Supermajority Chicken

Rep. Reuven Carlyle

PubliCola reports that Ballard Rep. Reuven Carlyle is challenging the supermajority requirement in the emergency transit bill, SB 5457. The bill’s current form requires six of nine County Councilmembers to approve a $20 license fee that basically avoids Metro cuts for two years. Assuming all five Democrats vote for it, it would need the support of one Republican, likely Jane Hague of the inner Eastside suburbs.

On Carlyle’s blog he outlines his philosophical objecti0n:

In my view, it is unacceptable for the Legislature to institute supermajority rules for local and county governments. This sort of structural change that goes to the heart of how governments function is not trivial. As in medicine, the first rule of the Legislative Session should be to “do no harm.” This idea fails that responsibility.

I’m actually sympathetic to the point Mr. Carlyle is trying to make, although I wouldn’t sacrifice $26m of annual Metro funding to make it. I’m not equipped to handicap the politics of this, but the questions to ask are:

  • Would a Carlyle amendment pass the House but then get the whole bill killed in the Senate? Carlyle seems to think it’s a possibility.
  • Is Jane Hague really going to vote for this thing? What concessions would she require for a yes vote? Metro has a package of administrative reforms on the table that requires Council approval, and the budget issue adds an extra dimension of bargaining.

One Key Difference

Map of the Seoul Metro System

The SDOT Blog, Grist and the Slog all have posts covering a lecture about how Seoul tore down an elevated highway and replaced it with a stream, finding parallels with the Alaskan Way Viaduct. From SDOT:

One of the most interesting things we learned from Dr. Hwang is that, in total, 14 lanes of traffic were removed, to be replaced by only four lanes of traffic. Recently these were further reduced to two lanes. The city system has been able to absorb this level of capacity reduction. For context, these lanes carried about 160,000 vehicles daily for a city with a population of 10 million.

Whether or not you agree with the tunnel project, I think comparing Seoul to Seattle is absolutely and utterly ridiculous in this context. Seoul is the largest city and capital of the 11th largest national economy in the world, Seattle is the largest city in a state that makes up just 2.4% of the US economy. By another measure, Seoul is the third-largest city in the world, Seattle barely cracks the top 100.

More below the fold.
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Double Talls are Back

Photo by Wings777

The first 23 double-decker buses, funded by the feds to replace aging 60-foot articulated ones, entered service on Community Transit’s Route 413 on Thursday.

The buses have 77 seats, and fit more people for less maintenance and lower operating cost than their predecessors.

CT had leased a double-decker for experiments from 2007-2009.

WSDOT officially applies for HSR funding rejected by FL

'Amtrak Cascades Ad' by Oran

Yesterday, WSDOT announced that it has officially applied for $120 million of the $2.4B high-speed rail funds rejected by Florida back in February.  The money would be used  to improve the Cascade corridor, including environmental and engineering work for much-needed slope stabilization.  Combined with the money WSDOT has already been awarded –  $590 million in original stimulus funds and $161 million rejected by Wisconsin and Ohio – the total funding package could top $870 million.

According to WSDOT, the funding has different criteria which effectively reduces the amount the state can apply for:

The Florida-related funding has more stringent “readiness” requirements, narrowing the list of p1rojects eligible for consideration. Projects in WSDOT’s application are primarily for environmental and engineering work to stabilize hillsides, add capacity to reduce conflicts with freight, and replace an aging trestle. All projects funded by the ARRA rail grants must be completed by September 2017.

Assuming the Republican-controlled House fails to cancel Obama’s HSR program, these dollars will be a welcome addition to improving the Cascades, which is already one of Amtrak’s more popular corridors.

2010 Citizen Oversight Panel Report

Photo by Oran

Sound Transit’s annual Citizen Oversight Panel report is always a good read. Written by an unpaid group of interested and technically qualified citizens who are given inside access to the agency, the report won’t satisfy Sound Transit’s most dedicated detractors, but is usually a candid assessments of agency problems without too much press-release happy talk.

This year’s entry focuses a lot on internal organization issues that don’t directly impact riders much. However, it does mention ” the need for better systems to handle service disruptions and [how] the agency actively responded to this need with increased staffing and new procedures, especially in Central Link.”

We’ll have to see, but at this point I’d have to give them an incomplete. The reaction to service disruptions has undoubtedly improved, but it’s only with tonight’s track work that we’ll see if ST is following through on its reported commitment to make Link usable during maintenance times.

