to construct the facility, but rather a Parsons Brinckerhoff study to work out the particulars. The Sound Transit board is interested in exploring to find “options for achieving cost savings in operating ST Express”, as Metro charges ST for service provision at an unusually high rate.

Patrick also comments that Sounder will “be part of the discussion.”

If ST ends up going through with it in mid-decade, the impact on riders will be mixed. If you ride Sound Transit buses, there ought to be more service than there would otherwise be. For Metro, overhead costs would be spread over fewer runs, so it’s likely to deteriorate the budget situation somewhat.

Constantine Borrows Anti-Transit Rhetoric

Dow Constantine (wikimedia)

[UPDATE: Some Constantine people emailed me to assert that the full transportation section of the speech provides much needed context, in contrast to the PubliCola excerpt. Indeed, Mr. Constantine goes on to hit very strongly pro-transit points in his talk.

I’m still unconvinced that the Surface/Transit/I-5 plan is a radical anti-road plan. Not spending huge amounts on the DBT frees up state money to work on the surface roadway and I-5, which in turn frees up city money to improve the transit. Nevertheless, a much longer excerpt of the speech is now below the jump, so you can decide for yourself.]

[UPDATE 2: I got this statement from Constantine’s office:

Our office is committed to fighting for funding for transit in downtown Seattle and throughout the county and fighting to add capacity to I-5 as part of the resurfacing project.

Our only point of disagreement is whether a tunnel or a six-lane surface highway is the best way to move cars and trucks through downtown. The Executive in his speech says he supports the tunnel.]

I slammed Governor Gregoire for using anti-environmentalist hyperbole, so it’s only fair that I highlight the story that Andrew linked to yesterday, where Dow Constantine, a great friend of most causes that this blog supports, used some unhinged language about the surface/transit/I-5 option.

Constantine accused “a small faction” in Seattle—obvious code for Mayor Mike McGinn and his fellow proponents of the surface/transit/I-5 alternative for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct—of “believ[ing] that the key to the future lies in forcing traffic gridlock so that people abandon their cars.”

It’s a shame that he had to use this framing, as most of the rest of what PubliCola quotes is at least a cogent argument for the deep-bore tunnel*. Unlike the Governor, Constantine at least avoided right-wing code words like “social engineering” and the implication that surface/transit advocates are totalitarians.

But there’s still that ugly rhetoric of “force”. Once again, the surface plan spends $2.3 billion of a $3.3 billion total on highways. It is hardly giving up on moving cars through the city. Constantine implies that spending a little less on roads and a little more on transit is the use of force. I don’t know how to reconcile that with his broader record of supporting transit. More below the jump.

Continue reading “Constantine Borrows Anti-Transit Rhetoric”

Capitol Hill Mobility

12th Avenue On-Street Bike Parking (Photo by SDOT)

Just over a year ago, Mayor McGinn formally recommended the Broadway/Yesler/14th/Jackson alignment for the First Hill Streetcar. At the end of his letter to the council, McGinn also pledged support for a number of related transit changes:

• Improving transit access to the Boren/Madison area, through measures such as speed and reliability improvements to existing Metro routes;
• Developing alternatives that provide north-south transit service in the 12th Avenue corridor;
• Extending the First Hill Streetcar to the north end of Broadway, to support the economic revitalization of Broadway and improve neighborhood access to the Capitol Hill light rail station.

In Seattle political realities have often dictated that we undertake Transit-Planning-By-Consolation-Prize.  When First Hill lost its Link stop, it got the streetcar instead.  When the Broadway alignment was chosen for the streetcar, McGinn then pledged support for additional service on the neglected alignments.  As imprudent as such a patchwork approach may be for transit planning, it also opens up the broader discussion of how best to serve those markets.  So, how should the arrival of rail affect bus service on Capitol Hill, First Hill, and the Central District? To my mind there are several important guiding principles:

  • How can we best emphasize high-quality transfers?
  • How can we create an intuitive grid amenable to spontaneous transit trips?
  • How can we eliminate redundant CBD trips that could be made on LINK or the FHSC?
  • How can we add service to 12th Avenue and Boren Avenue in an intelligent and non-duplicative way?
  • How can we maintain our trolley network without being bound to its historical routing choices?
  • And most of all, how can we do all of this with equivalent (or fewer) operating resources?

