Bubbles and Housing Stock

Paul Constant, The Stranger:

On the other hand, Seattle sure does feel awful bubble-like lately, doesn’t it? There’s so much construction happening everywhere that I’m reminded of Seattle in 2000, or 2008. And worse, it’s all aimless, unfocused construction of the kind where everyone is building the exact same type of building over and over again—luxury condos, with retail on the ground floor—and some of them are certainly doomed to fail. How much retail-on-the-ground-floor does Seattle need? Shouldn’t we be smarter about growth, and consider holistically what this city needs? Even worse, all of the construction is aimed at the wealthy, and in today’s America, we all know that there are only a limited number of wealthy people to go around.

I call your attention to the post because Paul’s remarks do a good job of illustrating how most people think about housing supply and demand.

Paul is absolutely right to sense the outward manifestations of, if not a bubble, then at least a general frothiness in the Seattle real estate market. Cranes are everywhere. 10,000 units opened this year and nearly 15,000 will open in 2015. Housing prices are rising. Houses are getting multiple bids, often well above asking price. Coincidentally, housing prices are now almost exactly where they were when Seattle Bubble author Tim Ellis started his blog in 2005.

However, none of that proves we’re in a “bubble” per se. My best read of the market right now is that we have low supply and high demand driving prices up. In 2007, there were over 12,000 single-family homes on the market in King County. Today there are just 3,000, despite the increase in population.  Real estate bubbles are typically fueled by large numbers of people borrowing easy money to buy a home that everyone assumes will appreciate wildly. Today, relatively few people qualify for a mortgage and even fewer can find a house to buy (in Seattle, anyway). 

Also, to my eye there appear to be far fewer “luxury” developments than the last housing boom. What I see are mostly apartment buildings targeted at renters, not ornate condos like Escala in Belltown. I do agree that the style of multi-housing is fairly monotonous: 6-story “breadboxes” with retail on the ground floor. But that has more to do with the zoning codes than anything else. Will all that retail fill up? Hard to say. There are only so many tanning salons and Potbelly sandwich shops to go around (and many retail categories, from travel agents to bookstores, simply no longer exist). In the long run, though, I’m not sure how much it matters. On Capitol Hill, the auto repair shops of yesteryear have been converted to serve truffle fries and roasted brussel sprouts. Spaces can be adapted.

I also think it’s interesting to say that some of these developments are “doomed to fail.” Fail for whom? We overbuilt in 2000 and 2008, but the housing stock that was created during those periods was all filled up by 2003 and 2011, respectively. Some developers took it on the chin, no doubt, but that’s the game. Meanwhile, Seattle got more housing. In the long run, yesterday’s luxury housing becomes tomorrow’s middle-income housing.

Again, I don’t bring this up to pick on anyone. I think Paul’s expressing a common sentiment when it comes to real estate development. I just think it’s worth considering the costs and benefits of development from a few different angles.

Bellevue TC & Hospital Station 60% Design


Bellevue Transit Center Station - Aerial View
Bellevue Transit Center Station – Aerial View

On Tuesday Sound Transit hosted an open house to present the 60% designs for the Bellevue Transit Center and Hospital stations on East Link, incorporating feedback from the 30% design presentation last May and the cost-savings changes approved in April 2013. These stations are expected to open in 2023 and will generate 7,000 of East Link’s projected 50,000 daily riders in 2030. The presentation and meeting materials are available on Sound Transit’s website. As elsewhere along East Link, ST is still in the process of selecting final names for these stations.

Highlights of the design changes include:

  • Canopies at the Bellevue Transit Center now cover the majority of the platforms.
  • A new eastern entrance to the Bellevue Transit Center station due to the revised station location along NE 6th St.
  • Hospital Station will have stops for RapidRide curbside along 8th in the existing locations and a drop-off loop for Access paratransit immediately adjacent to the station.
  • A Sound Transit owned and maintained pedestrian path will connect Hospital station directly to 116th Ave NE.
  • The tunnel underneath 110th Ave NE will be dug using the Sequential Excavation Method instead of the previously proposed cut-and-cover method.

Representatives from the City of Bellevue and the Bellevue Light Rail Permitting Citizen’s Advisory Committee were also present to introduce the Downtown Livability initiative, station area planning, the redesign of the Bellevue City Hall plaza, and a new downtown neighborhood association.

