News Roundup: More Like This


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ST Q2 2017 Ridership Report

Last week Sound Transit released its 2nd Quarter ridership numbers. While agency ridership was up 6.8% overall over the same quarter last year, that masked a lot of variance. Link was up 14.5% (over a quarter that had U-Link stations but not Angle Lake), but ST Express actually dropped 0.6%, a setback ST blames on low gas prices. Sounder was up a modest 1.6%.

Weekday Link boardings were up to 73,907. The line was just short of 6 million boardings for the quarter. The average train had 233 boardings on a single run.

The three most popular stations are Westlake, UW, and Capitol Hill, in that order. Rainier Beach, Stadium, and Sodo have the fewest weekday boardings.

Federal Way Link Reaches Conceptual Design, Feedback Requested

A RapidRide bus at the current Federal Way Transit Center

Sound Transit’s Federal Way Link Extension has moved into the design phase, two years after all but confirming a meandering alignment along Interstate 5 at the request of local jurisdictions. With construction slated to begin in 2019 and an opening date set for 2024, Sound Transit has compressed the entire station design review process into the next year and change. From now until September 22, Sound Transit is soliciting design feedback through an online survey and public open houses next month. Public feedback will be used to design the stations beyond the concept stage (where they are now) to “reflect the spirit of our communities and residents”.

Like the Angle Lake extension that opened last year, Sound Transit has opted to go for a design-build package to expedite the process and bring cost certainties for the project. As we recently reported for Lynnwood Link, Federal Way Link will be subject to current market conditions as well as uncertain federal funding, which may lead to reduced amenities and other corner-cutting measures.

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Sound Transit Reveals New Tacoma Station Names

Light blue line shows Tacoma Link Expansion Image: Sound Transit

The Capital Committee is expected to discuss the proposed names for the six new stations in the Tacoma Link Expansion during its September 14 meeting. If approved by the Capital Committee the recommendations, which also includes the renaming of the existing Commerce Street Station, will then go before the full board.

The proposed new station names are:  

  • Old City Hall – 7th and Commerce
  • Stadium Way/S 4th – Stadium Way and S 4th S
  • Stadium District – N 1st St and N Tacoma Ave
  • Medical Center North – MLK Way and Division Ave
  • 6th Avenue – MLK Way and 6th Ave
  • Hilltop District – MLK Way and S 11th St
  • Medical Center South – MLK Way and S 19th St

The Tacoma Link Expansion project will move the existing Theater District Station a few blocks north to 7th St and Commerical, where it will become Old City Hall Station. With the relocation of the Theater District Station, Sound Transit said residents requested the existing Commerce Street Station, located at 11th and Commerce Street, be renamed the Theater District Station.

While light rail usage soars in Seattle, ridership on the Tacoma Light Rail drags behind. Although a $29,000 annual subsidy from Tacoma’s Business Improvement Area covers the $1 ticket cost, annual boardings have dropped 8% after peaking in 2012.

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Is Bike Share Good Business?

Unlocking a Spin bike Image: Lizz Giordano

Just two months in, stationless bike share is clearly resonating with Seattle riders. Ridership is far higher than previous efforts, bikes are making their way to underserved communities, and more companies are jumping into the fray with brightly colored rides.

The city is on the one hand promoting it as a key part of urban mobility (Pronto 3.0!), while on the other making it clear that this is just a pilot. Bike friendly Councilmember Mike O’Brien has said he’s “skeptical” of the business model.

So what is the business model? The Pronto debacle seems to have made it clear that the city has no appetite for publicly-subsidized bike share in the near future, so it’s on Ofo, LimeBike, Spin and the rest to make it pencil on their own.

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ST: New Planning Process Will Speed Up Light Rail Expansion

The future Northgate Station under construction Image: Lizz Giordano

The opening of three light rail stations in 2016 made for a busy year for Sound Transit. And with 58 more Link stations coming online by 2041, along with 21 new bus rapid transit stations, the transit agency is streamlining the project development process to expand the transit system quicker than initially proposed.

