Expect Crowded Transit & Unusual Schedules July 3-4

FireworksDon’t be caught off guard by the significant transit service reductions on Friday, July 3, the day the federal government is observing as the Independence Day holiday. Very few transit agencies will be running a regular weekday schedule. Some will even shut down completely. Others will be shut down Saturday and open for business Friday.

However, on the night of Saturday, July 4, the South Lake Union Streetcar and * Tacoma Link will be in service later into the evening. ** The ferry from Vashon to Fauntleroy will have an additional sailing, at 11:25 pm.

Washington State Ferries is taking extra measures to handle the 350,000 passengers they are expecting over the holiday weekend, including spacing cars more tightly, and having police directing traffic at the downtown Seattle ferry dock. Check WSF’s terminal status page for the most up-to-date information on your route. Walking on is strongly encouraged. There should be more than enough space for the expected walk-on crowds, and ample space to transport bikes. If you want to avoid long lines, 4-6 pm Wednesday and Thursday evening is the wrong time to take the ferry.

If you are planning to take the ferry between Port Townsend and Coupevile, or any of the Anacortes / San Juan ferries, and taking a car, making a reservation is strongly encouraged. And then, be there 45 minutes before scheduled departure. ** Several additional sailings are planned for the Anacortes ferries July 1-5.

For-hire, taxi, and rideshare services with special deals this weekend, or any free-ride-home services, are welcome to mention those deals in the comment thread.

Service Levels for the various transit agencies in the region for July 3-4 are below the fold:
Continue reading “Expect Crowded Transit & Unusual Schedules July 3-4”

Senate Ransoms Transit; House Voting Today

Less than 10 hours after the public received details about the state legislature’s transportation package, the Senate approved it. By the time you read this, the House’s vote will be imminent. Governor Inslee is a party to the deal and unlikely to veto any section of it. We’re not ones to lament lack of process — a good bill is a good bill even without public comment, and a bad one is bad even with it — but the lack of time to even digest the legislation, much less mobilize around it, is breathtaking.

We’re left with only the opportunity to reflect on what is about to become law. The basic highway/transit tradeoff was probably inevitable, because our allegedly climate-focused Governor either doesn’t grasp or doesn’t care about the link between highways and carbon emissions, and therefore fought hard for the highways. We were ready to grudgingly accept that deal, partly because some of the highway projects were at least defensible from a transit advocate’s perspective. But the additional stipulations are too onerous to accept.

First, there’s a further $500m subsidy of drivers by taking tax revenue from the general fund — from schools, state parks, health care, social services, public safety and all the other things the State does — and give it to WSDOT through a new sales tax exemption.

To raise the Sound Transit 3 revenue authority from $11 billion to $15 billion, the State will claim over $500m of that ST revenue, intended for transit, in addition to having Sound Transit forfeit virtually all state grants (already pathetically behind other urbanized states). So this last $4 billion of taxes will purchase perhaps $3 billion of transit. The $500m replaces the $500m WSDOT exemption, a barely obscured transfer of regional transit funds to statewide highways.

And then there’s the provision banning low-carbon fuel standards, which shows that Senate Republicans care so little about non-car modes of transportation that they will gleefully use its funding as a hostage.

In the short term, there’s little we can do about these bills. Perhaps there will be an initiative or referendum to target one or more package elements. A good target would be SSB 5990, the sales tax exemption, a straight giveaway to construction contractors and to WSDOT, the single state agency doing the most to aggravate the climate problems that are already damaging our state’s economy, at the expense of everything else the State does to serve its citizens.

The STB Editorial Board currently consists of Martin H. Duke, Frank Chiachiere, and Brent White.

Compromise Transportation Package Details Online

ST and WSDOT: one of these things is not like the other. Photo by SounderBruce.

[Update from Martin 4:10pm: Section 319 specifically prohibits Sound Transit, if it enacts new MVET, from receiving any state grants except for “transit coordination grants.”]

Today, the state Senate made public the details of the “compromise” transportation proposal agreed to by transportation committee leaders in the state House and Senate.  The public documents include proposed bill text, project lists, and a balance sheet. We understand that both houses will vote on this proposed compromise tomorrow.

