Seattle City Council Member Rob Johnson joins the podcast to talk ST3, HALA, Key Arena and more.
- ST3 – Crossing the ship canal (1:30)
- ST3 – West Seattle (5:57)
- ST3 – Permitting (8:50)
- 130th Street (14:47)
- Car tabs (18:46)
- HALA (23:52)
- Parking (27:40)
- Beyond HALA (31:21)
- Move Seattle Levy (33:29)
- Key Arena (38:58)
21 Replies to “Podcast #52: The Biggest Shoupista”
I have to admit that I’ve not ever seen any evidence that reducing the Alternatives Analysis options somehow makes projects get built years earlier. There are plenty of examples all over the country of obvious and narrow Alternatives Analysis that have resulted in absolutely no project opening date advancements. Look at Warm Springs BART or BART to San Jose, the Exposition LRT line in LA, the various Dallas LRT projects, the Charlotte LRT projects — heck even the sequence of events that led to the FHSC here. The actual selection process is rarely more than two years; a narrower number of alternatives will only save a few months at best.
In fact, long-delayed projects like BART Warm Springs meant that the AA had to be updated, and that took extra time even after there was one on the record for many years. Selecting an alternative in 2018 that won’t start construction until 2028 could easily go stale on the shelf.
Having too few alternatives can actually make it take longer and cost more to build a project! If an unanticipated problem occurs in the engineering — which is a particularly big risk when tunneling is involved — the lack of a “Plan B” (that can be hundreds of millions cheaper and get built a few years faster) can make the opening dates and budgets more in jeopardy.
I really wish Johnson and others would stop saying this talking point and more seriously question what I think it a pretty obvious myth to me about saving years. I just don’t think it’s true.
Al, most sensible way to handle this is to early-on develop one plan setting a general direction, but with as much flex as possible in case of events that can’t be foreseen.
My own favorite example is being prepared to use buses as a temporary measure in case of hold-ups with rail,including transit ways designed for rail but able to handle buses interim. But mainly, to keep possible problems in mind, and prepped to deal with them as they arise.
Also, in addition to public meetings, talk with and overhear a wide spectrum of people in the project area, both before and after work gets underway. In order to sense people’s ongoing attitudes, wishes, and complaints while work is in progress.
We’ll very likely hear things we need to know, whether we like them or especially if not. A lot of fights stem from complete misunderstandings. And people change their minds. But main thing is to keep our own eyes open for positive opportunities no matter how fast they arise.
It is my understanding that the long time line is all about money and priorities. Sure, the first project might be done faster if we speed up the process. But the reason the last project takes so long is that we have to wait so long for the money to come in. West Seattle (assuming it is built above ground) is cheaper, and thus will be built first, despite it being a lot less useful. Even West Seattle residents are looking at a four seat ride to Bellevue (bus to the Junction/Delridge, train to SoDo, train to I. D., train to Bellevue). Is the paperwork easier because running the train above ground in arguably the most interesting, most pedestrian friendly part of West Seattle is less controversial, and not likely to encounter organized opposition? Please. If we don’t dot our i’s and cross our t’s, West Seattle rail could be dragged out longer than the Burke Gilman missing link.
Holy cow, the simple *infill station* of NE 130th and Graham, both of which are above ground, won’t be done until 2036! That is about 20 years just to build two simple stations! That isn’t about the paperwork, that is about money and priorities.
If it wasn’t for the money — if it wasn’t for the fact that we essentially tried to do all of this at once –then we could do a lot of it at the same time, and a lot faster. The BRT, the infill stations, Ballard to downtown, even West Seattle could be done in ten years. It is too late to change the financing, but it is crazy that the infill stations be built well after much more complicated projects. Those changes are cheap (we will have the money to do that sooner) and every Seattle City Council member (no matter their district) should be pushing hard to make that happen, instead of wasting our time suggesting that they have found the regulatory magic to fix all of our problems.
Another way to improve speed would be to tolerate more disruption.