In the spirit of Martin’s Rainier Valley Mobility proposal, I started playing with scenarios.  I intend this proposal strictly as a conversation starter: What are the pros and cons of a radical grid system in central Seattle?  The bus routes below collectively represent about 99,000 boardings per day (2009 data), and wholesale changes would not be likely without the arrival of rail. But I’m convinced that by eliminating redundant routes and making peace with single transfers, we can offer 7-15 minute service on every route without incurring additional operating costs, while sensibly leveraging our investment in rail. So here’s a fairly radical sketch to tear apart in the comments:

Much more after the jump…

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News Round-Up: Never-Ending Tunnel

Trolley Open House Report

Photo by Atomic Taco


Last night Metro held an open house detailing the initial findings of the Trolley Evaluation Study. The purpose of this study was to determine if the purchase, operating and maintenance costs of electric trolleybuses exceeds that of diesel-electric series hybrids. The initial findings, released two weeks ago, summarized the preliminary findings, indicate that electric trolley buses outperform diesel hybrid buses in comparisons based on cost, energy, and environmental effects. This study is not about whether or not the trolley system should be expanded or what the new buses should look like (e.g. three door boarding).

The presentation provided a few more concrete numbers. It is important to note that the study was based on present-day facts and figures and not projections or speculations. For example, one citizen at the meeting suggested that ridership would improve with the purchase of trolleys over hybrids. Metro reps suggested that was speculation, and that the study would assume ridership was not affected by bus type.

The FTA standard for the vehicle’s useful life is 15 years for a trolley and 12 for a diesel hybrid. The cost difference for 60 foot buses is $1.285m for a trolley vs. $785,000 for a hybrid. Because there are many manufacturers offering hybrid buses, the figure for hybrids was easy to obtain. Since fewer manufacturers produce trolleys, these numbers were based on those paid by other North American agencies and quotes from manufactures such as New Flyer and Vossloh Kiepe. This annualized cost for this report was calculated over one life-cycle for each vehicle type. Also included was fixed-guideway grant money—something the feds give out to operators of trolley networks. This money would mostly be used to cover the difference in capital cost of the trolleys. Not included in the 2009 audit but evaluated here were the costs to decommission the trolley infrastructure ($37 million) and the costs to expand fuel capacity at the base ($5 million). More after the jump.

Continue reading “Trolley Open House Report”

To the City Council!

Often informal groups of people working together can make a difference in the way their communities are run. If you care about the Roosevelt zoning plan and, like I do, would like to see a plan that would create more than 348 units of housing in the station area, the best thing you can do right now is email your city council member to say “please don’t vote for this!” The next best thing you can do is sign this petition I’ve created.

You may or may not be surprised to know that much of the time the Council members only hear from the NIMBY side of these debates, and not from those who support more transit oriented development. The more they hear from people who support TOD, the more import they’ll attach to the issue, and the more likely they are enact a plan to create more housing. I’ve written an easy way to do contact them right after the jump. Please do also sign the petition.

Continue reading “To the City Council!”


This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I talk about density because it’s good for the environment, good for reducing resources, protects natural environemnts and farms, and builds a better city.  But I don’t love density just because it’s good for me.  I’ve found living and working close to others to be far more enjoyable than the alternative.

The best living arrangement I’ve experienced were college dorms, and remember those days fondly. We were packed 2 to a tiny room, around 50 to a floor with a shared bathroom on our floor and a cafeteria downstairs. But the human interaction that created was amazing – we all (all 50) acted like a family and kept our doors open to be able to wander in and out of our neighbors’ rooms and to hear what’s going on nearby.