STB staff are still reviewing the documents and determining exactly what they mean for Seattle-area transit, but there are a few important highlights from the proposed revenue bill, ESSB 5987:

  • Sound Transit gets authority to ask voters for a basket of new taxes that would raise approximately $15 billion for ST3 projects (Sections 318-321).
  • However, up to $518 million of the new ST3 taxes would be diverted to the general fund (Section 422).  This exactly matches a sales tax break that would be given to WSDOT under SSB 5990, so it is effectively a transfer from ST to WSDOT.
  • ST must contribute $20 million over five years to affordable housing, and must give developers of affordable housing the first opportunity to bid on 80% of its surplus property, including property acquired for ST1 and ST2 (Section 329).
  • The Snohomish County Public Transportation Benefit Area gets authority to ask voters for an additional .3% sales tax, which would support Community Transit (Section 312).
  • Cities or counties may absorb, and take on the powers of, transportation benefit districts (TBDs) that have identical boundaries (Sections 301-308).
  • TBDs get authority to impose $40 to $50, up from $20, of the maximum $100 vehicle license fee without a public vote (Sections 309-311).

On the one hand, this package gets ST3 all of its requested authority, and could also help fund Community Transit.  On the other hand, this package contains numerous policy provisions which are hard to swallow, and (as always in Washington) proceeds full speed ahead with highway projects while requiring transit projects to submit to yet another public vote.

The Full $15 Billion

The Seattle Times reported last evening ($) that Governor Inslee and legislative leaders from both houses have reached agreement on a transportation package. Of highest relevance to STB, the package contains the full $15B requested authorization for Sound Transit 3.* This could either give the ST board some flexibility in choosing its revenue sources while still meeting some regional goals, or the whole sum could fund very close to all of the main regional priorities. (See here for a guess as to what $15 billion — as well as some smaller sums — could come out to in terms of project budgets).

Apparently one key Democratic concession was acceptance of the “poison pill” provision that essentially negates any chance of a low-carbon fuel standard in the short term. Gov. Inslee’s quote is worth reproducing in full:

I oppose [the poison pill] and have worked hard to find a better alternative,” Inslee said in a statement. “But legislators tell me it is essential to passing the $15 billion multimodal transportation package and authorizing an additional $15 billion for Sound Transit light rail expansion.

And then there’s the matter of the highways, which have been there from the beginning thanks to bipartisan enthusiasm. As always, the package doesn’t adequately fund highway maintenance and actually makes the problem worse by adding many more decaying lane-miles on SR 520, I-405, SR 167, and in North Spokane. Highway expansion is a futile response to congestion, encourages environmentally damaging driving, and literally destroys neighborhoods. About the only good thing to say about it is that it’s funded by gas taxes, which in a small way offsets a little of the environmental carnage.

A deal isn’t a vote, so we’ll see how Democratic and Republican backbenchers react to what the leadership forged. Those highways, together with the poison pill, have been enough to turn some climate-oriented environmental organizations against the deal and lobby legislators to vote no. As much as I want the ST3 rail investments, it’s hard to blame them.

*According to House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island).

Swift II Open House Update

Swift II legend
Though only for illustrative purposes, this map at the Swift II open house shows CT could be considering using colors to brand its Swift lines. (Photo by author)

Community Transit held three open houses this week for their Swift II project, which aims to build a 12.5-mile-long bus rapid transit line with 15 stations connecting northern Bothell to Mill Creek and the Paine Field industrial area in Everett. The project is estimated to cost $42-48m, with the majority of capital funds provided from the FTA (through their Small Starts program) and WSDOT (through their mobility grants). The money will primarily fund two major projects: the new Seaway Transit Center on the east side of the Boeing factory and BAT lanes on 128th Street SW as it approaches its interchange with Interstate 5.

The second of these meetings, held Wednesday night at Mariner High School near the midpoint of the Swift II corridor, was attended by five members of the public (including me) and six Community Transit employees. CT also published the slides online.

