STB’s Top Posts of 2012

With 2012 set to expire and a new year on tap, it’s always good to relive the blog’s top posts of the year, for whatever they’re worth. Below are the STB posts with the most reads and most comments of 2012.

Most read posts of 2012

  1. Bolt Bus Coming to the Northwest – by Andrew (5/1): Big news was big news when one of the Northeast’s premier intercity bus services announced plans for the Pacific Northwest.
  2. BREAKING: 4.2 Miles of Copper Wire Stolen from LINK – by Zach (5/11): Even transit isn’t immune to rampant copper thefts. Nearly a quarter million dollars worth was stripped from Link’s guideway.
  3. An Update on Seattle Subway – by Ben (8/10): Advocacy efforts to hasten the building of more inner-city rail continue to chug along.
  4. Tracking the Bus Tracker Problems – by Wayne Watanabe & Mark Hallenbeck (4/23): Metro’s real-time information was a real pain earlier in the year. Since then, things have been looking up.
  5. Bellevue Council Spins Tales, Seattle Times Repeats Them – by Ben (11/24): Plans for a rail maintenance base on the Eastside incited a storm of unwarranted controversy and questionable journalism.
  6. The Solution to 3rd Ave? Commerce. – by Sherwin (3/9): I opine about certain ways to deal with ongoing problems on Third Avenue, though not everyone agreed with me.
  7. The Awfulness of Mt. Baker Station – by Martin (4/18): Martin takes on the many design issues at Mount Baker, a vital multi-modal transit hub in Southeast Seattle.
  8. Service Change & RFA Elimination Open Thread – by Martin (10/1): STB readers had lots to say the day of Metro’s biggest service change ever.
  9. Don’t Plan With Anecdotes – The Data Says We Need Eastlake. – by Ben (10/31): Competing arguments about the utility of rail along Eastlake set up one of the bigger debates we’ve seen within transit advocacy circles.
  10. Super Simple Stuff – by Andrew (5/5): Public service announcements borrowed from Australia boils transit etiquette down to one thing: common sense.

More commented posts of 2012 below the jump.

Continue reading “STB’s Top Posts of 2012”

Sunday Open Thread: The Loneliest Bus Stop in Seattle

Looking south from 4th/Wall – photo by the author

Last September Metro moved all Magnolia service over to 3rd Ave, but in a hilarious oversight they left the 82-Night Owl on 4th Avenue.  4th/Wall, pictured above, is served only by the 82 in the middle of the night, at 2:19 and 3:34am. Yet it still has a full shelter! STB contacted Metro about this and they have since announced that on January 5th the 82 will move to 3rd Ave.

The next loneliest?  2nd Avenue at Broad, Cedar, and Bell, served by a grand total of 4 trips/day on the 123.

This is an open thread.

Metro Redeploying Westlake Customer Stop Hours


Starting Jan. 2, Metro will operate the Westlake Customer Stop only the first four and last four business days of every month, rather than every business day. The hours will be 9-5:30 on those days, as before. Metro is doing so “to more efficiently focus services at the times of the month when transit customers use the facility the most.”

According to spokesman Jeff Switzer, about 60% of the stop’s 4,000+ monthly sales in November were conducted during the 4 first and last business days. By comparison, the Westlake TVMs conducted about 17,000 sales, the most in the system. The original plan was to close the stop entirely to save $260,000 per year, but the end of the ride free area placed new emphasis on ORCA availability. As he told me:

However plans changed. With the RFA ending, our implementation plan identified expanding ORCA sales as a priority to streamline pay on entry. We revised our plan and a 2013/2014 budget was adopted that kept the Westlake Customer Stop open during peak times (first 4 and last 4 business days each month) and redeployed staff on other days to sell ORCA passes at community centers, senior centers and other locations using a new portable “customer service terminal.” Under this approach, staff go to where the potential transit customers are, and will better be able to answer questions from people who might not otherwise come to Westlake Station to buy ORCA passes.

Although there are tons of remaining places to perform ORCA operations, the other 14 or so business days the only option to interact with a knowledgeable human, and get specialty cards like youth and senior ORCAs*, is either at these new customer service terminals or at Metro headquarters on Jackson St.

Switzer added that Metro will examine how this turned out at the end of 2013.

* This can also be done through the mail.

