What’s the Angle?

Sound Transit's most recent preferred alternative on the left, and Bellevue's on the right

I think I completely understand why the “Build a Better Bellevue” folks are pushing for a B7 light rail alignment through South Bellevue. They fear negative impacts of light rail on their quality of life and property values, and have little or no inclination to ride Link once it’s built. I doubt it, but their fears may even be legitimate; in any case, I think it’s essentially impossible to build any major infrastructure if you give that much weight to neighborhood micro-interests.

What I don’t understand is the argument behind a statement like this:

The public also does not understand the very extensive efforts that have been made by Sound Transit itself in seeking to:

• Direct elements of the study in such a way as to add to the costs of the B7R route, as well as to
Complicate the construction of the city’s design preferences.

Sound Transit is a public agency, composed of human beings, that responds to incentives just like any other. They certainly have every incentive to design a study so that the “no-build” alternative, for instance, looks bad, so the argument that they might have done so is at least worth consideration if there’s evidence to back it up.

In the whole B2M/B7 scuffle, however, what’s the angle that B7 proponents think that ST has? Why would they try to slant the study? It’s an honest question, and I’m interested in hearing from B7 supporters more than people who are here to slag on BBB. For someone who doesn’t live there, the alignment seems like a fairly narrow technical question and it’s not all clear to me why ST would care beyond wholly legitimate questions of cost, risk, and ridership.

Constantine Unveils $20 License Fee, First Round of Cuts

Feb. 2012 Cut Proposal (Affected Routes in Black)

Yesterday Executive Constantine formally introduced legislation to enact a $20 “Congestion Reduction Charge,” or two-year vehicle license fee that avoids deep Metro cuts for two years, in the hope that legislative solution will emerge in that time. Metro also unveiled a new website that explains the measure in deep detail.

Mr. Constantine’s office hopes that at least six County Councilmembers will vote to enact the charge without the added effort of a ballot measure. By law, the Council cannot act on its new authority until July 22nd.

To illustrate the cuts, Metro released a plan for the first 100,000 hours of up to 600,000 service hours of cuts that might eventually be necessary (see map above). In the absence of the fee, these cuts would take place in February 2012. The plan would eliminate 20 routes altogether and reduce service on 12 others. These cuts are drawn from Metro’s lower performing routes and are certainly not the most painful ones on the horizon. That said, service reorganization proposals (like mine in the Rainier Valley) depend on the hours being cut here to make it work; when these hours disappear, those plans are no longer viable. And in spite of low ridership, these cuts do cause pain, and for no real gain to the transit system.

You can submit comments here.

“Good” Metro Cuts

Photo by Erubisu 27

There’s a definite trend in the comment threads towards indifference to deep Metro cuts, essentially because a lot of the casualties will be low-productivity. Now, we’re all taxpayers here and there’s certainly a point where service is so unproductive it simply doesn’t deserve to be part of the budget.

Where you draw that line is a pretty good measure of how pro-transit you are. One can always make a system more “cost-effective” overall by simply shrinking it down to a dozen or so of the best routes, but then you’ve simply given up on having a comprehensive system. Put another way, when sensible policies are in place the marginal service to be added or deleted is almost always somewhat inefficient.

It’s one thing to say that unproductive routes are being cut to divert resources to better ones, because there’s a greater good being served. But even a lousy route is someone’s most efficient way home, the route that is within easy walking distance for a disabled person, or one that makes some part of the county reachable by transit. No route has zero ridership, and I’m not going to dance on the grave of the 38 or the 42. It made sense for someone, even though the hours could be better used elsewhere.

Worse yet, some people think that cuts to unproductive routes make service cuts a good thing, so that the $20 license fee is counterproductive. It’s true that Metro has had a good crisis; as in many other organizations, periods of austerity dictate a close look at costs. But that process has basically played out with the new Metro strategic plan, which instructs Metro to periodically review its service in accordance with productivity metrics.