The most fun and most productive office environment I’ve had was in small cubicles where we could talk freely with those around us while working.  We could ask questions and share information effortlessly, but also joked and formed strong personal bonds.

I currently live in the best neighborhood I’ve lived in.  It’s an old “streetcar suburb” with 30′ lot lines. I can walk to 3 grocery stores, dozens of restaurants, bars, drug stores, parks, libraries etc. I can ride my bike to work in 10 minutes.  I have a bus line a block from my house that can get me most anywhere. 

The worst neighborhood experience, living arrangement, and office experience I’ve had was when I lived in the suburbs. I commuted long distances to a large office with walls and a door, where I’d have to get up and walk into a coworker’s office – if we wanted more than two to talk we’d both have to go to the next office (this rarely happened).  At home I barely knew my neighbors – and even then it was just the people next to me. I couldn’t walk to any stores or services and had to drive everywhere.  My commute distance left me with barely any free time, and I lived for the weekend – and even then much of my time was taken up with mowing the large lawns.

So that’s what’s built my opinion of density – ignoring all of the social, economic, and environmental benefits. I think it might come down to personality type. If you like people, density is for you. If you like to be left alone, maybe you’re a suburbanite.

Resurrecting Route 50

From Metro's 2008 Proposal

One early component of Metro’s Southeast Seattle service reorganization proposal was replacing Route 39, running from Seward Park to downtown, with a Route 50 that would run from Seward Park to the Junction in West Seattle. The 50 would have had a sizeable diversion through Sodo to improve connections from both neighborhoods to jobs there.

As  a member of the advisory group for those changes, I’m sorry to say I had a small role in this idea dying. There were two big concerns: this route was more expensive to operate than the 39, and therefore would divert resources from other priorities in the Southeast; and there was an extensive and persuasive campaign from the VA hospital to keep the one-seat ride from their front door to downtown.

All that said, as the link suggests I think the VA is not a good long-term reason to keep the 39, and tight budget constraints will hopefully not last forever. Crosstown connections between West Seattle and Southeast Seattle are atrocious, often requiring a trip all the way downtown; connecting West Seattle’s transit hub with a route that crossing all the key corridors in the Rainier Valley would solve this problem.

If the 50 does come back, I hope Metro reconsiders the routing through Sodo. There’s value in providing a direct connection to the Link station and Sodo jobs, but it would add substantially to travel time and introduce reliability problems due to game traffic and the like. Shortening it to, say, Lander St., would involve crossing the train tracks at grade, creating more disruption.

Moreover, if we invoke the principle of a gridded system, it’s far more direct to briefly exit the Spokane St. viaduct to drop people off at the entrance to the busway, providing easy transfers to hundreds of buses headed north, and then get right back on the viaduct and West Seattle Bridge to head to the Junction. Eastbound, buses would use the 4th Ave offramp and two quick right turns to do the same thing.

A direct route is more likely to attract choice riders and give West Seattle residents a quality connection to Link southbound. I don’t have data, but it might also make the cost implications neutral or even slightly positive.

Roosevelt Rezone Recommendations

Proposed zoning changes laid over existing zoning

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development has published a draft of its recommendations for the Roosevelt Station area rezone plan. The rezone is a substantial increase from what current is currently zoned, but is quite far from what the increased transportation options can bear. The DPD estimates “the proposed rezones would increase total development capacity by 348 residential units and 215,209 commercial square feet” from 269 units and 10,604 feet of commercial space with current zoning.

I personally feel this proposed zoning to be woefully inadequate. With substantially more aggressive zoning, the Northgate station area has already accommodated that much housing and commercial space on a single block long before the station opens. Most of the proposed height limits in the Roosevelt corridor are just 40 feet, which really isn’t all that different from 65 feet from a sunlight and massing perspective, but would allow a far smaller amount of development.