To speed up project timelines, one of the key strategies of the System Expansion Implementation Plan is to shrink the amount of time each project spends in the planning phase.

The biggest change in the planning process moves the identification of the preferred alternative to much earlier in the process, prior to the completion of a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). Rather than the board choosing a preferred alternative from a set of options, after all, are studied in the draft environmental impact statement. The transit agency said this change will avoid the “time-consuming necessity of studying numerous other alternatives.”

ST has set a goal of choosing a preferred alternative in 18 months, which in the past generally took 2-3 years.

“This streamlined process came out of public feedback during development of the ST3 Plan, when the public and stakeholders indicated a strong desire to deliver projects earlier than proposed,” wrote Kimberly M. Reason, spokesperson for ST in an email. “As a result, we identified what it would take deliver projects earlier, and, after more work, committed to more aggressive timelines.”

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ORCA for Monorail Moves Forward

In a press release absolutely buried by other news Thursday, Mayor Murray proposed that the Monorail start accepting ORCA. Back in 2014, STB readers pressured Seattle to study the feasibility of accepting ORCA cards. When that study finished, the city launched a ridership study which completed last April.

The ridership study assumes that the monorail accepts both E-purse and passes. Ridership increases between 155,000 and 346,500 annually (or 7-16%). However, various costs to participate in ORCA and lower average payments result in a first-year revenue hit between $359,000 and $660,000. By the third year, the net effect will be somewhere between a loss of $253,000 and a gain of $122,000. These estimates do not include startup fees that might be assessed by the sponsoring agency, in this case King County Metro.

Mayor Murray proposed a 25 cent fare increase, on top of one already planned for October, to make up for the loss. This would bring the one-way adult fare to $2.75, and the release expressed cautious optimism that it would result in a modest net financial gain.

If all goes well, the Council will approve a budget that includes funding for SDOT staff to complete negotiations with Metro to resolve the remaining issues. Mayoral spokesman Will Lemke doesn’t anticipate big problems because “not a lot of money is moving around.” In an email, Metro said they “see no immediate concerns” with the idea, although the agreement would have to be approved by the ORCA Joint Board.

SDOT wasn’t able to immediately produce a best-case estimate on when riders might first tap onto the monorail, but my sense is that sometime in late 2018 or 2019 is a reasonable guess.

The monorail is one of the few truly traffic-separated transit options in the region. Until Link gets there in 2035, the monorail may be the fastest way to many places beyond downtown when Mercer and Denny are clogged. Also, chances of the NBA returning to Key Arena are climbing, putting stress on roads in neighborhoods that have grown immensely since the Sonics left.

A 250-passenger train leaves each station every 10 minutes, with 5-minute headways at seasonal peak times. It operates 7:30am to 11pm on weekdays and 8:30am to 11pm on weekends.

“Seattle Center is becoming more connected to downtown, and the Monorail is the best path between these two important hubs,” said Mayor Murray.

A Single Metro Fare for All

Dow Constantine, King County Executive announces new fare proposal Image: Lizz Giordano

King County Metro Transit wants to simplify bus fares by establishing a flat rate of $2.75 for passengers — eliminating zones and peak-rate fares.

Calling the current fare system one of the most “complicated” in the country,” Dow Constantine, King County Executive, announced a proposal to streamline fares at a press conference Thursday. The change could take effect as soon as July 2018 if approved by the King County Council.

“I believe that access to opportunity depends on providing people with safe, affordable and reliable ways to get around this region,” Constantine told the crowd. “Rising home prices means a lot of folks have been pushed further and further from the place where they earn their living, for them this new fare means more money in their pockets.”

According to Metro, roughly 65 percent of riders will see no change or a reduction in their fare with the proposed $2.75 flat rate. 

Currently, riders traveling between two zones during the morning or evening commute pay $3.25, the proposal would reduce that cost by 50 cents. However, for riders traveling during off-peak hours, the new fare would increase the cost of their ticket by 25 cents. There will be no change in cost for riders that qualify for ORCA Lift, youth, senior and disabled fares.

