ORCA’s 2nd Year

Graphic by the author

It’s been two years (and a day) since ORCA was launched to the public. How much progress has been made in its adoption? Two key measures for measuring its success are usage and availability. Sound Transit and Metro in a joint press release announced today that the “cards are used on more than 250,000 trips each weekday and 49 percent of all transit trips in the region.” The press release didn’t break down the usage by agency. They also announced that customers can now reload their ORCA cards at 37 QFC stores. QFC joins 50 Safeway stores, seven Saar Marketplaces, and four other retailers for a total of 98 ORCA retail outlets across the region.

You can view the full list of reload locations on ORCA’s website or on a map when Sound Transit updates it. Retail outlets do not sell new ORCA cards.

In other ORCA news: The ORCA system has reached “Full System Acceptance” which means enhancements to the system can be considered and implemented. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick tells me “there are no final decisions about any system enhancements” at this time. Speaking of enhancements, all downtown tunnel stations served by Link now have ORCA readers on the platform, three months after Sound Transit said it would be done.

For comparison with March last year, according to an ORCA Progress Report, 34% of all transit trips in the region were paid with ORCA and only 14 retail outlets were in operation. Nearly a hundred retail outlets is great improvement from 14 but it’ll take a lot more to make ORCA easily accessible to all.

Sound Transit: 7, Anti-Transit Suburban Developers: 2

This morning the Washington State Supreme Court issued an opinion in Freeman v. Gregoire, the suit filed by Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, Jr. to block transfer of the I-90 center lanes to Sound Transit for East Link.

They ruled 7-2 in favor of the state – which in this case is for light rail. Freeman requested a “writ of mandamus”, essentially a command, to the state specifically prohibiting them from entering into any agreement with Sound Transit for use of the I-90 center lanes.

This prohibition was denied because courts don’t typically issue commands to the legislature to follow the constitution – it’s assumed they already will – and there’s no specific, mandatory requirement in state law to do anything unconstitutional. The sections of state law in question just require the state to “complete negotiations” with Sound Transit and to spend money on a valuation study of the I-90 express lanes pursuant to that negotiation.

The court found that motor vehicle funds spent on the study were an administrative function that indirectly benefits the highway system – a use which is not prohibited. However, the majority opinion specifically omitted discussion of whether or not they felt a transfer of highway property to Sound Transit would be constitutional – they just declined to issue the broad prohibition Freeman requested.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a new case is filed once the lanes are actually transferred to Sound Transit.

We really, really need to change the state constitution. A big step is to elect better representatives, but for now, I want to call out Transportation for Washington, the campaign that’s fighting to make transit a bigger part of the picture in Olympia. If you’re not on their mailing list, you should be. Their press release had a bang-on quote this morning: “This frivolous lawsuit brought on by Kemper Freeman and his anti-transit colleagues was just a cynical attempt to thwart the voters’ will and derail transit.”

Impact of Deep Bore Tunnel Tolling Diversion on City Streets

Executive Summary of Toll Impact and Mitigation Report

Yesterday SDOT released the executive summary of a report looking at the impacts of tolling the deep bore tunnel. The report focuses on WSDOT’s SDEIS tolling analysis, highlighting major issues that have yet to be addressed. Regardless of your position on the tunnel, and especially if you support this tunnel and want it to function better for Seattle, this report points out significant issues that WSDOT has yet to address.

Tolling of the tunnel, and the significant resulting diversion is a major outstanding issue that WSDOT has yet to plan for and mitigate adequately. Toll diversion is expected cause 50%-55% of tunnel traffic to divert to surface streets or I-5, which will have a large effect on Downtown’s transportation system and in some ways undermines WSDOT’s rationale for building the tunnel. If the tunnel is built, the best tolling system would be structured to minimize toll diversion and maximize utilization of the tunnel’s capacity.

In a letter that accompanied the report, Peter Hahn, Director of SDOT, accuses WSDOT of canceling Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) comment discussion meetings and not rescheduling them, essentially cutting SDOT out of the process. The letters says that after the cancellation of these meeting, WSDOT informed SDOT that no other comments would be accepted from the city.

