Opinion: Seattle, VLF not Ambitious Enough

Seattle's Tallest
Photo by flick User Slightly North

Martin is correct that the media will likely spin a VLF defeat as a vote against taxes[1], but from the (normal, non-transit) people I talk to, the VLF’s largest problem isn’t that it’s a tax, but that it doesn’t do enough. Imagine if Obama had run on a campaign of “hope and a little bit of change”. “We’re not going to do all that much, just a little”. No one would be surprised a candidate with that slogan could not make it past an early primary. Why would we be surprised if the VLF whose slogan is essentially that goes down to defeat?

Martin also mentions that the $100 VLF[2] is all the state has given the city to work with for transportation, which is sadly true. I tried to make the point in my post the other day that Seattle should be more aggressive in getting taxing authority for transportation. I think there are a number of reasons to go for this approach, including Seattle’s unique transportation needs and  its willingness to approve large projects.

Seattle has different transportation needs from other cities in the state, particularly when it comes to transit, walking and biking. As I said the other day, if the city doesn’t going after taxing authority we’ll never get the transportation systems we want. Even if we let Sound Transit do all the heavy lifting for rail transit, we’ll still have to wait decades to get the correct amount for Seattle, and voters in other parts of the Sound Transit district might decide they have the right amount of transit and stop approving new projects before we get to a place where Seattle’s needs are being met.

Seattle could build large projects if it wanted to. We know this because Sound Transit has managed to build Central Link, is currently building U-Link and will build North Link and the First Hill Streetcar with mostly funding from Seattle. Seattle on its own was able to build the SLU streetcar prototype, while not a big project, it showed that the city can build rail on its own. Similarly Portland, which is both smaller and less affluent than Seattle, has been able to build its streetcar with entirely in-city money. The funding capacity for more ambitious projects are here in the city limits. It’s just a matter of getting the authority from Olympia.

Seattle voters like large projects and usually approve them. I believe there is solid evidence that  larger transit projects can be successful with Seattle. I hate to bring this up, but Seattle voted for the monorail project at least five times, and have voted for Sound Transit five times now as well. However, voters don’t really understand small projects, and while “a little money here or there” might make a number of small improvements, most people want large improvements and large ideas they can point to and imagine. I would not be surprised that ballot measure full of small transit projects would fail but a ballot measure to implement the entire Seattle Streetcar system would pass or a Second Avenue subway would pass.

Obviously, I think the VLF is a good idea and want the it to pass. I just wish our elected officials would be fighting with Olympia over our ability to build the projects we want. I’m sure if they did that would find the Seattle voters to be very willing to vote yes. It’s our duty to push our elected officials in the right direction to get what we want. Otherwise, they might here the wrong message and think we won’t pay for more transit.

[1] From experience in the  ST2 fight, the media horse-race game is more annoying than meaningful. Roads and Transit going down was supposed to be a vote against transit, though transit passed on its own a year later.

[2] Of which $60 is under proposal.

News Roundup: Phone Banking

Photo by Oran

This is an open thread.

Progressive Taxes and the VLF

Ford Pinto (wikimedia)

Self-identified progressive, pro-transit voters looking for a reason to vote against a $60 Vehicle License Fee in Seattle will usually seize upon the fact that a fee isn’t as progressive as a Motor Vehicle Excise Tax or taxes that exist in other jurisdictions. And it’s certainly true that a working class family with two cars is paying a much larger share of their income than an upper-class family with two cars.

On the other hand, this picture is complicated by the fact that the poorest of the poor, who don’t have cars, will pay nothing at all. In fact, 1 in 6 Seattle households are carless, and 40% of those with incomes below 150% of the poverty line. If a more reliable bus or safer bicycle infrastructure allows someone to get rid of one car in a household, that’s a huge amount of money in their pockets.

Secondly, it’s not an accident that the City Council is using a VLF: it’s the revenue tool the legislature is giving them. If I understand the media, a no vote will be perceived not as “voters demand a more progressive tax” but instead as “even Seattle has had enough of increased taxes.” The broader implications of this conclusion are an exercise left to the reader.

Finally, it’s important to remember that these transportation improvements, and the transit improvements in particular, are deeply progressive in impact. It’s not the Mercedes driver that’s riding the bus, in general. Bicycling and walking, if you resist the urge to accessorize, are the cheapest transportation options out there. It’s easy to favor enhanced service when someone else (“the rich”) are paying for it. It’s quite another to think that improved public services are worth paying higher taxes. We have a word for people who don’t think so: they’re called “conservatives.”

The TMP is an SDOT Document

It’s apparent from the comments that many readers simply cannot look at the Transit Master Plan’s priority corridors and see anything other than a route map.

