Seattle budget threatens the Center City Connector

South Lake Union Streetcar (Image: Peter Lewis)

The Seattle City Council is considering the city’s 2018 budget this week, and may consider an amendment to remove funding for the Center City Connector streetcar. A key procedural deadline is on Thursday. At a Select Budget Committee meeting Monday, several members voiced skepticism about the project.

The CCC connects the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars with a frequent connection in exclusive right of way through central Seattle. It is anticipated to carry over 8,000,000 annual riders when it opens in 2020. The capital cost is $177 million, inclusive of utility work. Of this, $75 million is covered by an FTA Small Starts grant, $25 million of which is to be appropriated in the FY 2018 budget. (Another $8 million is federally funded via the PSRC). The Council authorized SDOT to accept the grants in July. The CCC is in final design with the first utility work scheduled this month.

Proposals to amend the budget must be introduced by Thursday at 2pm, and the support of three members is required. An amendment could prevent Seattle issuing bonds to cover its portion of the project costs. In Monday’s session, Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Kirsten Harris-Talley all appeared to likely to support amending the budget. The budget will be finalized over the course of several meetings in November with a final vote on November 20.

Criticism of the project focused on the risk of federal funding falling short, doubts about ridership projections, and SDOT contingency planning for funding risks. Council members also questioned the race and social justice implications of a downtown transit project over buses serving disadvantaged neighborhoods. But the discussion was also a replay of the decision to build the streetcar. For instance, Lisa Herbold:

“The streetcar, from my perspective, has limited utility as a transportation infrastructure tool for people to get to and from their workplace. It may have value as an economic development tool. [] One of the performance measures [] is increasing access to transit service and we really need to be evaluating our investments in how we are helping people get to and from their daily obligations.“

CM Harris-Talley asked whether the city should redirect spending to buses. Should spending be on “routes that only serve key parts of the city, instead of investing more into our buses which allow us flexibility. [] In a city that is growing quite quickly, we don’t know where all the centers are going to be.”

CM Rob Johnson warned of the consequences of stepping back from a project with generous federal support. The federal grants would be repayable, and there would be downstream impacts to the city’s ability to capture federal resources for other projects.

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Call for Endorsements

King County Administration Building, where voters can use accessible voting machines weekdays from October 18 until election day, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.

STB endorsements for Seattle Mayor and other races will be out this week. If there is a campaign somewhere in the region that you think merits STB’s endorsement, this post is a chance to make your plug. As always, STB endorses solely on the basis of candidates’ records and positions on transit and land use.

Ballots should arrive in the mail Thursday. Your Washington State Voters’ Pamphlet should have already arrived. An audio version is available here. Local voters’ pamphlets are also linked there.

Transit Hubs Attracting Density

Transit Communities Credit:PSRC

As high-capacity transit expands across the region, new data shows transit communities are growing at double the rate of the region as a whole, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).

The PSRC defines “transit communities” as areas one-quarter to one-half mile away from current or future (by 2041) high-capacity transit such as light rail, bus rapid transit, or ferries. The data also shows residents who live in a transit community are twice as likely to commute to work using public transit as those who don’t.

“We know when transit is provided — especially the high-capacity transit, light rail, bus rapid transit — people are riding it,” said Michael Hubner, principal planner with the PSRC. “This region has led the country in annual gains in transit ridership among metro areas eight years in a row.”

In 2013, the PSRC, along with a coalition of agencies, developed a strategy to promote transit-oriented development that encourages compact, walkable communities linked by mass transit.

Hubner said the strategy set out three goals:

  • attract residential and job growth to transit communities
  • provide housing choices affordable to a full range of incomes near transit
  • increase access to opportunity

Hubner gave attendees of Building Transit, Building Opportunity, a day-long conference organized by the PSRC, a sneak peek at a forthcoming study by the agency that tracks job and residential growth around 96 identified transit communities. The event focused on techniques used around the region to build transit-oriented development.

