Last Chance to Win a ULink Golden Ticket

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 11.28.52 AMIf you want a chance to ride ULink’s inaugural train on March 19th, with a “Golden Ticket” commemorative ORCA card to go with it, a reminder that the the deadline to enter is today, February 29. The easiest way to enter is via social media; simply like/follow Sound Transit on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and share a photo or video using #ULink2016 and you’ll be entered to win. For more info, see

Two New Services for ORCA LIFT Tuesday; Other Fare Increases

PrintOn the first birthday of the ORCA LIFT (low-income fare) program, this coming Tuesday, March 1, low-income fares will go live on two more services:

  • Sound Transit Express buses
    ($1.50 in-county,
    $2.75 inter-county)
  • Sounder commuter rail
    ($2.50 to $4.25,
    based on distance)
  • .
    It took 30 years for Kitsap Transit’s low-income fare program, started in 1985, to be adopted elsewhere. Martin proposed the idea of a low-income ORCA card for King County Metro back in 2010. A coalition of transit and social justice advocacy groups, now known as Transit for All, got together and sent a joint letter to the King County Council in late 2012, asking for such a program. The County Council unanimously created the Low Income Fare Options Advisory Committee, which issued its report in June 2013. The council then created the Low Income Fare Implementation Task Force, which issued its report in August 2014. The council formally adopted the low-income fare program in its 2015 budget, and the program was given the name ORCA LIFT.

    On March 1 of 2015, the ORCA LIFT card went live, and was honored on six different services:

  • Kitsap Transit buses and foot ferries ($1)
  • King County Metro buses ($1.50)
  • Seattle Streetcar ($1.50)
  • King County Water Taxi ($3 to West Seattle, going up to $3.50 on March 1; $3.75 to Vashon Island, going up to $4 on March 1)
  • Link Light Rail ($1.50)
  • Continue reading “Two New Services for ORCA LIFT Tuesday; Other Fare Increases”

    Save Pronto, Then Make It Work Better as Transit

    SDOT Photo (Flickr)
    SDOT Photo (Flickr)

    Back in 2012 I wrote a skeptical piece about the prospects for Pronto (née Puget Sound Bike Share) in Seattle. I saw our dearth of safe bicycle facilities and rare all-ages helmet law, alongside the traditional complaints of hills and weather, as potentially fatal to the confident spontaneity that drives bikeshare ridership. Though some of my fears proved unfounded – Pronto safety hasn’t been an issue – other even greater problems have depressed ridership and revenue and led to an early crisis and possible demise. Absent a city buyout, Pronto risks shutting down on March 31.

    The Sustainability and Transportation Committee will vote tomorrow (Tuesday, 3/1)  on whether to proceed with a $1.4m buyout of the system. The proposal before the Council would purchase Pronto’s privately-held capital assets, namely the remaining 26 stations it doesn’t already own, maintenance and fleet rebalancing equipment, helmet vending equipment, etc. The City would retain the current contract operator (Motivate) for the remainder of 2016, and then restructure the system for relaunch and significant expansion in 2017. The $1.4m would incur no new costs, but rather incur lost opportunity costs by transferring 28% of the $5m already allocated in the City’s budget for bikeshare expansion. Failing to purchase the system would also trigger repayment of a $1.0m FTA grant, so the net outlay here is $400,000, or roughly what King County Metro spends every 2.5 hours. 

    If you believe, as I do, that Pronto’s problems lie in its execution rather than any systemic inability for Seattle to embrace bikeshare, then saving it is an essential first step toward building the successful system we know is possible. If you believe in Pronto’s ultimate success, shutting the system down only to inevitably relaunch at a later date at much greater cost would be incredibly foolish. If you agree, please let your committee members (O’Brien, Johnson, Sawant, and Herbold) hear from you today. 

    My Top 5 ways to fix Pronto after the jump. Continue reading “Save Pronto, Then Make It Work Better as Transit”

    Podcast Listener Mailbag #1

    For our next podcast, which will air sometime next week, Frank and I plan to select some questions from readers. So if there’s any subject you’d like us to discuss or questions you’d like us to answer, put it in the comments below before Sunday evening and we’ll consider if we have anything remotely interesting to say about it.