Continue reading “Bellevue TC & Hospital Station 60% Design”

New Darrington Bus Route 231

rt231.As workers continue to search for any survivors in the devastating Oso mudslide, Community Transit has just started a new alternate bus route, 231, serving Darrington and nearby communities that lost service on route 230 due to the blockage of State Route 530. The route takes the long way around, via State Route 20 through Skagit County.

The schedule is available here. Community Transit is also working with affected residents to form vanpools.

Our hearts go out to those who lost loved ones in this tragedy. Our gratitude goes out to the army of rescue workers who have done everything from providing food, shelter, clothing, and transportation, to digging through the muck to find anyone who might still be alive under there.

Never Mind About Those Express Buses

When passenger train service is on the ballot, there always seems to a group saying that bus rapid transit (BRT) is better than rail. The Eastside Transportation Association (ETA) was that group in 2008, when voters passed Sound Transit 2.

flip flopHere is an ETA campaign piece calling for “BRT” instead of Light Rail Transit, from that 2008 campaign. By BRT, the group really means an enlargement of the network of express bus service.

Here is another ETA campaign piece calling for “Bus Rapid Transit”, with a headline (pg. 5) of “We Need More Transit – NOW!“, also from the 2008 campaign.

Oddly, ETA is now campaigning to downsize the regional express bus network, such as it is, by working to defeat King County Proposition 1.

There isn’t anything in Proposition 1 about building rail for ETA to complain about. Proposition 1 is about saving the Metro bus service we currently have. Also, cities would get 40% of the funding stream from Proposition 1 to do needed maintenance of bridges, roads, and sidewalks.

Defeat of Proposition 1 would lead to King County Metro having to cut 17% of its bus service hours. Nearly every eastside bus route would be impacted. In particular, 12 of Metro’s 21 eastside commuter express routes would be cut entirely.

The Eastside Transportation Association did not respond to my request to clarify its position on Proposition 1, but the most recent statement it has on the topic makes it clear it is opposed, and believes too much money is already being spent on buses.

City Changes Regulations on Taxis of All Types


Although the City Council’s final compromise wasn’t quite everything car-free living advocates might have wanted, the legislation as a whole could be a positive event for Seattle. It’s positive if it’s the first, rather than the last, step in the evolution of how Seattle pays for car rides.

Anna Minard provided the most concise summary of what the bill does:

• Rideshare companies—that’s uberX, Lyft, and Sidecar, which are being referred to as “Transportation Network Companies”—must abide by a rule that no more than 150 drivers can be active on their system, ready to pick up passengers, at a time. Given that Uber last week revealed they currently have about 900 drivers and “regularly exceed” 300 drivers on system at a time, that could really change their service.

• Allows for-hire drivers to pick up street hails but not passengers from taxi stands. (Until now, they’ve been barred from picking up people hailing cabs on the street and limited to only picking up prearranged passengers.)

• Adds 200 new taxi licenses over the next two years.

• Adds new insurance and safety regulations to the app-based services, while also trying to block TNCs from working around the driver caps by creating multiple shadow companies. It also gives the city council authority to remove the cap on the number of drivers in the future, instead of leaving it to city regulators.

For users of everything other than the TNCs, this is an unmitigated good thing. On-demand car travel becomes much easier with for-hire drivers available for immediate use and more taxis.

The impact on TNC users is mixed. The old situation is an unregulated gray area with few rider protections. The bill creates those protections, while forcing a de facto decrease in the supply of drivers. The latter is bad for consumers, but I can appreciate the Council’s position. It makes no sense to destroy the taxi industry with onerous regulation while allowing a competitor to operate without limitations. A superior solution for consumers would be to lift taxi caps too, but the conservative thing to do is to ease the taxi caps and for-hire restrictions while hobbling the TNCs enough to give their competitors some breathing room.*

That’s all fine as an intermediate step. The ultimate policy objective should be to phase out arbitrary caps on all sorts of driver services. A city where it’s easy to get a ride when you need one is a city where not owning a car is a very attractive option, which will boost transit ridership and decrease the crippling weight of parking pressure on our land use. That’s what the three anti-cap Councilmembers (Burgess, Bagshaw, and Rasmussen) seemed to understand, and I applaud them for their vision.

*One can certainly quibble with the level of the cap, but then the TNCs were notoriously secretive about their driver numbers until the last moment.

News Roundup: A New View

This is an open thread.

