Top 10 STB Posts of 2017

2017 was not a great year, both worldwide and in our little corner of the universe. Here is our customary summary of the 10 most-read and most-commented posts of the past year:


1. Mercer Island to Sue Sound Transit, WSDOT (2/13 by Zach Shaner) Mercer Island’s tantrum over HOV lane access was a fine opportunity to pillory a privileged group defending their privilege. Although many of their points had no merit, it wasn’t hard to empathize with a few others.

2. House Democrats All Vote Against Sound Transit (4/13, by Brent White) Sound Transit opponents couldn’t win at the ballot box, so they fired up some angry constituents to scare legislators. This sorry episode is one of the best examples of why we shouldn’t hold public votes on highly technical issues.

3. Seattle Times Editorial Board Flunks Geometry (3/7 by David Lawson) David dismantles the Times Editorial Board’s latest primal scream against change, growth, and the facts of living and working in a prosperous major city.

4. Ban Cars from Third, Now (2/21 by David Lawson) I am a firm believer in rail’s sometimes magical powers, but no one has explained to me why 12 streetcars per hour deserve absolute dedicated right-of-way, while 240 buses per hour on Third are going to have to go through a “data-driven” process to earn the same treatment.

5. 5 Democratic Senators Side with Republicans Against Sound Transit (3/2 by Martin H. Duke) There is a certain willful ignorance among progressive advocates for scrapping the Sound Transit Board. The Republicans they’re voting with are dedicated to gutting urban transit in all its forms, and have no interest whatsoever in efficient delivery of high-quality services. Someone here is a sucker, and I’m guessing it isn’t the Republicans.

6. The Technical Challenges of Seattle-Vancouver High Speed Rail: Part 1 (2/17 by Zach Shaner) We knew Zach and Alon Levy’s series on this project was going to be a crowd-pleaser. It was even reviewed in the legislative report on the project, on which more next year.

7. SE Seattle Representative Sponsors Anti-Sound Transit Bill (1/31 by Martin H. Duke) Another one about “governance reform.” Nothing goes viral like legislative session reports, I guess.

8. Sound Transit to Sue Mercer Island (2/18 by Brent White) As is usually the case, the dueling lawsuits were eventually settled with money. The power of local governments over Sound Transit is one of the principal reasons costs escalate.

9. Amtrak Cascades to Add SEA-PDX Service by the End of the Year (8/16 by Frank Chiachiere) The gradual evolution of Cascades into a fast, reliable service is a good news story, notwithstanding the tragedy this month.

10. “I think that vote was rigged” (5/12 by Martin H. Duke) Mayoral candidate (and State Senator) Bob Hasegawa criticizes ST3 as dishonest, claiming he didn’t understand what he was voting for, months after it wins big in Seattle. (Though it narrowly lost in his district.)

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Tacoma Dome Link Moves Slowly Into Preliminary Engineering

Tacoma Dome Station will have Sounder, Amtrak, and two flavors of Link by 2030 (Photo by author)

Last week, the Sound Transit Board signed off on a $125.7 million budget for preliminary engineering on the Tacoma Dome Link Extension and a $10.3 million consultant contract for the same project. When the extension opens in 2030, trains will run all the way to the Tacoma Dome multimodal complex on 10 miles of mostly elevated track, passing through three intermediate stations before reaching Federal Way. Trains will take about 20 minutes to make the trip from Tacoma to Federal Way, and about 35 minutes from Tacoma to Sea-Tac Airport.

Like the “accelerated” schedule for the West Seattle and Ballard extensions, Tacoma Dome Link will take until 2019 to decide a preferred alternative and a final environmental impact statement may not be published until 2021. Construction won’t begin until 2025, a year after light rail trains start serving Federal Way.

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No Clear Consensus on Routes 3/4

Metro route 3. Photo by Tim Bond.

Metro recently released a summary of community feedback on its proposal to move a short segment of routes 3 and 4 from James St to Yesler Wy.  As we’ve come to expect with proposals to change the oldest parts of Metro’s network, the feedback was deeply muddled.  Metro’s Magic 8-Ball said: “Reply Hazy, Try Again.”