“We will make Metro fares simpler and we will make boardings faster, and faster boardings mean more service,” Constantine said.

Also included in the proposal is an additional $400,000 in funding for the Human Services Ticket Program which provides subsidized bus fares to human service agencies serving low-income residents. With 44 percent of these subsidized fares used during off-peak hours, Metro said this additional funding will help offset the higher cost these riders would pay under the new fare system.

The agency said this change was not about increasing revenue, predicting the fare change along with an increase in funding for subsidies for low-income riders would make only a marginal difference.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to do away with the higher two-zone fare,” wrote Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union in an email. “It’s not right to make someone who commutes to Seattle from Kent because they can’t afford to live here pay more for their ride, even though it’s more expensive to provide the service.”

However, Wilson is concerned about the impacts of the off-peak fare increase on lower-income riders who don’t qualify for a reduced fare.

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First Cost Overruns, Delays for Lynnwood Link

Costs are rising for Lynnwood Link, due to both economic conditions and increasing scope. Sound Transit is choosing to delay its delivery by six months in an effort to limit those increases.

Until today’s board meeting, the plan for the line between Northgate and Lynnwood Transit Center cost $2.4 billion, including vehicles and part of the maintenance facility, and completed in December 2023. The $2.4 billion estimate was consistent with the initial, pre-ST2 cost estimate in 2005.

Several factors have inflated the cost to $2.9 billion, or by 21%:

  • The construction boom has increased the bids from contractors, and created skilled labor shortages, increasing estimates for construction costs by $190m.
  • A decision to use a single contractor rather splitting up design and build added $120m to up-front costs. This decision reduces risk and the necessary contingency funds. Indeed, this increase is basically offset by design and contingency funds coming in $113m under budget.
  • Increases in scope have added $190m. These include better bus transfer facilities; evolving codes and regulations in partner cities; tree replacement ($32m!); and temporary noise walls, traffic control, and parking to minimize construction disruption. While some of these things are good, they reflect the general tendency of cities to extract concessions in exchange for permits.
  • Right of way acquisition has increased by $101m, due to high real estate values. Values increased by 44% since 2014, well in excess of the expected 25%.

With new money from ST3, there’s no reasonable change in ST2 costs or revenues that can affect the schedule. However, ST CEO Peter Rogoff has ordered a six-month pause to value-engineer the line and recover some of the cost increases. This places the line’s opening in mid-2024. This delay will also allow chaos around federal funding to settle before signing contracts backed by those grants.

Risks remain: federal funding is uncertain, the construction market is still hot, and cities and agencies haven’t given final approval. The project is at 60% design.

Most other light rail projects are either done with design and construction bid considerations (Northgate, East Link) or way too early to worry about these questions (most of ST3). Exceptions include the Federal Way and Downtown Redmond extensions, funded in ST3 and scheduled for delivery at roughly the same time as Lynnwood Link. There is no news for these projects, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear some when new estimates come out.

Rainier Avenue Must Choose Between Buses and Bikes

Rainier Avenue is one of the more dangerous roads in Seattle. SDOT says that the road has averaged one crash per day over the past 10 years. Phase 1 of Seattle’s approach to fixing it took it from four lanes to three between Kenny (near Orcas) and Alaska Streets, added some transit queue jumps, and reduced speed limits. Although it’s about a minute slower to drive through the corridor, collisions are down about 15%, and Northbound transit times improved 3 minutes.* Vehicle volumes dropped on Rainier, though they increased on MLK a similar amount.

Now it’s time for Phase 2. The next segment continues the revision from S Kenny St. all the way down to S. Henderson St. The 4-lane-plus-parking roadway will transform into one of two alternatives as early as next year [edited], but they involve difficult tradeoffs:

Alternative 1 turns one traffic lane into a center turn lane, and one into a Northbound bus lane. This transit improvement anticipates Metro and Seattle upgrading Route 7 to RapidRide.