A summary of the major points made in the executive summary are below the jump. Continue reading “Impact of Deep Bore Tunnel Tolling Diversion on City Streets”

Experiments and Engineering

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

A favored tactic of those who argue for subsidized highways is to pit blue collar against white collar. For a classic of the genre, check out maritime industry spokesman Jordan Royer’s op-ed in the Seattle Times today, which tries to pit the needs of the “maritime-industrial complex” (yes, he actually calls it that! and he means it in a good way!) against the desires of the Mayor’s effete, latte-swillin’ Portlandia dreams.

The Mayor, you see, wants to conduct a “social experiment” (again, Royer’s phrasing) on the middle-class families and children of this fair city. Can you picture it now? The mayor, in his white lab coat, with a nice, middle-class family from Federal Way in his petri dish, poking and prodding them until they give in and ride light rail?

Royer’s not alone in this sort of demagoguery. Gov. Christine “38% approval rating” Gregoire has also decided to accuse the mayor of “social engineering” (in the New York Times no less! How un-Seattle like to air our dirty laundry like that!).

In truth, all transportation is social engineering. If we build more highways, which Royer and Gregoire want, we’ll be manipulating society as well, just in the way that they prefer. I just wish we could all be honest about this.

Bus Only Lanes Coming to Battery, Wall and Howell St

Battery St and Wall St Changes (Via Metro)

Starting as early as next week and going until June, Metro and SDOT will be installing new bus only lanes in two north downtown corridors. The first project will install a 24/7 bus only lane on several blocks of the Battery St/Wall St couplet between 3rd Ave and Aurora Ave N. This project also includes a queue jump at the intersection of 5th and Wall, to help buses entering downtown merge to the far left lane to turn southbound onto 3rd. These improvements will be used by the 5, 26, 28, and 358, which combined carried ~25K riders a day in 2009.

More after the jump.

Continue reading “Bus Only Lanes Coming to Battery, Wall and Howell St”

News Round-Up: Think of the Children!

This is an open thread.

Meeting Dates

PT Coach 101 at Purdy P&R
To Garage, photo by Oran

Two sets of meeting dates coming up. Bad news first, Pierce Transit cuts meetings are happening over the next couple of weeks starting tomorrow night. The the good news: North Link open houses are happening over the next couple of months. Dates below the fold.

[Update: Bruce points out in the comments there is a Sound Transit Capitol Hill station meet at Peet’s on Broadway tomorrow from 11 am to 2 pm.]

Continue reading “Meeting Dates”

SDOT: NE 125th St Rechannelization Recommended Again

Proposed Design Drawings (Via SDOT)

Last week SDOT again recommended the rechannelization of NE 125th St from Roosevelt Way NE to 30th Ave NE, converting the current configuration from two travel lanes in each direction, to one travel lane in each direction, a center turn lane, and bike lanes in both directions. At the intersection of NE 125th St and 10th, 15th and 30th Ave NE the current lane configuration is maintained.

The rechannelization would also have a transit component, allowing buses to travel straight through major intersections (10th, 15th and 30th Ave NE) in the right turn only lane, as well as including an aggressive stop consolidation program, reducing the number of stops from 15 to 5. This will likely maintain or improve transit travel time through the corridor, as long as bus reentering delays are not significant at location where buses do not stop in the flow of traffic. I don’t know where the proposed bus stops are so I can’t speak to this point.

This is a good proposal. It improves safety for all road users, likely maintains or improves transit travel times, and has minimal impact on vehicular travel. The biggest win will be the reduction of excessive speeding along the corridor. Send comments of support to walkandbike@seattle.gov. Opponent of the plan have been especially well organized so comment of support are important.

Metro Releases Trolley Analysis


In advance of next week’s trolley open house, Metro released the preliminary results of their study of trolleybus impacts last week.

The study was a comparison between diesel hybrids and electric trolleybuses with off-wire capability. All other technologies were dismissed as having either too much environmental impact or being insufficiently mature.

On environmental criteria, the trolleybuses came out ahead on every metric except visual impact. As Seattle City Light’s energy comes mostly from hydro, the Carbon footprint was much smaller. Importantly, overall energy consumption is over 30% lower. This is important because electric vehicle critics often point out that the marginal unit of energy consumed often is quite dirty, since SCL’s surplus is often sold to other jurisdictions, where the alternative might be coal.