It is not. If you would like better service on a route or a new route to connect certain points, that’s great; take it up with Metro. The road investments in the TMP are meant to improve speed and reliability on extremely high-volume routes, because that’s where the big payoff is.

For all the faults of Metro’s network, it does connect the very highest-density neighborhoods to each other and put the most buses where there’s the most demand. And that’s exactly where the city should be focusing its resources. It doesn’t mean that people think your route has “no demand;” it’s just not an all-star, and it’s not likely to get the very short headways that justify heavy capital investment.

Probably a terrible idea…

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

…and it’s far too late anyway.  But what if instead of light rail over I-90, we just connected downtown Bellevue and downtown Seattle via gondola?

The two are just 6 miles apart.  Yes, that’s huge for gondola distances.  And over some deep water.  But I feel like crunching some numbers, so humor me.


We’d definately want to use 3S technology – that’s two support cables and one drive cable.  This would allow us to go 24 mph.  So that would be a 15 minute journey.  Hey, that’s much faster than Link’s 20 minute journey!  Of course, South Bellevue station and Mercer Island would increase in travel time, but everything north of Bellevue won’t be affected much (transfer will surely take less than 5 minutes, when a car leaves every 30 seconds).


So a gondola would win in terms of speed.  What about capacity?  East Link will have a maximum of 4-car trains every 8 minutes going to the east side.  If each car can hold 200 people, that’s 6,000 people per hour per direction.  But wait, Whistler’s 3S system can carry 4,100 people per hour per direction.  And with larger stations we could add more cars, bringing that number up.


This is the big unknown.  Gondola systems are cheap compared to light rail systems, but keep in mind we’re really only comparing the section of light rail crossing I-90 (though this is probably an expensive stretch of rail).  We would need to keep the rest of the planned system, even adding a storage and maintenance area, because East Link will serve much more than Bellevue.  Also, we’d be crossing a deep lake.  I have no idea how much towers going down 200′ to the floor of Lake Washington would cost, but I’m quite sure it wouldn’t be cheap (there’s a reason we use floating bridges around here).  We could have high towers on either side and skip mid-lake towers (the lake is only 2 miles across), but that could be expensive too.


Well, I’m a day late and a dollar short on this one.  Our entire region’s already agreed on a plan, and it’s likely a better plan than mine.  Plus leaving the east side light rail disconnected from the west side light rail system kills all kinds of efficiencies.  Then again, maybe I’m not thinking big enough.  Why not branch out from Bellevue with gondolas?

Draft TMP is Out

At long last, SDOT has released its draft Transit Master Plan. It’s loaded with goodness, but most of you probably care most about the project list. I’ve already covered the high capacity transit corridors in gory detail, but I’ve only discussed one of the 12 other bus priority corridors.

Click to Enlarge

Chapter three is where it really gets into corridors, with detailed maps to show the priority treatments in each corridor. Fortunately for my weary typing fingers, there’s an excellent summary chart included, below the fold:

Continue reading “Draft TMP is Out”

Let Mudslide Season Begin!

Graphic by WSDOT

Amtrak Cascades service between Seattle and Portland has been canceled until Thursday October 6th due to an early season mudslide at Titlow Beach near the Tacoma Narrows.  Buses will transport passengers between Seattle and Portland.

  • Trains 501, 506 and 508 are canceled.
  • Trains 500, 504, 507, and 509 will continue to run between Eugene and Portland.
  • Trains 510, 513, 516, and 517 will continue to run between Seattle and Vancouver BC.
  • Trains 11 and 14, the Coast Starlight, will run Portland-Los Angeles.

WSDOT recently received an additional $31 million for mudslide mitigation and weather-related track improvements, and with another La Niña likely let’s hope the funds are quickly put to use.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, freight service resumed on the other mainline track 30 minutes after the mudslide.  The 48-hour rule – declaring an automatic passenger moratorium in the event of mudslides – is far too rigid.  WSDOT, Amtrak, and BNSF need to institute a case-by-case procedure for track closure flexible enough to handle diverse situations while maximizing passenger train availability.

Sound Transit North Corridor Meetings

North Corridor Map, Sound Transit

Sound Transit is holding three meetings this month on scoping for the North Corridor of ST2. Here’s a webpage with more information. I am interested to go to at least one of these to see what people have to say.

Environmental scoping that builds on the AA will be conducted in October 2011. Public meetings will be held from 6:00 – 8:00 pm on the following dates:

  • Tuesday, October 11, 2011: Shoreline Conference Center, 18560 1st Ave NE, Shoreline
  • Thursday, October 13, 2011: Embassy Suites Hotel, 44th Ave W, Lynnwood
  • Tuesday, October 18, 2011: Ingraham High School, 1819 N 135th St, Seattle

For those like me, who are also interested in technical details of the project, Sound Transit hosting a lunch-time Tech Talk via the web on Friday.

