Feds Award Loan, Restore ST2 Possibilities

Federal Way Extension Page 1

Yesterday Sound Transit announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded it a $1.3 billion below-market-rate “TIFIA” (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan:

This is the largest single TIFIA loan to a transit agency in the country and the second largest TIFIA loan overall, and at the lowest rate – 2.38 percent – in the 25-year history of the program.

The low-interest loan, which offers more favorable terms than traditional bonds, will increase Sound Transit’s financial capacity by an estimated $200 – $300 million. Over the coming years the capacity will enable the Sound Transit Board of Directors to potentially restore some voter-approved Sound Transit 2 projects that were suspended as a result of the recession and help reduce risks of scope reductions or delays.

By knocking over 3 points off the interest rate ST would usually pay, the loan both allows ST to bring projects forward and also afford more project in absolute terms. The loan size is based on the overall East Link project budget, but spokeswoman Kimberly Reason says “our impetus for applying for the loan was to address the recession’s significant impact on the 29% loss in projected revenues for ST2.”

Given the intended purpose of the application and the miserable optics of making up new stuff while voter-approved projects are unfunded, restoring ST2 losses seems inevitable. Within those constraints, the Sound Transit Board will decide what to do with the staff’s harvest.  It is not bound by subarea equity, although the funds to repay the loan will presumably come from whomever benefits. The press release helpfully lists some candidate projects:

Bringing forward new bus hours, as opposed to capital projects, actually increases program cost instead of merely shifting it. However, 50,000 bus hours amounts to only about $7m per year, small in terms of the absolute savings due to lower interest rates.

MLK Day Service Levels

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leading a march during the Montgomery bus boycott
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leading a march during the Montgomery bus boycott

Next Monday, January 19, is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday for many in the white-collar world, and another work day for most in the transportation industry.

King County Metro will be running a “Reduced Weekday & No UW” schedule (which really means reduced runs on certain UW routes, in addition to several routes and runs being cancelled throughout the county).

Sound Transit will be running regular weekday schedules on ST Express and Sounder. However, Central Link will be running the Saturday schedule, and Tacoma Link will be running the Sunday schedule.

Pierce Transit, Intercity Transit, Everett Transit, Washington State Ferries, and the South Lake Union Streetcar will be running on their regular weekday schedules.

Community Transit will run regular weekday levels on local service, but will only be running commuter routes 402, 413, 421, and 855.

Kitsap Transit will be running most services on a weekday schedule, except that certain buses serving the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard will not be operating.

The Seattle Monorail will be open 8:30 am – 9:00 pm.

The West Seattle and Vashon Water Taxis will not be in service.

A Review of the New Trip Planner App

King County’s media relations launched a full-court press to publicize the launch of their new Trip Planner app last week. Many people found it a surprising misallocation of resources given the underlying data problems. But how good is the app?

To this user of OneBusAway for his real-time data and Google Maps for his trip planning, the interface is (for the most part) pretty good, not noticeably better or worse than the alternatives. It adds some functions that don’t have a good mobile alternative. But the application is still hamstrung by a back end with deep technical flaws.

The Trip Planner App integrates four different functions: a trip planner (obviously), route schedules, real-time bus arrival, and Metro alerts. I’ll take them each in turn.

1) Trip Planner. Google Maps starts with a map, and there are a few additional taps to bring out transit and call up any time rather than right now. Trip Planner takes you right to the appropriate screen with Start, End, and time inputs. However — and this is crucial — it is much worse than Google at taking a random place name (e.g., “Facebook”) and turning it into a usable location. And only some of the screens replace internal route numbers (Link is the “599”) with their commonly known names.

Screenshot_2015-01-15-10-31-57What about the algorithm? The regional trip planning algorithm has longstanding, well-documented problems with nonsensical results, and my spot checking suggests that hasn’t changed. To get a taste of it, I asked Trip Planner to plan my evening commute from Lower Queen Anne to just west of the Columbia City Link station. Any sentient human would take any of a series of buses downtown and transfer to Link the rest of the way. Google Maps actually passed this little mini-Turing Test.