Online survey respondents favored the change, 53 to 40 percent.  Most of the few people who contacted Metro by email or phone opposed the change.  Stakeholder organizations were split along geographic lines; First Hill Improvement Association and WHEEL (which operates a women’s shelter near 8th and James) opposed the change, while Yesler Terrace Community Council supported it.  Supporters cited better reliability and improved service to Yesler Terrace, while opponents concentrated on potential difficulties accessing services on James for seniors and people with limited mobility.

In keeping with this split feedback, Metro plans to study a variety of options using both James and Yesler.  The agency will study transit priority measures on James, to see if there is any way to speed up buses despite the very high volume of I-5 traffic.  Previous studies have found bus lanes on James infeasible because the volume of I-5 car traffic trying to use James would create gridlock on other streets (including 9th Avenue, which the current routes use), but Metro will have another look.  At the same time, the agency will continue designing trolley overhead and other infrastructure along the Yesler route.  Finally, the agency will look at putting another (presumably less frequent) route onto James to provide access while moving routes 3 and 4 to Yesler.

By its nature, this feedback process could not include any voice representing the over 5,000 net new residents (including about 1,100 low-income residents) who will come to Yesler Terrace once redevelopment ($) is complete.  Redevelopment will turn Yesler Terrace into one of the city’s densest areas, and no comparable development is proposed for the area around James Street.  Yesler Terrace and downtown are currently connected only by infrequent route 27, which is obviously insufficient to serve the new population.  As a regular route 3 rider, I think the combination of reliability improvements and Yesler Terrace redevelopment makes the move to Yesler the obvious best option for routes 3 and 4.  Community feedback regarding access to the James/5th and James/8th stops, though, may warrant moving a low-ridership coverage route (the 27?) to James to serve those stops, despite the delays for riders that will certainly result.

News Roundup: Insane Preservation Decisions

Ballard Docks

  • Seattle test will lead to regulations for dockless bike-share.
  • What the Washington train derailment means for Cascadia high-speed rail.
  • Speed control faces challenges ($), slowly gets rolling on Sounder trains.
  • What Vancouver, B.C., can teach us about housing.
  • When historic preservation clashes with housing affordability. Sightline’s Dan Bertolet catalogs several recent insane decisions from Seattle’s various landmark and historic district boards. Having read that piece, I’m really to nuke the entire dysfunctional process.
  • 120,000 square feet in the heart of Seattle is set to disappear; with the caveats that this square footage (a) is below grade and (b) will require about $100 million to bring up to code.
  • Denver vs Seattle: How our Pacific Northwest peer adds people without adding traffic. Streetblog gives a preview of the Moving People Forward conference in February, which looks very interesting.
  • Amtrak crews express concerns about training on new route where train derailed ($).
  • I-405 express toll lanes between Renton and Bellevue are on their way ($).
  • Driving from Everett to Seattle? Plan for a 94-minute commute, new report says ($). Hmmm… if only we had some technology that could provide an efficient alternative to driving for many thousands of people per day.
  • Seattle extends its run as the nation’s hottest housing market — but we may be starting to cool ($).
  • Margaret Hurley forced state to take alternate route for north Spokane freeway.
  • Elon Musk’s ideas about transportation are boring.
  • 150 studios with no parking going up in Ballard. Excellent!
  • Switzerland’s border-busting streetcar rolls Into France and Germany.
  • Boston tests faster bus service simply by laying out orange cones.
  • Agency OKs $126M budget for Tacoma Dome Link design ($).

This is an open thread.

PSA: Driving Respectfully

Drivers of a car and a Metro bus doing it right. We’ll ignore the car behind the bus. Photo by Mike Bjork.

More and more of us are riding transit every day. But the numbers say we also drive cars ($). 81 percent of Seattle households (including my own) still own at least one car. Many of those who don’t own cars use car sharing from time to time. Cars aren’t a sustainable solution for the majority of urban travel, but they will always be the best tool for certain trips.