The Roosevelt station is one of just nine subway stations that will be built  in our region, and as taxpayers I feel we are owed the right to get as much from these stations as we can. I wrote this about the Beacon Hill station area a few years ago:

I’d also like to appeal to everyone’s sense of civic fairness. We’ve all been paying sales tax for the past dozen or so years to build this light rail line and this subway station. Now that’s almost done, shouldn’t we try to get our money’s worth and encourage the most riders possible? Increasing density around the stations will mean more people using the system and a better value for all of us. Increased use will also make the station safer: there’ll be more eyes watching for muggers or other predators.

As Matt Yglesias correctly pointed out the other day (with a bit of hyperbole thrown in) when writing about the upzone in the South Downtown area, nobody will take transit to work unless you build tall buildings near stations. The residential portion of the entire rezone generates only an extra 1,922 riders per day for the light rail system, which will have a fully grade-separated, 16 minute ride to downtown Seattle and just an eight minute ride to the UW. This is a case of Seattle zoning itself to death.

Bellevue seems to get how transit can unleash a lot of development demand and both increase tax revenue and make infrastructure a better value. Leaders there see a surface line and imagine 12-15 story buildings with 4.5 million square feet of commercial space and 5,000 housing units. Seattle sees a subway and envisions just 215,000 square feet and 348 more units. Those of us who desperately want more urbanism and great value from our investment are looking forward to be disappointed again.

Conflated Afforable Housing Arguments

Since we’re on a roll, I’ll add my opinion to this discussion. I started thinking about this last month at the equitable growth dialog but haven’t until now been able to put it in a good context. This discussion has done that.

Simply put Martin and Sherwin are both correct, the problem is they are thinking about afforable housing (and in some ways affordable commercial/retail space) at two different physical and temporal scales. This lack of scale  definition in my opinion is the crux of the problem when talking about affordable housing. Martin and Sherwin each describe one of the two opposing forces that I see playing out with affordable housing, one short term and site specific, the other long term and region wide. Note, for this discussion I’m not talking about single family houses, I’m talking about apartments, condos and townhomes.

In the short term, new housing in the city is almost always more expensive than old housing, unless it is subsidized. This is because it is more expensive to build housing now than it was before, and developers will target the most lucrative market, and cheap housing usually isn’t it. New housing simply demands a premium. So yes new housing is more expensive than old housing.

However, in the long term housing prices are mostly determined by supply and demand. Once housing is built, regardless of the price to build it 15 or 20 years ago the market will determine it’s value. The larger the difference between supply and demand, the higher housing prices become. Additionally, over the long term, new housing become old housing, and old housing is cheaper. I would venture a guess that a large majority of the affordable housing in Seattle is just our older housing stock, not subsidized housing. Old housing in desirable neighborhoods may still be expensive, but building less housing 15 or 20, or even 100 years ago in those neighborhoods wouldn’t make them any cheaper now.

Thus to me I only see a two fold solution. First restricting large increases in housing where we want it (around Link, urban centers, etc) is guaranteed to increase prices in the long term, there is no other possible outcome. Period. Second affordable housing that is lost from a new project should be replaced, through programs like the housing levy and incentive zoning. This is the only solution I see that preserves affordable housing in the short term and builds up an affordable housing stock for the long term.

Is ‘Highest and Best Use’ Always Right?

First Avenue, circa 1910, via Rob Ketcherside

This morning, Martin opined about the council’s recent decision to restrict the upzone in Pioneer Square from 150 feet to 120 feet.  Ironically, his piece was penned at the same time this editorial was being drafted– both written simultaneously with conflicting viewpoints.  While I’ve generally agreed with the call for higher transit-oriented density reflected through this blog, I’m not convinced that the “highest and best use” argument in this context is helpful to the pro-transit cause.

Mathematically, the case for high-density TOD is simple– more people, more riders.  In a less-than-perfect world, however, we often have to deal with social and economic constraints, along with various other wonky forces that affect the choices people make in regards to their mode of travel or their place of residence.  More below the jump.

Continue reading “Is ‘Highest and Best Use’ Always Right?”

What Trumps Density?


