Survey Roundup: 520, Link Satisfaction, and More

Joe Wolf (Flickr)

With the whirlwind of news, One Center City, potential restructures, and proposals for fare policy revisions, there has been no shortage of public surveys lately. Below are five surveys from Metro and Sound Transit that you should spend a few minutes of your Saturday filling out.

Link Customer Satisfaction

A general survey of Link customer satisfaction, covering fares, access, speed, reliability, and more. (Link)

SR 520 Link Connections Survey

A survey encompassing all riders in the SR 520 corridor in the context of One Center City and possible Link truncations. (Link)

Sound Transit 545 Riders Survey

Similar to above, but a Sound Transit survey limited to riders in the 545 corridor. (Link)

King County Metro Fare Revisions

A survey asking riders to respond to Metro’s Options A and B for fare simplification. (Link)

King County Metro General Bus Satisfaction

A coordinated survey done with 14 other transit agencies for comparative purposes, this survey gauges general customer satisfaction with Metro’s services. (Link)

ST3 Kicks Off

Sound Transit ST3 Map with Timelines

It tells you something about an agency’s workload when a $130m purchase of light rail vehicles isn’t the headlining agenda item. At Thursday’s packed-agenda Sound Transit Board meeting, the Board approved the vehicle buy, discussed the recent controversies relating to MVET valuations and Mercer Island litigation, and defended its record hiring disadvantaged businesses.

But the big news was a draft release of the agency’s blueprint for ST3, the System Expansion Implementation Plan (watch beginning at 51’00” in the video below). The plan details timelines for project development, design, and construction phases of all 24 concurrent projects, including remaining ST2 projects. Given the layer cake of local, state, regional, and federal jurisdictions with veto points over various aspects of construction, the report spends most of its ink discussing process improvements needed for further expediting of projects. These include streamlined permitting, earlier and more intensive public outreach, and significant internal shuffling for efficiencies. ST will also attempt to shave a year off of the time each project takes to get to an FTA Record of Decision (the final step in the environmental process), from 5.5 years to 4.5 years.

Continue reading “ST3 Kicks Off”

News Roundup: Above the Fold

I-90 Bicycle/Pedestrian Tunnel West Entrance

This is an open thread.

Mercer Corridor Project Shows There Are No Silver Bullets

Over the past month the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been quietly testing their new Intelligent Transportation Systems program on the Mercer Street corridor. Usually shorthanded to “signal retiming”, the $13m Move Seattle project creates a dynamic corridor that adapts to traffic conditions in real time. 32 signals have been updated with the new software on Mercer, Roy, and Republican Streets from 3rd Ave W to Fairview Ave N.

The primary management imperative seems to be to shorten signal times in periods of heavy traffic, theoretically reducing the cascading gridlock that occurs as queues form during lengthy cycles and spill over into neighborhood streets. In times of heavily asymmetric traffic, such as the end of major Key Arena concert late at night, the system could keep eastbound lights green far longer, and make the lesser amount of north-south traffic wait. Anyone who has ever driven Mercer Street on a sleepy Sunday morning will attest that the current system has been rigid and static, slow to drive even when no one is on it if you miss the green-light wave.

SDOT’s early data shows significant improvement in travel time reliability for most drivers, significantly better eastbound flow, and slightly worsened westbound flow (see SDOT images below). Eastbound in the PM peak, when volumes are highest and delays worst, travel time has decreased by 2.7 minutes and average speed has increased by 1.4 mph. Doing a little math, for a 1-mile corridor this implies travel time improvement from 12 minutes to 9.3 minutes, and average speed improvement from 5mph to 6.4mph.

These are significant relative improvements, but put another way $13m just went to making peak car traffic go from barely faster than brisk walking to about half the pace of casual cycling. To the average observer, or to the driver whose sense of time is dilated by rage, the corridor will still feel very slow. SDOT estimates that the average peak driver will save about $4 per year in reduced fuel costs.