Given the new plan, the tax vote* is about whether we’re going to have a large, more efficient system or a smaller, more efficient system.

* assuming it occurs at all.

How ORCA Fare Revenue is Apportioned

Chart 1: E-purse fare revenue apportion to two agencies

“Your ORCA card works like cash or a pass, automatically tracking the value of different fares and transfers so you don’t have to.” —ORCA card website

This is the first in a series exploring the workings of ORCA based on communication with agency staff, contract documents and technical documents received by public records request. One of the key agency benefits of ORCA is automatic apportionment of fare revenues based on actual use. In this post, I am going to use examples to explain how the fare you pay is divvied up among the transit agencies. If you understand the chart above, then you pretty much get the general concept. Otherwise, read on for an explanation.

Continue reading “How ORCA Fare Revenue is Apportioned”

Metro Budget Update

I participated in a media briefing at Metro Headquarters yesterday, which mostly described what dedicated STB readers already know: the $20 “Congestion Reduction Charge” (Vehicle License Fee) currently under discussion would basically solve Metro’s budget situation for 2012-2013, requiring no significant reduction in overall service, before then expiring and leaving Metro with a $60m budget hole. The hope is that the legislature will get its act together in that time and come up with a permanent funding source to plug the gap.

$60m translates to a 600,000 service hour shortfall, which does not include 350,000 hours of Transit Now service that’s already been deferred due to the recession, and hundreds of millions saved or replaced through labor concessions, squeezing layovers (thus reducing reliability), raising fares $1.00 over four years, new property taxes, and so on.

To get an idea of what 600,000 hours looks like, you can consult this spreadsheet (previously posted here), which is not a formal service change proposal, but a staff product intended to help politicians understand the level of cuts necessary.

The new news is that Metro’s fleet replacement surplus, raided to avoid deep cuts since the recession began, is in surplus mainly because there are 600,000 hours of cuts on the horizon. If all that service were to be preserved Metro would need in the ballpark of $100m in capital funds to buy buses for the extra service.

Empire Builder Woes

Empire Builder in North Dakota – Photo by Flickr User mwahlsten

It has been a terrible year for the Empire Builder.  On-time performance over the last 12 months is hovering around 10-15%, and delays have frequently been 5-12 hours or more.  Service has been either truncated or canceled outright over 50 times so far in 2011.  While collisions with vehicles, our epic mudslides, and an Idaho rockslide have all disrupted service, the heart of the problem is flooding in the Devil’s Lake Basin of North Dakota.  As an endorheic (closed) basin, Devil’s Lake has continued to rise over the past decades as precipitation has increased, increasingly submerging the railbed and 2 key bridges.  (BNSF has not operated through freight service between Grand Forks and Minot for over a year).  Amtrak, however, limps onward on the troubled segment.  On June 15, BNSF and Amtrak agreed in principle to split the $100m cost of rebuilding 17 miles of the corridor, raising the railbed and rebuilding the bridges.

My personal opinion is that this amounts to doubling down on a short-to-medium term solution.  Bypassing Devil’s Lake may be the better long-term choice.  While those in and around Grand Forks would lose service, using the direct line between Fargo and Minot would be faster, more direct and significantly more reliable.  Politically, however, it’s a non-starter.

It is beyond frustrating that rainfall in North Dakota means that Seattle passengers can’t get to Spokane, etc…  Though famously subsidized, Amtrak operates without a shred of redundancy, so when things go wrong, they tend to do so spectacularly.  With sufficient equipment and crew, Amtrak could (and should) operate segments of the line when service is disrupted, especially between Seattle-Spokane and Minneapolis-Chicago.  Perhaps these problems will someday bring about state support for Eastern Washington service that is independent of the long-distance network.

In normal times the Builder is perhaps the premier long-distance train in North America, offering unrivaled scenery, a lifeline to the northern plains, and quality onboard amenities.  It’s a shame to watch the service degrade into chaos without the ability for Amtrak to adapt quickly.