Sure, the early subways got built fast, but most of that was cut and cover. Cut and cover to Ballard through SLU would be pretty disruptive.
South Bellevue had a dozen alternatives and the city council and Kemper Freeman delayed and obstructed the process, and that added a year to the schedule. By the same token, a simple one- or two-alternative analysis (plus the required no-build option) would make the EIS period shorter than expected, and save money which would itself expedite construction. The scheduled AA+EIS periods are based on the average of ST1 and ST2, and lengthened for ST3 because of experiences like South Bellevue and others with clashing factions. So if we can avoid all overstudying and obstruction, and make light rail a generally permitted use as Redmond has done, we can make a significant dent in the schedules.
I don’t know about those other cities, if they were delayed it was probably a different reason for each one. In any case, nobody is saying that speeding up EISes will make construction faster, they’re just allow it to start sooner. And obviously we’ll have to wait for construction money to come in, and saving planning time can only help a little with that. But having things “shovel ready” means you can start looking earlier for extra grant opportunities or other funding sources. The potential construction delays for Link are well known: a recession, loss of federal grants, tunneling problems, etc. I can’t believe a recession won’t happen in twenty-five years, especially given who’s in the White House and Congress. But we can’t predict when or how severe a recession might be, so all we can do is wait for it and adjust the schedule then.
“If an unanticipated problem occurs in the engineering — which is a particularly big risk when tunneling is involved — the lack of a “Plan B” (that can be hundreds of millions cheaper and get built a few years faster) can make the opening dates and budgets more in jeopardy. ”
That may be a valid point; I don’t know. I assume the EIS can add variations if they don’t think the AA covers enough risk contingencies. The AA is mostly about the choice of alignment; e.g., tunnel vs bridge.If a tunnel alignment proved infeasible they’d probably try to tweak it rather than switching to a bridge. So it’s one-half dozen to the other whether you study too many alternatives up front, vs if engineering or construction issues come up and require retroplanning. But we don’t know what the engineering or construction issues will be, so we can’t create alternatives for them beforehand. All we can do is create alternatives that might be useful later, or might not, and we may have to retroplan anyway. In any case, this seems like a quality-control issue rather than the number of AA alternatives, so I’d press ST about its whole process and how it will minimize the risk of unforeseen contingencies, rather than saying more AA alternatives is the ideal solution and ST must do it. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but we’d need the expertise of engineers, planners, and transit executives to answer that question.
I am concerned about the long delay between choosing the preferred alignment and construction. A lot can happen in ten or fifteen years, and decisions in 2018 may not be wise in 2028, or the political environment may change making a pro-urbanist design more acceptable. In any case, it will be a new generation of boardmembers and councilmembers, especially for the latest projects, and they may override some of the earlier decisions. And new conditions may make the plan inviable and require amending it.
But notice how the highest-priority and most-finished projects are scheduled first: Federal Way’s EIS is finished, and Tacoma has a large down payment from ST1 and 2. Building West Seattle before Ballard may be questionable but Ballard depends on DSTT2: a Ballard-Interbay stub would be ridiculous and unused. (“Transfer to the D, please.”) The last projects, the ones scheduled for 2041, are those that have the least support consensus: Issaquah Link and Tacoma 19th Avenue. I suspect there’s an underlying thought that if expenses run high or a recession occurs, a future board might cancel the last projects, replace them with something cheaper (e.g., Issaquah BRT), or refer them to voters to see whether they still want them or something else instead.
My key point is simply that promising to limit alternatives doesn’t really help a schedule at all. For any elected official to claim that is IMHO a political platitude that is based mostly on populist jargon that makes one appear to be more of an expert than they are, and is perpetrated because of the public’s gullibility to the jargon.
