BRT Insincerity

Photo by raggiesoft

In Crosscut Ted Van Dyk unintentionally illustrates the problem with many arguments that BRT can do it all.:

Less than a month after voters soundly rejected a $60-per-vehicle tab fee to pay in large part to plan a new streetcar system…

Light rail involves huge capital and operating costs and many years of construction and will carry passengers between only a few fixed-point stations. Bus or bus rapid-transit will take more passengers to more destinations for far less money, without the lengthy construction period.

In less than 600 words, Mr. Van Dyk goes from rejoicing over the defeat of a measure in which Seattle would have spent almost three times more on BRT-type improvements as rail, to whining that bus rapid transit is much more effective than trains.

Rail advocates have few greater allies than friends of BRT like these. Except for some HOV freeway expresses, in any actual user’s experience buses are slow and unreliable. By refusing to support even halting moves towards making buses better, they fatally tarnish the bus brand.

Bus rail/arguments, at least around here, often turn in to some sort of engineering throughput exercise. And it’s true that aside from smoothness of ride and capacity,* you can theoretically do just as much with a bus in a tunnel or on a busway as with a train in a similar environment, and possibly do it a bit cheaper. It’s a lot cheaper if you already have the bus lane, which is generally not the case in the densest areas.

But these arguments always fall down in that they’re comparing a theoretical bus to an actual train proposal. To the casual voter, bus service means indeterminate frequency and span, being stuck in traffic, and unreliable service. Trains around the world are the opposite of these, and the brand sticks. I don’t think STB’s commitment to making the bus more BRT-like can seriously be in doubt, but it’s a hard political road, and the Ted Van Dyks of the world aren’t helping.

Local experience supports that perception of buses. During implementation of both Swift and RapidRide, King County and Community Transit had fiscal crises. They could have cut service elsewhere to preserve the salient features of their BRT lines, but for better or worse they chose not to do so. So we have a Swift line with no Sunday service (and 12-minute daytime headways next year) and RapidRide lines with lots of on-board payment, lots of stops because there’s no local route, and headways as long as 30 minutes.**

Meanwhile, ST has had similar budget problems, but Central Link is still running as frequently as ever. They’ve had to cut the scope of lines and cut bus service, but (aside from real-time information, apparently) they haven’t cut the quality features of Link we’ve come to expect. Maybe that’s the culture of the agency, maybe it’s something about marginal costs of rail features, or maybe it’s the spotlight that comes with a multibillion dollar capital project. In any case, it’s why I’m glad there’s a rail line running through my neighborhood instead of a BRT one.

* That’s not to say that capacity doesn’t matter!

** And I like RapidRide and Swift! But they’re not Link.

Survey Results Positive for Transportation Investments

Photo by AvgeekJoe

This morning, the Washington State Transportation Commission released the first results of its Voice of Washington survey, which polled respondents on their feelings about State transportation funding and investments.  The highlight conclusion from the survey results shows a broad willingness to invest more in transportation, transit and rail included.  However, support is split on funding methods for such new investments, as only a third of the given options received majority support.

Several of the findings seem to add insult to the injury of I-1125’s defeat.  Not only did the majority of respondents support sharing use of  toll revenue within a travel corridor (i.e., not limited to the tolled facility, an 1125 restriction), both variable tolling and HOT lanes, two of Tim Eyman’s favorite targets, received over 60% support.  In addition to majority support for tolls as a new funding stream, a vehicle emissions fee and an electric vehicle license fee were also strongly favored.  On the losing side, only 46% supported an increase in the age-old gas tax.

Transit and passenger rail fared well in the survey, receiving 63% of support.  Around 60% also supported continued funding of the State ferry system.   What’s more ambiguous is differentiating where transit falls into the three investment priorities most strongly favored by respondents: repairing/maintaining the existing system, increasing capacity, and expanding travel options.  How much transit was perceived as part of these priorities, versus roads, is certainly less clear.

More findings are available at Publicola.  The survey will remain open through the end of the year.

TRU Orientation Meeting Tonight

Tonight TRU is holding its second meeting. Details below.

The Transit Riders Union orientation meeting will be tomorrow tonight, Tuesday, starting at 7 pm at the 2100 Building, 2100 24th Avenue S. The room we’ll be using is on the 3rd floor, all the way to the end of the hall and to the right. We’ll put a sign up.

