Informed Speculation: What $15 Billion Might Buy

S 200th Link Construction: Gantry

[UPDATE 2 4/3/2015: Please see this February post that clears up the confusion about $15 billion packages. The $15 billion in the title here does not mean what you think it means.]

[UPDATE: Chris Karnes points out that small starts grants are capped at $250m in total project size, so Tacoma Link extension is ineligible.]

This month’s board deliberations revealed that Sound Transit’s request to the legislature for more tax revenue would enable an ST3 capital program unlikely to exceed $15 billion in year of expenditure (YOE) dollars, not conincidentally about the size of ST2. What might a package of that size buy for the region?

As this exercise involves a lot of guesswork, and is largely designed to illustrate scale and plausibility, I’ll lay out all the underlying assumptions for ease of ridicule at the end of this post. In reality, updated revenue projections, inflation rates, state and federal grants, and the actual sequencing of projects will have a huge impact on what’s actually possible, well beyond what I’m able to compute as an amateur outsider.

All of the long range plan studies are priced in 2014 dollars. I couldn’t get detailed revenue projections from ST, so using simplifying assumptions I’ve translated $15 billion in YOE dollars into $10 billion in 2014 dollars. In addition, ST spokesman Geoff Patrick estimates that existing uncommitted tax authority amounts to about $300m in both Snohomish and Pierce, and $100m for the others.

I’ve broken the combined sums up by subarea as follows: $1.6 billion for Snohomish, $3.1 billion for North King, $1.6 billion for South King, $2.6 billion for East King, and $2.1 billion for Pierce. For the most part, these sums mean that each subarea can afford one big project out of the long range plan.

To be clear, these projects are my guess as to what the board will do given the funds available, not my personal dream sheet in each subarea.

Snohomish County: The bad news is that $1.6 billion is the low-end cost estimate for the relatively cheap I-5 Light Rail option to Everett, with no extension to Everett Community College. Enthusiasts seeking the higher ridership potential of SR99, or County leaders eager to serve job centers at Paine Field, would have to either abandon those dreams, find state or federal grants, or accept something less than getting all the way to Everett in this round. Even advocates for an I-5 alignment would evidently have to accept some project risk or significant quality reductions on the line. Then again, the ability to stamp “Boeing” on something may be the magic trick to get direct transit funding out of Olympia. Mr. Patrick noted that these limitations “have been flagged in the board room.”

Continue reading “Informed Speculation: What $15 Billion Might Buy”

Q3 2014 Sound Transit Quarterly Report

These Quarterly Reports aren’t as special now that Sound Transit has beefed up their monthly reports, but in past pieces there were some graphs I don’t post in monthly report posts. Do people still want me to do these quarterly summaries? Is there any additional information in the reports you’d like me to track and display?

Total Sound Transit boardings increased nearly 10% during Q3 2014, compared to the same period of 2013. Year-to-date boardings totaled almost 24.8 million, on pace to exceed the SIP forecast of 31.1 million Sound Transit boardings for calendar year 2014. Ridership was up on all modes except Tacoma Link and Paratransit.

ST Express bus boardings were up 6.5%, with all but two routes showing increases. Growth in commuter ridership was evident with an 8% increase in average weekday boardings, from 57,934 to 62,549. ST Express service levels have remained consistent with 2013 service levels throughout 2014.

Sounder commuter rail experienced an impressive 13.5% increase in total boardings. Average weekday ridership exceeded 13,000 boardings, a new record, and both lines experienced growth. High ridership on weekend event trains also contributed towards the overall increase.

Tacoma Link light rail boardings declined during the quarter, continuing a trend that started during the fourth quarter of 2012. However, the decline was very small (-0.2%), indicating that the trend may be bottoming out.

Central Link light rail boardings were up 15.3% for the quarter, with weekday ridership averaging 37,242 boardings, an 18% increase compared to Q3 2013.

Q3 2014 route-level and corridor ridership information can be found on page 2; along with Q3 2014 and YTD 2014 service performance on pages 3 and 4, respectively.

Full report here. My charts below the fold.

