Should we continue with Bertha?

Here’s what we know so far about the SR-99 tunnelling project:

Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry analysed traffic data from the Alaskan way viaduct and noted this precipitous drop. Image from Sightline. Click for more information.
  1. Bertha, the tunnel boring machine (TBM) has been more or less completely blocked since early December.
  2. The TBM was damaged in part by a metal pipe WSDOT installed to study this tunnel project’s feasibility.[1]
  3. The tunneling won’t start again until the end of the summer, with the tunnelling contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) hoping it will begin by Sept. 1st at the earliest.
  4. The TBM had problems early on, during testing after construction in Japan.
  5. Internal reports from the STP and WSDOT show that there are more problems with coordination and oversight. It also shows that the tunnelling was never on track, even before the current stoppage.

Here’s what we know about the traffic and funding for the tunnelling:

  1. Viaduct traffic is down 40% in the past three years.
  2. In order to raise the needed tolls to help pay for the tunnel, more trips would need to go through the tunnel than currently travel the viaduct. It’s worth noting the viaduct serves more locations[2] than the tunnel would.
  3. WSDOT’s traffic projections have been off, as traffic as been declining on all roads, rather than increasing.
  4. There’s also confusion over who will pay for the now-certain cost-overruns.

All of these bullet points are new bits of information since we last voted on the tunnel, back in 2011. Take a look at this map here. Continue reading “Should we continue with Bertha?”

News Roundup: Victims

This is an open thread.

Downtown Gondola

Potential Route map. Image from Great Western Pacific.
Potential Route map. Image from Great Western Pacific.

The owners of the Seattle Greet Wheel, Great Western Pacific, have announced a plan to build a gondola from the Convention Center to the waterfront on Union Street. Here’s KUOW on the subject, and the Seattle Times has more details, including a potential route map, and this bit of detail:

At a news conference, Griffith said the system would run east and west; be privately financed; require no tax dollars; pose no risk to the city; and bring people into the waterfront area of the city, a region that is now difficult to access due to lack of parking and continuing construction.

I few bits of detail:

  • The cars are supposed to be 40 or 50 feet off the ground, which would pose privacy issues for any apartments or condos on that street at or around that height.
  • No word yet on how much a trip would cost, or whether an Orca could be used.
  • The system would be paid with private financing, but use the public right-of-way.

I think a gondola there is a great idea, but I think there might be better ways to get it than let a private developer finance, build it, and operate it. With private operations, the system is likely to be a one-off, and the trips are likely to be rather expensive. I wonder if there isn’t a way to get this paid with private money but operated publicly.

Last time I was in London, I rode the “Emirates Air Line” (different from Emirates Airline), a gondola that opened in London for the 2012 Olympics. The gondola was originally meant to be entirely privately financed, but the project went significantly over-budget. In the end, Emirates Airlines paid £36 million of the £60 million price tag in exchange for 10 years of “branding” of the line, which is included on Transport for London rail maps along with the Underground, the Overground and the Docklands light rail.

Now, Seattle’s not London, and we’re not hosting the Olympics, but there may still be a way to get this or other gondolas paid for without significant public expenditure while still maintaining public ownership. The best thing about contracts for naming rights is that they can expire. What do you think? Is it worth it to let a private company put their own fixed infrastructure over the public right-of-way?

Cell Service Coming to the Downtown Transit Tunnel

Per a request for proposals (RFP) posted on Sound Transit’s contracting website:

Sound Transit (ST) is requesting Proposals from qualified firms to fund, design, build, operate and maintain a wireless communications system/distributed antenna system (DAS) for mobile/cellular communications in the Sound Transit underground light rail system, and optional above ground stations subject to ST approval, and to serve as the system’s neutral host between mobile wireless carriers and their transit riding customers. This initiative will enable transit customers to use any wireless carrier in all underground facilities owned by Sound Transit, and the King County owned Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) (together the “Underground Facilities”).

In other words, get ready for cell phone connectivity in the downtown tunnels, as well as any future segments.  The RFP is looking for “comprehensive wireless coverage in all current and future underground stations and tunnels: approximately 13.3 miles of dual bore tunnels.”  So you can expect coverage along the route as well, not just in the stations.  All four major US cell carriers are included.  According to Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray, service should be up and running by the time U-Link opens in 2016.