    Expensive Land Means Expensive Houses

    Houses on 30th Avenue S. near King Street, 1957

    Daniel Hertz, writing at City Observatory:

    Land costs are also part of why yearning for the old days of moderate-cost bungalows is unproductive. A century ago, in most cities, it was possible to find relatively cheap land within commuting distance of downtown—partly because the invention of streetcars had just radically expanded the definition of “commuting distance”—so if you could build a house cheaply, you might end up with a relatively low-cost home. But as cities grow, and especially as their metropolitan economies grow, there’s more and more people competing for a fixed amount of land within easy commuting distance of job centers. As a result, the price of easily accessible locations—that is, land—increases substantially. At that point, it doesn’t really matter so much if you can build a home very cheaply, because the cost of the land it sits on will ensure that the total price of construction will be very high.

    We’ve made very little progress in the last 100 years in reducing commute times.  Every time we get a new transportation technology (i.e. cars) we burn up the time savings building more sprawl. Long live Marchetti’s Constant.  But now that we’ve hit the limits of sprawl, we’re just spending more time in traffic.

    It’s becoming cliche to note that 65% of Seattle’s land is off limits to development (zoned for single-family homes and parks).  Some percentage of the remaining 35% is presumably already developed to the zoning limit. That means all the city’s growth has to happen in the small fraction that remains.  Intensive development + small amount of buildable land = high land prices.  Some may lament that new housing is only built for the top end of the market, but when land prices are high and height limits are low, expensive houses are really all that can be built.  And yet the developer, not the landowner, receives the bulk of the public’s ire.

    Municipalities try to ameliorate the expensive housing with subsidies, but the cost of land eats through scarce government funds. San Francisco, for example, is planning to spend almost $900,000 per apartment to build affordable housing in the Mission because of high land costs.

    The simplest answer is to build more densely where the land is cheaper, i.e. in single-family neighborhoods.   Instead, current city policy encourages people to tear down single family homes and replace them with even larger, more expensive single family homes, which seems like the opposite of making things more affordable.  The “charming” old bungalows are going away one way or another, the only question is what they get replaced with.

    What “Early Wins” Could Look Like for Sound Transit 3

    Link at Graham Street, 2015 (Google Maps)
    Link at Graham Street, 2015 (Google Maps)

    During institutional comment on Sound Transit 3, Seattle strongly asked for “early wins” that would show near-term value for Sound Transit 3. The intent of the request seems to be twofold:  to chip away at today’s myriad transportation needs and also to incentivize additional ‘yes’ votes on the eventual ballot measure. Yesterday at the Sound Transit Board, Planning, Environment, and Project Development (PEPD) Director Ric Ilgenfritz and PEPD Development Manager Karen Kitsis briefed boardmembers on the types of projects Sound Transit would be willing and/or able to expedite. Staff cautioned the Board that given the likely length of the package, early spending disproportionately reduces later spending due to inflation, so care must be taken to strike a balance between showing quick value to the public and delivering the full investment promised at the ballot. So what could be on the table?

    “Pre-rail” improvements. Those within the advocacy community worried about ST3 funds being shortsightedly used for new bus operations can likely breathe easy, as staff stressed that any projects must fit within Sound Transit’s statutory mission of delivering high capacity transit. So while we won’t see Sound Transit making Prop 1-style frequency additions to Metro for RapidRide C and D, Sound Transit did indicate a willingness to pay for capital improvements to bus corridors selected for rail. For Ballard and West Seattle, for example, this could include mean an ST3 contribiution towards extending and improving bus lanes in Interbay or on the Waterfront, adding better transit signal priority (TSP) for Rapid Ride, and other rechannelization type efforts.

    Infill stations. Staff noted that the infill stations on the Candidate Project list are all within ST2 corridors, enabling their construction prior to any further ST3 Link extensions. Potential locations include Graham Street, Boeing Access Road, N 130th St, and SW 220th St in Lynnwood. Graham and BAR could be finished in just a few years, and 130th and/or 220th could open on Day 1 of Lynnwood Link in 2023. But again, the Board would have to explicitly prioritize them.

