Frank and Martin talk about Ulink opening for a bit, then shift to the ST3 draft plan.  We take a detour through the sustainability of the suburban model and speculate about a low-carbon future. Finally, the Washington caucuses.

As always, you can subscribe in iTunes.

38 Replies to “Podcast #13: Ponzi Schemes”

  1. A couple of guys using a ten year old technology to promote a two hundred year old technology.

    Sam, transit philosopher

    1. @Sam

      And of course the automobile is 130 year old technology although if you consider the “carriage” part of it’s other name, the horseless carriage, then its 5,000 year old technology.

  2. East Coast cities have been running rail to far flung (50+ miles from the major city), low density suburbs for ~150 years. If they can figure out how to pay for it, we can too. I am really curious to see the cost estimates for the ST3 projects and see what Seattle might have gotten in a smaller 15 year package. Based on previous reporting, I am very much in Group #3. In a 25 year package, not getting UW-Ballard and forcing Ballard-DT to be at grade is vert disappointing.

    1. The difference is that these regional heavy rail systems do not act as subways in the densest part of towns.

    2. East coast cities figured out how to build an urban network first to deliver those passengers once they get to the other end. A single line from Tacoma to Everettt won’t do much if it still requires half an hour stuck on the 8 on Denny to get where you need to go.

    3. Right, but many of those East Coast cities have very low frequency commuter service. They also have a looming pension crisis as their well-paid conductors and ticket-takers retire.

      1. If you are on a commuter line, such as the MNRR (old NYC/LIRR/NH) system, 10 car trains every 4 minutes isn’t low frequency. They do operate a ‘staggered express’ service, though, where certain stops closer in are bypassed (Please stand behind that [4-inch] yellow line, while this train passes at 50mph, thank you),

        Now, compared to the NYC Subway system, yes it is low frequency.

        They’ve been slowly phasing out the station agents, but for the travelling public that isn’t local, or commuting(tourists), I still liked the idea of having ticket agents at some of the stops for answering questions. They could probably speed up the conductor’s ticket-taking duties if they went electronic, like Amtrak with the scanners. Plus they’d have a better handle on the Mafia Tax for reporting purposes.

      2. It depends on the city. PATH runs every 15 minutes, but some others run half-hourly or hourly. The New Jersey Transit line I used was every 1 1/2 hours off-peak.

    4. Cities throughout the US had both what we’d call commuter rail and streetcars, and several cities had subways too. More cities — perhaps even most — would have subways now and extensive commuter rail if they hadn’t poured all their resources into highways and airports after WWII and even dismantled most of their rail infrastructure. Eastern Europe didn’t dismantle it, and has a lot of it. Western Europe did somewhat, but after the 1972 oil crisis they turned toward trains and buses to lessen their dependency on mideast oil. In Germany most cities built modern trams and put them underground in city centers and surface elsewhere, both medium-sized cities like Seattle and even small cities like Spokane. So it can be done,. it just takes will and unity.

    5. Well, it helps that they reserved the rights of way long before sprawl happened, back when there was no reliable way to travel other than by rail (ie 100% mode share from places not served by boat), and there was a comparatively large ‘respiratory’ economy of time-sensitive goods that needed to move in and out of hinterlands and cities on a daily basis – milk, meat, eggs, mail, fish, fruits, vegetables and the like that would have supported a network of comparatively rapid rail radiating out from cities even without passengers commuting on it. And a great deal of this investment was paid for by investors who might then have been wiped out in in bankruptcies.

      It was rarely the commuters who paid for this, it was the milk and the eggs and the cabbages and the coal that the city wanted to consume. The commuters were simply making use of spare capacity.

    6. I live in Toronto, but I’ve been following ST3 closely. I can’t figure out why extending Link to Everett and Tacoma is a worthwhile investment. In Toronto, we have a regional service called GO Trains, that serves smaller hubs, like Hamilton and Mississauga. Both of those “smaller” hubs have populations double that of Tacoma or Everett, but no one is arguing to extend the subway in downtown Toronto out to those smaller municipalities because it would be redundant. Also, many of the miles between are sparsely populated. What’s the point of Sounder? Why not invest more of the millions to improve Sounder service, which is meant to be a regional rail system?