We’d really like to see real-time arrival information in all LINK stations, like, yesterday, but having good cell coverage would be nice as well.

h/t Tim a.k.a. Atomic Taco

SDOT Restoring Old Fremont Streetcar Stop

Westlake & Dexter stop
Westlake & Dexter stop

SDOT’s Transit division is restoring and rehabilitating a pair of old streetcar stops, which, with the passage of time, have become rather dilapidated bus stops. One is in the Rainier Valley, for which a community meeting was held last week, and another is just outside Fremont, at the intersection of Westlake and Dexter, for which the meeting is this at 6:00 PM this Thursday at History House of Greater Seattle, in Fremont.

The Fremont shelter probably lost quite a bit of ridership in the September 2012 service chance, when Route 40, which runs through the heart of Fremont, replaced Route 17, for which this stop is the closest to Fremont. Still, the stop continues to serve about 50 riders per day, despite its current sad state. Getting this stop shipshape, ideally with better lighting and real-time arrival information, would be a real service to riders.

Sounder to Serve First Two Sounders Matches


Update: The North Sounder train has been cancelled for Saturday, March 8, due to a mudsline. This will also affect some Amtrak runs Saturday, and possibly some Sunday. Any mudsline on the track triggers a 48-hour waiting period before passenger train service can resume through the affected area.

Sound Transit has just announced that it will be running Sounder train service to the Sounders’ season opener match, this Saturday, March 8, against Sporting Kansas City. Sounder will also serve the second match on Saturday, March 15, against Toronto FC.

Notice the unusual schedule for this Saturday, as first kick is at high noon. Trains depart Lakewood at 9:45am and Everett at 10:15am. Returning trains depart 35 minutes after the match.

The match on the 15th is at 1:30 p.m. The Sounder schedule for next week is not yet set.

Sound Transit’s media team graciously provided this poster with some details regarding ramping up ST Express and Link service. Link is expected to run its normal schedule pre-match, and roll out however many trains it takes to clear the crowd after the match. Sending trains to go into service at Stadium Station is a possibility, if needed. But the public information officer assures me that if you head to Stadium Station to go south, you won’t be watching full train after full train pass you by.

There will be extra buses on stand-by after the matches, which will go into service as needed.

For getting to the match this Saturday, a couple extra 594 buses will depart from Tacoma Dome Station at times that will be determined live-day to handle overload. A couple extra 512 buses will depart Lynnwood Transit Center at 9:30 and 10:00 a.m. Metro-operated routes will deploy extra service as needed.

If you haven’t been to a Sounders match before, consider going to the pre-match party in Pioneer Square that starts an hour and a half before the match, followed by the March to the Match an hour before the match. The party is family friendly, with prizes being distributed to a few lucky kids. The party and march feature the tunes of what is probably the only professional soccer marching band in the world, Sound Wave.

If you come by bike, be sure to be there early. There is lots of bike parking on the northwest side of the stadium, but it all gets used.

Regardless, plan to show up early, as there is a line to get through the security check, and make sure any bag you bring with you fits within the size regulations. If you plan to bring food or drink, take a look through those regulations.

South Bellevue Open House Materials


I didn’t attend the South Bellevue Station Open House last month, but the materials are online. They are largely focused on appeasing people afraid of density — “No Transit Oriented Development” is prominently printed on the fifth slide, and there are lots of words about mitigation.

Although STB is not friendly to park-and-rides, especially when free to use and publicly funded, a few stations in a system can function primarily as a useful transfer point for buses and access point for cars. Positioned at an elbow in the line; on the way to Downtown Bellevue; and with limited walkshed, neighbors hostile to density, and decent highway access, South Bellevue is one of the points where parking is least objectionable.

With 1,500 stalls, ST projects 4,500 boardings per day at this station in 2030, which (in an apples-to-oranges comparison) would have ranked fourth in 2012. Projected travel times are 14 minutes to Chinatown, 16 to Overlake, 24 to UW, and 49 to Seatac. The UW time is actually a couple of minutes faster than the afternoon scheduled time for the 556, and the Seatac run is at the high end of the scheduled range of the much less frequent (but more direct) 560, for whatever that’s worth.

The parking, as it should be, is behind the station rather than hiding the train from the street:

Continue reading “South Bellevue Open House Materials”

Amtrak Writers in Residence

Amtrak has started a “writers’ residencies” program that would allow free rides for writers on long-term train rides. The first such residency went to Jessica Gross, who wrote about her experience in the Paris Review.