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SDOT September 2017 Service Investments

map showing coverage of Seattle's transit network by frequency, most of the city is covered by 15-minute servuce
September investments bring 10-minute service to much of northeast Seattle (graphic: SDOT)

The footprint of Seattle’s frequent transit network is expanding this September thanks to service investments funded by the voter-approved Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD). Routes 65 and 67 in northeast Seattle and Route 60 connecting Capitol Hill and First Hill with Beacon Hill, Georgetown, and West Seattle are getting a boost in weekday frequency.

SDOT presented its STBD September investments to the City Council’s Sustainability & Transportation Committee last month. The route selection was informed by a Race and Social Justice (RSJ) analysis that SDOT completed in spring. It identified a lack of 10-minute service in northeast Seattle serving low-income & minority communities and infrequent east-west service in south Seattle.

Route 60 joins the Frequent Transit Network with weekday service improved to every 15 minutes or better from 6 am to 7 pm. Currently service runs every 20 minutes midday and every 15 minutes in the peak direction during peak hours. Weekend and evening service remains every half hour. South Park and Georgetown will now have a frequent connection to White Center, Beacon Hill, and beyond.

Metro’s 2016 Service Evaluation report lists Route 60 second among corridors that need investment to meet target service levels. It is also marked as needing schedule reliability improvements.

Routes 65 and 67 are improved to run every 10 minutes or better on weekdays from 6 am to 7 pm, instead of every 15 minutes currently. This brings the 67 up to service levels Metro proposed in its first draft of U-Link Connections. Both routes will have late-night service as part of the night owl overhaul that also begins this September.

That improvement means 64% of Seattle’s households will be within a 10-minute walk to 10-minute transit service, up from 51% last year and surpassing the 2020 goal of 53% three years early. The city is aiming for 72% by 2025.

Another improvement of note is to Route 50 which connects the Rainier Valley with West Seattle via SODO. Service will be improved to every 30 minutes or better for 18 hours a day, every day of the week. Currently the 50 runs hourly after 8 pm on weekdays and all day Sunday.

News Roundup: 100%

Mike Bjork/Flickr

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An OBA Hack for Multiple Stops

The complexity of our bus system often presents power users with a dilemma. There are often multiple ways to get to a destination, and the bus to take often depends on which one comes first. Sometimes, it’s a choice whether to travel east-west or north-south at start. In other cases, extreme bus density downtown means routes to the same place stop in as many as three different places. Juggling arrival times can be hard. However, there’s an undocumented OneBusAway hack for that.

As reader Tim Bond explains, just type in and bookmark the URL you need. The format is: followed by stuff, where each item is separated by a “&.”

Each stop is represented by an ‘id=1_’ followed by the stop number.

Each route follows its stop number with a ‘route=1_’ followed by the route code, which doesn’t always relate to the actual route number. You can get these numbers by clicking around regular OBA pages.

For instance, the query below will give you all the options to get from the Westlake area to the west side of Lower Queen Anne, on the 1, 2, 13, 24, 33, or D. The stops are 575 (Routes 1, 2, and 13), 578 (D), and 590 (24, 33).

The result is shown at right.

Pierce Transit considers HCT on Busiest Route

HCT study area Image: Pierce Transit

To establish a north/south link in the heart of the county, Pierce Transit is weighing the potential of high-capacity transit (HCT).

These systems, designed to carry a larger volume of riders with greater speed, reliability, and frequency than a standard fixed route bus system, can operate either on a dedicated track or lane, or on existing streets in mixed traffic.

With a goal of increasing bus speeds and ridership, in February the Pierce Transit launched a HCT feasibility study along Pacific Ave South (SR 7) between downtown Tacoma and Spanaway. The transit agency said ridership and cost will determine the most appropriate HCT mode, which could include rail, streetcar or bus rapid transit (BRT).

Building a high-capacity transit along this corridor has been in Pierce Transit’s plans for many years, said Alexandra Mather, a government and community relations officer for the agency.

“The economic downturn in 2008 required the project to be put on hold,” Mather wrote in an email. “Fortunately, with sales tax revenues up in Pierce County and successful funding out of the state’s 2015 Connecting Washington package, as well as a $60 million capital commitment for transit speed and reliability in the corridor from ST3 (Sound Transit Three), the project was made a priority for the agency.”