Unfortunately, they’re also highly lethal, to the tune of over 40,000 deaths annually across the country—a number big enough to qualify as a leading cause of death and a major public health problem. In Seattle alone, we had 21 traffic fatalities in 2016, including 7 pedestrians and 5 cyclists killed. Nearly all of those fatalities are caused at least partly by driver inattention.

If you are a driver, you can reduce this risk! In last year’s “Driving for Urbanists” post, Zach described several ways drivers can make streets safer, most of which amount to treating other users with respect and courtesy. This time, I want to zoom in on just two aspects of respectful driving: crosswalks and lane control. Paying attention to these two things will make your driving as a whole much less threatening to vulnerable road users.

Yes, That Is A Crosswalk. Drive Accordingly.

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Prepping for a White Christmas

With a fresh blanket of snow Christmas morning, even in the lowlands, it is a good time for a refresher on getting all the information you need to find your bus in a snowstorm.

First, since it is Christmas, most transit agencies are either running on a Sunday schedule, or off for the holiday, so be sure to check what schedule your agency is running on.

Metro has an adverse weather page which shows whether it is running on regular-scheduled routes or snow re-routes, for each part of the county. Each route map also shows a red-dashed snow route.

The best way to get the latest information on re-routes is to sign up for transit alerts. You can sign up to get alerts from Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Everett Transit, and Kitsap Transit.

Community Transit has the most technologically-advanced system for warning riders that buses will not be serving their stop during a snow re-route: stickers on the bus signs.

This is a Snowpen Thread. Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa, or just Blessed Be, and hope you had a safe and wonderful Solstice.

Ride Metro FREE on New Year’s Eve

Space Needle Fireworks Show 2011
Photo by Shannon Kringen / flickr

This week has needed some good news on transit, and King County Metro is providing it:

From 4 am on New Year’s Eve to 4 am New Year’s Day, riding King County Metro will be free!

Metro will be running on its Sunday schedule, but extra trips will be added on routes 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 14, 24, 32, 36, 40, 41, 62, 65, 70, 101, 106, 120, 124, 150, 255, RapidRide A, B, C, D and E Lines, and ST 550, ST 554. Thanks to the September route restructure (with funding from SDoT), there is already a substantially-more-robust night owl bus network.

Both Seattle Streetcars will be running until 1 am that night, and will also be free, running every 15-18 minutes. But walking will likely be faster than the SLUS in the post-midnight crowd, and there will be others needing that ride and the limited space.

Link Light Rail will be running an extended schedule that night, with trains departing Angle Lake Station every half hour from midnight to 1:30 am and departing UW Station every half hour from midnight to 2 am. Fares will still apply.

The Tacoma Link streetcar will run until ca. 1:00 am, and is always free.

Sounder will serve the Seahawks’ regular season finale the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, and then will not be in service on New Year’s Day.

The Seattle Center Monorail will close down at 11:15 pm in preparation for the traditional pyrotechnic show from atop the Space Needle, and re-open approximately 12:20 am, and then run until 1 am. It isn’t free either, and it still only takes cash. ORCA and bankcard acceptance is in the works, but still months away, at least. The integration of the monorail into the public transit fare system may be the most exciting transit story to look forward to in 2018.

Stay safe through the holidays. If you are going to partake of mind-altering substances, leave the driving to someone you trust.

Sound Transit Working to Install PTC Ahead of 2018 Deadline

Credit: Stephen Rees

Despite having all the necessary equipment for positive train control (PTC) operation installed between Everett and Tacoma, the safety system is not fully operational on all Sounder trips, Sound Transit said Wednesday.

In a letter to boardmembers, CEO Peter Rogoff said that currently, due to technical issues associated with new deployments, only about 56% of trips operate under PTC. 