Most rail construction project delays occur because of permitting, funding, political and legal challenges — not the alternatives analysis. As I said, Johnson is delusional if he thinks that fewer alternatives in the AA is the best and biggest way to deliver projects faster, which is what he said in this podcast. I think that the public deserves to see a wide variety of alternatives studied, especially when there isn’t a dedicated right-of-way already reserved for the projects and limiting the alternatives does the public a disservice.
Johnson’s claim is also not based in recent history anywhere in the US. There have wcwn been plenty of AAs in the US with single alignments (and reserved rights-of-way and station sites owned by transit agencies, even) where variations were minor things like crossings and entrances, and those projects easily got delayed for other reasons.
Is it perhapst doublespeak for ST wanting to make judgment calls without a full public vetting? Consider that ST moved the station in Downtown Bellevue after the AA. The Shoreline South entrance moved after the AA, too.
I’m cool with current limited-alternative studies for Federal Way and Redmond. The alignments have already had years of study. Even then, the extensions have not seriously looked at larger impacts on inevitable system overcrowding closer to Downtown Seattle. It’s the notion of the expensive, last-minute-substitute, as-of-yet unstided SLU subway alignment being fast-tracked through an AA that bothers me the most.
I’ll even go as far to say that advocating fewer alternatives is actually an anti-planning thing to do.
“Most rail construction project delays occur because of permitting, funding, political and legal challenges — not the alternatives analysis. As I said, Johnson is delusional if he thinks that fewer alternatives in the AA is the best and biggest way to deliver projects faster, which is what he said in this podcast. I think that the public deserves to see a wide variety of alternatives studied, especially when there isn’t a dedicated right-of-way already reserved for the projects and limiting the alternatives does the public a disservice.”
He may not have articulated it clearly but it’s a comprehensive proposal to streamline the AA, EIS, and permitting together — the first half of the planning. ST has been on the drumbeat about that for a year. They say the biggest things that draw out this part of the schedule are too many alternatives, and city council foot-dragging and obstruction in permitting. So if we reverse those we can get the EIS done ahead of schedule. That gives the OPPORTUNITY to start construction sooner, to look for grants earlier, for more apartments to be built knowing where the station will be, etc. It can’t guarantee that construction will start early but it removes one of the imediments.
Also, the alternatives that can be streamlined or multiplied are in both the AA and the EIS — the same opportunities apply in both. Johnson may not have been clear that it’s not just the AA. What ST is trying to do is whittle out low-value reactionary alternatives, which take excess time to study. They’re asking the stakeholders — that means us, the politicians, business leaders, and the rest of the public — to settle our debates beforehand and come to as much agreement as we can about what we want. Then we can focus the AA and EIS on that, and skip all the dead-end alternatives and controversies, especially controversies late in the process. “One alternative” is an ideal, not an ultimatum. There will probably be cases like between us and the West Seattle activists where we want very different things. In that case we’ll try to put all the issues into our alternative and theirs. So for instance if we want elevated and TOD and pointing south, and they want a tunnel under the golf course, and somebody else wants P&Rs, we’ll try to get all the good things in one alternative and all the bad things in the other, rather than having three or four alternatives. And maybe we can talk to them and convince them that a tunnel is too expensive, and thousands of transit riders are more important than hundreds of golfers. Then maybe some of the worst elements can drop out before the AA and EIS are written. In the earliest projects part of the unreasonable demands and obstruction were just because people weren’t used to light rail or density and were thinking in a 1960s mindset. But as time goes on those arguments lessen and people accept the inevitable, especially with the rising housing prices and traffic and extraordinary weather events. At first we were arguing whether there would be any density and whether stations in neighborhood centers were important. Now we’re arguing about how big the density will be. That’s an achievement.
But again, Mike, you are missing the main point. Ballard Link won’t take 18 years because of the paperwork and planning. NE 130th and Graham Street stations won’t take 14 years because of the paperwork and planning. The only Seattle project that could be sped up by expedited planning is West Seattle. But West Seattle is also the most controversial. There will be folks willing to drag this through the courts if it isn’t underground (and it won’t be) just as there were folks willing to delay the Mercer Island station, or the Burke Gilman “missing link”. The more they try and speed up the paperwork, the more likely it is that opponents will find a reason to take them to court, and delay the thing. Or maybe, like Mercer Island, it just works out like a shakedown, which means that the projects that waiting for money (Ballard) have to wait even longer.
