Council Passes CRC, RFA Deal After Dramatic Day

The council took a vote at 7:30 pm, more than four hours later than planned.

After a dramatic delay of many hours, the King County Council approved a $20 Congestion Reduction Charge and the rest of a compromise deal that announced was last Friday.

The 7-2 vote delays a deep bus service cut for two years, gives ride free bus tickets to residents in exchange for the $20 vehicle license fee, and ends the Downtown Seattle’s Ride Free Area in October of next year (more on the RFA).

The fee required a 6-vote supermajority to pass and will not go before voters. Republicans Reagan Dunn and Pete von Reichbauer voted against the proposal. Before the vote, rumors were swirling that Republicans Kathy Lambert and Jane Hague had turned their back on the deal, and the council was in recess for more than four hours and it seemed at times like other the Republican members had convinced Lambert and Hague to walk away.

The transit community pushed hard for the CRC, and seemed to be heard. “Your public testimony made a difference,” said Councilmember Bob Ferguson, who was on the fence earlier in the year.

For more on the deal, read Friday’s summary.

Reports: Metro Deal Possibly Slipping Away

Update 7 pm: Republican Jane Hague announces that she supports the deal, seeming to indicate that the deal will pass after all. Republican Kathy Lambert seems on-board, too.

The deal that was announced last Friday to save Metro from 17% bus cuts while ending the Ride Free Area may be at risk, according to reports on PubliCola and Slog. Slog, in particular, has live updates that don’t sound too encouraging. Apparently, the council has been in recess for many hours while some council Republicans have tried to pressure other Republicans to walk away from the deal. (Transportation Choices Coalition is also live-tweeting the council meeting.)

Overall, the deal is a good one for progressives as well as those concerned with seeing government services operate more efficiently (nominally conservatives), but politics may trump policy.

Inside the Pending Seattle License Fee

Tomorrow at 11am, the Seattle City Council will, in its capacity as the Transportation Benefit District Board, consider a resolution to put a $60, 10-year vehicle license fee (in addition to the $20 the TBD has already levied) on the ballot this November.

The $60 fee would generate about $20.4m annually. The Council would write a budget for the TBD each year, with a strong legal presumption that it would be divided as follows:

  • 29% for “transportation system repair, maintenance, and safety;”
  • 49% for “transit speed, reliability, and access improvements.” Some, but not all, of these would come from the Transit Master Plan;
  • 22% for “pedestrian, bicycle, and freight mobility,” drawn from the respective master plans. This implies the creation of a freight mobility master plan.

There is also a requirement to “support and implement the goals of the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative.” That presumably means a thumb on the scale for low-income and minority neighborhoods, although they already received consideration in the TMP’s corridor selection and weighting process.

Sections 8-10 deal with the rigamarole involved in messing with the allocations. Much more detail after the jump.

Continue reading “Inside the Pending Seattle License Fee”

Metro: RFA Elimination Won’t Produce Significant Delays

Ride free area tile. Photo by Oran Viriyincy.

King County Metro doesn’t think that eliminating the Ride Free Area in October 2012 will create delays.

“We tested this at several locations in downtown, including Third Avenue and it didn’t really create a serious problem,” Jim Jacobson, Deputy General Manager of Metro, said in an interview. “There are times when it creates problems, but that usually goes away after one signal cycle.” There will certainly be an increase in dwell times, Jacobson said, but there wasn’t much reason for alarm. “Two-thirds of people in the Ride Free Area have already paid a fare or have a pass,” so most riders won’t pay fare when entering the bus but will have to get used to boarding through the front.

Jacobson confirmed that “the tunnel will not be free” and he said that Metro has “simulated how this would work with increased dwell times.” One conclusion was that Metro could better stage buses before they enter the tunnel, to ensure that buses that stop in front of others enter the tunnel first. Another was that buses that are only dropping people off could pull as far forward as possible in the tunnel.

Another idea was that Sound Transit could improve its signaling system in the tunnel so that trains and buses could operate better in a shared environment. Metro and Sound Transit have clashed in the past over the shared operations in the tunnel, each agency saying the other is responsible for delays.