Amtrak Cascades Faces an Uncertain 2013

Amtrak Cascades at Auburn Station
Amtrak Cascades at Auburn Station

2013 will be a volatile year for Amtrak Cascades. In October, WSDOT and ODOT must assume the full operating costs for the service, as Sec. 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) requires that the feds divest from all state-supported corridor trains of less than 750 miles. Without additional funding from the legislature, losing Amtrak funding will mean a 23% hit to the operating budget, or $9.8m annually.

Chart from WSDOT
Chart from WSDOT

But in the 2012 State Transportation Budget, the legislature largely tied WSDOT’s hands, mandating that Stanwood Station  be served in perpetuity, that Amtrak Cascades runs may not be canceled outright, and that WSDOT actively plan for a 3rd Vancouver BC roundtrip. Alternatively, WSDOT is actively looking at truncations to make up the shortfall. At the State Rail Plan meeting I attended on October 31, WSDOT staff said the most likely victim would be trains 513/516, which could revert to terminating in Bellingham instead of Vancouver BC. In the context of the nearly $1B in capital grants received between Seattle and Portland, WSDOT is rightfully committed to adding a minimum of two more SEA-PDX trips; in any funding shortfall, service north of Seattle would have to take the hit. While highly regrettable, truncating a Vancouver BC train would be the least worst option.

Lastly, while mostly overlooked at the time, lawmakers included an earmark in the 2012 budget to study the costs and benefits of adding an Amtrak Cascades stop in Auburn:

5) $300,000 of the multimodal transportation account–state appropriation is provided solely for the department to conduct a study to examine the interconnectivity benefits of, and potential for, a future Amtrak Cascades stop in the vicinity of the city of Auburn. As part of its consideration, the department shall conduct a thorough market analysis of the potential for adding or changing stops on the Amtrak Cascades route.

Until now there has been no process by which cities could appeal to WSDOT to add their city as a stop. Several cities have informally expressed interest; Blaine has long wanted a stop to draw potential riders from Surrey and White Rock for whom neither Vancouver BC or Bellingham are convenient. Lakewood officials have held out the possibility of a stop as one means of getting them to drop their opposition to the Point Defiance Bypass. Auburn’s study will likely set criteria by which cities may apply for stops in the future.

Amtrak Cascades is a huge success story, with annual ridership of nearly 1 million and farebox recovery at 65%.  With greater frequencies, new rolling stock, a more direct route, and improved running speeds in the next few years, the future for intercity rail between Seattle and Portland looks bright. But with dozens of annual mudslide-induced cancellations, British Columbia’s lack of investment, and plans for truly massive freight expansion north of Seattle, the future for Vancouver BC service is grim.

Desmond and McGinn Make Another Great Meetup

A week ago, at the Tap House downtown, Seattle Transit Blog hosted another excellent meetup, featuring as speakers Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. Our speakers came with interesting and informative speeches, and our readers plied them with detailed questions. For a couple of hours afterwards, everyone mingled and had great conversations about transit. It was a smashing success, and we’d like to thank our guests and our readers who made the evening possible.

Metro GM Desmond spoke on two subjects: lessons learned from the roll-out of RapidRide C & D and the associated service change; and what’s ahead for Metro in 2013 and 2014. Some of the high points culled from the speech and Q&A:

  • As the September service change approached, Metro management seriously worried about the ability of the agency to execute three major changes (RapidRide C & D implementation, RFA elimination, and West Seattle-Ballard restructure) at once; at times the pace of change felt almost “suicidal”.
  • After the first couple of chaotic days, Metro managed to get things under control, and travel times through downtown have stabilized at the levels predicted by staff based on prior simulations and analysis. Desmond called out the “lots of smart people” who work for him.
  • Seattle is a very different market from the suburbs. When the A & B Lines were rolled out, they were immediately and universally liked by riders. The C & D reaction was very different, much more mixed, even from those who didn’t lose service; for instance, riders had to get used to more “urban” buses with fewer seats but more standing room. Desmond acknowledged the complaints about lack of schedule and OneBusAway information for RapidRide and said that “should be getting better” soon (and indeed it is).
  • There’s not likely to be any more “big bang” service changes like the last one. The sheer volume of complaints from disaffected Seattle riders (and voters) vastly exceeded expectations. As a public agency, Metro can’t ignore public opinion; especially as the agency may well soon have to ask voters for more money at the ballot.
  • Metro is working with SDOT on “a schedule everyone can live with” for improvements associated with RapidRide E. Reading between the lines here, my suspicion is that, just as many of the facilities and improvements for the D Line were not ready on schedule (among other things, stops not constructed and signal priority not turned on for weeks after launch), something similar has happened for the E Line. If that’s the case, delaying the E Line to make sure the service starts right out of the gate seems like a great idea to me.