    Expedited BRT Projects. There are a number of bus-based improvements ST could expedite. SR 522 BRT could be scheduled early to ensure it opens at the same time as 145th Street Station, ST could pay for shoulder-hardening on I-5 and I-405 to allow more transit access,  and I-405 BRT could be phased with some early projects.

    Access improvements. Staff indicated that many of the small capital projects in the Candidate Project List could be completed early, including new parking garages, bike parking expansions, and Sounder platform extensions.

    Technology improvements. This category could include full real-time arrival info at all Central Link stations (currently unfunded), mobile ticketing, NFC payment, and/or expediting the development of ORCA 2.

    Three on Housing: Walkability, Taxes, and ADUs

    MRN’s almost ready in Ballard #seattlenewconstruction #seattlerealestate #mrnhomes

    A photo posted by Kelly Deen Morse (@seattlenewconstruction) on

    A few interesting articles on housing and land use caught my eye recently.  First up, Nick Fitzpatrick in Forbes:

    An Axiometrics study of two metropolitan areas – Dallas and the San Francisco Bay Area — showed that the submarkets with the highest-ranking Walk Score in the market tend to have the highest average rent per unit. Though correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, high Walk Scores seem to be in high demand.

    Walkable neighborhoods are popular. We should build more of them!  Next up, Roger Rudick in Streetsblog, drawing attention to a huge plot of undeveloped land right next to a CalTrain station:

    The problem, said Levin, boils down to the fact that the station and the adjacent land is located outside of the San Francisco limits, in the City of Brisbane, population 4,282 as of the 2010 census. Developers would like to add enough mixed-use, transit oriented development to double the population of Brisbane. But Levin said the city council doesn’t want that–and has pushed for office parks and retail that, she said, might provide more tax revenue. “It’s still partially a Proposition 13 mindset” which puts sharp limits on how much residential property taxes can increase.

    Residential property taxes in California are so low, nobody wants to build more housing. Instead, the idea is to build more office parks and hope some other municipality coughs up the housing units.  It’s NIMBY-ism at the the city level.  Finally, closer to home, Dan Bertolet, in his new gig at Sightline, looks at one of my favorite topics, backyard cottages (ADUs):

    Myriad regulatory barriers currently litter the law books of Cascadian cities, clogging the ADU pipeline. Vancouver’s success in building more than 26,000 ADUs has been all about undoing those restrictions. Starting in the late 1980s, the city legalized thousands of existing, but illegal, ADUs. Over time, it eliminated the most counterproductive barriers.

    I’ve been kinda meh on backyard cottages as a scalable housing solution because of all the regulatory barriers Dan enumerates.  But if the HALA plan succeeds in removing those barriers, ADUs could certainly put a dent in our housing shortage.

    News Roundup: Close to Launch

    New XT60 takes a break at the Montlake Triangle

    [Update 11:30am: WSDOT responded that the MyNorthwest link reporting Good2Go identity theft is a 2013 issue that has been resolved. We’ve uploaded WSDOT’s full statement here.]

    This is an open thread.

    I-405: More Lanes, and Worse

    A ST 535 waits to re-enter I-405

    In the race to pander to people that object to any genuine escape from congestion, Jay Inslee’s latest entry is more of the same old thinking ($):

    He is advocating two projects:

    • Adding a lane on I-405 at Highway 520 to Northeast 70th Place in Kirkland, where it would become an exit-only lane. Costs might range from $5 million to $30 million, based on noise reduction and fish-protection needs.

    • Strengthening the right shoulder of northbound I-405 in Bothell for use as a general lane beginning at Highway 527 and ending as an exit-only lane onto Interstate 5 at Lynnwood. It would open to traffic only in peak times, and at speeds far below the usual 60 mph freeway limit, as announced previously by tolling director Patty Rubstello. Costs could range from $30 million to $50 million.

    The bottleneck on I-405 used to be in Kirkland. The addition of new lanes did what highway expansions always do: it simply moved the bottleneck around, in this case to the 522 interchange. So now Gov. Inslee wants to double down on this with further quasi-widening. The outcome is predictable: the added volume will simply create bottlenecks elsewhere, either on I-5 or on the arterials that feed 405. Adding an exit lane in Kirkland will simply bring the congestion back to Kirkland. Drivers who use the old bottleneck will benefit, and drivers that use the new bottleneck will be worse off. There will be calls for more asphalt, and the cycle repeats.