Metro plans to expand the enter through the front, exit through the back concept system-wide, with driver and consumer education campaigns to ensure a smooth flow. Most cities operate with systems like this, but for years different Metro drivers have had their own policies for the back door. It’s very encouraging that this change is planned.

There’s also good news on the revenue front. Based on surveys and other data, “the net effect of eliminating the RFA is on the order of $1.8 million a year,” Jacobson said. While none of that revenue is currently budgeted, “any dollar we have can be used to keep more service on the street longer than we could otherwise.”

Jacobson hopes that in the future, a day-pass will be offered by ORCA but said “we’re a long way from that.” A shame, that is, because a day-pass program would be perfect for casual riders and tourists, and the thing preventing its implementation is agency balkanization.

Correction: Readers have pointed out that Metro no longer sells day passes on the weekends. The story above has been edited.

Ballard and beyond: $80 VLF helps realize a Monorail dream

It seems like a long time ago already, but there was a lot of momentum behind this thing called the Monorail. I won’t even get into the details, the politics, and the goofiness of what became a battle about whether light rail or mono rail would carry the day. In the end, the monorail disintegrated under many of the same circumstances that some of us think will pull down the tunnel; Frankenfinancing, just-trust-us politics, and poor planning. But the latest effort for a hearty Vehicle Licensing Fee (VLF) could keep one of the promises that the monorail mess couldn’t keep, rail transit for Ballard.

I’m going to quote from a memo written by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) asking for an $80 VLF in order to plan and execute rail to Ballard. High Capacity Transit is really another way of saying rail. Feel free to challenge that assessment in the comments, but here’s what SDOT is asking for:

For the Ballard and Eastlake corridors, HCT is the only option that meets projected transit ridership demand.  There are also travel time and greenhouse gas emission reductions that would not be attainable through other modes. Having the flexibility to pursue additional HCT planning would create a phasing process of (1.) 6-7 years of bus corridor development while simultaneously doing planning and design for two HCT corridors: Center City Connector and Ballard, and (2.) in years 7+,  focus on HCT corridor implementation and continued bus corridor improvements.

The experts are saying a longer collection period of the full $100 in VLF ($20 is VLF already happening) allowed by law would meet the demand for transit to and from Ballard. I am a demand side guy when it comes to transit, and that’s a big reason why I am a “density advocate.” Much of the whining and complaining about density has come from Ballard. Remember Edith Macefield? She’s the Ballard woman elevated to hero worship status by a peans written by Knute Berger and others because she held out against invasive “highest and best use” of land in Ballard. The truth is that Ballard has changed. Old Ballard has given way to the future many of us talk about. The old Googie Denny’s is gone in favor of density and everywhere you look there are people waiting in absurdly long lines to pay lots of money for fancy dinners.

Ballard, like it or not, has done much of it’s part in transforming Seattle into the dense, walkable, fully built out neighborhood that aggregates demand for transit, just like we density believers say it should. We’ve got the demand, now where’s the transit? It makes it hard on density advocates like me when the transit doesn’t follow the density. We’ve put all our rhetorical eggs in the density basket. If the City doesn’t up zone around transit or follow density with investment in transit where there already is density, it kicks us right in the eggs. The Council should do the right thing by Ballard on Monday, and support the maximum use of VLF so we can be sure that we put our money where our density is. If nothing else, do it for Edith.

Final U-Link LRV Delivered

On Thursday morning, Sound Transit took delivery of the 27th and final light rail vehicle (LRV) purchased for the University Link project. LRV #162 rolled off an oversized flatbed truck on to the tracks of the Link Light Rail Operations and Maintenance Facility (OMF) to couple with LRV #101, the first LRV, which took it inside the maintenance building. The Kinkisharyo LRVs were assembled in Mukilteo and trucked down to the OMF at night. The 27 new vehicles were delivered over the course of 7 months. The newly delivered LRV must go through a “burn in” process involving tests and running for 1,000 miles at night before they can carry any passengers. Many of the new LRVs, numbered 136 and above, are already in service. The Central Link fleet now totals 62 LRVs.

More photos of the event on Flickr.

$20 CRC to Pass; Ride Free Area to be Eliminated

Hundreds of people testified in support of the CRC over the last few months.