The COP also has some issues with cost reporting, ORCA customer service, and the delays in picking an East Link alignment, including the final EIS that was supposed to be done last year.

The appendices are especially interesting for in depth progress reports. U-Link and East Link are below the jump.

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Route 41 and 73 Stop Consolidation

Route 41 and 73 Stop Consolidation

Metro has announced it is planning to consolidate stops on the northern end of route 41 and 73 starting April 30th. From Metro’s press release:

Metro is planning to reduce the number of closely spaced bus stops on the Route 41 and 73 corridors, affecting some stops that also serve routes 48, 242, 243, 71, 72, 73, 77, 79, 83, 347, 348, and 373. The changes will help buses move faster and operate on a more reliable schedule, reduce energy consumption and emissions, and reduce Metro’s operating and maintenance costs.

Route 41 has 43 bus stops north of Northgate Transit Center. The plan will remove 12 bus stops, increasing the spacing between stops from about 785 feet to about 1,110 feet.

Route 73 has 85 bus stops north of NE 50th Street, and the plan will remove 33 to increase the average spacing between stops from about 715 feet to 1,180 feet. This total includes 14 of the bus stops on 15th Avenue NE that were closed in February 2010 and are not planned to reopen.

As a result of the changes, about 16 percent of Route 41 riders who board north of Northgate Transit Center and Route 73 riders who board north of NE 50th Street will have to catch their bus at a different stop. When the project is completed, all riders should have a faster, more reliable trip.

Go here to comment.

Maximizing Our Chances for High-Speed Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’ve had this great New York Times post-mortem by Michael Cooper of Florida’s high-speed rail project bookmarked for a few weeks now, trying to figure out how to work it into a post. Fortunately, Zach Shaner’s post “On Rail Nostalgia” over at STB gives me a great hook into it. Zach writes:

But as rail advocates we need to keep our own house in order; we need to be selective but passionate with our support, and do our best to focus upon the mobility and development outcomes of any project rather than getting sidetracked by the sexiness of steel.

But at the same time let’s put our critics’ straw man to rest. We don’t want a return to the 19th century; we are done with stumptowns, regrades, Great Fires, and a world without labor and environmental laws. What we want is entirely new and entirely progressive: yesterday’s density with today’s affluence. We don’t want yesterday’s density-by-necessity, we want today’s density-by-choice. And we won’t get there with sentimentality, with nostalgia, or by blowing our political capital spreading projects too thin. In the Northeast, California, and Chicago, we need to go big. In the Pacific Northwest, our quiet incrementalism will pay off. [emphasis added]

I think there’s some appeal to that idea, that the “quite incrementalism” is a better, more sustainable approach. Still, reading the Times account, the benefits of “go big” approach are evident as well. If Washington State had a similarly ambitious plan for HSR, would we have gotten the money instead?

The Tampa-Orlando HSR project snagged $2.4B — or about 30% — of the administration’s $8B high speed rail funds, more than any other project. According to the Times, this was because:

  • The project was well into the planning phases
  • right-of-way had mostly been acquired
  • It could be opened as soon as 2015
  • Florida is a swing state
  • The federal money would have covered almost 100% of the costs

In other words, the Florida project was about as shovel ready as they come. As a result, it was showered by federal cash, even though there were doubts about the underlying fundamentals, such as the fact that two low-density metro areas separated by just 84 miles doesn’t look like a great corridor for HSR.

Now that Florida’s governor has killed the project and sent the $2.4B back to Washington, other states will vie for the money. So here’s what I want to know: what would it take for our state to put together a proposal as ambitious as Florida’s? And how did Florida get so far ahead of us, anyway? Haven’t we been thinking about HSR at least since Ecotopia? What impact, if any, did the 2009 re-org of the WSDOT passenger rail office have in all of this?

The Amtrak Cascades corridor, running 420 miles from Vancouver, BC to Eugene, OR, is a federally-designated HSR corridor. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider a “starter line” between Seattle and Portland, roughly 175 miles. This line would be about twice as long as the Tampa-Orlando route. The combined population of the Seattle + Portland metro areas is 4.3 million, compared with 3.2 million for Tampa + Orlando.