Continue reading “Q3 2014 Sound Transit Quarterly Report”

Thanksgiving Transit Service Roundup

By: Cameron Aubernon

Seattle Transit Blog wishes our readership a fun and (hopefully!) relaxing Thanksgiving holiday. Transit riders should expect reduced schedules both Thursday and Friday, and each agency is approaching holiday service slightly differently. Here’s the rundown:

  • Thanksgiving Day
    • Metro: Sunday Service
    • Community Transit: No Service
    • Sound Transit: No Sounder Service, ST Express and Link on Sunday service
    • Pierce Transit: Sunday Service
    • King County Water Taxi: No Service
  • Day After Thanksgiving
    • Metro: “Reduced Weekday/No UW” Service
    • Community Transit: Regular local service, reduced commuter service
    • Sound Transit: Special Sounder Service (see below), regular service on ST Express, and Link on Saturday service
    • Pierce Transit: Regular Service
    • King County Water Taxi: No Service

The most interesting wrinkle in holiday service will be the modified Sounder service for Black Friday. There will be 3 trips offered on the South Line, with a rare mid-day trip enabling South King and Pierce residents to attend the Macy’s parade, spend a few hours shopping, and return home at 2:30 or 5:42pm. Those on the North Line will have just a single trip, with a 9 hour window between trips. Everett riders may want to consider taking Sounder one way and Route 512 the other way.

Thanksgiving Sounder

News Roundup: Traffic Violence

Photo courtesy Puyallup Police Department
Photo courtesy Puyallup Police Department

This is an open thread.

Metro Launches TVM Trial

[UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: According to Metro’s press release, the machine will accept cash, debit and credit cards, but cannot make change. So it is useful to riders without exact change and also in possession of one of these cards. I made the change in the text below as well.]

Metro is finally taking the first concrete step since ORCA of moving towards a cashless system, or at least one where the most congested bus stops don’t aggravate delays by allowing riders to pay cash on board.

Back in August, the Transit Fares Report announced this experiment:

We are installing a ticket vending machine on the Macy’s block in downtown Seattle to test market response and operating cost of this approach to off-board fare payment, to help determine if it can be a cost-effective way to speed buses through downtown Seattle.

Spokesperson Rochelle Ogershok added:

We want to know more about how the machine itself performs, its durability in this busy location, and how transit customers may use it.  We are eager to get feedback from people during the pilot to determine if and/or how we might want to expand this type of TVM in the future. We want to know how this might compare to other approaches to reduce cash payment on board and whether they might be a good fit for future Third Ave. improvements.

Metro estimates that 10% of riders at this stop pay with cash.

By all means, Metro should learn all it can about deployment of these machines. These trials are an important step toward a faster system, as widespread deployment downtown would help buses in that corridor. On RapidRide especially, universal off-board payment and all-door boarding are plausible goals and would be transformative.

It would be nice, however, if there were stronger incentives to use the machine instead of pay cash. As it stands, the machine is great for riders that don’t have change and do have a credit or debit card. Otherwise, users must use an unfamiliar device to obtain fare media with in practice a smaller transfer window than a paper transfer. A ticket machine with a small discount would be a much more effective means of determining “if it can be a cost-effective way to speed buses.”

Sounder to Sounders Playoff Match Nov. 30

Sounders FC Sounder Train
Photo from Sound Transit’s Flickr page

ALERT: North Sounder train service to the November 30 conference semifinal match has been cancelled due to a mudslide.

Sound Transit will provide South Sounder train service to the decisive second leg of the Western Conference Finals being played by Seattle Sounders FC and the LA Galaxy Sunday, Nov. 30th at 6 p.m. The train takes off Trains take off from Lakewood at 3:45 and Everett at 4:15, with South Sounder getting to Century Link Field a little before 5 p.m. and North Sounder 5:15. Riders from the southend will need to hustle to  Occidental Park if they want to participate in the March to the Match, but unfortunately northend riders will have to catch ST Express 512, meaning finding their own way to the bus stops, since Community Transit doesn’t run on Sundays cannot make it. The return train takes off Return trains take off 35 minutes after the final whistle.

From Lakewood to Seattle


S. Tacoma

















From Everett to Seattle









As of publication time, tickets remain available for the match.

For fans visiting from LA, take Link Light Rail from SeaTac/Airport Station (at the northeast corner of the airport’s parking lot) to International District / Chinatown Station. Be sure to buy a ticket at one of the ORCA vending machines in the station, as Link is a proof-of-payment ride with fare inspectors.

As is the tradition on STB, smack talk is off-topic, unless it is in favor of the home side.

Save the Restructures!

3rd and Pine

Metro’s now-defunct cut proposals included some restructures that are worth implementing on their own merits. They aren’t scheduled because the County Council never approved them, but at the same time the council didn’t reject them specifically — it just rejected the cuts as a whole. So Metro could still propose the restructures again. It should go ahead with the good changes, while leaving the bad ones in the dustbin.

Here are the cut proposals again:  Feb 2015 revision 2 (10 MB), original proposals (25 MB). Both are ZIP files containing PDFs. (These aren’t the entire cuts, just the routes I downloaded at the time.)