What’s on the horizon for Metro, after the jump. Continue reading “Desmond and McGinn Make Another Great Meetup”

King County Pushes Its Own Legislative Proposal

Photo by zargoman

Earlier this month, the many jurisdictions in King County banded together to present a unified transportation proposal (.pdf) to be considered before the State Legislature.  The proposal, signed off by the county, the City of Seattle, and the Sound Cities Association (all the other suburban cities in the county), is a direct ask for local funding options primarily through leveraging a sizable gas tax increase that would mostly benefit the State.

There are three specific elements to the proposal:

  • An 8-cent statewide gax tax increase, with a 65/35 split between state and local needs, respectively.
  • An increase of councilmanic authority to directly impose a vehicle license fee (VLF) from $20 to $40 in Transportation Benefit Districts (TBD).  Anything remaining out of $100 could be brought before the voters.
  • A 1.5% Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) that could be passed councilmanically or by popular vote.  According to Fred Jarrett, 60% of the MVET would go to Metro, while the remaining would be divvied up among the county and cities for roads.

Gas tax proposal (and all accompanying opinions) aside, the asks are fairly significant.  Doubling the councilmanic VLF authority to $40 could arguably ease pressure off any remaining VLF increase that would go before a public vote.  And as Martin mentioned earlier this year, a 1% MVET alone would be sufficient to plug Metro’s annual deficit of $60 million.  An additional 0.5% on top of that could presumably go toward a substantial service increase*.

The proposal is among many that the Legislature will have to juggle for the upcoming session, so the chances that King County will get everything it wants is extremely slim.  Any funding authority will also have to clear both the Senate and the House, which will be no mean feat of its own.

*We can assume an effective 0.9% MVET for Metro assuming it gets a 60% share of the proposed 1.5% rate.  A 1% MVET is estimated to generate up to $100 million annually, so some back-of-the-napkin math gives us $90 million a year for Metro, more than enough to cover the deficit.

News Roundup: Angle Lake

Broadway & Madison (Gordon Werner/Flickr)

This is an open thread.

Seattle Times: Upzone SLU for the Economy

121203 - SLU-Height Comparison
Image from city tank.

The Seattle Times published a rather surprising editorial mildly advocating for the upzone of South Lake Union:

South Lake Union is looking up. Rezoning proposals represent an opportunity that would turn other cities emerald green with envy.

Council land-use chair Richard Conlin is looking for a council vote by mid-February At this point, he sees a general consensus building around the mayor’s plans.

If the instinct is to worry about views, then keep the outlook for Seattle’s economic well-being unobstructed as well.

This is a good observation for two reasons. First, the swap is views for 1) jobs, 2) housing, and 3) social benefits like low-income housing and workforce-training facilities. Second, we should be encouraging the investment here and not elsewhere.

The other surprising bit is the mention of further transit investments:

More offices, apartments and condos provide a critical mass for further investments in public transit. All the talk could indeed turn into a people-moving reality.

This is from a group that famously advocated voters reject ST2 just four years ago. Maybe attitudes are truely changing in on Fairview and John, or maybe it’s the fact that their properties are part of the rezone, either way, it’s welcome.

RapidRide C & D Realtime Data Now in OneBusAway


Per the OneBusAway twitter account, realtime arrival information should now work for all trips on RapidRide C & D. A big thank you to the staff and volunteers at Metro and OneBusAway for making this happen. Note, however, that (due to a separate problem) OneBusAway realtime and schedule data is usually broken on holidays where Metro operates a Sunday or reduced weekday schedule, so you’ll probably have to wait ’til next week to actually make use of this. Along with the recently-enabled signal priority in Interbay (which, although I have no real data, certainly seems to be making the bus faster), this brings the D Line closer to what was promised, a genuine improvement over Route 15.

Perhaps, to celebrate Kwanzaa, Metro could turn on the lights at the ultra-sketchy northbound 3rd & Virginia stop? That would be another great favor to riders.

UPDATE: The merits of the Uptown deviation have been debated to death in previous threads, and the subject is now derailing another thread where it is, at best, tangentially related. It’s off-topic for this thread, and comments on that subject will be deleted.