Community Transit Begins the Recovery

While Metro kept itself afloat through a combination of reserves, cutting nonessential services, and legislative authorization for a two-year, $20 vehicle license fee that expires this year, Community Transit went over the cliff in 2010 with a cumulative cut of 160,000 annual service hours, including all Sunday and Holiday service.

CT’s new draft Transit Development Plan (pdf) will use increasing tax revenue from the economic recovery to restore 73,000 annual service hours in increments through 2019, with the biggest chunk coming in 2015. CT will remain a shadow of its former self, even before considering the growth in Snohomish County in the intervening decade. 2014 is the first year that sales tax revenue will exceed 2007, in nominal dollars. Adjusted for the consumer price inflation — to say nothing of fuel and labor costs, the main drivers for a transit agency — CT is still 10% lower.



Although Metro is presumably experiencing similar trends, they only partially offset the various temporary measures that have preserved overall service levels and expire soon. Expect a full report on Metro’s financial state this week.

Details on CT’s proposed service additions are below the jump.

Continue reading “Community Transit Begins the Recovery”

To Build a Seattle Subway We Must Restore Stable Bus Funding.

Seattle Subway Logo

Seattle Subway’s focus is and has always been on rail, its right there in our name. Our mission is to fight for high-quality, fast, grade-separated, automated transit and to advocate that Seattle build it as soon as possible. For that reason, it may come as a surprise to some that Seattle Subway endorses and fully supports Move King County Now – the campaign to pass King County Proposition 1 – which will stop bus cuts as high as 17% and fund much needed (and too long deferred) maintenance on King County roads.

Our reasoning is twofold:

1)  Though Seattle Subway focuses on building high capacity trunk lines for our transit system, at this time buses are a critical component of the transportation infrastructure that helps keep our economy competitive, our city livable and charts the path for future subway lines. Here are more details on what is at stake for Seattle. Demand for buses is at an all time high and is rising as Seattle urbanizes. Cutting bus service now is exactly what we should not be doing.

2)  Proposition 1 must pass in order to clear the way for Sound Transit 3 (ST3) in 2016. Sound Transit needs additional funding authority from the state in order to run a ballot measure. Preserving bus service will be Seattle’s top legislative priority until the funding gap is closed. Therefore — passing this measure clears the way to make Sound Transit 3 the top local priority when state lawmakers go back to table to work on a transportation package.

Off cycle ballot measures tend to bring out more conservative voters in greater numbers as a percentage of the voting population (because more progressive voters tend to skip these votes.)  To win, we need to get everyone who supports transit, our economy, and the environment to vote. Many people don’t realize this vote is coming — we have to change that. We need you to join us in getting the word out! (sign up to volunteer here)

As part of our support on April 2nd from 5:30-7:30pm Seattle Subway is co-hosting a fundraiser at Hattie’s Hat in Ballard with Seattle Transit Blog* and Council Member Mike O’Brien. We hope you can make it and help us save our bus service and build a Seattle Subway.  Details/RSVP here.

*This will be an official Seattle Transit Blog meetup.

Another ORCA Purchase Option


On Friday Sound Transit announced that they would join the other partner agencies in offering a fixed sales points for special-rate ORCA cards. On the last Wednesday of each month, beginning tomorrow, a booth in Union Station (the building that looms over International District/Chinatown) will offer these from 11-1:30pm.

Although the network of ORCA Card outlets is now fairly extensive, the set of staffed locations that can dispense discounted cards to seniors, youth, and the disabled remains tiny, and with limited hours. Youth cards are available by mail, but the others require showing up in person to one of the partner agency offices during regular business hours.

Last year the consortium created the Orca-on-the-go program to visit major events and selected groups and issue cards on the spot. All of the agencies paid for development, and Metro, Kitsap Transit, and ST purchased the equipment with the understanding that they would cover the whole region. The ORCA website indicates that groups may still call or email schedule these visits. I couldn’t get detailed statistics on this program in time for publication, but ST teams alone have generated about $2,000 in sales so far in limited deployments. Metro has visited 138 locations over the past 12 months.

While more visibility is always good, it’s hard to imagine a smaller improvement in availability. The Metro office is two blocks away, if less obvious, and has much more extensive hours. The best thing to say about the new service is that it’s a low-cost way to add capacity at the busiest time at that Metro office, when the lines become oppressive. Let’s hope there’s decent signage at the Metro office tomorrow.