While most of the information presented was already previously public, mostly as documents on CT’s website, there was one noteworthy new item. The table map of the proposed stations used colors to label both the existing Swift line and the proposed Swift II line as the “Blue Line” and “Green Line”, respectively. Swift I and Swift II will be eventually renamed, but not until the run-up to a local election on Swift II funding. The election will occur after the passage of House Bill 1393 by the state legislature, which would allow CT to raise sales taxes by an additional 0.3% with approval from voters. The bill is still alive in the special session.

CT expects the line to open sometime between 2018 and 2020, at the earliest September 2018. It projects 3,300 daily boardings by the end of the first year of operations, dominated by commuters to the Paine Field industrial area and Canyon Park’s office parks until the corridor matures into an all-day destination. The goal for base frequency is every 10 minutes, the same headway Swift I had until it was reduced to 12 minutes in 2012. This requires 12 new coaches funded by the FTA and WSDOT grants. CT confirmed they are looking into shadow service on the Swift II corridor, similar to how Route 101 stops on the southern half of the Swift I corridor, but there are no concrete plans.

The draft plan for the proposed Seaway Transit Center was in the presentation but omitted from the online copy because of its unfinished nature. It showed a layout for the transit center that accommodated both Everett Transit as well as a possible Boeing shuttle with its own bay, similar to the Microsoft Connect shuttle at the Overlake Transit Center in Redmond.

The initial Swift line still has one remaining infill station, located southbound at 204th Street SW east of Edmonds Community College, that will be named “College Station”. This presents a possible conflict with a future Swift line on North Broadway that could serve Everett Community College.

Growth is centralizing in Seattle and the Eastside

Detail from Sound Transit mailer for ST3 Open House.

Recently, Matthew shared some 2014 population statistics that once again showed the City of Seattle leading King County growth.

Looking at more detailed city data across the region, the news is more complex and yet more encouraging. Not only is Seattle leading King County, but much of the growth elsewhere in the County is coming from the central Eastside. In 2014, Seattle grew 2.3%. Among the cities of the central Eastside, Bellevue grew 1.8% in 2014, Redmond 3.0%, Kirkland 1.5%. Renton grew 1.3%, and all of the rest of King County averaged just 1.1%.

Major cities in Pierce and Snohomish Counties (and in South King) lagged further. Everett was + 1.2%, Tacoma + 0.9%, Federal Way + 0.7%, Kent + 0.8%.

This mostly looks like concentric circles of slower growth the further one gets away from downtown Seattle. Continue reading “Growth is centralizing in Seattle and the Eastside”

News Roundup: Cracking Down

  • Better enforcement coming to regional Park & Rides, with KIRO highlighting a recent crackdown. (KIRO)
  • More First Hill Streetcar delays: SDOT and Inekon are another 30 days behind their most recent goal of having all cars certified by the end of June. (KING 5)
  • Mercer Island’s development moratorium has been extended another six months. Meanwhile, the Stakeholders Group was tasked with writing a news article from 2035 describing Mercer Island, and the submissions are fascinating. (MI Reporter)
  • Ready for the 90° heat this weekend? Take heart that this is the last summer in which you’ll have to suffer through the  stagnant swelter of Metro’s current trolley fleet. (KIRO)
  • The Mayor announced a new Office of Planning and Community Development, tasked with coordinating and directing growth. Both neighborhood groups and urbanists are cautiously optimistic, which really just means it’s an unknown quantity. (The Urbanist)
  • Dueling ST3 editorials from the usual suspects, local electeds on the Pro side and Niles and co. on the other. (Seattle Times, $)
  • Gag order: in a sign that things are about to get mighty litigious, the state pulls the plug on Bertha’s Expert Review Panel, because “hav[ing] an ongoing three people out making opinions which are public …could hurt taxpayers.” (Seattle Times, $)
  • In a recent PSRC survey, only 1 out of 5 solo drivers said that they could be persuaded to stop driving. (Seattle Times, $)

This is an open thread.

Under Capitol Hill at 55 MPH

University Link light rail train testing from Sound Transit Video on Vimeo.