PTC technology requires the installation of wayside equipment along the track as well as onboard locomotives, monitored by a back-office system. In the letter, Rogoff said Sound Transit, which owns the stretch of track from Tacoma to DuPont where Monday’s incident occurred, has already installed all wayside PTC equipment and all Sounder locomotives are equipped with PTC hardware. According to Rogoff, BNSF has also fully installed and activated PTC along the section of track from Tacoma to Everett. BNSF also handles Sound Transit’s PTC back-office system at its control center in Texas.

“Before PTC is operational on a given segment all of these equipment systems must communicate with each other seamlessly following complex configuration work and the completion of testing,” Rogoff said in the letter.

He told boardmembers “the system can actively and automatically control a train if an engineer fails to adhere to operating parameters such as speed limits.”

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News Roundup: Everything But 501

April 9, 2015 - Fremont salutes Pontoon F!

Unsurprisingly, regional and national transportation news has been dominated since Monday by the tragic Amtrak 501 derailment. Because many of our readers are following the news of that accident via traditional or social media, and every outlet is working with the same (small) set of facts, I elected not to try and summarize all the 501 coverage, but to focus on other things that happened this week. STB’s reporting and commentary will continue in other posts.

If, nonetheless, you have room in your brain for one more 501 story, make it this KNKX interview with All Aboard Washington’s Lloyd Flem, who knew two of the deceased, Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre, through their transit advocacy. “I can say with clarity, on behalf of both men […] that we do not believe the future of transportation is an infinite amount of pavement so everybody can drive alone, all the time, everywhere.” Words to live by.

The roundup:

This is an open thread.

SR520 Bicycle and Pedestrian Path Opens Today

The 520 bike and pedestrian path under construction. Credit: Lizz Giordano

Over a year and a half after the new State Road 520 bridge opened to car traffic, pedestrians and cyclists will finally be able to cross Lake Washington using the floating bridge. The new 2.7-mile 520 bridge shared-use path, linking Seattle and the Eastside, is set to open at 3pm on December 20.  

Not only will this expand commute options, the new SR 520 path will also add to the 60-mile Lake Washington Loop Trail. Cascade Bicycle Club is planning several inaugural rides starting on both sides of the bridge to celebrate the grand opening.

On Cascade’s blog, Vicky Clarke, a policy manager for the group wrote that “For the region, the bridge trail represents a step toward our future: transportation infrastructure that’s accessible to all, and the ability to get more places by bike.”

An “out and back” version of the trail, which extended from Medina about 1.3 miles across the bridge leaving Seattle just out of reach, has teased bike commuters and pedestrians since it opened in summer 2016.

On the Seattle side, the complete trail set to open Wednesday starts at Montlake Park near the Arboretum and runs along the north side of the rebuilt bridge, ending in Medina.

WSDOT’s specialized sweeper Broom Hilda. Credit: WSDOT
 A concrete barrier separates the 14-foot wide multi-use path which has 11 viewpoints and resting areas dotting the trail. WSDOT said a specially designed railing will provide views of the lake while keeping non-motorized travelers safe. The path has a 15 mph speed limit and bicyclists and pedestrians are not required to pay the toll. A specialized sweeper, nicknamed Broom Hilda, will be used to keep the shared-use path clean.

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The Impact on Current Cascades Service

Flickr/Mike Bjork

Although the human impacts are miniscule compared to those of the accident itself, there will be only minor changes to Amtrak Cascades service until further notice. According to Janet Matkin of WSDOT, the state has already taken possession of enough rolling stock to run all scheduled Cascades trips. Obviously, these trips will take the old route around Point Defiance until further notice, adding 10 minutes to all trips and increasing reliability incidents due to freight conflicts.

This means that trains will stop at the old station location on Puyallup Ave. in Tacoma. This morning’s train 502 from Portland was cancelled, but that should be it for cancellations.

The Eugene-Portland segment will have more changes, per Amtrak’s statement:

Beginning Dec. 20, Cascades Service from Eugene to Portland, OR will be operating with substitute equipment and limited amenities, including no food service, checked baggage service, business class or bikes. Pets will still be allowed on board. Additionally, Trains 505 and 508, which were scheduled to operate as thru service between Eugene and Seattle, will now operate only between Seattle and Portland. New Trains 515 and 510 will be introduced on the segment between Portland and Eugene and will be a cross platform connection at Portland for passengers traveling north of Portland.