Trip Planner’s result encouraged me to say on the 33/27 and switch to the 8. This is because the path that involved Link is slower, and shown at right.

Getting off Link and switching to the 50 is crazy, but after checking the default Trip Planner settings, my home is actually more than the default 0.40 mile maximum walk from the Station. The settings force me to transfer to a bus anyway, so these results are at least understandable.

Continue reading “A Review of the New Trip Planner App”

News Roundup: Parking Down South

Auburn Station (Sound Transit photo)
Auburn Station (Sound Transit photo)

Final Prop 1 Contract and Seattle Bus Improvements

These riders will be very happy in September.  Photo by Oran Viriyincy.
These riders will be very happy in September. Photo by Oran Viriyincy.

We (well, at least incorrigible transit nerds) have been waiting with bated breath since the passage of Seattle’s Proposition 1 in November to see the contract between the City of Seattle and King County Metro which is required under the text of Prop 1. It’s finally here, posted to the King County Council’s website as an attachment to the ordinance through which the Council will most likely approve it.

There are all sorts of interesting details in the contract language which we will probably poke at in future posts.  But for now we wanted to share the good stuff: specific service improvements.  The improvements affect most routes in the city of Seattle.  About half of them will be implemented in June, and the other half in September.  Many of the June improvements are subtle schedule changes to improve reliability (mostly increasing run time and recovery time), while the September improvements are a bit more visible.

The City of Seattle chose the improvements in two ways.  First, all of the reliability and overcrowding improvements identified as necessary in Metro’s 2014 Service Guidelines Report were included.  Second, once those needs were taken care of, city staff selected improvements after analysis applying the county’s Service Guidelines, the city’s Transit Master Plan, and Metro route performance data.  Broadly, the improvements fit into two categories: 1) reliability improvements on existing service, and 2) new trips on existing routes, including both peak and off-peak frequency improvements.  There are no restructures in this initial round of improvements, for obvious reasons of speed and ease of implementation.  Nevertheless, these improvements will make the system significantly easier to use, especially nights and weekends.  They should also relieve some dysfunction during rush hours.  Specifics below the jump.

Continue reading “Final Prop 1 Contract and Seattle Bus Improvements”

Bill to Expand Car Sharing Advances in Council

Car2Go Warm Up

After a successful 2-year pilot period, the Seattle City Council’s Transportation Subcommittee voted today to significantly expand car sharing services like Car2Go within the city limits, authorizing more permits and allowing up to 4 companies to provide services.

Car2Go has been very popular in Seattle. The service is reportedly approaching 60,000 members within the city, meaning nearly 10% of the Seattle population is a Car2Go member. According to SDOT, the cars are used for 6 trips per day, so they spend relatively little time parked in the same spot on the street, a fear when the service launched. Cars spend about 70 minutes/day in paid zones and 2.5 hours in restricted zones such as RPZs. There is no data on how much time the cars spend in unrestricted residential zones.

As the city gets more information about where car share vehicles spend their idle time, it has adjusted the fees it charges accordingly. With this new legislation, car share companies will pay the city $1,730 per car per year, up from $1,330. The change is largely due to an increase in the cost of parking in Residential Parking Zones (RPZs). The Committee argued that more money was needed to pay for the full costs of the RPZ program. Josh Feit did the math in his writeup if you’re interested. Car2Go’s Walter Rozenkranz spoke during the public comment period to say that the increase in fees “may result in increase in fees to our members.”

Under the new law, which will be voted on by the full council, up to 4 companies may apply for permits. Each company can get 500 permits, or 750 if they choose to expand their services to the entire city Limits (currently Car2Go’s service area excludes the far North and South ends of the city). That means that there could be as many as 3,000 car share vehicles available to city residents by year end. In practice, however, the number is likely to be much smaller. BMW, which operates Drive Now in several cities, is keen to expand to Seattle. Zipcar may also be investigating such a service, although it’s unlikely to launch this year, Councilmember O’Brien noted.

As a Car2Go member myself, I’d be excited to see more cars and more competition. I’ll be curious to see what the overlap in membership is. Will car share customers own 3-4 company cards, and hop to whatever service has one available? Or will different services appeal to different consumers? Will we see airline-like loyalty programs emerge? It will be interesting to watch.