Metro Sporting Event Service is Safe

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Way back in the Bush administration, USDOT issued a rule that prohibit public transit agencies from providing special bus service to games if a private provider bid to provide the same service, regardless of the cost difference between the two.

After a time where that service disappeared, Sen. Patty Murray slipped a clause into the law that exempted Metro in late 2009. Although private providers sued, service continued through 2010 and this year*. Luckily, the P-I reports that a D.C. court has rejected the lawsuit:

In an opinion released Tuesday, the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, finding that Murray’s legislation was constitutional and that “efforts to provide efficient and affordable transportation to sporting events aligned with legitimate governmental goals,” Murray’s office said in a news release.

*Although the Mariners didn’t cough up the money this year.

PT Locks in 15% October Service Cut

Photo by Atomic Taco

On the heels of the 20% June service cut, October’s now all set:

On Monday, June 13, 2011, the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners approved a plan with some modifications for the final 15% service reduction scheduled for October.  These modifications include preserving the route 496 (Bonney Lake Park & Ride to Sumner Sounder Station) through February 2012, and keeping some transit connection to Northeast Tacoma…  Service to special events, including the Puyallup Fair and Tacoma’s Fourth of July Freedom Fair, were also eliminated.

The October reduction plan focuses on maintaining ridership, improving cost efficiency, and serving the largest number of people.  Most of the retained routes are located in higher population density areas where transit service has been historically successful.  Projections indicate this plan, when compared to a previous reduction proposal, will generate higher overall annual passenger trips, an increase in average passengers per service hour, and a reduction in the average cost per passenger trip by approximately 44%.

14 routes are being completely eliminated: the 26, 59, 113, 220, 406, 407, 408, 409, 413, 446, 490, 601, 602, and the Orting Loop, along with associated paratransit service. The full description of the cuts is in a handy .pdf, not reflecting the last-minute amendments.

The new, productivity-based plan is the result of some lobbying by transit advocates that drove a board decision to re-evaluate last month.

A Few More News Links

This thread is open too.

News Round-Up: One Bus Away

Waterloo Station 2
The Kinks had me thinking of Waterloo station. Photo by flickr user Daniel Gil

This is an open thread.

Bellevue Terminates B7R Study

A-2 Garage from B7R plan, Looking South to I-90

On Monday, the City of Bellevue elected to not exercise their option to finish out the Phase 1 study on the B7R alternative for the South Bellevue alignment, bringing up the July delivery date for the final report to arrive in time to influence the Sound Transit board’s final decision.

The final output is the interim report we discussed last month, for a total cost of $700,000. Had the report been completed as originally intended, the City would have also had the option of pursuing two additional follow-on phases, potentially costing up to $3m and taking as long as two years to complete. From the City’s press release:

Along with the report, council will send a letter to Sound Transit highlighting the benefits of the B7-Revised route — including fewer traffic impacts and better ridership — and asking the board to consider the route as the agency completes its final environmental review.

The Bellevue Reporter has a number of worthwhile details and quotes.

There will be  a public meeting on the report at City Hall, June 29th, 5:30pm.

RTC to Review Metro Policy Today

Photo by Erubisu 27

To avoid implementing a cuts policy that would damage some of Metro’s most productive routes, the Regional Transit Task Force produced a report suggesting how Metro’s service allocation policy should change. That report has become a bill that is now about to be voted on by the Regional Transit Committee, an agglomeration of three county council members (with two votes each), two nominees of the Seattle City Council (one vote each), and eight municipal officers (1/2 vote each)  nominated by the Suburban Cities Association. See Section 270.20 of the County Charter.

You can read the final text of the bill or the (always helpful) staff notes. The bill includes several RTC amendments to provide some extra oversight, frequent review and re-approval of plan objectives, and codify the need for public outreach for plans that cut 10% or more of Metro service. There are also some minor tweaks to formulas.