This afternoon Sound Transit released its first video of full-speed testing of the ULink alignment, showing a northbound trip from Capitol Hill Station to UW Station. The video gives a nice sense of how the ride quality and acceleration will feel once in service. The train slowly accelerates from Capitol Hill Station, taking 40 seconds to accelerate to 55mph underneath Volunteer Park. The train then cruises at 55mph for 2 minutes in the downhill northeast straightaway between Volunteer Park and the Montlake Cut. The train passes under the Cut at around the 2’30” mark, turning north and slowly making its way into the station at the 3’00” mark.

Tunnel videos are generally among the most uninspiring things to watch, but when you remember that during those 3 minutes the #43 would only make it as far 15th Ave, what the video represents is very exciting indeed. Just 8-9 more months to go!

Praise for Route 60 Investments

When more buses are needed during peak hours, and no extra money is available to add more runs, it is usually off-peak frequency, and then off-peak span-of-service, that gets reduced first. Sunday and then Saturday service are at the front of that queue for taking away service.

Cleveland High School, where bus riders will no longer be stranded after 8:00 on weekends (photo by Joe Mabel)
Cleveland High School, where bus riders will no longer be stranded after 8:00 on weekends (photo by Joe Mabel)

So, I was pleasantly surprised when the route I ride most, if it is in service, got a serious investment, with nearly half of the investment being on weekends. Route 60 is a very dependable, but often-not-close-to-full cross-town route connecting Broadway on Capitol Hill, Madison St, Harborview, Yesler Terrace, Little Saigon, North Beacon Hill, Beacon Hill Station, 15th Ave S, southern Georgetown, South Park, Arrowhead Gardens, White Center, and Westwood Village. It splices together a lot of short trips, and yet shows up on time whenever I ride it (at least since the reliability-destroying loop through the congested Veterans’ Administration Hospital parking lot got removed).

Seattle Proposition 1 provided the funding to bring route 60 up to par with a lot of downtown routes, with half-hourly service all day from roughly 7:00-11:00 on weekends, and at least that frequent on weekdays. Service investments added four late-evening trips each way on weeknights and eight evening trips each way on weekends, plus an additional northbound trip on weekends earlier than the previous span of service.

Mid-day frequency got boosted to every 20 minutes a few years ago, with 15-minute scheduled headway during peak, which has since been fine-tuned to headway of no worse than 20 minutes, but as good as 10 minutes for the peak-of-peak period in the peak direction. There are portions of the route where the bus fills up during peak, including at Cleveland High School before and after school.

One of the major stops for boardings and alightings is at Beacon Hill Station, with lots of riders transferring to/from Link. Route 60 is slowly but surely becoming a success story as a Link-connecting route that doesn’t go downtown. Indeed, a major draw of the route is that its reliability isn’t wrecked by having to slog through downtown. More of this, please!

Council Committee Passes Anti-Density Legislation

Another neighborhood destroyed by a clerestory

In the urbanist blogosphere it’s most interesting to write about policies that cut both ways. Taxing development to fund low-income housing probably, at the margins, discourages construction of market-rate units while also enabling construction of below-market-rate units. The net impact is therefore debatable.

But then there are straightforward restrictions on the number of units that developers can build, which is a dead weight loss that sets Seattle back from a number of uncontroversial objectives. Last week the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee took a Mike O’Brien measure intended to close a few loopholes (that would have the very negative effect of reducing units constructed) and turned it into a vehicle in effect driving many potential residents out of the city.

The public comment period was pretty depressing. Erica’s blog covered the June 2nd hearing, and on June 16th her twitter feed was filled with comments from the day of the votes.

Josh Feit has an excellent rundown of the amendments and how people voted. Retiring councilmember Tom Rasmussen voted for all of these bad amendments; retiring councilmember Nick Licata and very much not-retiring Jean Godden joined him in all but two of the eight. Mike O’Brien, perhaps regretting even bringing the subject up, and Sally Bagshaw correctly voted no on all eight, and reliable density stalwart Tim Burgess only voted yes on one. John Okamoto, interim replacement for Sally Clark, voted yes on only two.

No amendment gained had the five votes necessary to pass the full council, so much will depend on Kshama Sawant and Bruce Harrell.