    Not to be outdone, presumptive Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant “bested” Inslee’s knee-jerk highway widening by proposing to force the buses back in congestion:

    Opponents including GOP challenger Bill Bryant are seizing on toll snafus in an effort to weaken the incumbent. Bryant called for “freeing 405’s HOT lane” by converting one of the two special lanes each direction into a general traffic lane, then allowing two-person carpools into the only toll lane for free. That would likely unravel the toll program, as there wouldn’t be much room left for toll payers to join the bus-carpool lane.

    After applying the Bryant plan, the I-405 project would ultimately simply add a general-purpose lane and leave buses and vanpools in status quo congestion. As always, we’re only an election away from squashing the region’s halting progress towards good BRT.

    Community Feedback on Sound Transit 3

    Lake Washington Ship Canal (Brewbrooks – Flickr Creative Commons)
    Lake Washington Ship Canal (Brewbrooks – Flickr Creative Commons)

    This post concludes our summary of ST3 feedback letters. Previous installments include East King County, Pierce County, SeattleSouth King County, and Snohomish County.

    Belltown Community Council

    Belltown Community Council President Dean McColgan
    Belltown Community Council President Dean McColgan

    Belltown’s letter unsurprisingly laments its exclusion from the proposed Ballard line, losing out in favor of South Lake Union. It proposes resurrecting earlier Seattle Subway-style plans for SLU to be served as the starter neighborhood for an SR 99 line, with the Ballard line running through the heart of Belltown instead. Anticipating objections that SLU’s employment density requires it be given priority, the letter argues that Amazon’s new Rufus campus demonstrates that employment is increasingly concentrated in areas traditionally considered Belltown, and that such employment would be equally well served by a 4th Avenue stop as it would one at Westlake/Denny. The letter includes significant documentation of Belltown’s density, employment, and amenities, and criticizes the neighborhood’s exclusion from light rail and streetcar planning.  Its desire to be served in ST3 has found traction here on STB as well, with both Frank and Seattle Subway taking up the cause.

    Federal Highway Administration

    FHWA Washington Division Administrator Dan Mathis
    FHWA Washington Division Administrator Dan Mathis

    The FHWA limited its comments to areas of common interest between light rail and interstate highways, offering a sentence or two on each candidate project within an interstate catchment area. Their comments are a mixed bag, progressive for a highway agency in some places and traditionalist in others. First, the FHWA seems to favor urban arterials for light rail as opposed to interstates:

    Using Interstate right of way as a primary conduit as opposed to an arterial like SR 99 debases the opportunity for appropriate urban densification and its commensurate economic development. (emphasis mine)

    FHWA also asks that Sound Transit choose its target market, arguing for either urban arterials with densification, or freeway light rail with more car-centric access provided, but not freeway light rail without parking:

    Since the light rail extensions appear to serve car‐based commuters and relies heavy on the existing Interstate, Interchanges, and Park and Ride lots, the ST3 projects may have the potential to increase trips on I‐5 as well as the local system adjacent to those lots and interchanges…We have concerns that placing stations at existing interchanges could significantly increase congestion and decrease safety. ST will need to identify impacts to those interchanges and ensure that the proposed light rail will not prohibit future interchange improvements nor should ST actions result in increased cost to WSDOT to improve those interchanges in the future…If these light rail extension are to serve car based commuters then additional parking needs to be considered. If Sound Transit is assuming to acquire (temporary during construction or permanent) WSDOT parking lots then they could potentially be displacing highway users’ parking at park and ride lots. This will need analysis and may require mitigation.

    In what seems like an argument both for transit quality and for minimizing conflict with its highway interests, FHWA believes that ST should take grade separation as a first principle:

    A base assumption should be all crossings are grade separated unless there is a compelling reason, regardless of cost. Span lengths should fully span interstate facilities including any future expansion.

    Lastly, like many other observers, FHWA also seems puzzled by the lack of connection between South Bellevue and Eastgate under current concepts for light rail between Totem Lake and Issaquah:

    This plan leaves a gap in the system along I‐90 between Bellevue Way and Eastgate. That connection should be provided to eliminate the out of direction link through downtown Bellevue and provide a more desirable route to Eastgate.