Very Good Restructures:

Queen Anne. The strongest of all, Route 2N is consolidated into the 13, and 4N is consolidated into 3N. Both 13 and 3N terminate at Seattle Pacific University. This gives two frequent routes on upper Queen Anne Avenue, the center of the urban village. It fixes the schizophrenic pattern of two half-hourly routes six blocks apart, and two routes that go downtown on opposite sides of the street. The losers would be those near 6th Ave W, but they would have a flat six-minute walk to the 13, and they’d still have the 29 peak hours. Metro has tried to do this change twice now, the first time in 2012, so Metro thinks it’s a strong alternative.

Central District and First Hill. The 4S would be consolidated into the 3S, and the 2S would move to Madison from Seneca. The 4S is redundant with other routes on the same street and nearby, and is slower than those other routes. The 3S serves an otherwise-unserved part of the Central District, so it’s a good route to make frequent. Moving the 2 to Madison would, along with the 12, give full-time frequent service on Madison. I’m not wedded on Madison vs Seneca, but I want both routes on the same street to make the corridor more usable. Metro has also tried to do this change twice now.

Continue reading “Save the Restructures!”

Pierce Transit Introduces New Day Pass

Pierce Transit #248

On Monday, December 8th, Pierce Transit’s new fareboxes will “go live” on all Pierce Transit buses, bringing an end to Pierce Transit’s intra-agency paper transfers and introducing a new Pierce Transit All-Day Pass.

Customers who currently pay their fare with cash or a ticket, and who need more than one Pierce Transit bus to reach their destination, will have three options as of December 8th:

(1) Pay a cash fare or use a ticket on each bus they board;
(2) Purchase a Pierce Transit All-Day Pass, good for unlimited rides on Pierce Transit buses for a single service day; or,
(3) Use an ORCA card, loaded with fare product, for an automatic two-hour transfer credit.

Ticket books are no longer sold to the general public.

Pierce Transit cash fares remain the same. Cash fares for a single trip on one Pierce Transit bus remain at $2.00 for adult riders, $.75 for youth (ages 6-18), and $.75 for seniors or individuals with disabilities who show a valid Regional Reduced Fare Permit.

The all-day pass costs $5.00 for adults, $2.50 for youth (ages 6-18), and $2.50 for seniors and persons with disabilities who show a valid Regional Reduced Fare Permit. The all-day pass replaces the Weekend All-Day Pass, and may be purchased seven days a week when boarding Pierce Transit local buses or loaded onto an ORCA card at any ORCA vending machine or retailer that sells ORCA in Pierce County. The all-day pass is not valid on paratransit or other agencies’ services.

The current weekend all-day pass that is going away costs twice the single-ride fare.

The all-day pass allows a rider to pay once and ride an unlimited number of rides on Pierce Transit local buses until the end of the service day. All-day passes on ORCA cards will be activated once tapped on a Pierce Transit bus, and will automatically expire at the end of the service day. All-day passes purchased on a bus will have an expiration date and time imprinted on the back of the pass by the farebox.

Customers may pick up a free ORCA card at the Pierce Transit Bus Shop at 505 East 25th Street, Tacoma, now through December 12th.

Customers can check out the new fareboxes, get information about all-day passes and ride free on all Pierce Transit local service from the beginning of the service day on December 6th until the end of the service day on December 7th. Regular fares resume at the beginning of the service day on December 8th.

Sound Transit Raises Fares, Approves Low-Income Fare for Link

Crowded Link train on Sunday

The Sound Transit Board of Directors rolled through a series of momentous decisions Thursday afternoon. The agenda and links to back-up materials are available here. Video link is here.

Low-Income Fare and General Fare Increase for Link Light Rail Only

The Board followed the recommendation of Staff and the Board’s Operations and Administration Committee to create a low-income adult fare category, consisting of riders who qualify through King County Metro’s or Kitsap Transit’s low-income fare program (namely, individuals at or below 200% of the federal poverty level), but to offer a low-income fare only on Link Light Rail.

The new low-income fare on Link will be $1.50, matching Metro’s low-income fare. The low-income fare will be available only with an activated low-income ORCA card provided through King County Metro or Kitsap Transit.

All other riders will see their Link fares increase by 25 cents. Riders with a Reduced Regional Fare Permit (seniors 65+ and riders with disabilities) will see their Link fares increase from the current $0.75 to $1.00 per ride. Youth (6-18) will see their Link fares increase from $1.25 to $1.50. Full-fare riders will see their Link fare increase, from the current range of $2.00-$2.75 based on distance, to a range of $2.25-$3.00.