Beyond reporting what happened, it’s tough to say anything new about this debate. People either want more people in the city or they prefer them displaced to the suburbs. To the extent that the flood of comments are a coherent objection, it seems to be an aesthetic one (“livability”). I can’t read the minds in this instance, but the non-subjective objection usually comes down to parking (if there isn’t “enough” in new developments) or traffic (if new parking adds cars to the neighborhood). Sometimes development might bring the “wrong” kind of people into the neighborhood.

Citizens are entitled to like whatever kind of neighborhood aesthetics they want. It’s not crazy to try to preserve your exclusive access to public right-of-way. And while not admirable, it’s easy to understand why someone of a certain class might not appreciate what young or low-income people bring to a place. What’s harder to understand is why a substantial portion of a Council theoretically interested in reducing sprawl, enabling alternatives to the car, maintaining an inclusive city, and addressing the housing shortage is prioritizing these prejudices as they form policy.

New Metro Buses Coming

King County Metro
Photo by Busologist on Flickr

King County Metro Transit is preparing to add several hundred new buses to its fleet over the next few months.

It’s welcome news for most regular Metro riders, who know there are a lot of old buses still running on the streets of King County.

Budget pressure, mostly from the 2008 recession, forced Metro to hold off on any bus purchases the last few years. But now that Seattle voters have passed new taxes to fund more bus service, the agency can’t wait any longer.

Over the next year Metro said it will add 174 all-electric trolley buses and 105 hybrid buses to the fleet. All of the hybrid buses and 64 of the trolleys will be 60-foot long and bend in the middle.

Twenty of the hybrids will be dedicated to the RapidRide C and D lines, which are slated to be split up next year, sending them to South Lake Union and Pioneer Square respectively. These new buses, expected to be delivered early next year, will make that split possible.

The other 85 hybrids will replace buses in Metro’s fleet that are over 15 years old and lack air conditioning. Metro spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok says these new buses will be delivered by November 2016 and will be equipped with three doors for faster unloading of passengers.

Meanwhile testing continues on Metro’s new fleet of trolley buses.

Back in November, KING 5 went along on a test run and now Metro expects the 40-foot trolleys to start going into service within the next month. The first 60-foot articulated trolley arrived in Seattle a few weeks ago and just started doing test runs on the streets of Seattle.

These will be Metro’s first trolley buses to have low floors, a wheelchair ramp (instead of a lift), air conditioning and a battery pack that will allow them to operate off-wire for up to 3 miles.

April 2015 Sound Transit Ridership Report – Runnin’ Wild

ac-dc-back-in-black-acdc-band-heavy-logo-metal-51360Last month I asked if Link was pulling out of it’s late 2014 ridership growth slow down. While it hasn’t returned to the insane 15+% gains of last year, it does appear to have bounced back to more than healthy levels. Throw out the February numbers (unusually low due to the Seahawks’ parade inflating 2014’s numbers) and Link’s ridership is averaging 9.2% growth for the year. That itself is pretty remarkable when you consider it’s following on the heels of 13.4% growth for the same three months (January, March and April) last year.

April’s Link Weekday/Saturday/Sunday average boardings were 34,034 / 24,777 / 19,603, growth of 9.5%, 3.7%, and 13.3% respectively over April 2014. Sounder’s weekday boardings were up 6.1% with ridership increasing on both lines. Tacoma Link’s weekday ridership increased 2.1%. Weekday ST Express ridership was up 5.8%. System wide weekday boardings were up 6.8%, and all boardings were up 6.7%. The complete April Ridership Summary is here.

My charts below the fold. Continue reading “April 2015 Sound Transit Ridership Report – Runnin’ Wild”

Joint Metro/ST Open Houses Begin

End of Day
Photo by Atomic Taco on Flickr

The joint ST/Metro planning open houses began on Tuesday at Union Station in Seattle.

Sound Transit is looking for feedback on a potential ST3 measure (which could be affected by the current stalemate in Olympia on a transportation package).  The board will consider public input in less than a month, on July 15; we should expect an updated project list in August, and a draft plan should be ready by the spring of 2016.  Now is a good time to make your voice heard.

Metro, for its part, is starting some long-range planning.  As per their website, one piece of feedback they’re looking for is how to allocate service between express, local, and frequent routes.  Frequent service appeared to have the most support at Tuesday’s meeting.  Metro intends to have a final long-range plan in the back half of 2016.