    First Hill Improvement Association, Mercer Corridor Stakeholders, Microsoft, Northwest Seattle Coalition, Queen Anne Community Council, and Transit Access Stakeholders after the jump. Continue reading “Community Feedback on Sound Transit 3”

    Where Now For The Water Taxi Expansion?

    This dock at the Kirkland Marina, currently used by Argosy Cruises, might be a future foot-ferry port
    Might this dock at the Kirkland Marina have a Water Taxi in its future? (Photo by the Author)

    On February 8, the King County Council accepted the final report on Water Taxi expansion. The Council vote followed an occasionally contentious review at the TrEE (Transportation, Economy and Environment) Committee the week before. No decision was taken on moving forward with the expansion. That’s a budgetary decision to be taken up, if a request is made, as part of the budget process later this year.

    The final report refines analysis presented in the interim report, and accommodates some suggestions by the jurisdictions and stakeholders that might be served. But the key findings haven’t changed greatly. Three routes are being considered:

    • Kenmore (Log Boom Park) to University of Washington (Waterfront Activity Center)
    • Kirkland (Marina Park) to University of Washington (Waterfront Activity Center)
    • Ballard (Shilshole Marina) to Downtown Seattle (Pier 50).

    A few modifications are suggested. In Kenmore, the ferry may eventually serve Lake Pointe where development could create an opportunity for shared parking (initial service would be via Log Boom Park with parking at a remote lot served by shuttle bus). In Kirkland, where downtown parking for transit riders would not be available, a circulator shuttle to bring riders to the Marina is examined. Expedia has asked that the ferry from Shilshole Bay stop at Interbay en route to downtown Seattle.

    The revisions to the proposal do not improve expected performance. These are low-ridership high-cost services. At launch, off-season ridership would range between 135 and 165 daily riders per route, growing to 285-370 after 10 years. Summer ridership, boosted by recreational users, would grow from about 300 daily riders on each route to just over 500 after 10 years.

    Continue reading “Where Now For The Water Taxi Expansion?”

    Metro’s Battery-Powered Proterra Buses Now Running Revenue Service

    King County Metro Proterra Catalyst

    On February 17 Metro held a press event to announce that their three all-electric Proterra Catalyst battery-powered buses would be hitting the streets in revenue service that day. The buses will operate on routes 226 and 241—two routes that operate in a loop from the Eastgate Transit Center through downtown Bellevue.

    Initially 4602 was entered service at Eastgate at 11:25 but it later broke down completely at Bel-Red Rd & 124 Av NE about an hour later. A diesel hybrid was brought in to replace it, and three hours later a mechanic brought out 4603 to run the rest of the trips for that run.

    I rode route 241, and when it arrived at Eastgate TC it had used just 48% of its capacity after running a complete 18 mile loop of almost two hours. The layover time between these two trips is just 12 minutes. Since charging takes approximately 10 minutes and is required after every loop, this may mean that the trip will leave late if there are schedule delays on the incoming trip. Metro has not built in any additional layover padding next shakeup.

    The “docking” process of the vehicle pulling in to the charger is almost completely automated; the operator simply holds the go pedal down and the bus takes care of forward acceleration. When the charge is complete, the arm automatically retracts.

    The interior layout is designed to maximize seated capacity, with three seats being wedged in transversely between other rows of seats in order to make maximum use of space. The rear door is a passenger-activated plug door–the doors slide parallel to the body rather than pivoting. The rear section features a rear window and will soon be the only vehicles in the fleet to do so.

    King County Metro Proterra Catalyst interior looking back

    The entire interior of the bus is made of plastic (save for the seats and structural components of course) and despite this the bus was not squeaky on the inside Continue reading “Metro’s Battery-Powered Proterra Buses Now Running Revenue Service”

    Sunday Open Thread: Foothill Gold Line Extension Ride

    March Madness in rail line openings begins on the 5th in Los Angeles. The 11-mile, 6-station, Foothill Gold Line extension in the San Gabriel Valley opens March 5. When the Regional Connector through downtown LA opens in 2021, the Blue and Gold Lines will be joined, forming a continuous line 48.6 miles long between Long Beach and Azusa. A future extension from Azusa to Montclair will add another 12.6 miles, making this line rival the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma Link spine in length.