If there’s one area I’d direct SDOT and Car2Go to work on, it’s making it more clear on the street where exactly car shares are permitted to park. The legislation spells it out pretty well, but I rarely have a copy of the Seattle Municipal Code with me when I’m circling Capitol Hill looking for a spot to ditch the car.

I-405 “Expansion” Would be Good for Transit

I-90 and I-405 Interchange

Martin did a great run-down of the Governor’s transportation proposal before the holidays.  There’s a lot of new highway construction in there that transit advocates and people who care about the future of the earth should be concerned about, but I think it’s important to distinguish between types of highway construction.

One thing most transit advocates agree upon is that transit should run in uncongested lanes (when not grade-separated of course) and that roads should be priced to help ensure that free-flow.  So it’s worth noting that about a quarter of the highway expansion money in the proposal would go primarily towards completing the system of express toll lanes on I-405.  Through downtown Bellevue, 2 of the 5 lanes in each direction would be tolled.  This is hugely significant, since the current HOV lane often fails to maintain consistent 45MPH speeds in the afternoon peak, hurting transit.

The first express toll lanes will open between Bellevue and Lynnwood this year.  The lower half, between Bellevue and Renton, is currently unfunded, but would presumably receive the bulk of the funding from Inslee’s proposal.  Completing these projects will create the largest stretch of congestion-priced roadway in the region, stretching from Auburn to Lynnwood.

Photo via user mspdude on Flickr

Rider Info: Small Details Make a Big Difference


Is it really 21 minutes late, or is it ready to start on time?
Is it really 21 minutes late, or is it ready to start on time?

When I have friends visiting for the holidays, I like to take them on a “Best of Seattle” transit tour.  We could ride the route 98 to Lake Union Park or maybe catch Link to “St Light Rail & S Edmunds St” station for lunch.  Even though it’s the holidays, I’m sure I can trust all these scheduled arrivals I see in my favorite transit app.

What’s that?  You’ve never heard of the 98?  Did Sound Transit secretly add a new in-fill station when you weren’t paying attention?  Or maybe you spent the holidays like me, waiting for buses that were actually running late or not at all.

If you are using any one of the apps most Seattle riders use to navigate our transit system on a daily basis, I’ll forgive your confusion.  Apps like OneBusAway, Transit App, Google Maps, and others are all powered by transit data from local agencies and increasingly, that data is just plain wrong.

Route 98?  Better known as the SLU Streetcar.  “St Light Rail & S Edmunds St” Station?  Try Columbia City Station instead.  Yet these are the names King County Metro publishes in the official schedule data they release to developers.  Issues with holiday schedules and real-time data have been a problem for years and this season was no exception [Ed. note; Sound Transit says it has now resolved the holiday schedule issue.].  Even worse, there have been persistent issues with Metro real-time data, especially near the start of routes, since the upgrade to GPS years ago.

A transit agency might be tempted to dismiss these issues as minor, especially compared to the challenges of keeping buses running under perennial budget pressures.  However, at a time when service is in flux and traffic snarls even the most frequent routes, timely and accurate rider information is critical.  Given a choice between accurate real-time info and a slight reduction in headway on their favorite routes, I think many riders would actually pick real-time.

Continue reading “Rider Info: Small Details Make a Big Difference”

New Metro Ridership Report – Up, Up, and Away

Superman, DC Comics. Art by Jim Lee

Last month King County Metro launched a new transparency/ridership campaign. The page is located here, it’s worth checking out.

While they provide their own bar charts showing the last year of growth, I took their provided data from the last 4 years and plugged it into the charts I regularly produce based on Sound Transit’s ridership reports. The results are startling. Seriously, wow. I don’t want to pat myself on the back too hard, but in terms of visualizing success, I haven’t seen stronger.