  3. I can’t fault folks for being dead set on projects that right now have no political legs. The contrast between the ideal technocratic result and what we actually get helps bring out the quirks and foibles of the political system planners, advocates, reporters and citizens have to work within to make stuff happen. Some of the advocacy for pet projects that still haven’t been included in any draft project list may come across as tone deaf at this point, but some of it may still help shift discussions when Sound Transit’s own studies and criteria are used to show why some projects are objectively (in the technocratic sense) better than others. Efficiency isn’t always the most central goal, but when you’re building High-Capacity Transit, it sorta is.

    Thank you for taking the time to put these together! Time stamps for the different sections would make it even better!

  4. You certainly couldn’t do everything in the package in ten years; engineering and building IDS to Ballard will be twelve years at a minimum. That said, if they’d man up and sell some bonds, they could finish in maybe eighteen years, and not pay much more at all.

    But ST doesn’t have the ability to bond the state, which was I guess the cost that Puget Sound had to pay to get the Authority at all.

    1. And of course, the taxes would have to continue for the twenty five years to amortize the bonds.

      1. Then they clearly aren’t selling enough of them. There is no technical reason that Ballard can’t be under construction at the same time that West Seattle AND the tunnel are, for instance. If “there are bonds”, why are Issaquah and Everett not going to happen until 2041? It’s not like either is a hard project — well, not unless they do the right thing on Issaquah and serve Factoria directly which would require a tunnel.

        Everett via Paineful Field will just be a long and boring repetition of the structure machine extruding trackway.

      2. There’s a maximum bond:revenue ratio imposed by the state, and ST has a stricter standard which I think is 50/50. You’re essentially arguing that ST should loosen its standard. Maybe it should, but not necessarily; it would require research on the pros and risks to say for sure. The state’s cap is to avoid ST running up a large bill and going bankrupt and the state having to pay the bill. ST’s conservative position is to make sure it can pay its bills even if there’s unexpected costs or a recession, and it also keeps ST’s credit rating high and interest rate low.

      3. When you say “50/50 bond:revenue ratio” what do you mean? That the authority can sell only as many bonds in a given year as it takes in from taxes? If that’s true it should be able to do exactly what I said: finish a 25 year project list in something on the order of 18 years or if the engineering is completed reasonably quickly, even less. The revenues of the last seven years would be spent amortizing the bonds issued in the first half of the project. It works perfectly because 7 years is a bit more than one-fourth of a 25 year timespan.

        Here’s the rough math. In the first few years of the overall project bonds would be sold in this low-interest economy and the money banked because there’s still engineering to be done. Construction can proceed on shovel-ready pieces of the pie, but those small efforts plus the engineering design activities won’t take that much if any more than the yearly tax revenues.

        About six or seven years in, when the engineering and “early wins” are winding down, that banked money can then be added to the annual revenues and new bonds sold at the 50/50 ratio to provide a gusher of funding for multiple construction projects all over the system. That would last for another seven or so years, long enough to get the tunnel and stations through downtown Seattle roughed in and then bond sales would dwindle rapidly though completion construction would continue paid for by remaining unspent bond proceeds and a portion of the annual revenues. By eighteen years construction would be complete and revenues for the final seven years would all be expended on bond amortization.

        This is how they do highways and other big infrastructure projects all over the country on a measured stream of tax revenues.

        Unless they expect the bonded indebtedness to extend beyond the twenty-five year period, there is no reason whatsoever for construction to be in the last few years of the project life. The tax funds raised then should be paying off the bonds.

  5. Martin,

    Those of us who have been paying attention do know what a heartless, vicious, cruel and destructive monster Rafael Edward Cruz is and always has been.

    1. P.S. Just so this doesn’t sound too anti-Republican, I will certainly agree that John Kasich, conservative and “small-government” though he may be, is also reasonably aware that a modern society needs a counter-balance to the power of the oligarchy. If we have to have a Republican President to let off the steam that is growing dangerously pressured on the right, the Nation would probably get to the end of a Kasich administration with at least most of our civil liberties and democratic constraints intact. Either Cruz or Trump is likely wage conscious, take-no-prisoners war on them from their first day in office.

  6. Good gawd, enough already about 2-car vs 3-car trains. It’s like you just got a new toy car for Christmas and all you want to do is complain that it is fire engine red instead of candy apple red. Enough.