No, the problems are political and financial. Ballard Link (arguably the most important project) is going to take forever because of the money. The two *above ground* infill stations (Graham and NE 130th) — arguably the best values in the entire ST3 package — won’t be done earlier for political reasons. Telling folks that you have a wonderful, easy way to solve the problems by speeding up the paperwork is just nonsense, and a disservice to people who want to see a lot of this built sooner.
This is just the first step. There are other potential steps after it. There’s no reason not to do the low-hanging fruit and that may make other possibilities possible. There’s no benefit in keeping it not ready for a long period of time. We know the previous approach was problematic so let’s try a different approach.
“The only Seattle project that could be sped up by expedited planning is West Seattle.”
Not true. And I’m thinking about all Link projects, not just the Seattle ones.
“There will be folks willing to drag this through the courts if it isn’t underground (and it won’t be) just as there were folks willing to delay the Mercer Island station, or the Burke Gilman “missing link”. The more they try and speed up the paperwork, the more likely it is that opponents will find a reason to take them to court, and delay the thing. Or maybe, like Mercer Island, it just works out like a shakedown, which means that the projects that waiting for money (Ballard) have to wait even longer.”
You’re assuming things that haven’t happened yet and may or may not happen. Wew won’t know until ST makes proposals and gets feedback how different it will be from the previous process, or whether they’ll succeed in trimming it down, or what the reactions of others will be and how strong. We certainly don’t know how many lawsuits will be filed unless you’ve got a friend who’s their lawyer.
The Mercer Island Shake down had extenuating circumstances because of the MOU with the HOV lanes. Mercer island also has way more money to fight ST. West Seattle is going to get RailRoaded into above ground station.
Ross, I like how you’ve pointed out that the schedule is not limited by the AA or even permitting. Elected officials need to quit saying that limiting alternatives is what we must do as the best way to build ST projects faster because it has no basis in history. ST3 schedule is long because of project costs and financing, and not permitting and studies.
Ian’s mention of Mercer Island further makes my point. Link on Mercer Island consists one one basic alignment and one general station location. Still, it was the last MOU that got resolved so that the project could begin.
“ST3 schedule is long because of project costs and financing, and not permitting and studies.”
It’s both! And it’s other things too. This is the one we can most easily solve. All these factors are independent of each other, so let’s do the ones we can most easily do. As your parents said, it’s better to get your homework done right away than to leave it to the last minute.
Now wait, ST is right. The is not that construction costs dwarf planning costs, but that ST gets a certain amount of money every year and can apply it to different things. The amount is constant relative to changes in the economy (which we can’t predict), so a million dollars in planning one year is equal to a million dollars in construction another year. I’m thinking about all ST3 projects not just Seattle as I said, but if we focus on Seattle, then getting the planning done a year or two early would allow West Seattle to start a year or two early, and thus finish a year or two early. (The idea that having only one alternative would lead to delays afterward is just speculation. It may or it may not.) if West Seattle finishes early then DSTT2 and Ballard can start early, because the money that was budgeted for planning will be available for it. That’s called saving money and it’s generally considered to be a good thing. Thus there’s a chain reaction: each project getting pushed ahead to fill the space. Or if you really want to be proactive, you can push ST to put 130th Station or Graham Station into the space, if you think they’re more important than DSTT2 and Ballard (which I’m dubious about but it’s a possibility; all it takes is the board changing its mind, which it might be more open to if this extra float materializes).
From my reading, Glenn, New York’s first subway was pretty much blasted into existence by fact that nobody could walk up and down Broadway at rush hour. Just please don’t get into the habit ofr suggesting in any way that disruption is a positive thing.