One might argue that environmental impacts are nice, but really ought to be addressed in a budget that isn’t supposed to be used for getting people around. Fortunately, the study indicates that, barring a 70% cut in federal fixed guideway funding, a trolleybus system is actually cheaper to operate. This finding, illustrated above, contradicts last year’s audit result.

Metro Offering Free ORCA through Route 245 Promo

Route 245 to Factoria, photo by gaobo

Metro has been ramping up its promotional campaign for Route 245, most recently offering free ORCA cards for Eastside residents to try the service.  The promo branches off of the route-specific marketing that Metro was doing for the 245 last year, called ‘Connect the Dots.’  According to Metro’s website, the full offer is valued at $15, which includes a free ORCA card along with a $10 E-purse voucher:

We’ll send you one free ORCA card, valued at $5, plus a $10 voucher to load on your new card. That equals two round-trip bus rides on Route 245 or any other Eastside route. Plus, you can get on and off along the way with the free ORCA two-hour transfer. The ORCA card is yours to keep and reload for all the regional buses, trains and ferries in the area.

More below the jump.

Continue reading “Metro Offering Free ORCA through Route 245 Promo”

Route 30 Night Routing Will Change

Alternative 1 in Green, 2 in Blue (Metro)

Route 30 currently winds its way from Seattle Center to a variety of endpoints near Sand Point. At the City of Seattle’s request, Metro is changing the evening and weekend routing:

On evenings after about 6:30 p.m., and all day on weekends, the route currently ends at Magnuson Park and turns around inside the park. The City of Seattle has requested that Metro stop bringing the bus into the park because of concerns about heavier vehicles traveling on park roads, so Metro needs to choose an alternate route in the area.

Metro has identified two possible alternatives for the east end of this route on nights and weekends. In both of these, the routing is the same as the current routing as far east as the Princeton Avenue NE bridge. And with both alternatives, passengers could transfer to Route 75 to travel farther in either direction on Sand Point Way NE.

The 30 will either serve Hawthorne Hills or turn south to serve Laurelhurst and Children’s Hospital. Share your opinion at the website.

Howell Street Changes

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Metro and SDOT have yet another joint project to speed bus flow through the CBD:

Metro and SDOT will begin a project in May to make the following changes along Howell Street between Ninth Avenue and Eastlake Avenue at Stewart Street:

• Convert Howell to four eastbound lanes, with one lane reserved for transit only during the evening commute period from 3-7 p.m.;

• Convert Eastlake Avenue to a one-way northbound corridor between Yale Avenue and Stewart Street;

• Eliminate westbound lanes; and

• Create approximately 40 new paid parking spaces along the corridor.

Good stuff.  Small projects to make bus service more efficient and reliable are big wins in this cash-strapped era.

If I wanted to make it all about me, I would say that this is a minor bummer because I liked to use that rarely-used stretch of Eastlake between Denny and Howell when driving between Eastlake and points South, but considering that I was often the only one doing that, this is certainly a better use of the right-of-way.  And, of course, any time we’re moving street ROW from cars to buses it’s a big win for urban mobility.

Metro’s New Seats

KCM Orion VII 7004
KCM Orion VII 7004 by punkrawker4783

Metro bus riders will be sitting on slimmer and more modern looking seats when they get on board King County Metro’s new 40-foot Orion VII Next Generation buses and 60-foot articulated New Flyer DE60LFR buses, according to photos on Flickr by punkrawker4783. The 4One Aries seats are the same type as those used on Community Transit’s local buses and in Vancouver TransLink’s buses. I don’t have any word yet on when these buses will be in service but it should be very soon.

The new seats are a radical shift for Metro, which traditionally used fully upholstered seats and over the past decade, seats with a higher back rest than typical urban buses. The slimmer profile seats create more leg room and make the bus interior feel roomier. The stainless steel construction and padded inserts should make maintenance easier. And the design of the seat along with Metro’s new grippier vinyl pads should make the seat reasonably comfortable.

The seats used on most Metro buses are too bulky. The black plastic seat backs “box” people in, look really ugly when vandalized, therefore cheapening the look. The smooth vinyl covering and angle of the seat bottom make slipping off the seat all too common, though this has been partially solved with the more recent seats. And some people may find them cramped. A lot of people are going to miss the deep soft cushions and head rests.

You can view photos of the new buses and seats on punkrawker4783’s Flickr page.