    County Set to Continue Free Family ORCA Cards

    Did you know you could get free youth ORCA cards for your kids at KC Public Health offices, if you qualify for the LIFT card?
    Did you know you could get free youth ORCA cards for your kids at KC Public Health offices, if you qualify for the LIFT card?

    Did you know King County has a program to give out free youth ORCA cards to family members of LIFT card recipients at Public Health offices that issue LIFT (low-income ORCA) cards? I sure did not, and I make it an obsession to stay up on these details. The program is not advertised on Metro’s LIFT pages, nor at the ORCA card vendor site. Rochelle Ogershok at King County confirmed the existence of the pilot project program and the upcoming decision of whether to make the program permanent or discontinue it.

    CLARIFICATION AND UPDATE: The passes on the cards are not free. Only the card fee is waived. Also, per Ogershok, the county is not discontinuing anything. It has been “testing” the card waiver element for youth and will be deciding in the next handful of weeks whether it needs to make any adjustments.

    The program is an ingenious extension to the ingenious program of giving out ORCA LIFT cards as part of a menu of services offered at Public Health.

    The program supplements the free youth ORCA cards and passes that are given out to middle and high school students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools who live more than 2 miles from school, or live more than 1 mile from school and qualify for the reduced or free lunch program ($).

    Of course, making the youth ORCA card free for everyone 6-18 would be even better, but Ogershok confirms there are no such plans.

    Any program that gets more riders paying with ORCA rather than cash pays for itself after a few rides through the time saved by paying with ORCA instead of with cash, as Metro has documented well — a savings of 4.6 to 6.9 seconds per boarding.

    In the case of regular ORCA cards, Metro has a partial excuse for the $5 fee (the highest price in the nation, by far, for a bus smart card). It does not want cardholders to treat the cards — which cost Metro $2-3 — as disposable. But that reasoning really does not apply to youth, as getting that card requires waiting a few days to get one in the mail, or making a special trip to a Metro customer service location (of which there are only two, and one is closed several weekdays per month), during weekday business hours. Moreover, kids do not need an ORCA card to get the youth fare on most transit services, including Metro, so there is little incentive to make the effort to get the card.

    Given the number of families living in poverty, and the dearth of locations where one can walk in and get a youth ORCA card, making youth cards available at Public Health and other facilities that distribute LIFT cards makes mountains of sense. But if the program is not advertised, don’t expect adults applying for a LIFT card to ask about the program, nor to bring copies of their kids’ IDs to get youth cards. Please keep this program, and don’t keep it a secret.

    Mayor Murray’s Preservation Bill and Eight Other Housing Bills Survive Halfway Cut-off

    Wednesday was the deadline for bills to get voted out of their original house in the state legislature. Nine bills dealing with affordable housing made it through, including one pushed by Mayor Ed Murray. Murray has been heavily pushing Senate Bill 6239 (sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R – Auburn) as enabling some of the 65 recommendations of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. Marc Stiles at the Puget Sound Business Journal reported on how the bill would work, and why Mayor Murray is pushing it.

    Fain’s bill is just one of several awesome Republican-sponsored bills on the topic.

    The next deadline these bills face is next Friday, February 26 to get voted out of a policy committee in their second house, unless the bill got referred straight to a fiscal committee, as happened with Substitute House Bill 2971. After that, the bills have through Monday, February 29 to get out of a fiscal committee, if they have to go that route, and then Friday, March 4 to get voted out of their second house.

    Sen. Joe Fain
    Sen. Joe Fain

    2nd Substitute Senate Bill 6239, originally by Sen. Fain, would allow a city or county to create a local property tax exemption program to promote the preservation of affordable housing available for very low-income households. The tax exemption could apply for up to 15 consecutive years, but could be extended for an additional three years if the project meets certain energy standards.