New York’s first el train was because of carriage traffic jams or muddy streets or something. The subways came when they got tired of the elevated tracks, or perhaps a company built a new line.
Notice, Mike, that I never said that all those people were jammed in a gridlocked pedestrian mall paved with something else. So fact of real pavement conditions definitely added a few kilotons to the blast.
Train would also have had bike racks, except that since the bicycle lobby had not yet lobbied pavement into being, heavy standing loads would’ve rather had seat-hogs and monkeys and penguins that average bike hanging by the aisle.
Under “precursors” you can also see inspiration for Elon Musk’s idea for high speed transit. However, plan to use the same fan that pushed to Beach subway to run a vacuum pump for the little car only worked in an underground tunnel, because clear plastic hadn’t been invented yet.
Mayor Greg Nickels really shouldn’t have called in sick that day.
Martin H. Duke
I was Listening to your First Hill Station plea and was wondering if you had ever considered moving the transfer station at the ID. If you peal the Bellevue Line off at Junkins Park Station travel up to Capitol hill station, with your new station on first hill, use the existing tunnel under I-5 and us the station under the new convention center and expand it to be you main transfer station instead of west lake station and then have the line continue into SLU and up inter bay.
That’s not a terrible idea, but the East Link alignment is already under construction and there is zero chance of revisions, especially major ones like that.
A Judkins Park – First Hill – Cap Hill – SLU is an excellent corridor, but I’d counter one of the big benefits of the actual East Link corridor is a (relatively) easy transfer to Bellevue/Redmond for people coming in on Sounder or the Ferries. Even as a pure hypothetical, I’d prefer the existing alignment.
I have a several coworkers to who either take a ferry (from Bainbridge and Vashon) or Link from the RV into downtown, and then transfer to the 550 to get to Bellevue. It’s well over an hour each way, so not many people do this, but with East Link it should be a much more attractive option for many people. Same for my coworkers who take the bus from Kent or Auburn – taking the 550 to catch the South Sounder is not an option b/c the bus isn’t reliable enough transfer to Sounder, but with Link’s reliability it becomes much more reasonable to work on the East Side and take the Sounder home after work.
I’d agree that the bones of East Link can’t be changed at this point.
The question that concerns me is more about how the three lines would operate with various alignments in a way that eases overcrowding and minimizes train delay and minimizes transferring hassles. ST has not been very revealing on what kinds of overcrowding, train delays or transfer hassles that we’re looking at. Generally, the topic of planning for overcrowding is not raised by elected officials, ST management and even several people on this blog. However, it’s already a problem and easily could be a huge issue!
For example, if the current DSTT platforms would get too overcrowded because the new tunnel is further from Downtown, the new tunnel should be close to Fifth Avenue to relieve the overcrowding. The Green Line proposal also is forecasted to have huge demand between SLU and Westlake, and it’s heavier than the frequency of Green Line trains in the Rainier Valley can handle. There is also the capacity of the actual station platforms as well as escalators, elevators and even TVMs and Orca readers in places like Westlake.
A second related issue is with transferring, loads and branching. Quck schematics of transfer stations were done for ST3, but these are fraught with potential problems as design moves further along. For example, if the IDC transfer is problematic, ST should reasonably consider branching East Link (and probably Rainier Valley) trains into both tunnels. No one is publicly debating making station modifications to facilitate transfers at Wilburton or at South Main in Bellevue either in light of ST3 getting approved either — and a lack of multiple platforms for transfers at this station makes branching a more compelling operations strategy for East Link.
We don’t know the magnitude of the overcrowding problem or the impacts of combining various alternative alignments on both train operations and on the end-to-end rider experience (including getting from station platforms to the street). Until we can see things from the way that the rail system will work on a daily basis, we can’t really do very good planning.
Elected officials and the public get giddy about building things and putting lines on maps. I think we need to focus more attention about how they get used because after the first week of opening, that’s mostly what we’re going to care about..
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