First a bit of refresher. In September 2012 KC Metro undertook a aggressive restructuring in Ballard and West Seattle around the introduction of Rapid Ride. These restructures were based on the County Council’s new service guidelines. And Metro’s restructures freakin’ produced. Yes, they were contentious. Highly contentious. Taking away transit, even lowly utilized transit, is a highly politicized action. However the results show that if you put those hours into high demand corridors you get amazing results. Assuming your goal is to provide the most amount of people the best possible transit options it works. It really, really, works. After looking at the below charts everyone reading this should write their KC councilmember and thank them for their courage and leadership.

To me, this seems to argue for more aggressive reorganizations. Fast, frequent, all day routes bring in riders. Who would have ever guessed? Hopefully now that Metro is in the position to be adding service they will put those hours where it will do the most good, the routes, corridors and services that people have voted for with their feet.

Nov15KCMWeekdayMvgAvgMore charts below. Continue reading “New Metro Ridership Report – Up, Up, and Away”

OBA Apparently Fixed

obaVarious anecdotes coming in this morning suggest that OneBusAway is finally fixed, after over a month without real-time data on many key routes. Furthermore, the software will accurately reflect holiday schedules in the future. Spokesman Bruce Gray explains:

We put a new build up at 7 a.m. that so far appears to fix the major issues we had been seeing. Turned out to be a compression problem on a couple files.

While there were many aggravating aspects of this rollout, not least the lack of information before I asked for it, the good news is that Sound Transit is executing a program of actually improving OneBusAway rather than letting it stagnate.

Meanwhile, King County announced a new region-wide trip planning app this morning. which will include real-time arrival data. We’ll have a review of it next week.

All Aboard for NFC Playoffs

Join the crowds taking transit to the Seahawks (Photo from KingCounty.gov)
Join the crowds taking transit to the Seahawks
(Photo from KingCounty.gov)
Once again, the Seahawks have won home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, and will begin their playoff drive this Saturday, at 5:15 p.m., against the Carolina Panthers.

In addition to the myriad of regular transit service, including frequent Link Light Rail service to and from the airport, the game will be served by special Sounder train service, and shuttles from Northgate Transit Center, Eastgate Park & Ride, and South Kirkland Park & Ride. Shuttle fares are $4 cash each way. You can also take Metro route 41 from Northgate, ST Express 554 from Eastgate, and Metro route 255 from South Kirkland.

Two Sounder trains will take off from Lakewood Station at 1:50 and 2:30, arriving at Century Link Field at 2:57 and 3:43. A third train will take off from Sumner Station at 2:37, arriving at the CLink at 3:19. North Sounder Service, weather permitting, will take off from Everett Station at 2:15 and 2:30, arriving at 3:14 and 3:29. The full schedule is available here.

New since last year is frequent service on King County Metro’s brand new Rapid Ride F Line, connecting to both Tukwila Sounder Station and Tukwila International Boulevard (light rail) Station, running past midnight.

As per tradition, trash talk against the home team is off-topic and will be deleted.

Update: samuel will be coming to the game on the ferry.

News Roundup: Yes, No, Maybe So

Eastside Rail Corridor  (Photo by the Author)
Eastside Rail Corridor (Photo by the Author)

Keeping the Northgate Pedestrian Bridge Alive

Northgate Pedestrian Bridge Concept
Northgate Pedestrian Bridge Concept

When we last left the Northgate Pedestrian Bridge project, it had failed to qualify for a $15M federal grant, putting $10M in local matching funds in jeopardy. Before Christmas, Mike O’Brien and Larry Phillips sent their fellow Sound Transit board members a note asking them to ignore the next deadline for federal grands in 2015 and instead simply commit to finding the funding for the project.

You can read Tim Bond’s previous coverage of the bridge project for more details on the design options.

The pedestrian bridge is an excellent project and it would be a damn shame if Northgate station opened without it, so kudos to O’Brien and Phillips for making the ask to their fellow board members. The bridge would serve 7,000 trips per day. To put that in context, Northgate Station is expected to have 15,000 daily riders by 2030. The bridge would drastically transform the transit options for North Seattle Community College and the surrounding neighborhood.

Sound Transit has the money, with U-Link and North Link coming in under budget. The board just has to authorize the expenditure. Given that the agency’s recently-updated system access policy calls for considering pedestrian and bike access at stations, the bridge should be a no-brainer. If Sound Transit is going to continue to site stations directly adjacent to I-5, then it ought to do everything it can to make non-motorized access as pain-free as possible.  Let’s build this bridge.