Matkin said that inspection of infrastructure at the accident site is ongoing, so it is impossible to say when trains may use the new track segment again.

A Brief History of the Point Defiance Bypass

Lakewood Station
Lakewood Station and the Point Defiance Bypass beyond it (Adam Moss / Flickr)

With the national attention that yesterday’s tragic derailment is getting, we felt it would be best to provide a bit of context about the accident’s site: the Point Defiance Bypass. While it is a “new” railroad, built primarily for passenger use, the corridor is over a century old and some pieces date back decades. The bridge over Interstate 5 in particular was built in 1936 over an older highway and was given new tracks as part of the project.

On May 1, 1891, the Tacoma, Olympia & Grays Harbor Railroad announced the completion of a 25-mile railway from Lacey to Lakeview (approximately where South Tacoma station is today), forming a new branch of the Northern Pacific Railway. The main line from Lakeview to Tacoma had been built in 1873 and continued south through what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) towards Tenino. Although a parallel route was built along the coast and around Point Defiance in 1914, this inland route was sparsely used as a freight route by Northern Pacific, and later Burlington Northern to access the JBLM and South Tacoma areas.

By the 1990s, the railway was underused and caught the interest of WSDOT, who were planning what would become the Amtrak Cascades network. While Amtrak trains were using the route along the coast, the state’s 1997 Intercity Passenger Rail Plan envisioned a faster, inland route coupled with a new multimodal complex in Tacoma to link up with the Sounder and Link lines that Sound Transit planned for the city. The state legislature approved design and property acquisition funds in 2005, beginning a long series of back and forth meetings with cities, residents, the military, and other groups along the route. Sound Transit later acquired the whole corridor from BNSF in 2004.

President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package gave the bypass the boost it needed, providing much of the funding for the $181 million project and accelerating the completion date from 2019 to 2017 (a deadline mandated by the federal grant). By the following year, WSDOT was deep in environmental assessment and Sound Transit had already started moving dirt on the Lakewood to Tacoma segment. It received final approval from the Federal Railroad Administration in early 2013 and began construction in 2015, with work on the Nisqually junction completed later that year. The new station at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square encountered a speed bump late into property acquisition negotiations, but was ultimately able to break ground in July 2016. Extensive testing on the whole corridor began in January of this year, with WSDOT and Sound Transit rolling out public service announcements about train safety. Passenger service began yesterday morning, and seemed to be going smoothly, until the train reached one of the final turns on the approach to Nisqually junction at 7:30 am. While the investigation has not determined the exact cause of the crash, early indications show that the train was traveling overspeed on a downhill section before the turn.

Casualties in Point Defiance Bypass Derailment

Amtrak Cascades #501 south from Seattle derailed this morning, while crossing over I-5 in the vicinity of Mounts Road, west of Dupont. There are at least three casualties, many injuries, and some carriages are a total loss. Our thoughts are with survivors, and the families of everyone on board. No root cause has been established, although there are no grade crossings on this section of the line.

I-5 will likely be closed for hours, so avoid freeway travel in this area and expect major disruptions.

Seattle Times is actively covering this disaster.

Update 10:28: “Per the Pierce County Sheriff, if you had a loved one on Amtrak Cascades 501, there is a family reunification center now at the Dupont City Hall. Please go there, NOT to the scene. The Amtrak number to call if you have family members on the train is 1-800-523-9101.”

Update 2:02 PM: Statement from WSDOT

Update 12/19 9:47 AM: New York Times: “The National Transportation Safety Board said at a Monday night briefing that the train had been traveling more than twice the speed limit before it derailed, or at 80 miles per hour instead of the allowable 30 m.p.h.”

Also, a detailed summary from Sandy Johnston at the Itinerant Urbanist discussing PTC, Amtrak, and much more.