So signal timing can work to improve east-west vehicle flow. But when it does so, it must also impede north-south traffic, and all transit in the area is north-south. A total of about 13,500 vehicles use Mercer during the PM peak, and their prioritization can’t help but downgrade the priority of the thousands of peak commuters on Routes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 40, 62, 63, 63, 70, 309, C, and the SLU Streetcar. If aggregate flow improves sufficiently that total systemic collapse is avoided, then maybe everyone actually will be better off. But even at its best, it tinkers at the margins at great expense. The fundamental space constraints that generate traffic will remain, and those who think tech will save us from traffic will continue to be disappointed.

A Day in the Life of Seattle’s Population Density

It is relatively easy to find data and visualizations for residential population density. Here is a map of Seattle census tract densities via the City of Seattle, for example. But everyone who commutes to a job knows (sometimes painfully) that a static view of residential density is just a slice of a larger, dynamic landscape. The geographic distribution of people in the city on an average Thursday afternoon is significantly different than it is at midnight on a Sunday. This is especially true for areas with strong, single primary uses like Paine Field (Boeing Factory), Overlake (Microsoft), and Downtown Seattle.

In an effort to understand these daily shifts in our region’s population density, I built a (very) simple model of the home-to-employer population shift on an average weekday for the Seattle metro area. I used two data sources: American Community Survey population estimates and Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data with origin-destination employment statistics. Both sources are published by the Census Bureau and contain data down to the census block group level. Assuming that most* people with outside-the-home employment leave for work in the morning and return in the late afternoon, I produced the population density animation in the embedded video.

A few areas really stand out in the animation: the downtowns of Seattle and Bellevue, UW, the Microsoft headquarters in Overlake, and the Boeing Factory in Everett. If you know your Puget Sound geography, you can also spot the Boeing Factory in Renton, Factoria office parks, SeaTac Airport, and the warehouse district in Kent. There are also subtle decreases in density for heavily residential areas in suburban districts. Of course, these observations are not qualitatively surprising to anyone who knows the Seattle area. More interesting are the estimated population densities in these areas. Parts of downtown Seattle seem to achieve 5200,000+ ppl/sq-mile during some weekday afternoons – literally off of my scale! Good luck serving that kind of density with single occupant vehicles.

I should probably mention some obvious shortcoming of this model. It is built on a simple set of assumptions and cannot account for non-standard commutes, like night-shifts, and non-commute trips which are a certainly a significant portion of trips made**. The model also doesn’t know about the paths that people take between home and work. Still, it is quite striking to see how the region’s population concentrates into half-a-dozen CBDs during the course of a weekday. And I have a renewed appreciation for the economic importance of downtown Seattle to the region.

[*] I assumed that 80% of people with employment outside the home will need to commute on a given weekday. This is not a scientific estimate; it is a guess and nothing more.

[**] Non-commute trips are likely more spread throughout day and night, however, which would dilute their aggregate contribution to shifting population density

Metro Fare Proposals Lack Cash Disincentives

Oran Viriyincy / flickr

King County Metro rolled out two finalist options for an upcoming fare restructure Tuesday, as Zach reported:

* Option A: $2.75, any time, anywhere
* Option B: $2.50 off-peak, $3.00 peak

Senior, disability, youth, low-income, and Access fares would not change.

Previously, Metro had offered nine options for surveytakers’ priorities for the fare structure, using a dot exercise in which each taker could allocate 10 dots. The results came out thusly:

Regarding the #1 criterion among surveytakers, affordability, Metro is already on the cutting edge in the industry internationally, not just domestically, with its ORCA LIFT low-income fare card. It also gives out lots of tickets to human service agencies, which then give them out to clients who can’t afford any bus fare, in a program that is not so cutting-edge.

Continue reading “Metro Fare Proposals Lack Cash Disincentives”

Suggest Names and Designs For Tacoma Link’s Newest Stations

ST Link 1003 near Convention Center Station
Tacoma Link at Convention Center Station

Sound Transit is asking the public for input on designs and names for seven new light rail stations on Tacoma Link’s Hilltop extension, via this survey. The project is expected to begin construction in 2018 and open for service in 2022, bringing trains every 10 minutes to the MLK Way corridor west of downtown Tacoma.

The survey has two basic canopy styles, developed by project architects Waterleaf (who have experience in streetcar maintenance facilities, including First Hill’s in Chinatown). “Option A” is a simple glass canopy with a separate column for a sign with the station’s name, while “Option B” tacks on the sign on the end of the canopy structure. The final option will have two variants for 60-foot and 100-foot platforms, as seen in the layout documents posted by Sound Transit.