Check out the event calendar for an upcoming workshop near you.

Mike Orr contributed to this report.

News Roundup: Left Out

Bike Traps, otherwise known as Streetcars (Atomic Taco, Flickr)
Bike Traps, otherwise known as Streetcars (Atomic Taco, Flickr)
  • The streetcar tracks on Jackson St are hazardous to people on bikes, and there is no parallel facility. Seattle Bike Blog explores design changes to fix it.
  • Burien (1) and Kenmore (2) are feeling left out of ST3 planning, and are making noise about it. (B-Town Blog and Shoreline Area News)
  • Meanwhile, ST3 will go nowhere without Olympia, and new reports are saying that it’s not exactly going well, with transportation talks “put on ice” as the second special session nears its end. (Times, $)
  • Racism is alive and well, example 1,046: rental discrimination is rampant at many properties in Seattle, and “Director’s Charges” have been filed against 13 properties, including the Station at Othello. (CHS)
  • Block by block: how the Broadway bikeway extension will remake the street between Denny and Aloha. (CHS)
  • How Ballard and Fremont looked with a complete street network, and how mid-century, grid-slicing arterials scarred it. (The Urbanist)
  • Ferry fares are going up in October, by 2.5% for vehicles and by 1% for passengers. (KOMO)

This is an open thread. 

Why Stop in the Middle?

Photo by Matthew Johnson

As the picture at right shows, Sound Transit recently erected new signs to indicate where 4-car (and 3-car) trains should stop. That reminded me of a question that had always bugged me: why do 2-car trains stop in the middle of the platform at all stations, when several stations (Stadium, Sodo, Rainier Beach) have only one exit, at one end of the platform?

The extra 90ft isn’t a huge problem, but it does mean a bit more running and some missed walk signals, perhaps more if you’re not the type to run.

As it turns out, there’s a reasonable explanation for it. Bruce Gray of Sound Transit: “Essentially, we agreed to stop the trains in the center of the platforms at all stations after consulting with the special needs community – keep it consistent across all the stations to help remove guesswork of where to board.”

That early design decision drove the placement of the tactile strips and various train control sensors, so it’s not an easily reversible policy.

Licata’s Move Seattle Alternative Isn’t Progressive

nl1City Council member Nick Licata, who’s retiring after his term ends at the end of this year, would like his legacy to include amending Move Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed $930 million transportation levy, to be smaller and less dependent on regressive property taxes.

Arguing that voters are approaching tax fatigue and that his alternative is more progressive than the mayor’s proposed property-tax levy, Licata has introduced amendments that would reduce the overall package by $100 million and cut the levy itself to $600 million, with the $230 million difference paid for through the commercial parking tax (which would increase from 12.5 to 17.5 percent) and an annual employee hours tax, paid by businesses, of $18 per employee.

He also proposed an amendment explicitly barring SDOT from spending any Move Seattle Money on streetcars, and another requiring the department to file annual reports showing how they’d spent levy dollars each year.

The cuts and substitutions, Licata said during a briefing on Move Seattle last Tuesday, would reduce the size of the average homeowner’s annual property tax bill to $179 in the first year, compared to the Murray option’s $275. It would also reshuffle the tax burden to employers in a way that appeals to the economic-lefty crowd (the bigger the company, the more it would pay), and to drivers in a way that appeals to the transportation-lefty crowd (drivers would pay more to maintain the roads they use).

Dig about an inch under the surface, however, and the Licata amendments are far less progressive—in both the economic and the political sense—than they appear.

Let’s start with that streetcar amendment. It reads, in its entirety, “None of the Levy Proceeds may be used to build or operate streetcars.” In other words (as an increasingly agitated SDOT director Scott Kubly pointed out last week), no matter how circumstances may change, or how priorities may evolve, or how much outside funding may become available, not a dime of the Move Seattle money could be used on streetcars for the nine-year duration of the levy.