Paul Roberts Interview, Part II

Paul Roberts

There are a lot of opinions about what Sound Transit should do in Snohomish County, and (in our comment threads) precious few of those opinions come from there. To rectify that, I chatted with Sound Transit Boardmember, and Everett Councilmember, Paul Roberts for his perspective of what is desirable and feasible in that subarea. This is Part 2 of 2. (Part I)

Mr. Roberts is a self-described “recovering planner” who has served in numerous transportation and environmental advisory positions, and almost two decades as Director of Everett’s Department of Planning and Community Development, before “failing at retirement” by doing some consulting and serving in elected office.

It’s well-understood that only dense land use can fully utilize the capacity of rail. As a City Councilmember, what are you prepared to do to make it happen in Everett?

We’ve already done a lot of Transit Oriented Development along the Swift line. That’s the same thing we’d have to do for Link. It’s critical, and I’ve long been a supporter.

Our analysis suggests that the proposed $15 billion ST3 package won’t really be enough to get to Everett via I-5, much less via Paine Field. What compromises do you support to resolve this dilemma?

First, it’s too early yet to know what those pieces look like. But we still have to do system- and project-level studies. We don’t yet know what those costs will be.

Second, we have to think as a region. We have significant manufacturing capacity that drives the State of Washington. The real priority we have to look at is completing the spine to Tacoma, Everett, and Redmond. We have other providers — CT, ET, KCM — that have to be part of the integrated system.

Third, we also need to look at how to right-size the system to bias building more miles of track as opposed to larger stations or some of the other infrastructure pieces that can more easily be added later. The stations don’t have to be overbuilt to have impact. But they do have to function properly! There’s a difference between spending huge amounts of money on the station and spending the right amount of money to make that station work in terms of access. And those are relatively low-tech urban design solutions! Sound Transit shouldn’t dictate that design, but I do think we should work with the communities. Communities have to take the lead and frankly, the responsibility. In other words, Sound Transit can’t be funding a lot of that, but we should be supportive of it.

I’m on the record as advocating different funding mechanisms. Tax-increment financing (TIF) is used in almost every other state and captures some of the value created by the line. It’s a concept that’s overdue [Washington law does not allow TIF].

Your second point sounds like a swipe at subarea equity. If the emphasis is building out the spine, there’s taxing capacity in North and East King that is presumably going to very high-ridership but non-spine lines. Are you suggesting that those projects should be subordinated to completing the spine?

Continue reading “Paul Roberts Interview, Part II”

Paul Roberts Interview, Part I

Paul Roberts

There are a lot of opinions about what Sound Transit should do in Snohomish County, and (in our comment threads) precious few of those opinions actually come from there. To rectify that, I chatted with Sound Transit Boardmember, and Everett Councilmember, Paul Roberts for his perspective of what is desirable and feasible in that subarea. This is Part 1 of 2. (Part II)

Mr. Roberts is a self-described “recovering planner” who has served in numerous transportation and environmental advisory positions, and almost two decades as Director of Everett’s Department of Planning and Community Development, before “failing at retirement” by doing some consulting and serving in elected office.

Thanks for taking the time to chat. What drew you to the Sound Transit Board?

I’m very drawn to infrastructure. I’ve been long involved in transportation planning, including the Governor’s Connecting Washington Task Force. My roots are deep in this stuff. But also, I look forward into the future and see the bigger arc of this urban area. In lots of other urban areas like ours across the nation and globe, transit capacity is something they’ve developed or are trying to develop. A lot of people wish we’d done this earlier, but we didn’t; we’re here. Last but not least, I chair the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and a lot of my technical background is in environmental planning. I can’t think of anything more significant to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions than building systems to give people alternatives to driving.