All fare changes will take effect in conjunction with Metro’s fare changes, on March 1, 2015.

Two other options reviewed by staff would have implemented low-income fares on ST Express just within counties, and on ST Express and Sounder throughout the ST service area. Other fare categories on the modes with a low-income fare would have been raised by 25 cents to offset the fiscal impact. Both options would have required making the low-income fare available to riders in Pierce and Snohomish County. They ran into opposition from suburban mayors on the ST Operations and Administration Committee, including Redmond Mayor John Marchione and Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow.

Othello Property Sale for Multi-Use Affordable Housing TOD

Continue reading “Sound Transit Raises Fares, Approves Low-Income Fare for Link”

News Roundup: Going It Alone Together

This is an open thread.

When Should Transit Run on a Holiday Schedule?

Last Tuesday, Veterans Day, was a bit of a disaster for Seattle bus riders:

Metro runs on a reduced weekday schedule on Veterans’ Day. According to Metro’s Jeff Switzer, “reduced weekday service is based on past ridership levels, which have shown to be less than 80% of average weekday ridership. Reduced weekday puts about 90% of regular weekday service on the road.”

In practice however, it seems that the system broke down for some riders, due to the combination of record ridership and the September service cuts, the largest in the agency’s history. Consider that on a normal weekday, several Metro routes are passing up passengers due to overcrowding. Add to this the fact that OneBusAway still doesn’t support reduced weekday/No UW schedules*, and we have a real problem on our hands.

The decision to run reduced service on a holiday isn’t black or white.  According to the Society for Human Resource Management**, 20% of firms nationally observe Veterans Day, compared with 37% for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and 35% for Presidents Day. Yet, Metro runs on reduced service for MLK Day and Veterans Day, but not Presidents Day.

Switzer says that the agency has avoided holiday service on Presidents Day in the past due to its proximity to the February service change. Presumably having reduced service the same weekend as a permanent service revision would confuse riders. Starting next year in 2016, however, Metro is moving to two service changes per year (again, to save money) and the plan is to operate on reduced service on Presidents Day as well. That’s one more planned day of reduced service in 2015 2016.  With Prop 1 passing, however, Metro will be adding more service to core routes starting next year. Hopefully that means  even reduced service is better than what we got last Tuesday.

* Switzer says the “provisional” data for these schedules has been released to OBA and Google and they have begun coordinating with those services to get this data into apps.

** National firm closures, are, of course, at best a rough proxy for local weekday transit demand. Large institutions like UW likely dwarf most private sector demand fluctuations. If anyone has better numbers, let me know in the comments.

UPDATE 4:02PM: The move to 2 service changes/year will happen in 2016, not 2015.

3 More ULink Workshops Coming Up

Capitol Hill Station, Summer 2014 (photo by the author)
Capitol Hill Station, Summer 2014 (photo by the author)

On Monday night, I and several other STB writers and readers attended the Capitol Hill installment of Metro’s “Link Connections” workshops. Both the format and the relatively sparse attendance afforded a surprising intimacy to the conversation, and they also provided an exceptional depth of engagement with planning staff. Eschewing the traditional open houses where staff stand around easeled posters looking mildly uncomfortable, these “Community Conversations” consist of an hourlong sit-down conversation with a Metro planner in small groups of 5-10, facilitated by a moderator with a list of questions for each group. If you care about optimizing the bus network to take advantage of ULink, and if you adhere to STB’s core principles of frequency, reliability, and network coherence, then please attend. These sessions are worth your time. 

To be clear, there are no specific proposals yet on the table, and I heard dozens of restructure ideas in the hour allotted. An astute listener could probably pick up on ways in which the planners were tipping their hands toward their current thinking, but that’s all speculative until the next round of engagement when lines actually start going on the map.  But the ideas presented, and the constructive pushback that planning staff made on each, makes it clear that they want ULink to do a lot but not too much, not increase anyone’s total trip time, and to also get the little things right. Little things could be moving bus stops from one side of a block to another, taking some parking where needed, thinking creatively about layover space, or creating/breaking through-routes for reliability and network coherence.

So if you have the time and inclination, please attend one of the remaining three meetings, take Metro’s Link Connections survey , or apply for the Community Sounding Board by November 30th. This is our chance to get this right.

  • Wednesday, November 19, 10am-1pm, UW Medical Center (informal, at the adjacent bus stop)
  • Thursday, November 20, 12-1pm, UW HUB, Room 250 (full format)
  • Tuesday, November 25, 6:30-8:30pm, Lake City Court, 12536 33rd Avenue NE (full format, non-English speaking emphasis)

Columbia City Zoning

After a seemingly endless process, the Seattle Council finally upzoned the area around Mt. Baker Station this year. Perhaps that experience exhausted everyone involved, but the next station down, Columbia City, is equally ready for a serious rezone.