The morning, King County Executive Dow Constantine held a press conference announcing that the County Council will adopt the $20 Congestion Relief Charge to prevent a 17% cut in bus services, PubliCola reports. The fee, which applies to annual vehicle registration, will not be sent to voters and will expire in two years because of limitations set by the state legislature. The adoption of this fee is undoubtedly a win for transit advocates, who fought hard to preserve service.

Two Republicans, Jane Hague and Kathy Lambert, will join five Democrats to approve the fee outright—their change of heart comes after negotiations to implement other Metro reforms.

The biggest change is the elimination of the Seattle’s Ride Free Area, slated for October 2012. As we’ve written before, this change may be good for the system but there must be mitigation to ensure that buses can still move through downtown. The Ride Free Area is supported by most social justice advocates, but the RFA has non-trivial costs: the pay-as-you-leave system on some routes but not others can confuse riders and Metro loses some revenue by not charging fares. The County estimates that it costs $2.8 million in lost fares to provide free service through downtown but that it only receives $400,000 from the city, or just 18% of the cost.

2986982509_52bb3d1666
The Ride Free Area was first introduced in 1973 as the "Magic Carpet Zone." At the time, the city paid for the full value of all lost fare revenue.

Eliminating the RFA has the potential to reduce fare evasion and disputes, and buses that leave downtown will now allow passengers to exit through all doors instead of forcing customers to exit through the front—which can be cumbersome in a congested bus. If the transition is handled well, it could represent a large improvement in system clarity.

There is reason to be concerned, however: if fares are charged in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, as the plan indicates, buses would further delay Link light rail. Buses along Third Avenue downtown could also face delays during rush hour unless there is a way to buy bus tickets before boarding or ORCA is heavily adopted. Disappointingly, there doesn’t seem to be any funding to provide systems to purchase bus fares before boarding, nor any incentives to increase ORCA usage.

More details on the full plan after the jump…

Continue reading “$20 CRC to Pass; Ride Free Area to be Eliminated”

Seattle’s Transit Future

by Seattle Mayor MIKE MCGINN

While working in the community, and running for office, I heard from Seattle residents that they wanted better transit. And not just better buses, but rail transit where it made sense. That’s why as part of my campaign I made a commitment to the public: Within two years I would give voters the chance to vote on rail expansion in Seattle.

The measure now in front of the City Council reflects that commitment. From the very first day after the election we started laying the groundwork. And now we have an historic opportunity to begin controlling our own transit destiny.

Here’s how we got here. First, we launched a Transit Master Plan process. Seattle’s old Transit Master Plan still included a monorail. It was time for an update. We pulled together a broad stakeholder committee, retained top-notch planners, and began the process of identifying the next best transit investments for Seattle. We asked the public what they wanted. 57% of respondents to an online survey told us they wanted more rail.

We worked diligently with Council for full funding to complete the Transit Master Plan, to appoint citizen advisors, and to demonstrate that this plan was to be guided by the best transit principles. Our commitment then and now was to rigorously identify the best transit investments, whether rail or improved bus service. The Transit Master Plan process, while not yet complete, clearly identifies the top corridors for new investment, and that new rapid streetcars are an effective way to connect neighborhoods such as Ballard, Fremont, and the U-District to downtown.

But a good plan is not enough — we also need to fund it. Working with Council President Richard Conlin and Councilmember Tom Rasmussen we launched a Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee to identify how to fund Seattle’s transportation needs. They too gathered public input. Their surveys and focus groups found that not only did the public support more transit, but that they were willing to pay for it. The committee’s recommendation was unambiguous: Invest in catching up on deferred maintenance, and make a significant investment in catching up on deferred transit. Their proposal, if enacted as recommended, would give us the type of permanent funding source that would allow us to complete the detailed planning needed for rail transit, and make a significant down payment on real capital investments.

The table is now set for the Council to act, and now is the time to be bold for rail.

(More after the jump…)

Continue reading “Seattle’s Transit Future”

News Roundup: Soviet Style

Photo by AvgeekJoe

This is an open thread.