    ST knew that they would eventually have to go to 3-car trains and they had a plan for doing that. The fact that they had to implement that plan sooner rather than later is a good thing not a bad thing, but the decision should be based on ridership data and not “conceivable” possibilities.

    Kudos to ST for being prepared, 10 demerits to you guys for going all Beghazi on them for no particular reason.

    1. There was no ridership data because it’s a brand-new kind of service. The choice of 2-car vs 3-car trains was arbitrary, and ST should have started high rather than low. The very worst thing that can happen is overcrowded trains. The extra cost of an additional car for two or three weeks is inexpensive insurance. Kudos to ST for fixing the problem in ten days, but it walked into the corner itself.

      1. @Mike Orr,

        Fixing a problem in 3 days is pretty darn good. I wish other government agencies were that responsive.

        Also, as a government agency that has always been in the crosshairs of the anti-transit rabble, It was to ST’s advantage to start out with overcrowded trains.

        What would be the alternative? Start out by running oversized trains and subject the agency to a chorus of comments like, “U-Link opens to sparse crowds”, “U-Link operating half full”, etc?

        Na, ST can’t suffer any more self inflicted wounds. Better to start U-Link out to over full cars and set the tone of the conversation before the critics get a chance to set it for you.

  7. “Does it complete the spine” is quite arbitrary, and does sound meaningless on its face, but the bigger issue is operations and expandability. Something like the purple line (Issaquah to Bellevue), which is a spur off the blue line (which is itself a spur off of the spine, making the Issaquah line a spur off a spur off the spine), is considerably more difficult to construct than the spine or the blue line. To expand the spine, you just build farther. To construct a spur, you have to build junctions, which are expensive and operationally complex. Also, every line has to connect to the spine at some point (unless ST is looking at several disconnected RapidRide-style routes with their own train depot, which it is not). Non-spine projects that are in the draft have potential challenges like an additional junction at SODO (which is being done), crossing the Mercer slough (which is not being done), and building a second downtown tunnel (which is being done eventually, and involves things like connecting old rail to new rail, destroying and rebuilding previously constructed rail, and months-long closures of the downtown tunnel). Thus, I can see the appeal of prioritizing projects that are just tails off of what we are already building.

    1. The spine makes some sense given Pugetopolis’ geometry and history. Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett were the three largest cities for a long time, and they form two ends and a middle to the metropolitan area. Recently Bellevue has grown and has become the second largest city, a fact acknowledged with East Link. More gradually, and perhaps too recently for some people to realize, Lynnwood has grown into perhaps the largest city in Snohomish County, and it has big downtown plans which are more credible than Everett’s, and Lynnwood-Mill Creek-Canyon Park-eastern Edmonds is denser than the rest of the county. That fact could have swayed things in Snohomish but perhaps the county (and Everett) aren’t quite ready for it. Also, the Spine is why Snoho and Pierce joined Sound Transit in the 1990s and they feel they were “promised” it, so that’s nothing new.

      The cost of a spur and junctions doesn’t sound like a major issue. Sure they cost some money, but if the dominant trip patterns are there then it’s worth it. I don’t think the communities served are based on the cost of junctions. The one junction that’s most controversial, the missing one at 45th & University Way, is about more than just the junction, it’s about capacity in the north-south segment south of it.

      1. The cost for junctions is really pretty insignificant, if they’re included in the original line’s geometry. That typically means stacked trackage at places where there is expected to be a diverging line so a great bulging loop-the-loop doesn’t have to be added to connect the line to the “away” side track when the branch is built.

        If such a junction happens in a tunnel it’s actually almost no extra cost, because running the TBM relatively deeper in one tunnel and shallower in the other really costs nothing. The only additional cost is boring the stubs so that the connection can be made later without interrupting service.

  8. From Dow’s State of the County address: “… to connect our region with a 108-mile rail system comparable to Washington DC, San Francisco, or Chicago.”

    COMPARABLE TO DC? Are you kidding me? Our leaders think that throwing down over 100 miles of rail to the hinterlands will put us on par with the second best rail system in America.

    We are effed.

    1. Yeah…in total length it may be DC’s equal, but would be nowhere close in terms of utility to residents of the urban area.

