CRC Mega-Highway: How we can move forward, Part 3 of 3


When Governor Jay Inslee appointed Lynn Peterson as the next WSDOT Director, urbanists and sustainable transportation advocates across the country cheered – and some dared to hope that WSDOT would scrap megaprojects like the Columbia River Crossing. But any WSDOT Secretary ultimately reports to the Governor, and indirectly to the legislature.

Between the two governors, Inslee has been the more vocal cheerleader for the CRC over the last year.  Both on the campaign trail and in recent speeches, Governor Inslee has called for building the CRC – with light rail.

The CRC proponents say that both the Oregon and Washington legislatures have to put up $250 to $450 million this year in order to secure federal funding. Although the merit of this argument is suspect, Oregon has committed their share and now the pressure is on Washington to do its part.

To kill or change the CRC Mega-Project, we’re down to perhaps two options: (1) make sure no transportation package includes funding for the CRC, and (2) reduce the dedicated funding in the transportation budget to only the project components that make sense. More after the jump.
Continue reading “CRC Mega-Highway: How we can move forward, Part 3 of 3”

Mid-Line Operator Reliefs

Photo by zargoman

The other day, I was taking a 554 back to the Eastside when I discovered that I was onboard one of those pesky early afternoon trips with a mid-line operator relief at Mercer Island.  Judging from my past experiences with that trip, I wasn’t too bothered– for the most part, East Base operators are pretty good at switching in and out while the bus is still service.  This time around, however, the relief operator was nowhere in sight, ruffling more than a few passengers’ feathers.

While the relief operator did end up arriving about 5 minutes later, my experience exposed a rather significant disadvantage with having drivers relieve each other mid-line.  Though I don’t think instances of missing operators are too common, mid-line reliefs can be wildly unpredictable.  Sometimes, drivers will exchange keys and go.  Other times, they might strike up some chit-chat first.  And there are those occasional instances when a relief operator is nowhere to be found, keeping the driver on the clock and passengers on the bus longer than expected.

When operator work is scheduled and runcutted, relief points are worked in for maximum efficiency from a labor standpoint.  That, of course, can sometimes conflict with the system efficiency of in-service routes.  A poorly scheduled PM peak road relief on 3rd & Pike, for example, could easily logjam the Third Ave corridor, impacting buses going to and from places all over the region.  Of course, the best places and times to sneak in operator reliefs are those with little or no impact on revenue service, i.e., route terminals or during pulses at major transit centers.

Although I certainly don’t dispute that maximizing labor and wage efficiencies are vital scheduling considerations, I think keeping our transit vehicles operating free and undistracted should be priority number one, even if it means eliminating mid-line operator reliefs entirely.

Transit and the Mayor’s Race

SeattleST2Earlier this month Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog challanged those running against Mayor McGinn to offer a bold bike-friendly vision for Seattle:

Because right now, the nervous pack of challengers is playing it “safe” and letting McGinn run away with the label as the most progressive and inspiring candidate on transportation issues.

Is it just me or is this especially true for mass transit?   So far we’ve had Ed Murray saying the city can’t afford to expand Link, Burgess’s bold vision is to fix potholes, silence from Bruce Harrell (his last post in the transportation category is over 3 years old), and Peter Steinbrueck trying to reignite the Light Rail v Bus debate.

What gives?  Is it just too early to judge?  Is everyone so busy trying to be the anti-McGinn that they are punting on transit, and the 60%+ of voters that came out for ST2?

CRC: The Misunderstood Mega-Project, Part 2 of 3

Still structurally sound. (wikimedia)

WSDOT, ODOT, and their lead contractor David Evans & Associates (DEA) have waged a deliberate misinformation campaign since 2007 to frame the Columbia River Crossing Mega-Highway Project as imperative. It’s not.

Let’s look at each of the major points. By the end of this series, I hope you’ll agree that the CRC Mega-Highway is a giant mess, a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be better spent on almost any other project. Part 1 is here.