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Spokane Transit Begins Implementation of STA Moving Forward

The Empire Builder at Spokane WA. ( 4 Views )

STB hasn’t written much in-depth about transit in Spokane since the passage of their scaled back STA Moving Forward initiative in November of last year, which followed the failure of the original package in 2015. To catch up on the Spokane Transit Authority’s progress in implementing Moving Forward, I reached out to Director of Planning and Development Karl Otterstrom. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of our email interview.

Seattle Transit Blog: What parts of STA Moving Forward have been implemented or are currently in progress? I know there’s been some service improvements, you’ve got new artics on the way, and you’ve broken ground on the West Plains Transit Center.

STA Moving Forward is a ten-year plan for more and better transit service. It is phased to avoid debt and make implementation more manageable. As part of the effort behind the second ballot measure in November 2016, the STA board directed us to accelerate elements that could move forward sooner. Part of our response was introducing new service at both the May and September service changes. In future years we intend to make STA Moving Forward service adds just once in a calendar year, devoting other service changes to timepoint adjustments and other minor revisions as necessary.

IMPLEMENTED: During the May service change, we added the following service:

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Downtown Bellevue to be rezoned

The rezoning will increase capacity near I-405, rebalancing growth in other neighborhoods.

Bellevue is nearing approval of a comprehensive update to downtown zoning. It could mean taller buildings up to 600’ in some areas of the downtown core. It’s the culmination of a multiyear process to improve downtown livability, improving the pedestrian realm and fostering a more distinctive skyline. Approval by the City Council is anticipated this Fall.

Despite fairly significant increases in allowed height, the zoning update is not intended as a major increase in developable capacity. Buildings may be much taller, but not much greater in mass. Increases in FAR (floor/area ratio) are limited in most of downtown. The goals are slimmer and more diverse building forms, and more public space and sunlight at ground level. Many in the city leadership view downtown buildings as too uniform, making for a sometimes dull skyline.

The most unambigous upzones are in the OLB zones between 112th Ave and I-405, and around the future Downtown Link station. This area is conspicuously under-zoned today, with height limits of just 75 to 90 feet. Those would increase to 200 feet south of NE 4th, and 350 feet north of there.

Elsewhere, the rezone redistributes growth within downtown, often equalizing what are now different height limits for residential and commercial towers. The net impact is to encourage more residential towers in the corporate-heavy center of downtown, while making office development easier in some areas around the core that have recently seen mostly residential development. That’s something of a policy reversal. Previous zoning had encouraged office development in the tallest part of the “wedding cake” with more residential on the outer areas of downtown.

In the center of downtown, permitted height would increase from the current 450 feet to 600 feet. But, maximum FAR limits would remain unchanged. Other restrictions on building form will encourage slimmer residential buildings, particularly if developers take advantage of the height increase.

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Community Transit Proposes “Simpler” Fare For Some Commuter Routes

CT 23800 at Lynnwood TC
Route 421, one of several commuter routes affected by the fare policy change

Community Transit is proposing a small fare policy change for next year, as part of preparation for the next-generation ORCA system planned to launch in 2021. If approved at next month’s board meeting, the fare policy change would eliminate a lower-cost fare used on commuter routes by riders who only ride within one or two zones. The change comes as part of a region-wide push to streamline fares for the next-generation ORCA system, which will already be limited in some ways.

As it currently works, a rider in Lynnwood who is bound for Marysville can take Route 421 (the Seattle-Lynnwood-Marysville Express) and only pay $2.25, the regular local fare, as opposed to the $5.50 fare charged for commuter routes from the North and East ends of the county. Route 421 is also able to carry Seattle-Lynnwood commuters and charge the South County fare ($4.25) through the same arrangement. Riders request the lower fare from the driver, who will either accept the lower cash fare or manually override the ORCA reader with the Local or South County fare option, before switching back for the next person in line.

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