CTAC III Online Survey

The Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee III (CTAC III) has an online survey that you should take. CTAC III is a committee that has been flying a bit under the radar but is very important for any future Bridging the Gap type proposal;

Resolution Number 31240 states the City’s intent to convene a Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee (CTAC) III to advise the Mayor and City Council on transportation funding alternatives and priorities. The 14-member CTAC III will be appointed by the Mayor and Council and will recommend new approaches for funding improvements to Seattle’s transportation system. Guidance from the city’s engaged stakeholder communities will help develop the framework and shared vision necessary to address the city’s commitment to affordable, safe and efficient movement for persons, goods and services.

The first task of CTAC III is to develop a proposed project list and spending plan for anticipated revenues generated by the $20 annual vehicle license fee (VLF) through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD).

The second task of the CTAC III will be to undertake a full review of the city’s transportation funding system and evaluate and examine the potential for a ballot measure asking Seattle voters to fund additional transportation projects.

H/T Natalie Wiley

Brooklyn Station Design Improves

Improved Brooklyn Station Design (north to the right)

At yesterday’s briefing to Sound Transit’s Capital Committee, a subset of the Sound Transit board, Link staff brought forward an improved design for the Brooklyn subway station. Two months ago, we reported that Sound Transit had chosen a low risk, but less effective, station design – a single entrance halfway between NE 45th St and NE 43rd St on Brooklyn. That plan would have been a poor choice for many reasons, notably reducing station visibility and increasing the surface walking distance for most users.

Sound Transit has now confirmed that they’re moving to this new plan – a north entrance just behind the Neptune theater, and another prominently on the corner of 43rd and Brooklyn. See full presentation here. This design maintains the lower risk that originally caused the one entrance plan – keeping the station box away from UW Tower (the former Safeco building), while significantly improving station accessibility. This is very encouraging – it continues to show that Sound Transit is taking pains to ensure their long-term infrastructure is designed well from the beginning.

Westside Light Rail and What’s Possible

Projected Travel Times (SDOT)

With the internet once again ablaze with talk about Westside light rail, it’s a good time to mention my essay on the subject from 2009, which I think has held up pretty well.

What’s changed since then is the city’s fiscal situation, already dicey last spring and continuing to deteriorate. Meanwhile, this is thinly sourced, but I’m hearing the cost obstacles to even a half-hearted line to West Seattle continue to mount. Furthermore, my more reliable sources tell me that city officials that discussed federal New Starts options with Sen. Patty Murray were told flatly that any such money was going to go (sensibly, in my view) to Sound Transit 2, rather than any sort of city project.

However, there are rail projects that cover many Westside neighborhoods and are still affordable, affordable enough to fall under the federal “Small Starts” program. Obviously, rail projects fall on a continuum between streetcars mixed with traffic and light rail that isn’t. Traffic separation can be achieved with money, as when Sound Transit rebuilt MLK to preserve auto right-of-way, or with political will, overcoming local interests to repurpose on-street parking or lanes of traffic.

I’m of course talking about the Ballard/Fremont streetcar, last seen in the city’s May 2008 report. At a midpoint capital cost of $155m — much smaller than the future seawall measure, for instance — and 26 months of construction time, the SDOT report projects 10 minute headways all day, 15 minutes at other times,  16 minutes from the Commons to Westlake, a net annual operating savings of $1.1m, and 2.2-2.7m annual riders.*

It’s appropriate to treat preliminary study numbers with a bit of skepticism. Ridership may very well be lower if the rest of the network isn’t built out, and costs will escalate as mitigation claims come in. Moreover, there are numerous mobility-enhancing extras, like an extra ship canal crossing, that would cost tens of millions more.

For all we know, the Transit Master Plan may actually suggest an affordable path to building full-blown light rail from Ballard to West Seattle. If that doesn’t occur, a souped-up Ballard streetcar would be a dramatic improvement for one quadrant of the city, return many benefits of full light rail, and fall well within the available resource limits. Combined with some transit, bike, and ped projects for the rest of Seattle, and sufficient political will to make sure Ballard rail is fast, this is something Seattle can do and will vote for.

* By comparison, Central Link had about 7m riders in 2010.