The first place to go when thinking about the Cascades corridor is WSDOT’s long-range plan from 2006. That document sets a goal of 2.5 hour service from Seattle to Portland by 2023, which, if you do the math, is an average speed of 70mph. WSDOT estimates that getting the whole corridor (Vancouver – Seattle – Portland) upgraded would cost about $6.5B. It’s hard to break out the funding by segment, but looking at the various projects involved, I’ll ballpark the Seattle-Portland segment at $4B.

What I’m left wondering is this: is the approach of incremental upgrades to the BNSF corridor the right one? We’re about to spend $750M in Recovery Act money on upgrades to this corridor… to what end? 70mph service in 12 years, only to still be dependent on BNSF for right-of-way?

What if instead we put together a plan like Florida’s: true HSR along a new right-of-way (the I-5 median, perhaps?) between Seattle and Portland. How would it compare to the $4B in upgrades we’re currently planning? What would the end result be? Could we get the time down to 1.5 hours instead of 2.5? Could we run trains all day? If anyone has done or seen a comparison of these approaches, I’d love to see it.

Maybe these options aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe we can get something like true HSR out of the BNSF corridor. But given what other states are proposing, and given the kinds of projects that the feds seem to want to fund right now, our approach is starting to look timid, rather than just incremental. Florida had a good strategy but a flawed corridor. We have a good corridor, but do we have a flawed strategy?

The Long-Range Plan was crafted when Amtrak was in the ropes and the President and Congress were both hostile to rail in general. Incrementalism made sense. Today, things are different. The Obama administration is practically begging for a state to raise its hand and offer a bold HSR project that can be delivered in a reasonable timeline for under $5 billion. Bonus points if it’s in a swing state and has a rail-friendly governor and legislature. Why can’t that be us?

On Rail Nostalgia

Sounder on the Milwaukee Road – Photo by the Author

“Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return,” Milan Kundera, Ignorance

Pick up an American op-ed hostile to rail and somewhere along the way you are likely to read that rail boosters are either technological reactionaries (they want a return to 19th-century technology!), or that they are clouded by nostalgia for a supposed golden age of travel.  These criticisms are deceptively powerful, and frequently true.  This mentality surely motivates much rail support, especially among the baby-boomer set.

Photo by the Author

I too have a great personal love for trains.  My handy copy of the 1,200-page Complete Guide to the Railways (1954) fills me with something approaching awe.  (You mean there used to be service from St. Louis to Mexico City, with connections to Oaxaca?!? Or for that matter, an electrified ride through the Cascades?)  The scale of service we have lost in the past 60 years is truly incredible.  But it is critically important that as rail advocates we carefully differentiate the sentimental from the sensible.

More after the jump…

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Light Rail Excuse of the Week: Othello Public Market

Image from the Rainier Valley Post

[UPDATE: Opening has been delayed till April 8th, so don’t go down there this weekend.]

Bring cash and ride Link (or 8, 36, 39) on Saturday for the 10am grand opening of the Othello Public Market. Located adjacent to Othello Station at the NE corner of Othello and MLK, organizers promise that the year-round, indoor market will feature an extraordinarily diverse array of vendors.  A sampling of the vendors includes everything from silversmiths and soccer apparel to BBQ, exotic produce, and “European Hot Dogs.”  Now if only their website included Link on the Directions page.  Grr.

First Steps toward West Side Light Rail

The Seattle Times reports that McGinn wants to ask voters for $10 million to do 15 percent design on an 8 mile potential light rail line. This is a good first step – it would do enough work to design a real ballot measure for construction, and to start looking for federal money.

I would be concerned about putting even a small measure on the ballot in 2011, but with West Seattle and Ballard residents still looking for solutions since the monorail project and light rail under way to other parts of the city, now is always the best time.

I think it’s important for the city to work with Sound Transit to prevent duplication of effort with the agency’s planning in the same corridor, but with Sound Transit’s work not planned for several years, I don’t see much risk there – Sound Transit can scope their future work to avoid overlap if they feel they can use some of the city findings.

This is encouraging – we haven’t seen any movement in this corridor since funding ST2. Any news is good news!

Initiative To Tie Property Taxes, Density

There’s a new state initiative currently in the signature gathering phase that would tie property tax rates to density in an effort to reduce sprawl. Opposition, led by the Single Family Housing Building Association, is already gathering to fight the initiative. Below the fold I’ll explain the initiative in detail, and why it’s a good idea.

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