This is no small prohibition.  Currently, Kubly noted, the city is finishing up the First Hill streetcar and may want to extend its northern terminus to Aloha in the future. Under the Licata amendment, the city would have no “flexibility to use the funds [for] the streetcar to have better access to light rail.” With per-mile ridership projected at about double what Link light rail is currently carrying, Kubly said, “This is a real transportation option. It’s not a toy.”

msLicata, a frequent rail opponent during his 18 years on the council, noted that Move Seattle currently includes no explicit references to streetcar, making it only logical to make the prohibition official. “This simply memorializes what was seen as the intent from the mayor,” Licata said. After a test back-and-forth with Kubly about whether the streetcar was or was not inherently a boondoggle, Licata concluded with a pretty cheap shot—”This is new information, that the levy’s intent is to build and operate a streetcar”—to which Kubly responded tersely, “That’s a mischaracterization of what I said.”

Although the Licata streetcar prohibition seems unlikely to pass, it did give Licata a chance to throw shade at rail investments, and on the mayor’s transit-oriented development agenda more broadly. Fixed rail is generally seen as more conducive to TOD (because a transit system that stays in place can be the foundation of a stable community in ways that buses can’t), but it’s also associated with gentrification and extra cost. Hence the tension.

In comparison, the parking and “head tax” should be no-brainers, right? Both are progressive—the former in the sense that it discourages driving by making it more expensive, the latter because big corporations pay more because they have more employees. Unfortunately, neither case is that clear-cut.

To start with the head tax: The trouble isn’t that employers pay it (Licata’s argument that it will “help shift the burden away from homeowners and renters” and onto big businesses is compelling). The problem is that in the service of making the tax more “user-friendly” and easier to implement (last time, businesses complained that the tax required too much paperwork), the Licata amendment eliminates the very provisions that made it progressive (in the environmental sense) in the first place—exemptions for employers who encouraged their workers to find another way to work besides driving alone. It was those exemptions that employers found onerous—as Licata noted, “80 percent of their complaints were about paperwork”—so Licata simply eliminated them. In the form Licata proposes, the tax would be easier for employers and give them no incentive to invest in alternatives to single-occupancy car commuting.


Although the commercial parking tax avoids this problem (there’s a direct nexus, or linkage if you will, between driving and paying to park your car), increasing the city’s already-controversial 12.5 percent parking tax by 40 percent is inherently regressive (in the economic sense). Because the tax is the same whether you’re driving a 1990s Honda or a late-model Jaguar, lower-income drivers will be hit hardest by the tax. Even if you believe, as I do, that it’s generally good policy to discourage driving and encourage alternatives, it’s undeniable that flat taxes, like the sales tax, hit poor people the hardest.

Moreover, a large increase in the parking tax for Move Seattle would tie up transportation funding capacity that could be used for other purposes in the future, such as in-city bus service. That’s one reason Transportation Choice Coalition program director Shefali Ranganathan said her group opposed using the tax to replace part of the proposed levy, because “there may be other uses” for the tax.

Finally, Licata’s proposal relies on the notion that voters are afflicted with “tax fatigue” and may balk at a $930 million but have no problem with a $600 million alternative. The consequences “if the public believes this is too large a bite of the apple,” Licata said, could be dire. First, the levy would have to wait at least two years, since the housing levy is up for renewal in 2016. In the meantime, SDOT would have to lay off a quarter of its staff and stop doing many of its core functions, Licata said. And that’s assuming another levy would pass in 2017. In other words, disaster.

Instead, Licata said last week, “Maybe the best approach is doing this [amended version] now to get the levy to pass at a smaller level. .. The goal here is to provide the best transportation package we can afford, and one that we are fairly certain the voters will vote for.”

The tax fatigue prediction will be familiar to anyone who reads the Seattle Times‘ editorial page–stretch the voters to their breaking point and eventually they’ll snap. With the exception of 2014’s county-wide Proposition 1, that alarmist prediction has never come true. In Seattle, there are approximately zero people who will vote against a $930 million package because of “tax fatigue” who will suddenly vote for it at $600  million. To the contrary, a smaller package does less for fewer parts of the city, meaning that fewer people will see value in voting for it.