I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a “Folding Sink”—something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3’6” by 6’8”. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write: I owe this trip to Alexander Chee, who said in his PEN Ten interview that his favorite place to work was on the train. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he said. I did, too, so I tweeted as much, as did a number of other writers; Amtrak got involved and ended up offering me a writers’ residency “test run.” (Disclaimer disclaimed: the trip was free.)

So here I am.

The Wire has many more details about how the program started and how it might work in the future. It’s worth noting the number of residencies are limited, but I think this is a great idea. Personally, my best writing* is done when I am completely alone, and I can imagine beautiful scenery might help spur the imagination.

What do you think? Is this good advertising for Amtrak or a waste of funds for an agency deeply in debt?

*Though I’ve never had anything more than a short story published.

Community Transit BusFinder in the Works

Mobile BusFinder (Community Transit photo)
Mobile BusFinder (Community Transit photo)

Community Transit is working on an online tool called BusFinder that will bring predicted bus arrival times and real-time service alerts to its riders. BusFinder is part of CT’s transit technology project that has installed GPS tracking onboard its buses and upgraded its radio system, enabling user-friendly features such as automatic stop announcements and real-time arrival signs at Swift stations and transit centers.

No launch date has been given for BusFinder as CT wants to be confident that the tool works accurately and reliably. When it does launch it will be available over the phone and on desktops and mobile devices. The service will provide information for Community Transit buses and Sound Transit buses operated by CT.

One feature of BusFinder that I am excited about is showing service alerts relevant to your stop. This is especially important when you’re on the move and in a hurry. OneBusAway has supported service alerts for years but operators like Metro have not implemented them.

What about OneBusAway? BusFinder won’t work with OneBusAway, yet, at least not at launch. Community Transit is aware of the need for integrating its real-time information with OneBusAway and providing a data feed to developers. Community Transit spokesman Martin Munguia explains:

A couple years ago, when we started working with our technology vendor, INIT, on a real-time bus information tool, OneBusAway was in a state of flux. It was a graduate student project at UW with an uncertain future. So we moved in the direction of developing our own tool through the vendor.

We are glad that Sound Transit has taken over control of OneBusAway to keep the project alive for Puget Sound transit users. We look forward to continue our relationship with OBA, but at this time we will have to defer the question of real-time integration for some months after we have launched BusFinder so we can focus on making sure this is a quality product for those who ride Community Transit buses and the Sound Transit buses we operate.

The same is true of providing real-time data for developers. That requires a robust streaming process that we have not had time to focus on while still developing BusFinder. After this project is out the door and working well, we will definitely turn our attention to the integration and data stream questions.

Family-Sized Housing Open House

Townhouses / Photo by Adam

On Tuesday night, the Seattle Planning Commission held an open house at GGLO to unveil its Affordable Family-Sized Housing Action Agenda. There was a brief presentation followed by a discussion/Q&A from the audience on a variety of topics.

A couple of notes:

  • One participant (not me!) brought up the roommates problem: how to you ensure that a 3BR house goes to a family and not a couple of roommates looking to save on rent? There weren’t any clear answers here, except to say that increasing supply of 3BR units will lower costs overall, which should help roommates and families alike (and adding family amenities like playgrounds and day care on-site may make such units unappetizing to 20-somethings).
  • An idea with some merit: exempting 2- and 3BR units from current FAR rules.
  • A slightly wacky, but intriguing idea: mandating that apartments have removable walls between them, so they can grow and shrink with demographic change.
  • While single-family zones account for 60% of Seattle’s surface area, that number is fixed. Meanwhile, the 70,000 or so units that are projected to be built will go primarily into low-rise or other multifamily zones. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that 2- and 3BR units get built in multifamily zones first and foremost.
  • Single-family zones near transit are most appropriate for an upzone to lowrise (3-15-15, anyone?)
  • I still can’t get an answer to a question I’ve had for almost a year: why do small multifamily units almost always end up as town homes, and not small condos? Is it a hangover from the lawsuit-happy 80s? Consumer preference? Any developers with answers, contact me at frank@stb.

One obvious topic that got a good deal of attention is the political challenge in implementing any of these ideas. SPC has said that the report is intended to “start a conversation” and that the political battle of when and where to change zoning law would have to happen next.