1. The CRC Mega-Highway is a 5-mile long freeway expansion project with 7 substantial interchange modifications.

The CRC Mega-Highway expands the existing I-5 freeway from its current 6 lanes to a total of 22 lanes at its widest. The expansion starts in Vancouver, Washington, 2.5 miles north of the Columbia River and extends more than a mile south of Hayden Island and the river into Portland. There are also seven substantial interchange modifications — representing 41 percent of the project costs — in order to make it easier for single-occupancy cars to get from suburban and rural homes onto and off the freeway. And yes, the current I-5 bridges that cross the Columbia River (and once carried streetcars) get demolished and replaced by a lower, bulkier mega-highway.

WSDOT, ODOT, and DEA would have you believe that it’s only a bridge replacement project. They went so far as to rename the project the “I-5 Bridge Replacement Project” in legislation recently passed by the Oregon legislature. As you saw in the contractor-created GIF yesterday: that’s misleading. More after the jump. Continue reading “CRC: The Misunderstood Mega-Project, Part 2 of 3”

If We Build Sidewalks, Will They Walk?

London: A Walkable City
London: A Walkable City

People love walkable neighborhoods; so much so that they pay a significant premium to live in one. Interestingly, however, there’s no correlation between living in a walkable neighborhood and actually walking more. That’s the result of a UW study that included Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood.

One way to read these results is to say that we’re foolish to pay for walkable neighborhoods because we don’t use them. Another way to read it is that we’ve defined walkability too broadly:

Although many dozens of studies have tried to analyze why some people walk and others don’t, [Brian Saelens, from Seattle Childrens’ Resarch Institute] says the overwhelming fact is it’s hard to get Americans to walk anywhere near the recommended 30 minutes per day.

The only proven way, he says, is if they live in high-density, transit-rich neighborhoods. In those areas, walking is useful. They’re dense with apartments and shops, driving is a pain, and good transit service means people will walk to a bus-stop or train station. In Seattle, he says, parts of Capitol Hill and Queen Anne fit the bill.

Ravenna has a Walkscore of 77, which is decent, but Capitol Hill beats it comfortably with a 91.  A Saturday afternoon stroll is, I would imagine, rather pleasant in Ravenna, but walking everywhere to run errands is probably intensely time-consuming.  Sidewalks and tree-lined streets are nice amenities (as people who live in Sidewalk-less Seattle can no doubt attest), but in and of themselves they’re not enough to encourage more walking.  True walkability – where you walk because it’s faster than any other form of transportation – is actually quite rare in Seattle (and most of America).

The CRC Mega-Highway Project, Part 1 of 3

Seattleites, urbanists, and environmentalists: While we’ve been focused on saving Metro service, expanding rail, and working toward dense growth – we’ve lost sight of part of the bigger picture.

By forgetting about a megaproject from another region, we’ve put in jeopardy funding for what we want built.  The biggest threat to funding many of our priorities is the Columbia River Crossing Project (CRC), 160 miles to the south.

The CRC Mega-Highway is a five-mile long highway expansion project of I-5 with seven significant interchange modifications between Portland and Vancouver. In places, the highway will become 22 lanes wide.

Like nearly all mega-highway projects, the CRC Mega-Highway will increase global warming pollution and exacerbate sprawl. But perhaps even worse, the CRC will put taxpayers at tremendous financial risk, spend billions of dollars, and divert money from better projects.

And like most mega-projects, the history of the CRC has been that of an alliance of politics, business, and labor moving forward, never solving significant problems, claiming that we’ve come too far not to keep pushing on, and that some federal dollars are at risk.

In fact, when the Oregon legislature voted to approve $450 million as their state’s share to the project, almost none of the legislators had seen renderings of what the CRC Mega-Project would look like, despite more than eight years of planning efforts.