The Future Governor on the Deep-Bore Tunnel

$190 million, actually

Earlier this week, gubernatorial front-runners Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee both announced their opposition to the provision in state law that holds Seattle taxpayers responsible for any cost overruns on the deep-bore tunnel project. Whether that drives any action in the legislature remains to be seen.

What I’m more interested in, however, is the more forgotten part of the 2009 deal: a local 1% Motor Vehicle Excise Tax to fund $190m in capital improvements in transit and support continuing operations of the buses to utilize it. Although substantially less extensive than the contents of the rival plans, the improvements would be critical to providing alternatives to driving in an outcome with less vehicle capacity than there is today and substantial traffic diversion due to tolling.

Despite signing a letter than vowed “to support efforts” to secure this revenue, Governor Gregoire jettisoned this critical part of the plan only three weeks later when it received a cool reception in Olympia.

The MVET would have covered additional RapidRide and peak express bus service in the SR 99 corridor; a new Burien-Delridge RapidRide line; and make trolleywire and downtown street improvements for transit. It also included an (unfunded) commitment to look at the First Avenue streetcar, a plan that Seattle has advanced and now could use authority from the State to fully fund.

I emailed the McKenna and Inslee campaigns on Monday to discover their position on full implementation of the tunnel plan, and have not received a response from either.

We Need The Full $80 – Here’s Why.

If you want this, testify tonight.

Today, at 5:30pm at City Hall, we’ll have the opportunity to ask the Seattle City Council to place a long term, $80 Vehicle License Fee on the November ballot. There are a number of competing proposals, and all but one of them are, quite simply, bad for transit.

As Martin wrote recently, the efficiency winner (by far) of the streetcar corridors in Seattle would be the 4th/5th connector, bringing the SLU streetcar and First Hill streetcars together. Building it would dramatically reduce negative perception of the SLU streetcar and dramatically increase visibility for the streetcar network overall. With such a connector in place, any future streetcar expansion will be more cost effective and poll better – this is the project that would lead to a snowball effect for rail transit.

It’s also the easiest project to showcase during a campaign for the VLF – while wonks like us appreciate small efficiency projects and planning, a new rail corridor through downtown is a lightning rod that earns votes and creates a simple, cheap campaign message. Remember that votes are rarely about how good projects are – they’re about how easy the projects are to understand and repeat to others.

Surface/Transit/I-5 is a great example of a counterpoint – it’s unarguably the most cost effective viaduct replacement solution, but it’s the most complex and difficult to explain, so it gets short shrift. In the case of this streetcar, we would have both a good project and a simple project – exactly what we need for a November win.

Here’s the problem: Only a long-term, $80 VLF will fund this connector – and the Council hasn’t seen much pressure to put that on the ballot. Most of them are interested in a $40 or $60 package that has nothing exciting – a package that voters won’t care about or talk about, and will end up being ignored on thousands of ballots. Today, at 5:30, is our one chance to put on that pressure.

There’s another, long-term reason this is very important.

Next year, the legislature will be discussing a huge transportation package, possibly for a statewide vote. With the transit master plan largely complete, Seattle will be in a strong position to go to Olympia to ask for transit funding for one of our half dozen unfunded high capacity transit corridors. Olympia knows they need our vote to overcome rural and suburban anti-tax voters, and they’ll be open to providing us a good incentive to come to the polls.

Our best argument to demand real funding for transit is to be bold today. I want to walk into a hearing room in Olympia next year and testify that Seattle uses every penny given to it by the legislature – and that we want more, from a progressive funding source. The only way I can do that is if we tell the City Council, today, to use all $80 that the legislature has provided it, and to use it to build rail. If we only use $40, or $60, legislators will ask why Seattle isn’t using the funding they’ve given us – and they will balk at offering more.

So I urge you to show up tonight, at 5:30, at city hall, and demand rail transit now. This is your chance to have it today and tomorrow.

Technical Options for Reactivating the Waterfront Streetcar

Photo by Oran

Back in April of this year, associated organizations in the “stadium” district released a report (PDF) to address technical options for reactivating the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar.  The report’s underlying conclusion basically singles out political and institutional  challenges as the biggest roadblocks to reactivation, since there are so many entities  involved in planning work along the corridor.  The laments of last week’s guest editorial shared similar sentiments.