The Gas Tax and (School) Buses

Photo by schmich

Recently there has been a lot of digital ink spilled here on the subject of gas taxes and the 18th amendment. Outgoing Governor Christine Gregoire has proposed a wholesale motor vehicle fuel excise tax to help pay for school buses. This times article focuses mostly who would pay the tax, consumers or producers*, and whether or not it’s a good idea to use the gas tax to pay for school buses when there are other transportation needs.

I don’t have especially strong opinions on whether school buses should be funded with the gas tax. However, one topic the times article does not mention is the 18th amendment. Nor do any of the other other discussions of the idea. I asked the Governor’s Office if they have considered whether this proposal would violate the 18th amendment. They said they had considered it, and decided the proposal likely would not. Now, whole sale motor vehicle fuel excise taxes are pretty much exactly the sort of taxes the 18th amendment is about: “all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel. It does follow that if gas taxes can pay for school buses, then gas taxes can pay for virtually any transportation project. Both Metro buses and Link carry Seattle public school children, for example.

Now I don’t think this will pass the two-thirds requirements in the state legislature, so we probably will never know whether this would have actually been constitutional. But my point is there are a lot of ways pass this 18th amendment hurdle, and there’s starting to be some talk of raising new revenues from a gas tax. Let’s see if we can get some of that money for transit.

* This is an econ 101 question, and the answer is both, but the degree depends on the price elasticity of demand.

Garages are Not for Cars

I came across an interesting statistic the other day.  A public radio Marketplace episode cited 2/3rds of all garages aren’t used to store cars.  Searching the web for more details I found it’s estimated that 70-80% of Seattle’s garages are used only for non-car storage, and a 2001 UCLA study found that “Only 25 percent of garages could be used to store cars because they were so packed with stuff.”  This was a small but detailed study, and I’d love to find better data.

This brings up a few land use points:

1. Why are we requiring new residential homes to build parking?  Not only does this make housing significantly more expensive, we’re likely wasting most of this money.

2. I wonder how elastic street parking is.  My guess is very elastic.  Our streets are all lined with cars parked for free on the street.  How many of these cars would be moved into garages if parking was difficult or expensive enough?

3. Man we have an addiction to stuff.  I’ve stayed with people in Indonesia and India that had very little, yet seemed very happy.  What is it about our culture that requires so much clothes, toys, and knicknacks.

Reminder: Holiday Schedules

Photo by Sergio Bonachela

Today is the last day of normal Metro bus service until January 2nd.

Christmas Eve December 24, 2012 Reduced Weekday & No UW
Christmas Day December 25, 2012 Sunday
Holiday Week December 26 – 28, 2012 Reduced Weekday & No UW
New Year’s Eve December 31, 2012 Reduced Weekday & No UW
New Year’s Day January 1, 2013 Sunday

Community transit will have no service on Christmas and New Year’s Day, and reduced service Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Sound Transit will operate similarly on those days, though Christmas and New Year’s will be a Sunday schedule. Unfortunately Pierce Transit’s website only shows holidays through February of 2012, but it appears there will be reduced service on Christmas Eve, Christmas, possibly Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Who Wants Affordable Housing?

Belmont Apartments by Rob Ketcherside on flickr
Belmont Apartments by Rob Ketcherside on flickr

The strange thing about building housing is that, almost by definition, the potential buyers and renters don’t yet live in the neighborhood, and therefore don’t get a say in how said housing gets built.  Instead, the city, the developers, and existing residents decide.

This leads to conversations like this CHS comment thread, where it’s generally agreed that “everyone on Capitol Hill” is against small apartments.  Of course they are – they already live on Capitol Hill! The apartments aren’t being built for them.

As a homeowner near Capitol Hill*, I wish more people who live on Capitol Hill — people whom I generally believe to be pro-social justice — would take a moment to think about the young people who want to live in a diverse, transit-friendly neighborhood with good access to jobs, but can’t afford it.  Not everyone works at a big tech firm or bought their house in the 70s.

In other words, I wish these folks would take a moment to think about people like Duane Taylor:

SEATTLE — Duane Taylor was studying the humanities in community college and living in his own place when he lost his job in a round of layoffs. Then he found, and lost, a second job. And a third.

Now, with what he calls “lowered standards” and a tenuous new position at a Jack in the Box restaurant, Mr. Taylor, 24, does not make enough to rent an apartment or share one. He sleeps on a mat in a homeless shelter, except when his sister lets him crash on her couch.