Has Governor Inslee seen this bridge? (ODOT/CRC via Willamette Week)

Continue reading “The CRC Mega-Highway Project, Part 1 of 3”

News Roundup: Tough Job Ahead

MSPdude / Flickr

This is an open thread

Conlin is Right On the Money

Conlin on the MoneyLast week Seattle Councilmemer Richard Conlin said something that made perfect sense to me:

We may not be as successful if we devote our resources into the new housing in a very hot neighborhood in producing as much help for people who need affordable housing as if we focus our resources on, say, along the light rail line in Rainier Valley, where there is easy access to some of those jobs and where there are lots of great communities, such that can be built up there. It is a matter not so much about, say, everything there and not here, but what is where is the most effective way in which to deploy the resources that you might be able to have, which we know we can’t create all the affordable housing that we would like to have. The government efforts are not possible to do that. So we have to figure out where our resources are most effective.

Councilmember Conlin was talking about South Lake Union when he was referring to a “hot neighborhood.”

Here’s the reaction to Conlin’s comments from a couple of advocates quoted by Dominic Holden in the SLOG:

Philippa Nye, of Ally Community Development, was the first to speak at a comment period, denouncing the idea: “Having everyone commute from Rainier Valley or Rainier Beach feels like housing segregation to me.

She was hardly alone—I heard from several people this week. “Having council suggest redlining and segregation is part of Seattle’s future makes my stomach hurt,” says Rebecca Saldaña, a program director of the housing advocacy nonprofit Puget Sound Sage.

What’s odd is that Saldana’s group Puget Sound Sage produced a report on light rail in the Rainier Valley that said this: Continue reading “Conlin is Right On the Money”

aPodments move to the Exurbs

Homes near Snohomish HS

What do the neighbors say when a real estate company tries to convert a run-down single family home in Snohomish that’s been empty since 2008 into “aPodments” renting for $400 to $500 a room?  Sing along, I think you know the tune by now:

But the plan is upsetting neighbors, who argue that the proposal would hurt the character of the neighborhood…

[neighbor Ardie McLean] worries that apodments chiefly attract people without any investment in the community.

To be fair, this Snohomish rooming house will be in a single family zone, whereas Seattle’s aPodments are being built in multifamily zones.

I’m strongly in favor of car-free dense housing in general in the more transit-friendly places in our state’s most transit-friendly city.  But what about in the far suburbs?  I’m generally not a fan of adding housing in the exurbs: they’re generally sprawled, take a large amount of resources, and require a large amount of driving both for a commute and for daily tasks.  But on the other hand, I prefer to pull population toward our cities by allowing more people to live here, not by outlawing homes in the exurbs.  I’m having trouble imagining who would want to live in a $500 room in Snohomish, but I don’t see any reason to block the development.

So what do you think.  Exurban aPodments: for or against?

Merits of a Fremont Streetcar

As longtime readers know, I was on the citizen advisory board for Seattle’s latest Transit Master Plan. I can hardly take the credit (or blame) for what it contains, but I was generally supportive of the plan’s emphasis on streetcar corridors. Streetcar skepticism is a completely coherent viewpoint for transit advocates to have, and I don’t consider myself a full-throated advocate for them, so I thought I’d explain some of my reasoning on this subject.

1. There’s a very real chance that Sound Transit isn’t able to make a big new investment in our working lifetimes, so we’d better have a backup plan. For a big new package to arise, the legislature, Sound Transit board, and voters all have to agree. The Board is probably on our side, but the legislature is almost always terrible, and the electorate is a wild card based on the conditions at that particular election.

This is not a message of despair. There is reason to worry and cause to have a backup plan, but also enough of a chance for success that working hard for it is worthwhile. Nevertheless, it’s a smaller effort to get Seattle leadership and voters on board, plus a solid grassroots push for priority treatments. It’s second best but I prefer it to the status quo.

2. From technical and financial standpoint, a Fremont/Ballard streetcar is a complement to Link through Interbay, not competition. A line that intersects Link in two places builds network effects with the rest of the rapid transit network, in the same way that an Eastlake streetcar complements North Link. The point of the streetcar is not to connect Ballard quickly with downtown, but to connect Fremont and South Lake Union quickly with each other and with the endpoints.