    The exemption would apply to certain multi-family properties if at least 25 percent of their units are rented at rates that are affordable to households with an income up to 50 percent of the median family income of the area. The threshold household income level could be lowered to serve severely low-income households, or raised up to 60 percent of the median family income in high-property-value areas. The multi family property would have to be part of a residential or mixed-use project and have a 90 percent occupancy rate. It would have to provide at least half of its space for permanent residents.

    The city or county would be allowed to establish its own additional requirements, including a limit on the number of units eligible for the exemption, and designate target areas for affordable housing.

    The tax exemption would be cancelled if the owner fails to meet the affordable housing requirements or intends to discontinue compliance, fails to complete a rehabilitation plan, or fails to substantially comply with any applicable building, safety, or health regulations.

    The Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health & Housing amended the bill to allow local governments to require construction work on affected properties to pay at least the prevailing wage.

    The bill was amended again in the Senate Ways & Means Committee to remove that prevailing wage amendment, remove the waiver for temporarily having too many “over-income” tenants, and to keep tenant income information used to process the property tax exemption private.

    2SSB 6239 passed in the Senate 36 (yeas) – 13 (nays) – 0 (absent) – 0 (excused) on Tuesday, with the Republican Caucus split down the middle.

    Given the unanimous Democratic support for Republican Senator Joe Fain’s bill in the Senate, one would normally expect smooth sailing in the Democrat-controlled House. However, Rep. Gerry Pollett (D – North Seattle) put up some resistance to 6239’s companion bill in the House, House Bill 2544, as reported by Josh Feit at Publicola. HB 2544 failed to get out of the House Finance Committee.

    2SSB 6239 is scheduled for a hearing in the House Committee on Community Development, Housing & Tribal Affairs at 1:30 pm on Monday, February 22.

    The other eight housing bills are detailed after the jump. Continue reading “Mayor Murray’s Preservation Bill and Eight Other Housing Bills Survive Halfway Cut-off”

    Low Gas Prices a Welcome But Volatile Windfall for Metro

    Ryerson Base (Sounder Bruce)
    Ryerson Base (Sounder Bruce)

    Usually a booming local economy comes with high fuel prices, as fuel demand rises commensurately with demand for housing and other commodities. But despite a strong local economy, weak global demand and purposeful oversupply from OPEC have given us historically low fuel prices. There are a number of reasons why low fuel prices are a policy and environmental disaster, including exacerbating climate change via induced demand, reducing the competitiveness of renewables, and incentivizing sprawl and new vehicle purchases. Low fuel prices are also not having the full stimulatory effect that we’d expect, with oil-dependent economies in the Midwest and South suffering as they idle their suddenly uncompetitive shale fields.

    Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 9.17.17 AM

    But for local transit operations, where diesel is still the workhorse of our transit network, the low fuel prices are an unexpected and welcome windfall. I reached out to Metro to ask about their fuel purchasing practices and budget estimation, and the savings are indeed significant. Unlike airlines, Metro does not hedge their fuel purchases, but purchases fuel on a daily basis under the state fuel contract. Currently, Metro is paying just over $1/gallon for diesel, an unprecedented low. Metro GM Kevin Desmond told the blog that “every $.10 drop saves us $1m per year,” and the 2015 budget assumed $3 per gallon, creating a potential $20m in additional revenue. As fuel prices came in lower than expected, Metro revised its budget estimate downward to $2.25/gallon, so costs are still coming in below budget.

    Metro’s Jeff Switzer said that Metro has reinvested some of the savings in 70,000 bus hours (roughly $10m), spread over the September 2015 and March 2016 service changes. On the ground, this has meant boosting E-Line frequency from 12 minutes to 10 minutes, boosting I-90 peak service, and other improvements.

    Metro also stresses that any fuel-related windfall is inherently volatile, and that a conservative deployment of unexpected resources is the wisest course. And they’re right of course, as the windfall could evaporate at the whim of OPEC.

    News Roundup: The Hype

    Streetcar Celebration

    This is an open thread.

    WSDOT Scrambles to Save Amtrak Service at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square

    Freighthouse Square –SounderBruce (Flickr)
    Freighthouse Square –SounderBruce (Flickr)

    [Update, Friday 10:46am: Freighthouse Square owner Brian Borgelt has responded to recent coverage here and elsewhere with a scathing email that a source shared with STB, reading in part, “the legion of dingbats has attacked en masse, as they always do.” Read the full email here.]