What do you think is the right vision for high-capacity transit in Snohomish County beyond Sound Transit 2? Why?

paineI’ve been on record for a long time as favoring Light Rail via I-5 to Paine Field (Option A), which I call the “Southwest Everett Industrial Area.” That’s an important distinction. We often talk about Paine Field, which is a big piece. But the zoning and infrastructure capacity of this area is roughly 100,000 jobs. Today there are about 55,000 manufacturing jobs. Boeing is of course the biggest, but there are over 200 companies there, and not all of them are aerospace.

This is the largest manufacturing center in the state, the economic driver of the state. It has a higher economic output than Seatac. It’s not about Boeing, but it’s about manufacturing capacity. If we are going to build a system, we have to build it to connect the job base. To do otherwise would be foolish.

How would any other nation build this system? Would they build one that did not connect their primary manufacturing capacity? I think the answer is no. I don’t think the Sound Transit study [which showed the same ridership for Paine Field and SR-99 alignments] reflected the job capacity of Southwest Everett. The real growth capacity is at Southwest Everett, not I-5. [On I-5] you get nothing that drives ridership in the future.

Lastly, we’ve already talked about integration of the Operations and Maintenance Facility in Southwest Everett. It should be integrated into the system to be cost-effective.

What are you hearing from constituents and stakeholders?

Continue reading “Paul Roberts Interview, Part I”

I-90 Tolling’s Decreasing Importance


In keeping with STB’s generally technocratic ethos, I think tolling I-90 is good policy, not to fund more megaprojects but because it will improve travel times both for people who choose to pay the toll and (more importantly) for transit riders that will no longer have to deal with chronic congestion. Olympia’s tolling rhetoric never seemed to grasp this and viewed it as a purely revenue-generating measure.

However, the Times reported ($) last month that the governor’s transportation package, by funding the new 520 bridge with other revenues, would also “abandon the idea of tolling the I-90 Mercer Island floating bridge.” While I still think this is a bad policy, I surprised myself by not being particularly concerned about it.

That’s not just because of skepticism about the package’s chances. A toll on I-90 a few years ago, now, and for the next few years would indeed alleviate the suffering of transit riders. Processes being what they are, however, any plausible toll would probably begin about when two-way HOV operations start on the bridge in 2017. At that point general-purpose lane congestion becomes theoretically irrelevant to bus riders; six years after that, and East Link will make it entirely irrelevant.

Stepping beyond transit for a moment, it would be great for freight to flow freely and for people to choose between an inexpensive but fast transit ride and a more expensive, even faster drive. But I can also accept a cheap, fast transit ride vs. a cheap slog through traffic. If freight and SOV interests can’t, they certainly have the platform to demand what they need without transit advocates concerning themselves with it.

ICYMI: The Holidays at STB

Red bus lane in front of UW Medical Center

If you lose interest in STB when you get out of town, you might have missed some pretty good stuff the last couple of weeks:

What’s Coming in 2015

Pioneer Square streetcar terminus-- Sounder Bruce (Flickr)
Pioneer Square streetcar terminus– Sounder Bruce (Flickr)

While it may be fair to look at 2015 as the final Year in Waiting™ for University Link to open, 2015 will bring about plenty of changes in its own right, and transit riders, people on bikes, and people walking have much to anticipate. Here’s a look at the upcoming year. 

New Openings & Service Changes

  • Assuming that the already-delayed vehicles start arriving soon, the First Hill Streetcar will finally launch sometime this spring.
  • I-405 opens express toll lanes between Bellevue and Lynnwood.
  • Mukilteo Station’s south platform project will be complete early this year.
  • Metro’s new trolleys will begin entering service.
  • The Mercer West project will be mostly complete by summer, with some North Portal work obviously delayed pending Bertha repairs.
  • Sound Transit introduces ST Express route 580, with 20 daily one-way trips, between Lakewood Station and Puyallup Station, connecting with Sounder. (June)
  • Seattle Pacific University gets its layover, with Metro routes 3 and 4 extending to SPU and losing their vestigial terminal loops.
  • Metro will unveil its ULink Connections plan (June) 
  • Prop 1 funded service hits the streets. (June)
  • As part of ULink testing, Link will go to 6-minute peak headways, the DSTT will be able to accommodate 4-car trains, and some tunnel buses (yet unnamed) will be surfaced to make room. (September)

Fare Changes