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169 to Rainier Beach Station, or Bust

Route 169 map from Metro website

In September, King County Metro route 169, which serves a major business corridor on Kent East Hill, got a serious investment, going from half-hourly all day to running every 15 minutes from 7 am to 6 pm on weekdays.

Its north terminus is Renton Transit Center, from which riders have to transfer to route 101 to get to downtown Seattle, the F Line to get to more of the valley, ST Express 560 to get to the eastside, or route 106 to get to Skyway and Rainier Valley.

As it happens, route 169 is the only route in the queue to be converted to RapidRide that would not directly serve the region’s planned light rail network.

Route 101 is a peak-heavy commuter route that drops down to half-hourly off-peak.

The fast path between Renton Transit Center and Rainier Beach Station,
without getting on the freeway [Google maps]
Extending route 169 up to Rainier Beach Station could be done in a revenue-neutral manner that would also double frequency for riders living along Sunset Way between downtown Renton and Seattle. Just scavenge the off-peak service hours being used to run route 101 up to and through downtown, and roll them into route 169, with the route continuing on Sunset Way and MLK Way up to Rainier Beach Station.

Such a route restructure will make even more sense when route 101 is streamlined to run directly between Renton Transit Center and downtown Seattle, starting in March 2018.

Making route 169 an all-day connector to Link could also alleviate some of the bus traffic jam that will happen when route 101 leaves the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel forever in 2019.

Route 101 doesn’t have to cease serving downtown, however. For peak commuters, it could become one of several routes that go to the north end of downtown via the Seneca St exit from I-5, and on into the booming South Lake Union business district.

All-day frequent connectivity to the regional light rail system, peak express service to the fastest-growing job center in the state, and improved local connectivity would be a win-win-win for the residents of south Skyway, downtown Renton, and Kent East Hill.

Grays Harbor Transit Doing Some IT Projects

Grays Harbor County Courthouse, Montesano (Joe Mabel/Wikimedia)

[post updated with additional information about publicly accessible data feeds].

Out on the Pacific Coast, Grays Harbor Transit (serving the county around Aberdeen) is rolling out two major information technology projects: one for real-time information and one for mobile phone payment. In both cases, they’re contracting with companies that market to small transit agencies.

Real-time information is already live, although I found the interface to be non-intuitive. The listed times are scheduled times, but the arrow indicating the position of the bus is the actual position. The information is also available to third-party developers via the GTFS interface.

Mobile phone payments are, of course, incompatible with the Pierce Transit and Metro versions. They do, however, use the Token Transit app, which their twitter feed claims works for seven other agencies that are also clients. The app will go live October 23rd. And an app is superior to getting a pass by mail, or at a handful of retail locations.

If you use Grays Harbor Transit, you finally have some 21st century tools to save time and avoid cash.

News Roundup: Analytical Chops

Capitol Hill

This is an open thread.

Yesler Way Bridge Reopens, Ending Transit Detours

The demolished Yesler Way Bridge, seen last year

After 16 months of construction, the Yesler Way Bridge over 4th and 5th avenues has been reopened to traffic on Tuesday. Several bus routes that were affected by the long-term closure have resumed normal operations. Bus stops at Yesler Way & 3rd Avenue and Terrace Street & 5th Avenue have been re-opened.

Although it won’t have trolleywires, as proposed to accommodate Routes 3/4, the new bridge has curb ramps, some bulb outs, and is engineering to modern safety standards while respecting the original 1910 design.

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Can Sound Transit make room for a homeless shelter in Bellevue?

This concept design shows a reconfiguration of the TOD area to accommodate a shelter (in orange). (Image: Kevin Wallace)

Bellevue is planning a permanent men’s homeless shelter in the city. After a proposed location in the Eastgate area drew controversy, the City considered two alternative locations including one near the planned Sound Transit Link maintenance facility in the Bel-Red area. Sound Transit has opposed this because it is within an area to be marketed for TOD after it is no longer needed for construction staging.