Cleverly slipping it in before I was fully caught up from vacation, the City Council voted unanimously yesterday to restrict heights in Pioneer Square to 120 feet, rather than 150. Councilmembers Burgess and Bagshaw initially voted for higher limits, but PubliCola speculates they switched out of some sense of Council solidarity.

Previously, Councilmember Nick Licata and waterfront activist Cary Moon wrote separate pieces in opposition to the loosest possible height limits in Pioneer Square. On the other side, rebuttals from near and far; in particular I’d recommend Roger Valdez’s well-informed arguments.

I’m glad the debate is about how much to increase, rather than whether to increase. Furthermore, the provisions in question are part of a much larger package of upzones (map here) that is, thankfully, uncontroversial. However, Pioneer Square sits on the largest transportation hub in the Northwest. As such, there’s a strong case that as many people and jobs should be sited there as the market can bear.

The centrality of density to a whole series of issues is well documented. More human activity in a given patch of urban space reduces sprawl, energy consumption per capita, car dependence, and housing prices. It puts more bicycles and pedestrians on the ground, increasing their safety, and reduces the economic distortions caused by regulation. Against all that we have an essentially subjective argument about towers “looming” over historic buildings, an aesthetic that works fine in other cities, and the usual Seattle emphasis on public process and broad consensus.

Maximizing density is either a priority or it isn’t. I’m disappointed that vague aesthetic considerations won out over absolutely critical imperatives.

The Nation’s Capital

I’m often quite fond of trying to draw lessons about Seattle from our nation’s capital. Unlike comparisons to New York, Seoul, or some other megacity, metro Washington is at least of the same order of population as greater Seattle, and closer still when today’s Washington is compared to Seattle in 2030.  The city proper is only about 30% denser. DC is also a bit newer, in general, than the other great cities of the Northeast. And of course, I know it well having grown up there and traveled there frequently in the last few years.

For these reason I was quite struck by this passage in Slate in December:

And yet, as Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey wrote in the Washington Post, “today, Washington has fewer miles of freeways within its borders than any other major city on the East Coast.” Thirty-eight of the planned 450 miles would have routed through D.C. proper; today, there are just 10. Instead, after a wrenching and protracted political battle, they write, “the Washington area got Metro—all $5 billion and 103 miles of it.”

Although Seattle was able to fight off a few freeway spurs, we still have highways in 6 directions out of greater downtown, and we certainly didn’t get — nor will we ever get — anything like the DC Metro. It’s going to be a long climb out of that mistake. And for all the talk about overruns and traffic diversion, I think recognition of that ultimately drives opposition to the DBT.

Future Gas Prices, 4/25/11.

One of the more intellectually lazy things that some transit advocates (including me) do is to expect immediate, sharp increases in the price of gasoline.

The “peak oil” argument is well rehearsed with this audience, so I’ll skip over it. It may very well be that argument is correct, immediately relevant, and we will soon see increases. However, there are plausible alternate scenarios where expensive gas is years, or even decades, off.

For one thing, we could have a sustained period of economic ruin, limiting demand. Alternatively, technology has a way of finding more reserves and making known ones more economic to exploit.

More interestingly, policy, both in America and elsewhere, could open up a lot more oil to exploration in the coming years. We could open up more offshore areas to exploration and drilling, which isn’t all that unpopular considering the worst developed-country spill in history is in recent memory. Canada could disregard the horrendous environmental impacts of tar sands exploitation and access another Saudi Arabia of hydrocarbons. Major producers with nationalized oil companies – like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Mexico – could stop using those companies like cash machines and allow them to properly invest in developing their reserves. If the political pressure gets too hot, America might decide to have a gas tax holiday and simply top off the highway fund with more general fund dollars.

Of course, any of these policy decisions would be disastrous for the environment, the situation in most oil-producing countries, and human health.  It’s worthwhile to offer transit as a hedge against the possibility that gas prices rise substantially, and get started now on long-range projects to prepare us for the day that must inevitably come. Still, it’s not doing the movement any favors to assume that the price of gasoline will soon make our argument for us.