Want to know how the project team got here? Join us for an online panel discussion. Via live streaming, the project team will discuss and answer questions about the federal Alternatives Analysis process, how early public comment was used to develop potential alternatives, and criteria used to evaluate potential alternatives. If you are interested in technical aspects of project development, this is for you!

Log on: Friday, October 7, 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
To participate, go to http://video.soundtransit.org

You will be able to email us your questions during the live discussion!

For more information, email the project team at northcorridor@soundtransit.org or call Roger Iwata, Community Outreach Corridor Lead, at 206-689-4904.

ST2 Operations Plan

ST2 Link Operations Plan (Source: ST North Corridor AA Summary)

A tidbit that Martin tangentially covered last week is the the current operations plan for Link once ST2 is fully built out. The North Corridor Alternative Analysis includes a discussion of the current operations plan. It identifies two lines, both operating at 8-minute peak headways, for a combined headway  of 4-minutes on the common segment from the International District Station to Lynnwood.

Figure S-10 illustrates the planned light rail system configuration once extensions are completed east to Overlake in Redmond, south to South 200th Street in SeaTac, and north to Lynnwood. As can be seen in Figure S-10, the system will operate with two lines, one from Lynnwood to South 200th Street and one from Lynnwood to Overlake. Both lines will operate at 8-minute peak-period headways resulting in 4-minute peak headways between the junction at the south end of the Seattle CBD and Lynnwood, and requiring every train operating in the system to traverse the segment between Northgate and Lynnwood. Ridership forecasting indicates that this level of service, at least south of Lynnwood, will be needed to accommodate forecasted demand in the future. As a result, any delays incurred in the segment between Northgate and Lynnwood will affect the operation of the entire light rail system. This problem becomes worse when the system is eventually built north to Everett, south to Tacoma, and east to downtown Redmond.

Previous planning documents from the Roads and Transit package assumed three 9-minute headway lines resulting in 3-minute headways on the common segment during peak periods, with two 10-minute headway lines during non-peak periods.

Line 1: Northgate to Tacoma Dome Station. 4-car trains running every 9 minutes peak, 10 minutes off-peak.

Line 2: 164th SW/Ash Way to Kent-Des Moines Road. 3-car trains running every 9 minutes peak only.

Line 3: 164th SW/Ash Way to Overlake Transit Center. 4-car trains running every 9 minutes peak, 10 minutes off- peak.

This change results in less frequent service in the overlapping segments by 1-minute, but more frequent service on the non-overlapping segments by 1-minute. At 4-minute headways additional service can be added if additional capacity is needed, with fewer impacts on reliability. This change also simplify operations for ST because trains go out of service only at the end terminals, not midway along the segment north and south of Seattle. This benefits users as well and eliminates confusion between peak and off-peak operating patters.

Save the Date: Eastside Meetup No. 2

Seeing as our meetups always tend to end up in Seattle, we’ve decided to host our next gathering on the Eastside where a few important election races are looming this November.  Save the date for the evening of next Wednesday, October 12th— as usual, there will be food, drink, some good transit wonking, and of course a few guest speakers that we’re still working to secure.  The venue is TBD but will likely be somewhere in or around Downtown Bellevue, easily accessible by transit.  Stay tuned and we’ll bring you the updates as they come.

[UPDATE 4:17pm] RSVPs in the comments are always nice, too.

[UPDATE 8:10pm] I forgot to mention that we’re working for an all-ages venue so you should be able to swing by if you’re under 21.

Action: High Capacity Transit Planning

Mike McGinn in 2009
Mike McGinn in 2009, photo by flickr user holy outlaw

In his 2012 budget, Mayor McGinn is proposing that $1.5 million be set aside for high capacity transit planning in the city. You can read more here about the corridors that will be studied if the funding is secured.  The Mayor is asking you to perform the following steps if you support the project and want the city to perform the study (emphasis in the original):

If you want to help these projects become a reality:
1) Please attend the Tuesday, October 4th City Council budget hearing at City Hall and sign up to tell Council you support the $1.5 million for high capacity transit planning. Sign-in begins at 5pm, hearing begins at 5:30 pm.
2) Please email the City Council (addresses below) that you support the inclusion of $1.5 million for high capacity transit planning and that they should keep it in the budget.
3) If you have other lists or contacts or friends that support high capacity transit, please forward this information to them.

Emails for Councilmembers:

richard.conlin@seattle.gov; sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov; tim.burgess@seattle.gov; sally.clark@seattle.gov; jean.godden@seattle.gov; bruce.harrell@seattle.gov; nick.licata@seattle.gov; mike.obrien@seattle.gov; tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov

My thoughts on this below the fold.