With active construction already underway on East Link, Sound Transit claimed the dispute may imperil the East Link timeline if unresolved.

A nonprofit group, Congregations for the Homeless, has operated a shelter in Bellevue for several years. In recent years, it was in a Sound Transit owned building in Bed-Red that was no longer available once OMF-E construction commenced. More recently, they’ve operated out of a temporary facility on 116th. That building is substandard and cannot be operated year-round, adding to the urgency of a permanent site. For a while, the City appeared to have found a site at the County-owned Eastgate Public Health Center, across the street from the Eastgate park-and-ride. [This paragraph updated for clarity about the history of the CfH shelter in Bel-Red. Comment below]

The reaction of neighbors at Eastgate has been negative. Though not immediately adjacent to homes, Bellevue College is nearby and there are townhomes a few hundred feet away. In April, the Council approved a letter of agreement with the County to consider the Eastgate site, but also asked staff to study two other candidate locations including Bel-Red. This effectively deferred a Bellevue decision on the preferred location, while allowing work with partners to proceed at Eastgate.

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Denny Way Bus Lane Delayed

The newly repaved section of Denny Way, just west of Stewart Street

The promise of an eastbound bus lane on Denny Way made waves last month, but the September deadline has come and passed, with not a hint of red paint on the street’s asphalt. So, what gives?

Mike Lindblom at The Seattle Times reports ($) that the announcement was premature and came about due to a misunderstanding between the department and Seattle City Light (SCL). SCL’s Denny Substation, which occupies most of the block between Minor and Yale, has not been completed. One of Denny’s westbound lanes is used by the project’s contractors, and would have been eliminated with the center bus lane in place. Recently, SCL tore up and repaved Denny Way, which SDOT saw as an opportunity to install the new bus lane with minimal disruption. A SCL manager approved of SDOT’s proposed work, mistaking it for mere restriping and not a full lane conversion. SDOT’s original announcement was pulled, and a new schedule for the bus lane pushes back installation until spring of next year.

Expanded Scope and Rising Costs for Tacoma Link

Tacoma Link Expansion Image: Sound Transit

With the Tacoma Link Extension design at 60 percent, the Sound Transit Board has approved a baseline budget of $217.3 million for the light rail expansion project, 25% more than previously estimated.

By 2015, Sound Transit had already grown the project from a 1.3-mile expansion with two new stations in 2008 to a 2.4-mile extension with six new stations. At the end of the preliminary engineering stage of the project, the agency submitted a cost of $175 million for the extension.

“That [$175 million] reflected the scope at the time, at a very preliminary level of design and the market conditions suitable for that year,” Madeleine Greathouse, a construction management specialist with Sound Transit, told the board at its September 28 monthly meeting. “The baseline estimate before you today is based on the latest information with regard to current market conditions as well as the evolution of design from earlier stages of planning and scope refinements.”

Greathouse emphasized the cost estimate was still within the range identified in ST2 when escalated to year-of-expenditure dollars.

According to Kimberly M. Reason, spokesperson for Sound Transit, further design refinements between the preliminary engineering and 60 percent design stage included “changing from ballast to embedded track at the Operations and Maintenance Facility, larger track power substations and associated equipment and utilities, and increased quantities of Overhead Catenary Supply poles.” And additional engineering from the city found the need to install 40 new ADA curb ramps not previously identified.

“Real estate acquisition was not a significant driver of cost growth as the project does not require complete or full parcel acquisitions,” added Reason in an email.

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SODO Connections Project Focuses on Alternative Service


A couple of months ago, I blurbed a survey for King County Metro’s Community Connections project, which was seeking input from people who work in Seattle’s SODO district, a mostly-industrial and commercial area immediately south of downtown. I noticed that the SODO Connections project seemed very focused on alternative service — i.e. not fixed route bus service — and I had some questions about that. Here are my questions and the answers I was given; I have some comments at the end.