No Gas Tax Increase, Less Infrastructure

Bridge, Photo by flickr user Stop The Gears

There’s a lot of fun happening in the other Washington these days, but this is starting to get ridiculous: Congress doesn’t want to raise the gas tax in order to shore up transportation funding is instead looking at letting investment decline in transportation.

Congress may have to consider a smaller highway-funding bill than initially planned because of a steep drop in revenue from the federal gasoline tax, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said Thursday.

Lawmakers haven’t reached a consensus on how to plug the gap. President Barack Obama and leading lawmakers have rejected increasing the 18.4-cent federal tax on a gallon of gas.

Mr. Baucus said that without action, federal aid to states for highway projects would fall to about $28 billion a year from about $42 billion currently.

The gas tax funds not only highway projects, but transit and alternative transportation programs as well. The Obama administration put out a budget with a large transportation increase, which was nice but we knew would never happen. After that, House Budget committee chair Paul Ryan came out with one less than half as large. Now we’re considering cuts of 33% on an annual basis for the foreseeable future.

Reducing transportation investment would be a really sad affair, whether you support roads or transit. This is coming at a time when the “Report Card for Americas Infrastructure” gives the US’s infrastructure a D rating. Being hesitant to raise gas taxes at a time when prices are high and the economy is struggling through an anemic recovery might be good politics, but letting transportation investment decline would be terrible policy. Fortunately some alternatives exist and it’s possible to pay for transportation from the general fund. But it’s not obvious these alone will be enough to make up for so large a decrease in funding, much less the large infrastructure debt, assuming they even get through congress. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to decreased funding, after all, decline is a choice.

Seattle’s Light Rail Dreams

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Thanks to PubliCola for allowing Mayor McGinn and Councilwoman Julia Patterson to square off on the issue of Westside light rail.  I tend to agree with Ben @ STB that the Mayor should work with Sound Transit and not try to go it alone.  ST is planning for this corridor, let them do their thing.  Plus, Seattle voters are — rightfully — ticked off about flushing $200M+ in taxpayer money down the hole called “monorail.”  I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re hesitant to spend another $8M to plan for yet another go-it-alone transit option in that corridor.

On the other hand, Patterson’s response really ticks me off.  Her argument boils down to, “listen Seattle, there’s a whole region outside your borders, so just sit down and shut up, you’ll get your transit when we say so.”  Sentiments like that make the Council — and Sound Transit, where Patterson serves on the board — sound clueless and out of touch. It’s almost enough to make me change my mind.

Patterson, however, has been a strong advocate for transit in the past, so let me give her the benefit of the doubt. Instead, let me offer what I think might have been a more constructive response to McGinn’s proposal:

“Many of us on the Sound Transit board and King County Council applaud Mayor McGinn’s desire to expand the transit options for Seattle’s West side.  Since the demise of the Monorail project, this corridor has been without a long-term rapid transit plan, and it’s sorely needed.  Buses on the Ballard-West Seattle routes are currently over 100% capacity.   I recognize that an urbanizing city like Seattle might have different transit needs than, say, Federal Way or Redmond, so it’s perfectly natural to want more transit options beyond a single light rail line for the whole city.

“Sound Transit is planning to study the west side corridor in 4 years.  But since we have such an eager partner in the Mayor, we’ll see if we can’t speed that up a bit if Seattle can come up with the funds.

“Finally, since any light rail solution is still years away, we need to do more in the short term.  Since I’m conveniently on the King County Council, I’ll find ways in which Metro and SDOT can work together to make bus service faster and more reliable within the city limits.  I look forward to working with the Mayor’s staff on these issues.”

None of this would require Patterson to make any specific policy commitments (though she could, if she was feeling ambitious, come out in favor of repealing the 40-40-20 rule), but it would at least make it sound like she gets where Seattle’s coming from.

The Seattle Monorail Project, however flawed, was borne out of a legitimate sense among Seattle transit advocates that Sound Transit was moving too slow, too far behind schedule, grossly overbudget, and too focused on the region as a whole to deliver true in-city rapid transit.  10 years later, it seems like everyone is reverting to their same roles, which I’m afraid will lead to the same result.

Instead, let’s talk about expediting the Sound Transit study and, in the meantime, let’s get some more cooperation between Metro and SDOT on prioritizing buses and making the RapidRide experience as good as it can be.