Update 12/19 11:02 AM: Zack Willhoite, Pierce Transit employee and frequent STB contributor (MrZ) and Jim Hamre of All Aboard Washington, died in the accident.  Our thoughts are with their families and the communities they helped to build.

How the Income Tax became an Issue for the Transit Riders Union

A member of the Transit Riders Union advocating for an income tax during a Seattle City Council meeting in May. Credit: Lizz Giordano

Yellow shirts filled Seattle City Council chambers, holding posters with hundreds of hand-signed petition along the walls. Members of the Transit Riders Union were out in force to voice their opinions to councilmembers, but the topic this time wasn’t potential bus cuts or a push for a low-income transit pass. Instead, the grassroots organization was advocating for an income tax on high earners.

The group’s inaugural 2011 campaign, Save Our Metro, began in response to King County Metro Transit’s plans to cut bus service after the recession caused a steep reduction in sales tax revenue. Now, six years later, the group’s mission has expanded to include this year’s push for a less regressive tax system.

“We were interested in not just forming a transit advocacy organization, but in building power by bringing large numbers of people together to fight for political gains in improving the transit system and other issues,” said Katie Wilson, the Transit Riders Union general secretary, describing the group’s origin.

For years, TRU fought for various transit measures that increased funding for bus service or expanded light rail. These raised sales and property taxes the group saw as regressive, which was frustrating.

To Wilson, one of the founding members of the group, the current suburbanization of poverty in the region led to a natural transition of issues for the Transit Riders Union.

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It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Light Rail

Credit: Lizz Giordano

Change is quickly coming to Bellevue as Sound Transit ramps up construction on the East Link Extension. Most recently crews on Monday night began work on the first elevated section of the 14-mile light rail extension, placing two girders that span 112th Avenue Northwest near the future Bellevue Downtown Station.

Credit: Lizz Giordano

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Seattle’s Streetcar Turns 10

Seattle Streetcar (Image: SDOT)

10 years ago this month, to great fanfare, Seattle’s modern streetcar line opened, a 1.3-mile route between Westlake and South Lake Union.

Though it seems insignificant now, cast your mind back to 2007. The Seattle Monorail Project died just two years earlier, after costing the city $125M. A month before the streetcar opening, the Roads and Transit measure to expand light rail had just been defeated. Many people were openly questioning whether rail-based transit had a future in Seattle (Not coincidentally, 2007 is the year STB was founded). Thousands of people crowded into Westlake square to see our shiny new toy. I was working in the neighborhood at the time and recall the insane crowds on opening day.

The Seattle Streetcar system has had its ups and downs over the years. 10 years seems like a good time to look back at the system, and forward as the Center City Connector moves forward.

After ripping up the last of the city’s streetcars in the 1941, Seattle’s modern streetcar system kicked off with the South Lake Union line (setting aside the historic waterfront line). Half the funding was provided by local billionaire Paul Allen, who waned the line as an amenity to kickstart development in what was then the sleepy warehouse district known as South Lake Union.

Since then, mayors and Council members have had varying degrees of enthusiasm for streetcars. The streetcar system has taken on a totemic quality that made it about more than just a transit mode choice: if you were for it, it means you were for real estate development and “placemaking.” To be against it was to be for spending money on More Important Things. As with many things in this town, it became a question of What Do We Want to Be When We Grow Up?

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Seattle Approves ST3 Partnering Agreement

On Monday, the Seattle City Council approved a partnering agreement to accelerate Sound Transit 3 project delivery. The   slideshow, the partnering_agreement itself, and Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s thorough writeup are all online.

Most of the agreement is just a commitment to working together and being cooperative, but there are some interesting nuggets. Each agency (ST and SDOT) will have a “designated representative” to serve as a single point of contact, which authority to direct other staff as needed. For ST, this will be Cathal Ridge. SDOT will name their representative by January 15th. There’s a nice review of how Sound Transit’s workflow will be different from previous projects, in an effort to speed things up.

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