Continue reading “Suggest Names and Designs For Tacoma Link’s Newest Stations”

News Roundup: Wind Powered

Sounder Bruce (Flickr)

This is an open thread. 

Metro Proposes Doing Away with Zoned Fares

SounderBruce (Flickr)

In a public process starting today and running through May 5, Metro is asking for public feedback on two fare overhaul proposals. There is a new survey up here, and a final proposal will be taken up by the King County Council later this summer.

The overhaul comes after 4,000 survey responses and 2 meetings with a 19-member Advisory Group. Whereas currently there is a complicated 3-layered fare structure – a base fare of $2.50, a peak fare of $2.75, and a peak fare of $3.25 for trips crossing the Seattle city limits – the new proposal would significantly simplify things:

  • Option A: a flat fare of $2.75 for any Metro route, anywhere, anytime
  • Option B: a flat fare of $2.50 during off-peak periods, and a flat fare of $3.00 during peak

So no matter the outcome, Metro will do away with zoned fares, and any surcharges will be based upon time rather than distance or geography. Metro will also not consider pricing based on class of service, where peak expresses would be priced differently than the all-day network.

Metro estimates both revenue gains and modest ridership losses from either alternative. The $2.75 flat fare would reduce ridership by an estimated 400,000 annually, while the $2.50/$3.00 structure of Option B would reduce ridership by just 200,000. While this may seem like a lot, it’s worth noting that it’s less than 1 day’s worth of Metro ridership, or 0.1-0.2% of the total. Revenue gains are estimated  at between $3.5-$4m annually, again quite modest in the context of Metro’s overall budget.

How can Metro make more money from fewer riders? In Option A 33% of riders would pay $0.25 more, while 7% of riders would pay $0.50 less. In Option B, 30% of riders pay $0.25 more, while 7% of riders pay $0.25 less. The increased revenue from current Seattle or intra-suburban riders pays for the cut to current city-to-suburb fares.

Any simplification is welcome in reducing customer ‘friction’ and creating a more legible system for riders. But simplification also magnifies tradeoffs, and these proposals are no exception. Option A ($2.75 flat fare) would further increase the price for off-peak urban trips by 10%, while reducing peak suburban express trip fares by 15%. Urban riders may feel that this further incentivizes long commutes, sprawl, and Metro’s most expensive services. A rider from Black Diamond to Seattle would pay the same as someone riding from Belltown to Pike Place Market.

On the other hand, Option B would be closer to status quo for short trips, with the same price off-peak, a 9% fare increase for peak urban trips, and an 8% reduction for peak suburban trips.

Both options would still align awkwardly with Sound Transit’s fares, though the outcome would be much better than the status quo. A flat fare of $2.75 would match Sound Transit’s one-county fare, which would finally align fares between agencies for routes across Lake Washington and from Seattle to Federal Way. Retaining a peak surcharge would make Metro more competitive with Link during off-peak hours, yet make it even more uncompetitive during peak. Metro also notes that peak pricing complicates the implementation of the ORCA Next Generation project.

Please take the survey and let Metro know what you think. There will also be two public meetings on the proposal:

McGinn the Moderate?

McGinn at Northgate Link Groundbreaking in 2012 (Atomic Taco – Flickr)

No matter their ultimate veracity, the sex abuse allegations against Mayor Murray will make for a chaotic mayoral race this summer and fall, with everything suddenly seeming possible. Murray could resign before the primary, he could survive into the general as a wounded candidate, or he could emerge victorious if the field becomes crowded and dilutes the anti-Murray vote.

To everyone’s surprise, yesterday morning former Mayor Mike McGinn threw his hat into the ring once again. Long seen as a one-and-done Mayor who left few friends at City Hall, what is McGinn’s legacy? Does he stand a chance?

First things first, McGinn was nearly always right on the substance of growth and transit issues. A friend of the blog and endorsed by STB in 2009 and 2013, McGinn took the hottest of the early ‘bikelash’ heat from the mainstream press, famously earning the moniker of Mayor McSchwinn. His passion for a calmer, safer city that prioritized people rather than vehicles is undoubtedly one of his best legacies.