Link Excuse of the Week(s): Plate of Nations

GTC_OWTBack for the fourth year, the MLK Business Association is running it’s Plate of Nations event.  Similar to last year’s event all participating restaurants will offer $15 and 25$ shareable entrees.  Grab a passport, get your stamps, and qualify for fun drawings.  Proceeds will go to the Rainier Valley Food Bank.

Thai Palms, Joy Palace, Bananas Grill, St. Dames, Rainier BBQ, Cafe Ibex, Olympic Express and Original Philly’s all return, with new additions being Huarachitos, Huong Duong, and Othello Wok & Teriyaki.

Not all of these restaurants are as exotic as the theme suggests, but they’re all inexpensive. Bananas Grill and St. Dames are both former LEOTWs, and Rainier BBQ was on the Travel Channel, Huarachitos was recently written up in the Stranger, and Joy Palace is my family’s go to Dim Sum spot in the Valley.


Sometime in the next couple of weeks (the event runs until April 5th) jump on Link and check them out.

Wednesday: Greenwood Sidewalk and Bus Stop Improvement Open House

bike lane behind bus bulb

SDOT has some great improvements in the works for residents of the southernmost sidewalk-less section of Greenwood Ave, between 90th St and 105th St. Previous plans to improve transit and bike facilities on this section of Greenwood have been expanded to include a continuous sidewalk on the east side of Greenwood, and design work for sidewalks on the west side, which then could quickly be built as funding becomes available. Once this gap is filled in, Greenwood will have continuous sidewalks to about 112th St, meeting a critical need on this heavily-trafficked, densely-populated arterial corridor.

I’ve previously discussed the bus and bike improvements slated for this section of Greenwood (essentially: stop consolidation, bus islands and bike lanes, similar to Dexter) and while those improvements have been refined, they don’t appear to have changed significantly; they remain an excellent idea. As before, my only criticism of this project is that the stop consolidation and bus island treatment should continue further south. The stop spacing Metro allows to persist between 50th St and 80th St, and the crawling sluggishness and unreliability thereby inflicted on Greenwood riders, is appalling. I can only hope the improvements between 90th and 105th, once built, will embarrass Metro into action further south.

The open house for this project is this Wednesday, 5-7 PM, at the Greenwood Public Library. SDOT hopes to begin construction this winter, finishing sometime next year.

SDOT and Metro Improve Queen Anne Trolleybus Routes

SPU Layover

Two small but significant trolleybus improvements are in the works for Queen Anne, both of them painfully obvious time- and money-saving optimizations to the overhead wire network that should probably have been built decades ago, but which I am overjoyed are finally happening. (“Better late than never” is the watchword of the STB Metro beat).

Under construction now is inbound trolleybus wire on Denny Way for Routes 1, 2, and 13. This is part of an SDOT-funded project, called the Uptown-Belltown Transit Improvement Project, which I’ve covered from its incipience, and which also brought us the new bus lane on Broad St. The new trolleybus wire will allow inbound trolley coaches to use Denny, just like diesel coaches have done for decades, and will save riders about two minutes per inbound trip. Construction is estimated to wrap up in late April, followed by a period of testing before Metro coaches switch to using the wire in-service. The eastbound Denny & Warren stop will be moved a block east, and upgraded with improved facilities.

The estimated cost of the project (which will likely change somewhat as construction goes on) is around $1.5 million. It’s worth pausing to mull his number for a moment: $1.5 million, for two minutes per day saved by thousands of riders from Queen Anne and Uptown, for the foreseeable future. The various Ballard rail options differ in travel times by about eight minutes per direction and in cost by billions of dollars. Obviously this comparison is somewhat apples to oranges: any of those alignments would serve far more people per day, and all aspire to provide a Rapid Transit level of service, which, if successful, provides more benefit per rider. Nevertheless, this frames a crucial point: any remotely sensible bus improvement on a well-used route will be amazingly cost-effective.

The final part of this project, a traffic study to evaluate whether outbound coaches could use a bus-only signal at 3rd & Denny, is ongoing.

More after the jump. Continue reading “SDOT and Metro Improve Queen Anne Trolleybus Routes”

John Fox on KC Prop 1

johnfoxOn Monday, the Seattle City Council postponed a vote on a resolution to endorse King County Proposition 1, at the behest of John Fox, Coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. Mr. Fox wants to put conditions on what Seattle’s share of Proposition 1 revenues can be used for in the endorsement resolution. In particular, he has been urging folks to ask the City Council to mandate that the city’s portion of Proposition 1 revenue be used for “bus hours only”.