Financially, the streetcar is an order of magnitude cheaper than a subway. It’s not an either/or, it’s a rounding error for a grade-separated project.

3. Politically, it might be viewed as a replacement rather than a complement. I know of no way to guarantee the actions of the Sound Transit Board in 2016 or 2020, nor the effectiveness of various neighborhood actors. I do know that suburban leaders have been singularly focused on completing the Link regional spine, requiring a tax rate that will generate billions of dollars that must be spent in Seattle and Shoreline: far more money than the streetcar network could possibly absorb. All that said, I think it’s well worth the time of anyone concerned about this to let their representatives know that a streetcar, while welcome, is not an adequate replacement.

Any transit improvement in that area can be viewed as diminishing the impetus for grade separation. Should we really stop trying to improve RapidRide D?

4. The other risk is of halfhearted implementation, which worsens the cost/benefit analysis. Like any idea, the prospects are bad if you assume poor execution. The McGinn administration’s apparent lack of attention to this issue on First Hill is a serious cause for concern. To me, a MAX-like level of quality is a slam dunk; if I knew for sure a Fremont streetcar would provide little benefit over the 40, I’d vote against it. But once again, we can shape these events and there is no need for despair at this stage in the process.

5. It’s true that a BRT solution wins some of the gains at a lower cost, as the Transit Master Plan explained. I wouldn’t hesitate to support a BRT solution that survived the process, but am equally supportive of spending more to get a higher quality line. The streetcar provides stronger branding (and thus more riders), more capacity, a driver free of distraction from passengers, and a low likelihood of backsliding on qualities like off-board payment. I’m for building awesome transit in Seattle – not finding ways where we can cut corners on quality.

Washington State Ferries Considers Restoring Deep Passenger Discounts


Photo by AdonisPhotos

The Washington State Legislature has many goals for ferry pricing policy. Fares need to provide an adequate percentage of operation and maintenance expenses (about 66% in 2012). Fares should encourage desirable behaviors – reducing vehicle peak demand, increasing non-peak ridership, etc. Simplifying the fare structure is a high priority.

Ferry pricing policy changes enacted since 1998 worked against many state goals. Washington State Ferries (WSF) eliminated the joint monthly transit pass, which gave an additional 10% discount to walk-on commuters using other transit systems. WSF used to offer a “10 for the price of 6” ticket book and half-price fares for kids ages 6 to 11. Since 2003, youth and frequent passengers pay about 80% of the full fare. Meanwhile, WSF no longer charges 20’ to 22’ vehicles the oversize vehicle surcharge and their drivers are now eligible for senior, disabled, or commuter discounts. A “small car” now pays 20% less than the base vehicle fare; WSF is considering increasing that discount to 30% off. (Frequent and senior/disabled drivers receive additional discounts.) Adding the small car categories greatly increased the complexity of the fare structure. And today, some commuters find it cheaper to drive across on the ferry than to pay for parking, walk-on ferry fares, and transit.

The outcomes of those policy changes are striking when customer costs are compared for different user types. (All examples are round-trip fares for Central Sound routes in Summer 1997 and 2013, using multi-ride passes if applicable.) A 21’ truck driver paid $21.20 in the summer of ’97 (ineligible for discounts), but pays $21.14 today with a multi-ride pass. A walk-on family of four frequent riders (2 kids ages 6-11, and 2 non-senior adults) paid $7.70 in 1997, but is charged $24.80 today. These and other fares are shown below.

Continue reading “Washington State Ferries Considers Restoring Deep Passenger Discounts”

Spokane Street Project Savings Could Accelerate Rail

This week, the Spokane Street Viaduct widening project has officially come in under budget by $11.75 million. The savings stay in the city, to be used on other SDOT projects.

The mayor and SDOT have released their highest priorities for this funding – and the list is something urbanists should be happy with, a good balance between road reconstruction and pothole prevention, neighborhood streets, intelligent transportation systems, sidewalks, bicycle improvements, and a little at the end for transit.