He was unflinchingly pro-transit, albeit sometimes in ways that made him seem erratic or indiscriminate. He called for another Ship Canal bridge at 3rd Avenue West, a long overdue idea that still needs to happen. He wanted rail to Ballard, and got pre-ST3 studies funded. But he also waffled on grade separation, pitching MAX-style streetcars instead. He often seemed to favor set-piece, symbolic transit that made for attractive, European cityscapes, but he also lacked a passion for optimizing transit’s capacity and performance.

He was an untraditional candidate and mayor, in ways that both helped and hurt him. You could often see him cycling down 5th Avenue towards City Hall, looking like a quintessentially Pacific Northwest, disheveled everyman.  His reputation as a go-it-alone, process-eschewing mayor was well deserved.

In McGinn’s defense, let’s remember that in 2009 the economy was terrible, money was tight, and everyone was angry. The SR 99 debacle was approaching its Gregoire-era strongarmed finale, with a tunnel no one really wanted (but no majority wanted any of the other options either). Into this morass McGinn benefited from both anti-tunnel and anti-Nickels fever, and he then triumphed over the milquetoast weakness of Joe Mallahan. He emerged as a victorious neophyte, and it showed.

He was brash and passionate and had a steep learning curve on which backs you have to scratch to get things done. He announced his budget and dropped a seawall ballot measure without talking to Council. He burned bridges quickly, and they never really got rebuilt.

Which is really too bad, because he grew in office and became a much better Mayor by the end. His early missteps hardened public perception of him unfairly, and much of the opposition to his policies began to look like anti-McGinn obstructionism. Against this reputation, the powers that be desperately wanted a traditional candidate, and Senator Ed Murray checked all the boxes and more. This coalition propelled Murray to a 52-48 victory.

So who is McGinn 2017? His press conference yesterday left a mixed taste in urbanist mouths. He made his traditional comments supporting growth and transit, and he called for progressive taxation via a city income tax. But he also sounded worryingly NIMBY, calling for more process on housing, and an increased role for neighborhoods in planning and development. He sounded much more anti-tax than usual, criticizing property tax levies that he said threatened to turn us into San Francisco.

Perhaps McGinn knows he can’t (and shouldn’t) run to the left of Nikkita Oliver, and that Murray will likely hold much of the neoliberal center and whatever exists of a “Seattle right”. If McGinn’s olive branch to neighborhoods is a way for him to try to hold the urbanist left while peeling off the anti-Murray neighborhood vote, it may be good triangulated politics. But it’s not coherent from a policy perspective, and increased calls for process will make most of us groan.

It’ll be interesting to see who McGinn’s constituency is this time around. If Murray survives, most of us think he’s done a pretty good job on urbanist issues. The left flank is far likelier to be excited by Nikkita Oliver, who brings a ton of energy and freshness to the race, even as her comments on housing are worrying. The bike-and-greenways crowd will be split between Andres Salomon and McGinn. Who votes for McGinn 2017? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Seven Regular Transit-Related Bills Remain in Play

Cooper Jones, presente

Most bills in the state legislature had until last Wednesday to get voted on by their second house. Budget bills, and whatever bills are deemed necessary to the budgets, are exempt from that deadline. At least two bills impacting Sound Transit long-term funding, Engrossed House Bill 2201 and Substitute Senate Bill 5893, which each merely passed out of their original house, are among those being exempted.

By constitutional mandate, the Legislature will adjourn sine die next Sunday. Until then, the houses will work on not only agreeing on budget bills and bills necessary to them, but also agreeing on as many bills that got amended in their second house as they care to take up. You can follow the action up to the minute.

Seven transit-related bills made last Wednesday’s cut-off, and remain in dispute. Sixteen more are already headed to the governor’s desk, and will be detailed in a later post.