Seattle Transit Blog: One of the approaches mentioned on the page — flexible-route service — is typically used in low-density suburban or rural environments, which don’t look much like SODO. The other — on-demand ridesharing — seems already to be covered by a thriving private market.

Scott Gutierrez, King County Metro: These are just some of the options Metro has developed as part of the Community Connections program. Our main program website has information on the kinds of services we’ve developed so far as well as current pilot locations.

We’re still early in our outreach process for the SODO project, so we have not yet determined what specific services we will pilot there. Based on the results of our outreach, we might propose something similar to services we developed in other communities, or we might come up with a transportation pilot that is completely new to Metro.

STB: What’s the niche Metro is trying to fill with these alternative service methods?

Metro: Community Connections focuses on partnering with communities to meet unique transportation needs that fixed-route transit isn’t able to serve. When the City of Seattle applied for this Community Connections project in SODO, they described gaps in the neighborhood as follows:

  • SODO is a significant employment center, including the highest concentration of manufacturing and industrial jobs in the city. The drive alone rate for employees in SODO (66%) is far higher than the rate in Downtown which lies immediately to the north.
  • Employees who travel to the target area have schedules that do not correspond with when transit service is running/frequent (e.g. during the weekend, or early in the morning/late and night).
  • A lack of east-west mobility options exists in the neighborhood.
  • A difficult pedestrian environment combined with diffuse destinations makes accessing the existing transit service difficult

Before we determine what specific niche we can best serve, we need to better understand these transportation gaps and barriers that exist for workers in SODO. The information above, and feedback from a stakeholder group, informed the survey we are asking people to take. Results of this survey will help our stakeholder group to articulate a set of transportation needs for our Community Connections pilot to address. Those articulated needs in turn will inform our solution design.

More interview and commentary after the jump

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Republicans Continue Crusade Against Sound Transit

Sen. O’Ban grills Sound Transit Image:TVW

The second day of the Sound Transit investigation, by the Senate Law and Justice Committee, concentrated on the improper disclosure of over 170,000 ORCA cardholders’ email addresses by the transit agency leading up to the ST3 campaign.

Sound Transit doesn’t dispute a mistake did occur when the agency was fulfilling a public records request for Mass Transit Now (MTN), a group that campaigned in support of ST3. But the agency has repeatedly denied the release of the emails was intentional.

Officials for Sound Transit told the committee the mix-up happened because email addresses for ORCA cardholders, which are exempt from public records requests, were co-mingled in the same database with other emails which are not exempt. Email addresses of riders who sign up for alerts or updates from Sound Transit are public information and can be obtained through a records request.

Skeptical the release of the emails was accidental, Senator Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, led the attack claiming Sound Transit improperly participated in the ST3 campaign.

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Next Generation ORCA Likely to Reduce Card Fees

ORCA cards
Image: Oran Viriyincy

Addressing the ORCA Joint Board Monday, Cheryl Huston, ORCA Regional Program Administrator, said there was agreement among ORCA’s participating agencies to keep the card fee for adult and youth riders but reduce the one-time charge from $5 to $3.

Currently, each ORCA card costs an agency $1.92 plus tax, according to Huston.

King County Metro Transit has estimated that lowering ORCA card fees for adult and youth riders to $3 would cost the agency $700,000 per year in card revenue.

Earlier this week, STB analyzed the impact completely eliminating card fees would have on Metro’s budget.

“The fee helps cover the cost of purchasing the cards and administration costs,” wrote Geoff Patrick, a spokesperson for Sound Transit, in an email. “Having a value attached to these reloadable cards also avoids the perception they are disposable. That is a perception that would increase costs of the ORCA program. These are cards that can and should last many years.

Huston said ORCA managers also want to simplify the card replacement fee by charging the same to both adult and youth riders. ORCA Lift cards are issued at no charge.

However, the proposal will also likely reduce or eliminate the card fee for the Regional Reduced Fare Permit (RRFP), a regional pass for seniors 65+, riders with a qualifying disability, and Medicare cardholders that works on several systems within the region.