In the first part of the meeting we’ll go through our Mission and Principles, followed by discussion and questions. In the second part, we’ll give a brief run-down of how the TRU has been organized thus far, roughly how we’re hoping to grow, and what some of our ideas are for new projects and campaigns, with an emphasis on specific ways people can get involved – again, to be followed by discussion. We’ll try to wrap it up by 8:30 or so.

You can view a video from the first meeting here.

Day Passes and the Ride Free Area

Link ticket
A Link round-trip ticket was a de facto regional day pass until Jan 1, 2010. Photo by l0st2

Like I said in a previous post, getting riders to switch to pre-paid fare media speeds up bus boarding. The discontinuation of the Ride Free Area next October makes fare payment more critical to transit operations than ever, of which its impacts will be felt throughout the network, including Link light rail.

A set of affordable 1/3/7-day passes could get more cash users switching to the ORCA card and reduce the number of cash transactions on the bus. It will also make transit easier to use for visitors and infrequent riders. This works best with a robust network of fare retail outlets and a lower cost ORCA card.

Read on for my conceptual proposal that works within the existing regional pass system without changing individual agencies’ fare structure. Note that I have not calculated the fare revenue or ridership impacts of my proposal.

Continue reading “Day Passes and the Ride Free Area”

STB Thanksgiving Post Recap

For those that were off enjoying their long Thanksgiving weekend here is a roundup of our posts since Wednesday.

Map of U.S. Traffic Accident Fatalities

From ITO, here’s a map of all US traffic fatalities from 2001-2009 (I suggest full-screen view). The view above is centred on the Puget Sound Region, but you can explore the all 50 states if you’d like. Each dot represents a life lost, and there’s some data about the person. The data show an astonishing 326,251 deaths over that 9 year period, though thankfully traffic deaths have tailed off the last few years to around 33,000 from more than 40,000 per year in the the 20 years, and a peak of 50,000 per year 30 years ago.

Please be safe on the roads, friends.

Debt Commission’s Recommendations on the Right Track

Debt allows big changes: Tunneling on Capitol Hill

Often state and local governments borrow money for capital projects when the economy is good and there is plenty of money for debt service. But when the economy crashes, officials get timid about debt, tightening the purse strings on new borrowing and spending. The problem with that is that economic downturns are the best time to borrow and spend on capital projects because they create jobs. A new set of recommendations from the Washington Commission on State Debt would take a step toward addressing a structural problem in the state’s constitution that makes it harder to borrow for job creating projects when times are tough.

First, a bit of background on how we do debt in Washington. In the first place, almost everyone in politics is paranoid about too much debt. Remember the big debt ceiling debacle over the summer in Washington DC? Politicians respond to the word debt because they think of public debt like a huge credit card that the government uses irresponsibly. Republicans and the press have made debt bashing de rigueur for politicians at all levels, and now even Democrats parrot the government-as-shopaholic meme.

But the truth is that debt is an important tool to get big things done. Virtually every big capital project in the private sector relies heavily on borrowed money. And if you have a mortgage, college loans, or even short-term credit card debt you’ll understand that using credit can be an important way to achieve an otherwise impossible end. The same is true for state and local governments. Debt allows cities, counties, and transit agencies access to cash now to create improvements that will generate benefits to tax payers over time. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Debt Commission’s Recommendations on the Right Track”

Brenda Breaks Through

Brenda (Sound Transit)

Brenda, the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) which has been making its way from the Capitol Hill station to the Pine Street stub broke through yesterday monday night. Brenda will now be disassembled and reassembled at the Capitol Hill station where it will begin boring the second tunnel between Capitol Hill and downtown.

Go here to see all the photos.

A Little Understanding on Thanksgiving


In many households tonight, we’ll be sitting down with loved ones with whom our political opinions, and perception of the facts, are at odds. In the interests of family peace and in the spirit of the holiday, here’s a dose of humility.

We may have our convictions on complex technical issues of public importance, such as climate change. Those convictions may even be correct. But ultimately, our positions on these issues come down to trust and elite signalling.

It’s possible that some of you out there are climate scientists that have stayed current with the peer-reviewed literature. But for the rest of us, our opinion on this matter is dependent on someone we trust telling us what the scientific consensus is. Maybe for you it’s the Sierra Club or Al Gore, or because it’s the opposite of what the oil industry says. For me, when The Economist — a source not partial to environmental panics — was convinced about 10 years ago, it finally routed my initial skepticism.*

Someone who’s chosen the wrong entity to trust — perhaps because they share values on a completely unrelated issue — can always find reassurance by being presented with an undue emphasis on remaining skeptics, exaggerating either their numbers or their credentials, or focus on data points that don’t support the theory.