Upfront, the costs to reactivate would be relatively cheap– in the neighborhood of $10 – 13 million.  Because the lack of a maintenance facility is to blame for the Streetcar’s demise, the study assumed that the line would share the same barn as the one used by the First Hill line at the Charles Street Service Center.  That would, of course, require creating some compatibility with the FHSC’s modern pantograph/catenary technology.

A little more on the alternatives below the jump.

Continue reading “Technical Options for Reactivating the Waterfront Streetcar”

Action Alert: Testify on the TBD

Budapest Rapid Streetcar (Nelson/Nygaard)

Seattle has a Transportation Benefit District (TBD) that allows it to levy a vehicle license fee of up to $100 per year. $20 has already been enacted but not spent. Some portion of the remaining $80 may go to the ballot this fall. The Seattle City Council controls both revenue and expenditure, minus the ballot approval.

The expert committee recommended going for the full $80 to help backlogs in street repairs and the three master plans: bicycle, pedestrian, and transit. The combined $100 would generate $34m a year; the committee recommended that $10.7m of that go to Transit Master Plan projects, and another $4m on other transit access efforts. Depending on how long the tax is levied, it could support bonds to help construct relatively capital-intensive BRT or Streetcar lines. Constructing all five high-capacity lines to the fullest extent would cost about $700m, clearly requiring private or federal contributions regardless of the taxing level.

The Council is all over the map on this, and PubliCola has an excellent rundown. Briefly, Jean Godden, who is in an interesting reelection race, wants to add $40 and emphasize road maintenance projects; Mike O’Brien wants the full $80 in accordance with the committee’s priorities; and Tom Rasmussen splits the difference at $60, maintaining the recommended proportions but leaving some authority in reserve. There are also splits on whether to do more rail engineering for the money, or not.

Mayor McGinn, who has no formal role in TBD legislation, has come out for the full $80 as a permanent funding source to enable serious progress on the high-capacity projects.

As promised, there is action you can take. Tomorrow, there is a public hearing on the license fee at City Hall, Wednesday, August 10th, at 5:30pm.

The Moral Weight of Zoning

A couple of weeks ago, Danny Westneat went after the city for taking action against a resident holding charity garage sales:

The city now knows all this. That this is a charity. That it’s for war refugees, some of whom are homeless. Yet the city intends to try to stop Zawaideh anyway.

“While her efforts are definitely commendable, such sales activities are not allowed by the underlying zoning,” the director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development wrote in an email this week. She added that after July 31 — this weekend — any sales there will be punishable violations.

I’d extend the implied question further — what if it weren’t for charity? What’s the compelling reason for the city to restrict (gasp!) actual commerce at this woman’s house? Aren’t we trying to create mixed-use neighborhoods?

Amend Seattle’s land use code to get real Transit Oriented Development

Roosevelt Night Life (Photo by author)

This summer has been good for land use and transit in Seattle largely because of the discussion—some would say argument—over appropriate density around the Roosevelt station area. Wednesday this week is a big day for Roosevelt, the Seattle City Council’s Committee on the Built Environment (COBE) is having a hearing on the subject and later that day Leadership for Great Neighborhoods is having a brown bag lunch discussion. The discussion in both places ought to include something about amending Seattle’s toothless station area overlay designation in its land use code.

Seattle hasn’t encouraged or even allowed true Transit Oriented Development. Any visitor to Beacon Hill will attest to the bizarre sight of a light rail station sticking out of the ground like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other station areas have yet to deliver on the promise of dense, walkable, housing and retail built around light rail stops. Why does Seattle lag so far behind places like British Columbia and Vancouver where there is lots of new housing around light rail?

Part of the problem is our single-family focused culture and economy. It’s easy to forget that one big private property interest in Seattle is single-family homeowners who benefit from attenuating the supply of housing. That’s not a slur, but a simple economic point. If housing is in short supply, then those who already own it benefit by keeping that supply limited. Diminished supply and increasing demand means existing homeowners can watch their property values increase.

Another reason is our land use code. Each and every stop along light rail will force a fight between vested single-family interests clinging to the status quo, and “outsiders” who are advocating for appropriate land use to fit the massive investment the region has made in light rail. Amending the code to give more TOD teeth to chapter 23.61 of the code, the chapter that covers land use around light rail stations—would be a great start in having that argument once and for all station areas in Seattle.