Huston said King County supports eliminating the RRFP card fee entirely, but other agencies were more hesitant.

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Cascades to Bypass Pt. Defiance Dec. 18th

New Cascades locomotives (WSDOT)

In August Frank reported that “by the end of the year” the Pt. Defiance Bypass would open to Cascades trains, shaving 10 minutes off the trip to Portland and allowing a 13% increase in on-time arrivals. WSDOT is also using this occasion to deploy its new locomotives on two daily round trips to Portland. Now we have a date: WSDOT announced that service on the bypass would begin on December 18th.

The changes were funded by the Obama-era stimulus. There will be minor adjustments to the Eugene-Portland schedule to better accommodate through trips.

Now riders have more options for holiday trips to Portland. You can find the full timetable here.

Renton rethinks downtown transit

Potential revisions to downtown Renton transit operations (Map: City of Renton).

The ST3 program included, at the suggestion of the City of Renton, a new transit center with a 700 stall park-and-ride in South Renton near the intersection of I-405 and SR 167. Relocating the downtown transit center, however, left observers questioning how much transit would serve downtown in future. Mayor Denis Law, among others, viewed a relocated center as a positive step for downtown.

“The current location does not provide adequate public transportation services for Renton residents; nor does it meet the needs of businesses and commuters in the valley area of the city. As downtown redevelopment continues it will also pose challenges for buses to navigate. This new transit vision will lead Renton into the next phase of our community’s growth, both in our downtown core and at the new transit center location.”

The downtown transit center, in the view of the city, was not compatible with plans for a pedestrian-oriented downtown. There were issues with crime, and drivers to the parking garage added to downtown congestion. The city intends to restore two-way traffic on South Third and South Second streets, revitalizing them as neighborhood streets rather than commuter routes.

Planning to improve Renton’s downtown has moved forward. With it has come a more worked-out view of future transit service. Renton now intends to maintain a downtown transit center, but with several operational modifications to reduce supposed impacts to downtown.

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News Roundup: Incompatible Charging Systems

KCM 4602 (Proterra) charging at Eastgate P&R

This is an open thread.

Revisiting parking minimums in Kirkland

A mixed use project with 323 apartments on this site failed because of high parking requirements.

In 2014, Kirkland embarked on an effort to reform over-sized residential parking minimums that were much higher than neighboring cities. The effort was a failure, raising minimum requirements for many buildings where they should have been lowered. Just two years after the revised requirements were enacted in 2015, a series of failed developments are forcing a second look.

It had started promisingly. Partnering with Metro, overnight parking counts were conducted at multifamily buildings across the county. A second round gathered more local data. A model of right size parking needs was developed to match minimums to current usage. But fears of spillover parking and a hostile reaction from neighborhood activists overwhelmed the analysis.

What emerged were parking minimums far above current demand. The adopted rules started with the right-size parking averages, then added a 15% cushion for varied demand at some buildings, then layered on another 10% for designated guest parking. The result fairly guaranteed nobody anywhere would ever lack a parking spot in a residential building, even if many stalls went unused.

The prior code included an important data-driven element that mitigated its worst impacts. A developer could conduct a parking study, demonstrating lower utilization at similar buildings, and gain a ‘parking modification’ to build only the stalls they needed. Since 2015, parking modifications have been padded with the same 15% cushion and 10% guest parking as the base code.

In Totem Lake, the previous code was more flexible, allowing a case-by-case parking analysis to encourage urban development. That was updated to the same restrictive standards as elsewhere in the city.

What happened next should not have been a surprise. High and inflexible parking minimums are a tax that increases the cost of housing. In a sufficiently high-demand market, some projects pencil anyway. In Totem Lake, where rents are lower, parking requirements can kill an otherwise feasible project. In just two years, several projects with hundreds of homes have been cancelled.

A recent staff memo to Kirkland’s Planning Commission details planned developments that were derailed by high parking minimums.

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