I don’t mean to excuse those elites who are doing the signaling. A legislator that focuses on these sectors, or a national reporter trying to cover the debate, has access to actual experts and a duty to educate themselves in an open-minded way. But let’s spare a little empathy for the denier across the dinner table.

*For the record, my support for reducing carbon emissions extends beyond what a magazine told me 10 years ago. For example: I’m scientifically literate enough to know the theory of the underlying mechanism is plausible; the circumstantial evidence I’ve seen seems persuasive; the likelihood of it happening, and the seriousness of the consequences, warrant action even without absolute certainty; and the externalities involved in fossil fuel consumption, aside from climate change, make a strong case for curbing it.

Let’s Build a Seattle Subway!

Seattle Subway's Vision

For a long time, I’ve been writing about what should come next, how it fits into the big picture, how we can take steps to get there now, how we might fund it, and how we can be successful in the long term. I’ve delved into smaller topics, like what happens in the downtown tunnel and ideas about how to approach city-level expansion. We’ve talked a lot about what to do, and when.

Today, we have a vacuum. Sound Transit is well under way, and relatively safe from attack. Seattle has done some transit planning and has identified corridors where high capacity transit is necessary. This is a great time to start!

I’ve recently collected a small group of activists to show what Seattle’s mass transit could look like in the coming decades – and to campaign for it. Will you join us to help? You can sign up at Seattle Subway to get updates, and let’s start talking about it here.

News Roundup: Cracking Down

Photo by raggiesoft

This is an open thread.

Thanksgiving Mudslides

Photo by WSDOT (2008 mudslide)

As expected after very heavy rainfall, the first mudslide of the rainy season occurred this morning at 7am near Edmonds.  Sounder North service for Wednesday is cancelled.  Per BNSF’s 48-hour rule, Amtrak Cascades trains 510 and 517 will be cancelled through Friday morning at least, trains 513 and 516 will be truncated to Seattle, and the Empire Builder (trains 7, 8) will turn at Everett.  In all cases there will be bus replacement service offered.

With the rain yet to abate, expect more mudslides in the coming days.  Sounder North is still scheduled to run on Saturday for the Apple Cup, but there’s a good chance of additional mudslides canceling that as well.

APTA: Seattle the 4th Highest City in Transit Savings

Photo by Oran

From time to time, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will publish transit savings reports that essentially compare the localized monthly cost of taking transit versus the monthly cost of driving.  It’s obviously a simplified comparison, but a fairly credible baseline to examine the cost differentials between the two modes.  The national savings, on average, amounts to $816 for the month of November, and $9,797 when calculated over the whole year.

The list of the top 20 cities puts Seattle at 4th among the company of San Francisco and Philadelphia.  According to APTA, a Seattleite saves $992 a month on average, just by switching to transit.  The methodology:

APTA calculates the average cost of taking public transit by determining the average monthly transit pass of local public transit agencies across the country.  This information is based on the annual APTA fare collection survey and is weighted based on ridership (unlinked passenger trips).  The assumption is that a person making a switch to public transportation would likely purchase an unlimited pass on the local transit agency, typically available on a monthly basis.

APTA then compares the average monthly transit fare to the average cost of driving.  The cost of driving is calculated using the 2011 AAA average cost of driving formula.  AAA cost of driving formula is based on variable costs and fixed costs.  The variable costs include the cost of gas, maintenance and tires.  The fixed costs include insurance, license registration, depreciation and finance charges.  The comparison also uses the average mileage of a mid-size auto at 23.4 miles per gallon and the price for self-serve regular unleaded gasoline as recorded by AAA on November 18, 2011 at $3.38 per gallon.  The analysis also assumes that a person will drive an average of 15,000 miles per year.  The savings assume a person in two-person household lives with one less car.

What the report doesn’t take into account is the employer-paid fare subsidy for transit users or the upfront vehicle purchase price parking subsidy for car users, both of which represent largely sunk costs that aren’t readily apparent each time a trip is made.  While I suspect that the differential would widen vary considerably* if those accommodations were made, that could only be assumed if mode use were mutually exclusive.  Since many transit users do own cars, it would be interesting to see how numbers would stack up if costs for both were factored together.