This is the kind of balance that is too diffuse for voters to be happy with – there’s no “big ticket” item to frame the package – but grabs low-hanging fruit across the board and targets cost effective investments like adaptive traffic signals to improve traffic flow without manual tweaking, and crack sealing to stop potholes before they start. As an aside (and an abuse of blockquotes):

The crack sealing program is pretty interesting to me – it’s much like my day job. I find software problems before users get to them: it’s cheaper to fix a bug before it goes to customers than it is to release a patch. Much like this, crack sealing stops potholes from forming in the first place, preventing more expensive patches. This week council member Burgess attacked the mayor over potholes, but the mayor pioneered this program to prevent them at much lower cost, making city dollars go farther. It’s a classic attack, but it’s really damaging to the conversation, because we’re past that as a city.

Under McGinn (and Nickels before him), the city patches potholes when they’re reported, which means the ones most important to citizens are addressed first. Burgess said he wanted to move to a system where teams go neighborhood to neighborhood to patch on a schedule – but that’s the system we moved away from, because it’s less efficient. This is similar to how modern building management systems have moved away from regularly scheduled maintenance, and to a sensor-driven model that lets maintenance know when a valve is stuck or a light out, so they can choose the repairs with best cost benefit first. This saves a lot of money for building managers just as it saves the city money for potholes.

Continue reading “Spokane Street Project Savings Could Accelerate Rail”

RapidRide Route Selection

In the comments to Bruce’s post on RapidRide E&F, some folks wondered how the routes were chosen, since the Metro routes being replaced have vastly different ridership numbers, as the Times reported recently.

Well, I don’t have any answers, but this map of RapidRide routes overlaid on King County Council districts might shed some insight.

RapidRide meets KC Council
RapidRide meets KC Council

I’m being a bit cheeky here because of course the districts are drawn based on population, which means the population centers are divided between them, making some amount of district-straddling routes inevitable.  That said, I don’t actually think it’s a bad strategy to spread out support. Defense contractors figured out long ago that the best weapons system is one that’s built in all 435 congressional districts and never actually ships. So kudos to Metro making RapidRide “hard to kill” in the political parlance.

A Slightly New Perspective on Link Ridership


Here are the updated graphs from this post, plus a new one organized by Operations Year instead of Calendar Year. Link’s December ridership numbers led to some discussion last month about growth possibly slowing, but from this graph it is clear that December 2011 was just an abnormally high ridership month, making 2012’s growth appear more sluggish than it actually was. That brings us to my favorite graph, year over year change. After the aforementioned dip in December (note the mirroring spike in December 2011), growth returned to double digits this January. With this kind of sustained growth, it is very possible Central Link will exceed its pre-recession ridership estimates. Link is a 100 year investment and the first few years of ridership are a poor judge of its success or failure. That said, in the short term it certainly helps sell expansion politically. This is especially true now that we could be looking at an ST3 vote as early as 2016.


Traditional charts below the fold.

Continue reading “A Slightly New Perspective on Link Ridership”

News Roundup: Something New

U-Link Tunnel Washdown (Sound Transit)
U-Link Tunnel Washdown (Sound Transit)

This is an open thread.

Upcoming SDOT Open Houses: Aurora and Mercer

Aurora & 65th improvements diagram

The Seattle Department of Transportation has a pair of construction open houses tonight and tomorrow, both of which will be interesting for transit.

First, tonight, from 5:00 to 6:00 PM, at the Bitter Lake Community Center, will be an open house on RapidRide-related transit improvements for the northern section (within Seattle) of Aurora Ave, from about 85th to 145th. Elements of the project include RapidRide stops and stations (with associated ORCA card readers and realtime arrival signs), new sidewalks and curb ramps on streets which provide access to stops, a new pedestrian signal at 95th, and an extension of the current BAT lane from 115th down to Green Lake. You can read the whole flyer here.