My sources tell me this vote is likely to be unanimous. The way the RTC works, the County Council can either accept the unamended output of the RTC with a simple majority, or approve an amended version with six votes out of nine (Section 270.30).

The meeting begins at 3pm this afternoon, and I’m told it will be streamed here.

Sound Transit Launches ‘Dump the Pump’ Promo

If, for some odd reason, you don’t have an ORCA card and want a chance to win a free one, Sound Transit has a promotion in anticipation for Dump the Pump Day this Thursday.  Winners get a free ORCA with $10 loaded onto the E-purse.  More details about rules and eligibility for the promo here.

Entering is rather simple and even easier if you already have a Twitter.  Simply tweet:

I dumped the pump @SoundTransit #STContest

But since most of you probably already have an ORCA card, it’s best to relay the word onto friends and family who don’t, especially those who aren’t regular transit users.  ST will also be out at area transit centers and park-and-rides on Thursday for small promos and free giveaways, so the very least you could do is take the bus or train then.

Faster Wheelchair Boarding Coming to RapidRide B Line

From Metro's employee newsletter

King County Metro’s upcoming RapidRide B Line will feature a passive restraint system that simplifies boarding for wheelchair and mobility device users, resulting in a faster ride for all users. As Metro describes, “users simply wheel into place without operator assistance, greatly speeding up boarding time.” Each RapidRide B Line bus will have two spaces for users of mobility devices: one passive restraint and one standard forward-facing with securement.

How does a passive restraint system work? The wheelchair user backs into a cushion and sets the brake. A stanchion or a foldable armrest prevents the wheelchair from tipping over and provides additional support. This allows rapid boarding and deboarding of disabled transit users in mobility devices i.e. no more complicated straps and belts. Passive restraint systems on transit buses are widely used in Canada and Europe and are beginning to be used on US BRT systems, like Community Transit’s Swift.

Metro has been evaluating the passive restraint system for RapidRide since early last year. That didn’t give Metro enough time to evaluate the feature and get it installed on A Line buses. “The plan is that if all is well on the B Line buses, we will retrofit the A Line buses”, said Metro spokesperson Linda Thielke. “We did have some structural features put on the A Line buses when manufactured so that they could be retrofitted.” There is potential that the feature be expanded system-wide, “although no specific plans have been made at this time.”

Several members of the Accessible Services Advisory Committee assisted Metro with evaluation of the passive restraint prototype (seen in photo above). They have been supportive of the feature. Experience in other cities like Vancouver BC suggests that after an initial learning period, passengers prefer passive restraint.

A good background document about the history and implementation of passive restraint systems is TCRP Synthesis 50: Use of Rear-Facing Position for Common Wheelchairs on Transit Buses.

Opinion: For Roosevelt, 85 Feet is Plenty

In his letter to Seattle Department of Planning and Development Head Diane Sugimura about the Roosevelt Station Area up-zone, Mayor Mike McGinn said the city should ‘take towers “off the table”’ but that ‘the city needs to take a closer look at heights above 40 feet, such as 65 and 85 feet’. I am confident 85 or even 65 feet is completely workable, and it is possible at those heights to create the sort of neighborhoods that would allow Seattle residents to get their money’s worth from the light rail station. To find examples of sufficiently dense neighborhoods at that zoning, we don’t even need to go to Paris or New York, we can look right here in Seattle.

Reasons below the fold.

Continue reading “Opinion: For Roosevelt, 85 Feet is Plenty”

Pro-B7 Faction Looking to Extend Council Majority

The Current Bellevue Council

Thanks in part to contributions from light rail arch-opponent Kemper Freeman and his allies, in 2009 Bellevue elected a new 4-3 majority on the Bellevue City Council that later expressed its intent to change Sound Transit’s preferred South Bellevue alignment to the “B7” alignment along the BNSF railroad right of way. Although this would cost more to generate the same number of boardings and introduce new technical and schedule risks, it also would reduce impacts to vocal neighborhoods like Surrey Downs.