Rep. Cindy Ryu

Substitute House Bill 1273, by the House Transportation Committee, and originally by Rep. Cindy Ryu (D – Shoreline) et al, would authorize the Department of Licensing (DOL) to issue nondomiciled Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs) and Commercial Learner’s Permits (CLPs) to individuals domiciled in a foreign country if they provide valid documentation that they are authorized to stay or work in the United States and meet certain specified federal requirements. It would also authorize DOL to issue nondomiciled CDLs and CLPs to individuals domiciled in other states that are out of compliance with federal CLP and CDL requirements if the individuals meet certain specified federal requirements. The bill would require the nondomiciled CDL and CLP to be marked “non-domiciled” on its face. The substitute bill passed out of the House 82-15-0-1 on February 20.

The Senate amended the bill to correct a technical drafting error to the definition of “serious traffic violation,” as that term applies to grounds for temporary disqualification from driving a commercial motor vehicle. The bill, as amended, passed out of the Senate 43-6-0-0 on April 12. The bill goes back to the House for concurrence in the amendment.

Continue reading “Seven Regular Transit-Related Bills Remain in Play”

Sound Transit Boosts Railcar Order by 25%


In its Capital Committee meeting on Thursday, Sound Transit announced its intent to exercise a contract option for an additional 30 light rail vehicles (LRVs) to be purchased from Siemens. This option comes on top of the 122 vehicles Sound Transit ordered last September. The 30 new vehicles will arrive no later than 18 months after the original order has been fulfilled, and the total order will more than triple Link’s fleet to nearly 220 vehicles. Ordering now locks in a lower unit price from Siemens, with price escalation if the Board waits to order beyond May 2017.

Once Northgate is open in 2021, Link will move to all 4-car train operations. The 122 vehicles originally ordered are required to operate the Lynnwood and Overlake extensions opening in 2023, and the additional 30 are required for the Downtown Redmond and Federal Way extensions opening in 2024. The current operating plan calls for 8 minute peak headways on each line and 10 minutes off peak, with combined 4 minute peak and 5 minute off peak headways between Lynnwood and International District Station. Current riders from International District to Angle Lake will see their peak headways decline a bit, from 6 minutes to 8, but will also see capacity boosted by 25%, from 24 LRVs/peak hour to 30.

The Siemens S70 vehicles will be roomier, quieter, and have more bike storage than the current fleet. The aisles will be wider, especially in the center articulated section, improving passenger flow. Otherwise they will function much like the current Kinkisharyo vehicles, with 4-car trains and 8 cab cars running in fully interchangeable push-pull trainsets. This maximizes operational flexibility but also diminishes capacity slightly.

Sound Transit anticipates the new vehicles will begin arriving in mid-2019, with a steady but slow drip of 1-3 vehicle deliveries per month between 2019-2024. This delivery schedule means that though ST will be able to boost capacity on current operations between 2019-2021, they will also not be able to fully backfill the loss of tunnel buses within the One Center City timeframe. The vehicles take roughly 100 days for commissioning and testing, some of which can be done in revenue service, somewhat minimizing the need to do overnight testing. By purchasing off-the-shelf, the S70 LRVs are a known quantity and should be able to expedite burn-in processes. This model already successfully runs in places such as Portland, Minneapolis, San Diego, Salt Lake City, and suburban Paris.

As new vehicles arrive and are certified, the current Forest Street Operations and Maintenance Facility (OMF) will max out its capacity. Once the new East Link OMF is complete in 2020, a mix of old and new vehicles will be trucked there for storage, where ST promises to “keep the trains warm and move them around.”

Once fully operational, Link will have two nearly-maxed out OMF facilities, and additional cars will be stored on the lines overnight. Lynnwood and Redmond will be able to store two trainsets overnight, much like Angle Lake and UW can today. But in the south, Sound Transit is planning much more substantial storage. An extended tail track south of Federal Way will hold additional vehicles, and ST is also planning a pocket track between Federal Way and Star Lake that can hold 1-2 additional trainsets. Having vehicle storage at all 3 termini will allow quicker start of service each day, and minimize vehicle deadheading.

The full Board will likely approve the $132m option at its regular meeting on April 27.

News Roundup: Non-MVET Edition

SounderBruce (Flickr)

This is an open thread. 

The Overheated MVET Debate

If reduced MVET revenues impact project delivery, suburban parking projects are first in line to be delayed

Last night, the Washington House of Representatives approved HB 2201. The bill effectively resets the valuation schedule for the 0.8% ST3 portion of the MVET to the lower of the 1999 and 2006 schedules. The outcome is lower taxes for owners of cars less than 10 years old, and a refund for those who have already paid their 2017 car tabs.