Mr. Fox graciously agreed to an interview regarding this proposal.

He clarified that he has no problem with Proposition 1 revenues being used for bus capital improvement projects (e.g. bus lanes and signal priority), sidewalks, road maintenance, and bridge maintenance, “as long as they are related to bus service”. This is largely in keeping with his stance supporting sidewalks, road maintenance, and bridge maintenance when he vocally opposed Seattle Proposition 1 in 2011, although at that time, he didn’t insist it be related to bus service.

Fox’s drop-dead condition is that “Not one dime of Seattle’s portion of Proposition 1 revenue can be allowed to be spent on rail.” Nobody had even brought up the idea of spending any Proposition 1 money on rail projects until Fox raised the issue.

But he added an additional word that could wreak havoc on bus service in Seattle: “neighborhood”, as in “neighborhood bus service”. He doesn’t want Proposition 1 money to go to downtown bus routes, unless the neighborhoods ask for their share of money to go there. He believes that “Downtown businesses should do more to subsidize downtown bus service.” The problem with this approach is that most of the overcrowded bus routes happen to serve downtown, and desperately need service hours added.

What would King County Proposition 1 advocates gain from the City Council meeting his conditions? He says if he doesn’t get the language he wants in the city council resolution “I would be much more likely to actively campaign against Proposition 1.” He couldn’t promise that the Seattle Displacement Coalition would endorse Proposition 1 even if the City Council accepted the language he is requesting. According to Fox, SDC is very strongly opposed to regressive taxes, but its membership understands that the funding mechanisms of Proposition 1 are the only options allowed by the state to save bus service.

Various pro-Prop-1 groups have bent over backwards to minimize the regressiveness of Proposition 1. These efforts included a successful campaign to institute a low-income fare for Metro bus service, and a rebate for low-income car tab payers. Low-income bus riders will end up saving a lot more in bus fare than they would be paying in a car tab or the 0.1% additional sales tax. Failure of Proposition 1 would mean the county would almost certainly have to ditch the low-income fare program for lack of funding. A constant refrain among the members of the Low Income Fare Options Advisory Committee members was that the low-income fare program should not be funded by cutting bus service.

So, it comes down to this: Is John Fox willing to burn the whole house down to prevent even an outside chance that one penny will be spent on rail?

Ballot Statement Bad Math

[Note: The precise text of this post has changed since original publication thanks to my inept version management. – Martin]

King County voters will soon be receiving their ballots for the April 22 special election, featuring King County Proposition 1, which is needed to stave off a 17% cut in Metro bus service. The Pro and Con statements for the Voters’ Guide are now available online.

The Con statement contains this math-challenged whopper:

Proposed new taxes would burden low-income and transit-dependent individuals, through highly regressive impacts, while unjustly skyrocketing taxes on motorists from $40 for every vehicle over two years to $600 each over 10 years: an unacceptable 1,500% increase.

First, let’s fill in the blanks. The county car tab that is about to expire was $20 per year, for two years. The car tab in Proposition 1 is $60 per year, for ten years. Unmentioned in the Con statement is the fact that the county will rebate $20 off the tab for low-income drivers. Don’t be confused into thinking the car tab is $600 per year, as the Con statement might lead you to believe.

Next, one can only get close to a 1500% increase by comparing ten years of car tabs to two. This is a completely meaningless and dishonest calculation. The one-time increase in the car tab is $40 (200%), or $20 (100%) for low-income drivers.  After the first year, the car tabs stay the same. Don’t let the deceptively-phrased Con statement lead you to believe the county car tab will continue to go up each year.

Additionally, the County Council, acting as the King County Transportation District Board, will have the power to discontinue the 0.1% sales tax increase and car tab at any time, should it find a more progressive funding source (and hopefully the state legislature will someday allow that to happen).

Here is another whopper, from the rebuttal to the statement For:

End bus subsidies for wealthy riders at the expense of the transit dependent.

This statement got it wrong in so many ways. Every transit-dependent resident of King County stands to benefit from staving off the 17% bus service cuts all over the county. Nothing about this proposition is being done at the expense of the bus-dependent. Nor will anybody’s bus service be improved by voting down Proposition 1. Fares are being increased for those who can afford to pay, while low-income riders will have a new, lower fare, but only if Proposition 1 passes and provides the funding for the low-income fare program.

Attempts to reach the un-named oppostion statement writers at their advertised website were blocked by a password request.

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