    2. More quotes from the Times article. “New freeways are history. There is simply no other option than transit that can add to the kind of capacity we need to our transportation system, given the million people coming to the region in the next 25 years.” That sounded great, and I didn’t realize he was speaking directly about ST3 because it applies more generally. But in the context of ST3, there are three ways to look at it. How does it compare to an urbanist network, how does it compare to doing nothing, and how does it compare to building more freeways.

      The thing with light rail or a subway is it functions like a freeway, as I first realized with the Moscow metro in 1995: people take it because it’s the fastest way to get around, you get on and off at exits (stations), and (at least in Moscow) you come up to the entrance and there are thirty people waiting for somebody to emerge, and (in Moscow and London and Vancouver) people plan social events and meeting points around the station areas. So saying $30 billion dollars is a lot of money compared to zero is one thing, but you also have to look at as compared to building three more freeways. I-5 is clogged so we have to do something, and I’d a lot rather have a rail line than widening I-5 or building a second one.

      More controversially, another thing in the article is, “Council Chair Joe McDermott said the only pushback he’s heard on the ST3 proposil is from officials and residents concerned about the proposed timeline. Snohomish County representatives sent a letter to Sound Transit last week asking the board to consider a faster delivery date for the Everett service. McDermott said he’s heard the same from his constituents in West Seattle.” Not north Seattle?

  9. I’m betting that between now and 2041 when the light rail to issaquah opens, it will be a much denser city than it currently is. The current mayor and city counsel are definately pushing it in that direction, and currently there are a ton of 5 and 6 story apartments under construction right near what was previously just open field/strip mall parking lots. Apparently they’ve zoned lots of areas for that, aiming for a really walkable city.

    1. Can you walk to anything from the apartments? Are they designed to avoid making the walking paths excessively long? The previous generatiojn of growth in central Issaquah (along the 554 between the transit center and I-90 has a surprising number of apartments and the houses are close together, but it looks like walkability was not considered at all and it practically forces you to drive everywhere. I hope the new development is better than that.

    2. The productivity of an I-90 line depends on its station locations and station area developments. It may seem suburban today, but that could change. Consider these factors:

      1. Bellevue College could finally grow to be a second major state university. After all, we are short on graduating engineers in this state and we are adding a million more people.
      2. The East side has lots of tech-experienced workers, and new office towers may be filled by the next hot tech firm of 2040!
      3. The available parcels there could make it easier for taller developments to pencil out. It is had to do that in much of Seattle.
      4. Issaquah is much closer to Downtown Seattle than Paine Field is.

      I am more bothered by the connection problems than by the corridor itself. It seems unreasonable to send everyone to Wilburton than make them change trains. Either the connection needs to feed closer in towards Seattle, or a direct train line into Seattle is needed.

      When the systems integration is complete, it would not surprise me if the ID/C station reconfiguration problems create a scenario where North/Snohomish Link trains split between Redmond and Issaquah, and Ballard Link trains in the new Downtown tunnel split between West Seattle and SeaTac/Tacoma. I’m not advocating for it as much as I think it could be a more efficient configuration.

      1. Read the latest plan document, Al. The proposal is to interline between East Main and (at least) Wilburton. They read Zach’s post! Or, more probably, they had the same embarrassed realization that bypassing downtown Bellevue a half mile to the east was pretty darn lame!

        So, in the off-peak when the expresses to MI (if allowed) or South Bellevue if not are not running, changing at East Main will be only one station more and about two and a half miles farther than changing at South Bellevue would be. Yeah, it looks crazy on a map, but it would only be at most five minutes longer. Everybody here — including you — are constantly defending the Rainier Valley excursion on Central Link as being only eight minutes longer than a bypass. This would be less than that penalty.

  10. Interesting political tidbit at the end about the caucus. I’m sorry that you are so supportive of Clinton. Sanders is officially pro-transit and wants to invest in high-speed rail. I’d also add that we’d have a few billion extra dollars to spend here at home if we had not gone to war, which Sanders voted against. Moreover, overhauling the tax system to eliminate loopholes for big oil and big banking puts money back in the pockets of average Americans (which they could use to vote for transit) and reduces the power of the auto and petroleum industries. I’m looking at this a little more “big picture” here.

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