Reversing voter-approved taxes, barely five months after the ballot, isn’t a great look. But it is within the Legislature’s authority (second-guessing of initiatives is not new). Democrats have responded to sincere voter anger. The MVET increase was greater than many expected even if voters who carefully read the ballot ought to have understood. Owners of newer cars are taxed against a scheduled valuation higher than their vehicle resale values. Even though Sound Transit has used the same schedule for twenty years, and never presented it otherwise, it just seems unfair.

If HB 2201 becomes law, Democrats expect it to correct the anomalous MVET valuations while delivering ST3 projects on schedule.

The bill creates a credit for taxpayers offsetting the difference in valuation schedules. Crafted this way, HB 2201 doesn’t interfere with Sound Transit’s bond program and doesn’t require defeasement of Sound Move bonds. It means the 0.3% Sound Move MVET, pledged against bond repayments on the now obsolete 1999 schedule, is not prematurely repealed and can remain in place until the bonds are paid off in 2028. Unlike some Republican proposals to simply switch schedules across the board, HB 2201’s credit does not increase taxes for owners of older cars.

The vote was 64-33, with all Democrats in favor. Republican reaction was mixed. Some are willing to accept any tax reduction; others decried that the bill didn’t meet their more ambitious goals. The bill moves to the Senate today where Republicans may make a play for larger tax cuts.

The revenue impact is modest. $780 million in revenues is 1.4% of the $54 billion program over 25 years, albeit front-loaded so the real impact is higher than the year-of-expenditure (YOE) calculation. The credits only run through 2028, after which the Sound Move 0.3% MVET expires and the ST3 MVET switches to the ‘lower’ valuation schedule.

Continue reading “The Overheated MVET Debate”

House Democrats All Vote Against Sound Transit

RapidRide C, photo by S.S. Sol Duc, wikicommons
for which voter-approved funding of from November 2016 is now threatened under EHB 2201

In an apparent shocking apparent betrayal of their constituents who voted to pass Sound Transit 3, House Democrats voted unanimously for Engrossed House Bill 2201, which would effectively lower the ST3 portion of MVET bills from the 1994 valuation, as prescribed in ST3’s enabling legislation, to the 2006 valuation, which would lower the bill for most cars under 10 years of age and leave the valuation at the lower 1994 valuation for older cars, removing even more funding from Sound Transit than what Republicans had demanded.

To date, no fiscal note has been made available for the bill, but it appears to cost Sound Transit ca. $780 million in direct revenue and ca. $2 billion after higher borrowing costs. If federal support for Sound Transit evaporates as a result, the damage could balloon. While kneecapping the funding for which voters in the ST3 district just voted to tax themselves for, the state legislature has shown no interest in providing direct state funding of Sound Transit.

EHB 2201 would create a pecking order for projects to be cancelled, starting with parking projects, then commuter rail, then bus service, and then light rail projects if everything else is cut.

In Sound Transit’s north subarea, consisting of Seattle and Shoreline, that likely means Sound Transit subsidies of RapidRide service would go away, and then 130th St Station, Graham St Station, and Boeing Access Rd Station would be on the bubble. Grade separation of West Seattle and Ballard Link might be jeopardized, too. Without the fiscal note normally made available for bills before they even pass out of committee, the depth of the cuts is hard to calculate.

The bill still has to get through the State Senate, where the Republican majority may amend the bill for the sake of maintaining their ability to campaign on the issue, even after House Democrats gave the Republicans more than they originally asked for. Or, the Senate Republican majority could declare victory and send the bill, as is, to the governor’s desk.

Update: Rep. Jessyn Farrell responded to the post, conceding that legislators missed that the older valuation schedule was prescribed for the MVET in the ST3 enabling law until the ST1 bonds are retired, and that they had not intended to use a schedule that doesn’t reflect car resale value, which the 2006 table does very well. In response to a question on regressiveness, she pointed out that Sound Transit opted not to use the progressive head tax the legislature authorized. In response to what happens next, she was firm, “We say no deal if the Senate changes the bill at all in a negative way.”