Ultimately, a levy, or taxing package, will live or die based on whether voters think it’s worth the money, and whether it will help them get from Point A to Point B. Council members should scrutinize the details of the proposal, but squeezing it down to less than what we need and shrinking its impact on property owners out of fear that they’ll vote against it if they aren’t properly pandered to is a strategy for failure.

An Awkward Adolescence

1985 system : Seattle Metropolitan Area Recommended Public Transportation Plan

Martin’s recent post on the Everett delegation’s desires for ST3 is a good reminder that Sound Transit is as much a political project as an engineering one (and could it be any other way?).

When ST’s Ric Ilgenfritz spoke to STB readers at our April meetup, he described an agency that was coming out of survival mode and getting its sea legs. It’s hard to remember now, but 20-year-old Sound Transit spent most of its first 10 years fighting for its life.

One might think that after survival mode comes the transition to adulthood. But that would mean skipping over everyone’s favorite time of life, the awkward teen years.

Some of the confusion around ST3 stems from this adolescent awkwardness. What is this thing we’re building? What is this pimply teenager going to look like when it grows up?

One thing that gets Seattle transit advocates reliably twisted around the axle is the assumption that Sound Transit’s mission is to build an urban subway for Seattle’s booming population.  In fact, here’s how Sound Transit defines light rail on its web site:

“Electric train rapid transit that quickly covers long distances. Serves widely-spaced stations spanning the region.”

And here’s the City of Seattle’s Transportation Master Plan:

“Link light rail focuses on regional connectivity and longer-distance trips; by design, it is more of an intercity commuter rail model of transit operation than an urban light rail service.”

Those who want an actual urban subway – fast, grade-separated transit connecting Seattle’s dense inner neighborhoods – basically have to take this regional system called Link and try to bend it to serve those needs, just like some folks in Everett want to bend it their way.  That’s politics. Though it seems like an impossible task, it’s good to recall there have been some victories over the years:

  • The Rainier Valley got quality rail transit, even at the expense of slowing inbound trips from Federal Way and points South. Some favored a cheaper (but faster) Georgetown alignment that would have served fewer people (even the proposed 1985 system, shown above, skipped the RV).
  • Roosevelt station, initially slated to be elevated along I-5, was put underground, allowing for more potential development.
  • When ST was having a major crisis in the late 1990s, some suggested avoiding Capitol Hill altogether and running at grade along Eastlake.  Seattle pushed for a tunnel under Capitol Hill and won.
  • Infill stations at 130th and S. Graham St, while not yet funded, are looking good for potential additions.  At the very least, we’re now designing with infill stations in mind.
  • In 2013, the agency finally adopted rational policies on TOD and station access.

These are small but significant wins in our effort to turn our awkward teenager into a well-adjusted adult. It’s something to keep in mind as ST3 plans begin to emerge. In his recent op-ed for STB, Ilgenfritz himself implored transit advocates to get involved.  He’s right. Light rail will be what the process makes of it.

Amazon’s Shuttle Fleet

A few of Amazon's shuttle routes
A few of Amazon’s shuttle routes

Grist has been running a fantastic series on Seattle. You’ve probably seen one or two of the pieces show up in your social feed, but if not, the whole series is worth your time.

One piece in particular wonders whether Amazon’s SLU campus is the future of the office park. I was nodding vigorously in agreement as I read it (having had similar thoughts in the past), but there was one passage that stuck out:

There are no company buses shuttling workers into and out of the neighborhood. But its main employers (Amazon, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Group Health, and a University of Washington biotech and research hub) all pay extra money to have the streetcar line down Westlake Avenue run every 10 minutes during rush hour instead of every 15.

While it is indeed great that SLU employers fund the streetcar, Amazon (and UW) do make use of shuttle vans.  Some of these shuttles simply help employees get from building to building in a sprawling campus (a necessity for large employers spread out over many buildings), while others are more of a last-mile commuter affair, taking employees to campus from Colman Dock or King Street Station. You can view the routes here (or download the app!).

The last-mile nature of Amazon’s commuter shuttles, though, suggests a stopgap measure. If and when our various transit agencies provide adequate service into SLU (the proposed Westlake transit lanes and the Center City Connector are a start), Amazon could presumably cut back.