The resulting BAT lanes will be essentially continuous in both directions from the Aurora Bridge to Aurora Village Transit Center, except (I think) for the Linden Deviation taken by northbound buses; southbound only, the BAT lanes pick up again just south of the bridge and continue down to Roy St. The last I heard, which was a while ago, the BAT lanes north of the bridge will be peak-period, peak-direction only, due to pushback from the Aurora Merchants Association against full-time lanes.

Meanwhile, SDOT is moving ahead with improvements on the Linden Deviation. The diagram above shows the sidewalk and stop improvements to be built in the vicinity of 65th St. Southbound E Line buses will stop at a new station on Aurora, while northbound buses will continue to deviate onto Linden. Longtime readers will remember this as a compromise between the two-way Linden and two-way Aurora alternatives originally suggested by Metro; concerns about ADA access on the east side of Aurora, and the safety of the occasionally-scary 68th St crosswalk, scuppered the idea of northbound buses avoiding that deviation.

For a route of this importance on a principal arterial, part-time BAT lanes are a really unfortunate cop-out by Seattle. Nonetheless, these improvements, along with the new signal priority Metro has installed, will make buses a little faster and the pedestrian environment a little less awful, and are thus very welcome.

Let's make sure this isn't our next missing link.
Let’s make sure this isn’t our next missing link.

Further south, SDOT and their contractor are gearing up for the main phase of the Mercer West Project, as the Mercer East Project finishes its final phase on Valley St and 9th Ave; the open house is Thursday, from 4:30 to 7:00 PM, at Seattle Center Rainier Room. Mercer West will totally remake the interface between South Lake Union and the east side of the Seattle Center and Uptown: dramatically improve the environment for pedestrians and bicyclists; make room for the new SR99 north portal at Republican; and open up for development the mostly-desolate nine-block square of the city between Denny and Harrison currently blighted by SR99. This slideshow from WSDOT is the best way to understand what will be done and when.

Mercer West will take several years, until about 2016, with a long period where SR99 will be reduced to two lanes each way. Nonetheless, to the city’s credit, the southbound Aurora BAT lane will be maintained throughout. I plan to be at the open house to ask about the bike connection to the recently-funded Westlake cycletrack that will end around Aloha. With Mercer West creating major new cycletracks on 5th Ave N and the north side of Mercer, a safe, direct, frictionless bike connection on those few blocks between facilities will be essential to realize a full return on our investment.

Some Thoughts on Tolling and Mercer Island

mercerisland1. Tolling is an extension of the time / money tradeoff that already exists in our transportation system. Setting the ideologically motivated aside, if one’s time is valuable in monetary terms, one usually drives; if one has more time than money, one uses transit. There are a few cases in the region where transit is actually faster door-to-door, but for the price-insensitive driving is almost always faster. Carpools exist somewhere in between: suffer the inconvenience of meeting up, but split the costs of driving.

Add in tolls, and the gap in cost increases, while both modes get faster. While the marginal bus/car traveler may shift to the bus, those dedicated to their mode and interested in getting somewhere as fast as possible are big winners. Indeed, if the marginal bus/car traveler didn’t shift modes or abandon the trip, reducing congestion would be impossible.

2. It follows that no one on Mercer Island will be “cut off” as long as inexpensive bus service exists on Mercer Island.

3. One of the more potent arguments against tolling is that it is regressive. Personally, I see no other practical way to ration the road space. Nevertheless, what would clearly make the policy worse would be to exempt the city with the highest median household income in or near the I-90 corridor.

4. Some have expressed angst on behalf of the service workers who commute to Mercer Island. If it’s no longer economic to commute there, wages will inevitably rise. If that isn’t satisfactory, a targeted way to assist service workers in the new regime would be to use a sliver of the new toll revenue to ensure excellent transit coverage on Mercer Island.  From a policy and fairness standpoint, that is a vast improvement over exempting some of the region’s wealthiest residents for what amounts to a corner case.