Duane would probably like an affordable apartment on Capitol Hill.  I’m sure if he knew that attending a community meeting would increase the supply of affordable housing, he would have made the effort to attend. But I doubt he has access to CHS from his mat in the homeless shelter. And so the result is that “everyone” at the meeting opposes affordable apartments.

Continue reading “Who Wants Affordable Housing?”

Mudslides Up Close

This week has been a miserable one for trains in the Seattle area.  After two Monday mudslides, one near Nisqually and one near Everett, on Tuesday not a single Amtrak train arrived or departed King Street Station. Another mudslide yesterday has put North Sounder and Amtrak off until at least Friday. Mudslide prevention projects are still on the way thanks to stimulus dollars, but at this point these efforts seem meager compared to the enormity of the problem. At least 30 mudslides have occurred just since Thanksgiving.

From YouTube user John Hill, here’s up close video of Monday afternoon’s mudslide and 7-car derailment just south of Everett. The slide begins at the 1’00” mark. The 48-hour passenger moratorium may be frustrating — and moving to a case-by-case assessment would be superior to an arbitrary time period —  but let’s not forget that mudslides are serious business. Video like this shows just how dangerous they can be.

News Roundup: Bus Bulbs

“Car2Go Storage” (Atomic Taco/Flickr)

This is an open thread. See you at the meetup tonight!

Comment Policy Update

This afternoon we deleted a number of comments in a way that isn’t compliant with the way we usually moderate comments. We’re sorry about that and we’re tightening up our moderation procedures.

There are better ways to keep conversation focused on the topic at hand, and we’ll do better to use them.

This is as good a time as any to link to our comment policy. It’s good to check on it periodically if you comment here.

Jump Starting Sound Transit 3

I couldn’t resist.

Tomorrow, we get a big win. Sound Transit doesn’t want to see Issaquah, Redmond, or Everett left behind by Seattle going it alone, so they’re responding to the threat of our ballot measure by doing a lot of our work for us! Their board is expected to unanimously pass a budget amendment (PDF) to spend $9.76 million in 2013 to get them on track for more. I met with staff, and they explained what this will fund:

First, it will combine a bunch of study work into likely three major contracts for corridor studies. This likely means one from downtown to West Seattle, Burien and Renton; one from Ballard to UW, Kirkland and Redmond combined with options for connecting Issaquah; and finally, one from the currently funded Lynnwood terminus of light rail all the way to Everett.

From each study, different alternatives will be evaluated for cost, ridership, and other factors. Then Sound Transit will use this data, along with extensive public outreach, to identify the best projects to be added by the board to their Long Range Plan. Law requires that the Board choose projects from their long range plan for any ballot measure – so a mixture of these will become the light rail backbone of Sound Transit 3.

With this budget amendment, the board puts the pedal to the metal, keeping their pipeline full for about the next two years, and helps open up the option of a regional vote as early as 2016, rather than 2020 or even later. It’s a big win for transit advocates; grassroots organizing gets results!

To get to a vote, though, there’s much more work to do. Voters have already approved all the revenue that the legislature provided for Sound Transit, so before they can develop Sound Transit 3 and send it to voters, they need the authority to ask. This week’s vote will help us show legislators that we have the support of our local elected officials – we want more transit, and we want it yesterday.

Want to help us get there? Sign up and say you want to help out, or talk to me at tomorrow’s meetup, where we’ll discuss what the board action means and what we can do to get more.

Just Read It: The 18th Amendment



After reading Martin’s excellent analysis (and follow-up) on why the restrictions on the use of Gas Tax money don’t really matter, I thought it was worth bringing up another salient fact. Often in discussions regarding the gas tax, people bring up the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution. People summarize this amendment as stating that gas tax money can only be used for “highway purposes” and leave it at that. While the words “highway purposes” are indeed used by the amendment, it’s interesting to look at how it defines highway purposes. Below I quote the 18th amendment as found here.

SECTION 40 HIGHWAY FUNDS. All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes, shall be paid into the state treasury and placed in a special fund to be used exclusively for highway purposes. Such highway purposes shall be construed to include the following:
(a) The necessary operating, engineering and legal expenses connected with the administration of public highways, county roads and city streets;
(b) The construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, county roads, bridges and city streets [emphasis added]; including the cost and expense of (1) acquisition of rights-of-way, (2) installing, maintaining and operating traffic signs and signal lights, (3) policing by the state of public highways, (4) operation of movable span bridges, (5) operation of ferries which are a part of any public highway, county road, or city street;

Continue reading “Just Read It: The 18th Amendment”