In 2011, four councilmembers will have their terms expire: B7 advocate Jennifer Robertson, and all three that prefer the Sound Transit preferred alignment: Grant Degginger, Claudia Balducci, and John Chelminiak.

Mr. Degginger has elected not to run again. His seat will be contested by well-funded Aaron Laing, supported by both Mr. Freeman and pro-B7 focal point Kevin Wallace, and John Stokes, who has not yet raised any money, has not expressed an opinion on the alignment, but the Times reports “he thinks enough study has been done for Sound Transit and the city to agree on a route.”

Patti Mann is also part of the Freeman slate, and is running against Ms. Balducci, who also serves on the Sound Transit Board.

Mr. Chelminiak is opposed by Michelle Hilhorst. I have an email in to Ms. Hilhorst asking for her position on the B Segment.

Ms. Robertson is running unopposed, so there is no opportunity to reverse the majority in this cycle.

Seattle City Council races get a lot more attention, but Bellevue is a big and important city that will receive a lot of light rail investment over the next two decades. Although it would be premature to label the Freeman-backed candidates as “anti-rail,” these races are well worth your time and money.

Brooklyn Station Meeting Report


Last night Sound Transit held a 30% design open house for Brooklyn Station. Brooklyn Station is the southernmost station of North Link, which will extend U-Link from Husky Stadium to Northgate. This design combines the best elements of the two options shown in January. Brooklyn Station is projected to add 12,000 daily boardings by 2030.

Sound Transit briefly discussed the name of the station. Brooklyn Station is the working title. A community activist was on hand collecting signatures to petition ST to change the name to “University District Station”. A quick poll held at the beginning of the open house indicated strong support for this name, followed by “Brooklyn Station”, “NE 45th Station”, and “None of the above”. I’m a bit partial to “NE 45th Station”, as it eliminates the confusion between this and University Street Station. There’s already confusion betweeen Tukwila and Tukwila/Int’l Blvd stations. NE 45th Station might not be the best way to describe the neighborhood, but seems like the lesser of two evils.

The station box will be excavated under the 4300 block of Brooklyn Ave NE at the current location of Chase Bank. The station will have two entrances: one mid-block on Brooklyn and one at the northeast corner of Brooklyn and NE 43rd St. Both entrances will have elevators that go straight to the platform level and a bi-directional pair of escalators and stairs that lead to a mezzanine. A second set of escalators will lead from the mezzanine to the platform, which is located 75-85 feet below surface level. Stairs won’t be installed between the mezzanine and platform because few people would use stairs to climb 75 feet with a working escalator immediately adjacent. However there will be emergency access stairs from the platform that exit to the alley behind the station entrances. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Brooklyn Station Meeting Report”

An Unofficial Link Schedule

A folded schedule
Fits in your pocket; click to download PDF

Sound Transit’s June 2011 service change took effect today. As usual, Link has the basic span and frequency of service information in a schedule. For those who want more detail, I created this unofficial schedule [UPDATED: October 2013] that shows, to the minute, when frequency changes and the first and last trains of the day. It includes a fare table and line map with station-to-station travel times.

The reason I didn’t include times for every station in my schedule is because the pattern is very consistent and the math is simple. In fact, I’d argue that my schedule is unnecessary once you learn the pattern. All you need to know are the first and last train times from Westlake and SeaTac/Airport, the frequency schedule, and the travel time between stations. Knowing that, you can derive most of the detailed schedule from Sound Transit’s basic schedule.

As I spent time creating this schedule I saw why Sound Transit made its schedule the way it is. Of course, many people won’t spend time figuring this out, so a more detailed schedule than currently printed is still needed. All they need to do is add the timetables to the current format. I tried and it works, with some space left for other useful information like travel times and late night/early morning bus connections. Throw in some real-time arrival predictions at stations and the result is a significantly more user-friendly system than what we have now.