Continue reading “Action: High Capacity Transit Planning”

How About a Charter Amendment For a TOD “Superagency?”

Beacon Hill

When I was reading Seattle’s Land Use code I pointed out how helpful it would be to have a “superagency” to make Transit Oriented Development happen. I even suggested a charter amendment that could make the Planning Commission that agency. I think putting a charter amendment on the ballot soon to create what I called the Seattle Planning and Development Commission would facilitate a healthy debate on TOD and development in Seattle and, if it was successful, create an agency well equipped to start work now and benefit from changes at the state level that, hopefully, are forthcoming. Portland, for example, has the Portland Development Commission (PDC). I’ve heard a lot of PDC envy in Seattle over the last few years.

But why do we need a super agency? First, the City Council has a tough time doing the right thing when it comes to land use. Fear of change has a vocal constituency, and strong majorities in neighborhoods. It’s tough to listen to hundreds of people saying, as they have in Roosevelt, “we’ve taken enough density” and then impose more anyway. These are taxpaying voters after all, and one could argue that even if the Seattle City Council wanted to max out development in Roosevelt they shouldn’t: it’s not what most people there want.

Second, many of the financing tools are lacking right now for a hefty TOD program. While most of these problems—especially the lack of Tax Increment Financing and prohibitions against the lending of public credit—are state level problems, a Seattle Planning and Development Commission could function as a Public Development Authority (PDA). In Washington PDAs have some unique and appropriate tools, the most important being the ability to issue bonds. While PDAs are expressly prohibited from using eminent domain, that power could be added with a suite of constitutional amendments and legislation in the future.

Lastly, I love my friends at the Seattle Planning Commission, but they don’t have enough power. And even though I don’t always agree with them, the Planning Commission is the right place to work out the future of Seattle’s land use. An amendment could transform todays Commission into something approaching a “superagency,” immune from the influence of both fearful neighbors and smart growth land use fads. Giving the new agency the power to legislate zoning could save us from the incremental and piecemeal approach the City Council always seems to take. More after the jump.

Continue reading “How About a Charter Amendment For a TOD “Superagency?””

Is the FRA Killing Passenger Rail?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Eric McCaughrin from the East Bay Bicycle Coalition puts together a list of ways that antiquated Federal Railroad Administration rules stack the deck against passenger rail in the US.  US trains need to be almost absurdly heavy to withstand potential freight crashes.  This results in slower, more expensive, harder-to-maintain rolling stock.  Trains must also blow their horns loudly at every intersection, raising the ire of nearby residents.

Easing these rules would seem to be something that the FRA could do without congressional approval.  I know that some rules, like the horn rule, were actually legislated by Congress, but is there room for interpretation on this or other rules?

I assume the reason that these rules haven’t been changed is that the freight companies and their allies in congress are petrified of the potential lawsuits from collisions.  Anyone have any more insights?

Fall Service Change Starts Today

PT bus stop closed, photo by Zach

We’re finally at the turn of Fall, which means that transit agencies region-wide will be rolling through their last service change of the year.  There are some pretty major goings-on in this shakeup, some good, some bad.  Here are the highlights from the Big Four (King County Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Pierce Transit):

  • King County Metro is inaugurating service on RapidRide B Line and an accompanying restructure on the Eastside.  Major changes in Seattle will constitute moving 1st Ave S routes to 4th Ave S because of Viaduct construction.  Elsewhere, there are a few service adds and revisions here and there, so check out Metro’s page on the October service change, which is a vast improvement on what was available to the public before.
  • Sound Transit will not see earth-shattering revisions.  Across the board for ST Express, there will be schedule adjustments, a few trip adds, and a few trip discontinuations.  Link and Sounder will go virtually unchanged.
  • Community Transit‘s service change will be even more unassuming, the only revision being the routing of the 110 and 116 to serve Edmonds Station.  All the revisions to ST service in Snohomish County will be trip adds and more service.  Unfortunately, looming cuts are on the horizon and coming next February.  We’ll be posting more on this as it approaches.
  • Pierce Transit proceeds with draconian and hard-to-swallow cuts as mentioned in the News Roundup; this will be the last 15% of an entire 35% reduction of the entire system, thanks to the failure of Prop. 1 at the ballot last February.  Sixteen routes will be eliminated along with the shuttering of hundreds of bus stops.  The PT website has all the gory details.  The only silver lining is a likely increase in productivity, which is usually the case with massive service reductions.

Don’t forget to check schedules and detailed route information, especially if you live on the Eastside or in Pierce County.  And of course, we will be having our informal RapidRide B Line group ride this morning 10AM at Bellevue Transit Center.