    [Update, Thursday 12:03pm: Though the News Tribune didn’t disclose the financial terms under dispute, a source speaking on condition of anonymity disclosed to STB that the assessed value of WSDOT’s portion of Freighthouse Square is $300,000, that WSDOT has offered Borgelt $1.5m, and that Borgelt is demanding $6.1m]

    The Tacoma News Tribune broke the news Wednesday night that planned Amtrak service at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square (FHS) may be in jeopardy. Negotiations with current FHS owner Brian Borgelt have gone badly enough that WSDOT has initiated eminent domain processes and is now publicly looking for alternative locations for Amtrak as a fallback plan.

    WSDOT’s Janet Matkin wrote to a Tacoma advisory committee to relay the news. From the News Tribune:

    “Negotiations to purchase the identified portion of the building are at an impasse and any further delays that impact the construction process will make it impossible for WSDOT to meet deadlines for building the new station,” Janet Matkin, WSDOT’s rail division communications manager, wrote to advisory committee members.

    A new station is necessary because the department beginning in mid-2017 will reroute Amtrak passenger trains from their present waterfront route to a route through South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont. The new route will relieve congestion on the tracks along Puget Sound and cut several minutes off Amtrak’s Seattle-Portland schedule.

    “Funding for the new station is through a federal grant and the Federal Railroad Administration determined that under this grant, negotiations to acquire the building could not begin until October 2015. The grant also stipulates that all construction for the station must be completed by summer 2017. No alternative funds have been identified to extend the construction beyond this deadline,” the department wrote.

    Relocating Amtrak away from the 70s-era Amshack to FHS is of the linchpins of the more than $700m in recession-era stimulus funds, bringing the promise of a fully integrated multimodal facility with Amtrak, Greyhound, Trailways, Pierce Transit, Sound Transit Express, Sounder, Tacoma Link, and possibly Central Link trains to SeaTac and Ballard. But with the tight deadline looking ever more likely to lapse without a satisfactory negotiation, the state is left with only poor options just when Amtrak Cascades most needs a boost. Ridership has fallen slowly but steadily from its record highs in 2012, with Tacoma ridership down 5% and Seattle ridership down 10%. Stagnating service levels, lengthened schedules due to construction, and competition from Bolt Bus have all hurt performance, and 2017 will see better frequency, better reliability, and higher speeds. But losing Tacoma would more than negate any overall ridership gains.

    We can hope first and foremost that the impasse between WSDOT and Borgelt can be broken, or failing that, that acquisition via eminent domain will be successful. An unfortunate third option – a temporary or indefinite station located elsewhere – is apparently now being seriously considered. The current station cannot continue to be used beyond 2017, as the grants require successfully introducing two new Seattle-Portland trips, and those trips are contingent on completing the Point Defiance Bypass. So Amtrak trains will pass through FHS regardless, it’s just a matter of whether or not Tacoma’s 120,000 Amtrak passengers (roughly 325 per day) will be able to board there.

    Temporary options could include using Puyallup, South Tacoma, or Lakewood as unstaffed stations with no baggage, waiting room, or other services, all of which would fail to adequately serve Tacoma’s core and sever Amtrak passengers from regional transit connections.

    Sound Transit wrote us this morning saying they expect no impact on their Tacoma Trestle project, as that project is fully funded by ST2 and will open in 2018. WSDOT requested additional work be included in the scope of the project, including a second platform and a longer current platform to accommodate joint Amtrak/Sounder operations. Sound Transit’s recent Capital Committee meeting approved  a motion funding the trestle construction contract, with Sound Transit expressing discomfort with potential financial exposure should WSDOT-funded reimbursements not materialize,

    As discussed previously in the background of the staff report, a portion of the work being performed is under a reimbursement agreement with WSDOT. The reimbursement is dependent on schedule performance and completion of the work prior to the expiration of federal grant funding in October 2017. There is financial risk that work performed and paid by Sound Transit may not be reimbursed due to the expiration of funds. Project staff and WSDOT are diligent in mitigating that risk, but it continues to exist through the completion of the project.

    The post has been updated with comment from Sound Transit.