Excerpt from Seattle DPD (click to enlarge)
Excerpt from Seattle DPD (click to enlarge)

The station is on the diagonal section of MLK immediately northeast of the dark purple stair-step. All of the areas where you don’t see a label are SF5000, since these zones are so large that the labels are centered elsewhere. What you do see is a tiny sliver of 40′ zoning in a handful of lots adjacent to the station, a lot of 40′ and 65′ zones in downtown Columbia City a few blocks east, some lowrise (LR) zones between the two, and a sea of single-family zoning covering a significant portion of the golden quarter-mile and half-mile circles around the station.

These circles are the areas that would, given reasonable zoning, house the residents that would plausibly not own cars and utilize Central Link’s future capacity to the fullest. Those non-driving residents provide the demand for better bus service and the customer base for a thriving business district from downtown Columbia City to the station. That business district would, in turn, help to make the approaches to Columbia City’s core more walkable. The residents that would live in those buildings would also either not displace people living elsewhere in Seattle, or else avoid displacement themselves. But instead, in large areas less than five minutes’ walk from the station, Seattle makes it illegal to have more than one household per lot.

I asked Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee Chair Mike O’Brien when his committee would review this intolerable situation. “I agree that with the growth and development around the business district, [zoning] of the land next to the light rail station is worth a review now,” O’Brien said, but “DPD has a long list of neighborhoods where they are currently starting or finishing planning processes.” He said there was no chance of a rezone in 2015, but that he would “look into” what it would take to get Columbia City back into the queue.

I-5 HOV Lanes

Diagram of proposed I-5 HOV lanes

One of the quirks of I-5 is the lack of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes between I-90 and Northgate. Instead, there are reversible express lanes. This may have made sense in the 1950s, but it’s much less useful in today’s world of frequent two-way buses and dispersed urban centers.

Even the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) recognizes the problem. From their website:

HOV lanes do not continue on the mainline where there are Reversible Express Lanes. At the time of design it was thought that Reversible Express Lanes would serve the HOV needs of the area between Northgate and downtown Seattle. HOV needs for this area are now being re-examined.

As part of East Link, WSDOT is building two-way HOV lanes along the center of I-90. But the I-5 express lanes are not disappearing, and so unlike with I-90, there isn’t an imminent need to replace lost capacity. In addition, I-5’s frequent left exits make it harder to design a free-flowing HOV lane.

But hard doesn’t mean impossible. It can be done, and all it would take is a bit of paint, signage, and Jersey barriers.

Southbound, the existing left-side HOV lane would be extended along the missing span, between Northgate and the downtown express lane merge. Single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) would be allowed to enter the HOV lane to enter or exit the freeway at the Northgate express lane entrance, the left exit onto SR-520, and the left entrance from Mercer Street. (The 65th Street left entrance is already HOV-only.) Continue reading “I-5 HOV Lanes”

Exotic Ways to Invest Reserves

A fix for Eastgate

Regardless of how the intramural County fight over near-term Metro cuts resolves itself, it is exceedingly likely that Metro will operate over the next few years with some kind of reserve. According to County spokesman Jeff Switzer, this money is “invested in the King County Investment Pool with all county funds.”

That’s completely reasonable, but let’s hope that Metro’s staff takes some time to identify a slightly more exotic investment. Numerous capital projects can improve bus speed and reliability, shaving a minute here or there from each trip. Metro doesn’t pay for buses by the minute, but enough savings along the course of a route can reduce the number of buses needed to maintain a service level.

These projects are traditionally the domain of cities, but given Seattle’s lunge into buying service, that distinction is breaking down. Moreover, as Metro is the institutional beneficiary of these improvements, it is the one with the proper incentives to invest accordingly.

An example that comes to mind is redoing the connection between Bellevue College and Eastgate, which a few years ago I estimated as a 30% return on investment per year, forever. That back-of-the-envelope guess that could really use refinement by qualified staff. A similarly thorough review of all planned projects ought to identify those where the return in operating savings exceeds the likely return from more traditional investments. As a bonus, these returns come from time savings that also benefit riders directly.

The reduced costs shield Metro from recession in the same way that cash in an account does. And although I’m not wild about the tendency to cut capital projects when times are tough, it is nevertheless true that it is much easier to scale back promised future improvements during budget crises than to remove service that people already use and depend on, making capital funds politically more flexible than operating money.