*Depending on locality, driving costs could vary with parking costs; the counterclaim, of course, is that in places where parking is free, those expenses are still passed onto the employee in another form.  Quantifying that, however, would be beyond the scope of such an analysis.

More Money for King Street Station

'Departing King Street' (photo by Slack Action)

Thanks to federal rail grants, more money will be coming our way to complete the restoration of King Street Station.  Yesterday, WSDOT and the FRA (Federal Rail Administration) signed agreements to secure nearly $17 million from high-speed rail funds, adding to Washington’s impressive pool of federal money.  According to WSDOT, a significant chunk of the money will go to cosmetic rehabilitation as well as utility upgrades:

The investment will strengthen King Street Station and its clock tower to better withstand earthquakes, as well as restore the historical features of the station’s main hall and upgrade electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems to modern standards. To restore the main hall to its original grandeur, the building’s white marble walls, decorative lighting and other features removed during “modernization” of the station more than 50 years ago will be rehabilitated or replaced, where possible. Also, improvements to both the Jackson Street and King Street entrances will significantly improve the public’s access to the station.

The news is welcome for anyone who supports passenger rail, the stations of which used to be the architectural gems for many American cities.  Aside from the solely aesthetic considerations though, I think the next step to truly bringing the Station back up to its former grandeur will be to work on integrating the scattered components of the King Street Hub together, admittedly a much more difficult feat.

You Want a Resolution? How About a Payroll Tax for Transit

What are we gonna tax?

Just a few days ago the Seattle City Council passed an Occupy Seattle inspired resolution containing a raft of feel good jargon about our latest economic crisis. For a while the Council was flirting with a city income tax! This is the City Council (except for Councilmembers O’Brien and Bagshaw, who weren’t on the Council then) that repealed a citywide “head tax” that generated about $4.5 million dollars for pedestrian and transit friendly projects around the city. What’s gotten into their heads? A city income tax isn’t a bad idea, but it’s illegal. A payroll tax for sustainable transit is a good idea too, but it’s legal.

It’s worth telling, again, the sad story of Seattle’s “Head Tax.” The tax was an employee-based tax that charged business with revenue above $80,000 a tax of $25 for each employee that drove to work. Yes, this really happened. If I didn’t know better, I’d be surprised that such a progressive and sensible tax was actually passed and implemented by the City Council.

But it didn’t last long. In 2009 under pressure from the Downtown Seattle Association the tax was repealed. Keep in mind that the average business in Seattle paid $92 in “head taxes,” and that huge businesses with millions in revenue were paying only several thousand dollars in taxes.

Remember, too, that the tax generated $4.5 million for sidewalks, crosswalks, and other improvements to make it easier for people to avoid driving. And guess how much the shortfall was in the Seattle Department of Transportation’s budget the following year? It was about $4.5 million. More after the jump.

Continue reading “You Want a Resolution? How About a Payroll Tax for Transit”

Missing the Forest for the Trees

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The intersection at 23rd & Union has a storied past, but also a troubled one.  In 2008, after Degene Barecha was killed while working at the Philly Cheese Steak restaurant on the corner, Robert Jamieson wrote a piece in the Seattle P-I recounting the corner’s history in which he referred to it as “Seattle’s intersection of woe.”  Two years ago, Seattle PD made a high-profile effort to clear the drug dealers from the corner. More recently, the corner’s neighborhood outreach center was vandalized.

Given all of that, you’d think the City of Seattle would be bending over backwards to revitalize the intersection, on the theory that more “eyes on the street” make for a safer neighborhood.

Alas, just a couple of months after the Beehive Bakery opened its doors in the old Philly Cheese Steak building, it had to close.  One reason: the owners were hoping to utilize the building’s built-in drive-through, but ran afoul of zoning codes.  As reported in the CD News:

They had hoped to use the drive-through window when they started plans for the bakery, but the old permits had lapsed and new city rules designate the corner as a pedestrian area. After a lengthy re-permitting process, which delayed the bakery’s opening, Jane and Ken found out that drive-through windows are no longer allowed. So they had to go forward without it.

It’s a shame that the Seattle PD couldn’t convince the Seattle DPD that the benefits of having a business in that space far, far outweighed the zoning laws that prevented a drive-through restaurant from operating on the corner.  I’m all for limiting car-dependent development, but when you have tiny green shoots popping up on a corner like this, you need to dump as much fertilizer on them as you can find, instead of letting them whither and die.