But I don’t think that simply mandating big heights and FAR at all station areas is what we should do. One size does not fit all when it comes to well planned and executed TOD. The answer is to let the housing market and design set the standard rather than arbitrary height limits. Amending 23.61 of the Seattle Municipal Code to encourage what I have called Zero Based Zoning and others have called Form Based Code, is the best place to start. Loosing code restrictions to allow proposals for what works rather than slavish adherence to code language that tries to prevent bad things could produce good results for everyone.

Development around light rail stations in Seattle should match the economic potential of the years ahead and the land use code should reflect not just the economic interests today’s vocal private property interests. Instead the City ought to consider the people who will be living here in the future. Loosening restrictions around light rail stations could make Seattle a regional leader in making light rail work through an open minded, future focused approach to TOD rather than one based on the fears of the moment. Seattle should have that discussion now when it amends chapter 23.61 of the land use code.

Neighborhood and Station Area Planning Brown Bag Forum
Wednesday, August 10 at Noon
GGLO, Harbor Steps (1301 First Avenue, Suite 301)

Seattle City Council Committee on the Built Environment
Council Chambers City Hall
Wednesday, August 10, 2011 9:30 a.m.

Correction: Streetcar Costs

Photo by Slack Action

At the start of my Transit Master Plan series, I stated that the study used the current Seattle streetcar operating cost of $220 per hour, a figure that would likely decline if the system achieved economies of scale. In fact, although that was true in an earlier draft, Nelson/Nygaard engineer Tom Brennan tells me the data I posted in the series already incorporated a newer figure of $187 — still a substantial premium over buses, but more in keeping with other North American systems with larger rail operations.

The original post has been corrected.

Deep bore trouble: Public financing and public trust

The credit rating of the United States of America was downgraded on Friday to AA+ from AAA. For many this might inspire as much fear as the phrase “lions, tigers, and bears? Oh my!” But the truth is that the downgrade our national government’s credit rating should keep us awake at night, especially for those of us who see the future of sustainability in good land use and public transit. Sustainable solutions often rely heavily on publicly financed capital infrastructure (during the debt lid debacle I wrote about how a downgrade could increase the cost of the deep bore tunnel).

It’s true that such projects usually don’t state interest costs. There are good reasons for that, the most obvious one being that issuances of public debt in the form of bonds are often negotiated sales; the interest rate isn’t known during project planning because it doesn’t get established until a deal is struck between the borrower and the leader. We should be careful that in criticizing the lack of specifics on interest on the tunnel, that we don’t feed NIMBY know nothing rhetoric about good projects at a time when elected officials are irrationally paranoid about debt.

However, these are not ordinary times and the tunnel is not a straightforward project. And by saying “not straightforward” I don’t mean “complex.” I mean that so much of the stated financing of the project has been sketchy and vague on details like where the port will find the funding to pay for it’s promised $300 million, will the functioning project really deliver $400 million in tolls, and how much will the City of Seattle have to borrow to fix the decaying seawall? The fact that the country’s credit has been downgraded means that the cost of the project could go up beyond the usual expectations. A downgrade has never happened in the 70 years since the US got its AAA rating, in 1941, the year Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Asking questions about tunnel financing has become synonymous with tunnel opposition. And I’ll admit I am a tunnel opponent (and a fan of debt). But we’re talking here about a first-time-in-70-years downgrade in the credit rating of the government managing the world’s largest economy. The ding to the credit rating is likely to affect borrowing on projects like the tunnel (local governments here are already on a downgrade watch list).  But current evasion by the State of Washington of the question of “how are we going to pay for it?” hurts the tunnel, and it also fuels skepticism that government actually can manage the public’s money and the public’s trust.  That troubles me and should trouble all supporters of debt funded but sustainable projects.

I’ll be dancing on the tunnel’s grave if it dies, but not quite so much if the autopsy finds the cause of death was public skepticism of the use of borrowed money by government for all big, complicated projects. That would make the tunnel patient zero in a plague of unwarranted local debt skepticism.