Improving RailPlus

Photo by the Author

Since October 2004 Sounder commuters with full-fare passes have enjoyed free access to Amtrak Cascades between Seattle and Everett through the RailPlus program.  Barbara Gilliland, then Sound Transit’s Deputy Director of Transportation Services, called it, “One of the easiest agreements I’ve ever worked on.”  Yet very few riders utilize the service; in February 2011 only 126 RailPlus tickets were issued for the entire month.  (Equivalent to 2 people making one round-trip per day!)  Ridership for the past year has generally ranged between 80-160 boardings per month.

Cascades times north of Seattle are hardly ideal for commuter use, with two-peak hour trains from Seattle (510, 516), one mid-day train from Everett (513), and one late night train from Everett (517).  Further, only full-fare passes are accepted, with no E-Purse upgrades permitted.  Due to the higher fare on Sounder vs. ST/CT buses, most Northline Sounder riders have employer-subsidized passes, increasing the likelihood that riders are peak commuters into Seattle for whom the schedules would be unworkable (except for Train 516).  Throw in mudslides, general reliability issues, and the ease of express service from Everett on ST 510, and you have a system that structurally disincentivizes people from trying the train. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Improving RailPlus”

Now, Quick, To The County Council!

Edit: Too late, Publicola broke that Hague won’t vote for it. Note that Port commissioner John Creighton, running against her, is way better on transit.

Now that emergency transit funding for Metro has passed the legislature and is on its way to the Governor, the next step is for the King County Council to implement the new $20 vehicle license fee.

It’s a good assumption that the four Seattle county council members will vote for this – but we need six total votes. Here’s a nice map of the districts so you can see who represents where. Julia Patterson, who sits on the Sound Transit board, represents the 5th district and is quite likely to vote for service, as the population she represents is highly transit dependent.

The sixth vote will probably have to come from the 6th district – Jane Hague. A lot of people in Bellevue could lose service due to Metro cuts, so it’s possible she’ll vote for it. She’s also up for re-election this year, challenged by current Port commissioner John Creighton. Creighton returned a call just now saying he’d support the fee, but would also support finding other savings – including getting rid of 40-40-20.

The best thing you can do right now is email your county council member to say “please vote for this!” A lot of the time, the Seattle council members don’t hear much of this from transit advocates, because we assume those votes are simply safe. The more they hear, the more import they’ll attach to transit issues, and the closer we get to them saying “gosh, maybe we should build some permanent transit infrastructure…” – an easy way to do that right after the jump. Continue reading “Now, Quick, To The County Council!”

Transit Funding Bill Passes with Two-Thirds Compromise

King County Metro 2605 on Route 150
Photo by Oran

This morning, the final version of the emergency transit bill passed out of the Senate and is now on its way to the Governor. The bill would allow the King County Council to implement a $20 car licence fee to fund transit, which would raise $67 million for Metro. The house version of the bill included Reuven Carlyle’s (D-Seattle) amendment that changed the requirement to a simple majority rather than the two-thirds majority put in by the Senate. Two days ago, the conference committee appointed to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the emergency transit bill produced a final copy. The final version includes the two-thirds majority, which means six instead of five county council members have to approve the fee. The House passed the reconciled bill yesterday.

The two-thirds majority agreement is not good news for transit, but the bill making it all the way through is, especially with the number of potential road blocks it encountered. In the end, one Republican Senator voted for the bill! Dan Swecker, from Centralia, sometimes breaks with his caucus when he disagrees. He’s on Senate Transportation, so he’s definitely knowledgeable about the bill. I have an email to his office to ask why he liked it.

I’ll Just Leave This Here…

I’m carefully reading the majority opinion of the state supreme court on the Freeman v Gregoire case, looking for more interesting points to make. I’ve found several, but this one deserves a quote on its own. From page 6:

On December 1, 2009, the FHA confirmed that reimbursement of federal-aid
highway funds expended in the construction of the center lanes of I-90 would not be
required "should [the center lanes] be used for light rail transit."