Highway 99 Tunnel and Seattle skyline

This is an open thread.

38 Replies to “News Roundup: Resolutely Pro-Housing”

  1. I think China as an economic machine is incredibly interesting. Has any country in history ever pulled so many people out of poverty and into (relative) prosperity so quickly? It’s mind boggling. They have been very disciplined in sticking with their plan. I can’t see any scenario where China won’t be the world’s economic powerhouse going forward.

    Who would have thought 30 years ago they would become the global leaders in alternative/renewable fuels, advanced transportation technologies, and infrastructure development?

    1. Equally, the rapid and seemingly unstoppable decline of the US as a moral and financial leader is breathtaking to watch from both inside and out.

      1. Not sarcastic, but a straight question, Charles. Decline from what level, starting when, and viewed from where?


    2. Only anybody who reads history, Felsen. I forget what percentage of centuries China has been the world’s most advanced economy. Including militarily.

      But much more commercial. I think that by their calculations, the last five hundred years have been a minor downturn.

      Predictable quarrels and turf-wars in their otherwise spectacular civil service, distracting attention from the completely unforeseeable technical pull-ahead of the world’s worst pest-hole (whatever Chinese first character is even worse than “S”, referring to pictogram for “Europe.”

      But…well, not exactly news, but Let’s Do The Numbers.

      Mark Dublin

    3. The technology wasn’t available to do it until the last century. Everything was human-powered and animal-powered until the sixteenth century, and then the fossil-fuel age enabled a minority to produce the food for everyone and cities to grow above six stories (with elevators and telephones to bridge the gap between the upper floors and the world outside). Then there’s government inertia and a variety of both good and bad visions of what goals the countries are working towards. Only China has been able to make such a large-scale advancement in urbanization, renewable energy, and anti-poverty, and even then it has many flaws and shortcomings.

      But I would also look at northern Europe, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan. After WWII and the 1970s oil-price shock, Europe and the US went in opposite directions. Germany rebuilt after the war in dense walkable clusters with a transit-first approach, and a social safety net which they partly pioneered (Bismarck created the first universal health insurance in the 1880s). Later the Netherlands and the Nordic countries more visiblly followed suit (as they were already doing in some ways). E.g., the Netherlands was headed toward a Los Angeles future but in the 1970s it turned against car-and-parking centrism because of children car-collision deaths, and that lead to the rise of the bicycle infrastucture and ridership and a better transit network. All this — but focusing on the transit and land use aspects — made their societies more resiliant: they no longer had to worry as much about foreign oil prices, and the infrastructure helped sustain the countries through the 2008 depression and the euro crisis. In contrast, the US went through a half-century of idealizing Bewitched-type car-dependent greenfield cul-de-sac subdivisions — requiring high energy inputs just to maintain it, as well as stigmatizing people who couldn’t afford it or chose to remain in the cities (or weren’t the right ethnic group and were thus discriminated against). So the transformation of Europe is significant too, even if it’s not as stark as China because it started at a higher economic and technological level.

      And I hear similar things about Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore, although my knowledge of them is more limited. A friend who lived in Taipei says it’s very dense and walkable, and I read there’s a high-speed rail line across the entire country connecting all the major cities. Of course the small size of the country makes that feasible for a single line taking a couple hours from end to end, but I imagine it’s geographically akin to Washington’s I-5 corridor.

      “Who would have thought 30 years ago they would become the global leaders in alternative/renewable fuels, advanced transportation technologies, and infrastructure development?”

      True, but a couple things are obvious in retrospect. The mega rise in car use, coal production, and dam-displacement projects led to horrible air-pollution problems. The US and Europe had that earlier but we’ve forgotten about it: the smog in London and industrial cities, the polluted Puget Sound and other rivers — all this generated a consensus to clean it up and become more sustainable. China is in the middle of that curve. (And the US is backsliding to some extent, as we refuse to make the large investments we did in the mid 20th century, and China is doing now.)

      Second, the US retreat from global leadership. I don’t know how predictable that was. Was a Trump-like figure and a backlash on environmental goals and trade agreements inevitable? And if so, will it reverse longer-term, or fall into a stalemate where we muddle along? I don’t know. I just wish all countries had as good goals as Europe and were as successful at them as China.

      1. The Nordic ascendance was equally incredible…from the poorest corner of Europe (perpetually in fear of starvation), those nations went from the brink to our planet’s wealthiest in half a century, plus or minus. One could argue that transformation had more “heart” as well, since it also represents a huge leap forward for democracy and human rights (although, not starving to death is probably the best human right of all). The difference is the scale of the transformation…a few million compared to more than half way to a billion. A stable and prosperous China is an amazing blessing for them and everyone else on the planet.

      2. Of all the world’s nations, I think the United States is the one with the least understanding of how the world really works. Probably because we haven’t been here anywhere near long enough to get a feel for it.

        Vladimir Putin could be world version of a moderate US Republican. But he’d still have launch on warning contingency for next time anything German with a cannon on the turret or a war-head in its nose crosses the longitude of Ukraine’s western border headed east. Been there. Done that. Over ten thousand years, gets old, doesn’t it?

        And look up “Rape of Nanking” and you’ll get an idea why that first missile went over Japan. And also China’s reminder, as if it needed one: “If its name was Los Angeles instead of Nanking, wouldn’t your wall be as exactly as beautiful as the one we call North Korea?”

        And am still waiting for Kim to remind us: “Well, who else had to nuke them in self-defense? And they didn’t rape anybody in America! For the last ten thousand years, not even once!”

        The world’s take on us? “Religion and every other ideology, a tear-off velcro badge on a militiaman’s coat. ‘Til you’ve been burned and leveled from same direction for at least five times in ten centuries- you’re not even here yet.

        Let alone been in a war. Except for that rally bad one that caused all those monuments. That you still haven’t settled yet. Two centuries? Just warm-up time! Hope you’ve still got a lot of granite and chisels left!”


  2. In regards to California High Speed Rail cost overruns being attributed to utility relocation and land acquisition costs, that sounds a lot like ST’s explanation for the $0.5 billion cost increase on Lynnwood Link.

    While real estate is always hard to predict, why are preliminary cost estimates coming in so far off on utility relocation? We have decades of experience on this and you would think engineers could come in a bit closer on their initial cost estimation.

    1. I saw the parallels too. Land prices, and a Santa Claus bonanza of “environmental mitigations” for the surrounding communities.

      Although one difference is that Santa brings presents voluntarily, rather than under threat of lawsuits and permit denials if he doesn’t. (“The right to fly over this neighborhood’s airspace is subject to negotiation.”)

    2. Again, the budget woes for Lynnwood Link are in the $780 million range. I’ve commented on this previously but I keep seeing this widely reported $500M which is inaccurate.

      1. Tlsgwm, I don’t remember your posts congratulating Sound Transit first on the billion dollar under-bids on U-Link and Northgate Link and the subsequent delivery of both tunneling projects under the lowered bids.

        I’ll be the first to admit that they got a hell of a deal on those tunneling jobs because of the Great Recession (and because Brenda is the Little TBM That Could). Perhaps you might be willing to admit that the economy is a wee bit more on the Animal Spirits side now?

      2. Richard Bullington. There were no such billion-dollar underbids. I have the figures for ST contracts U220, U 230 and N125 and would be glad to go over those numbers if you’d like.

  3. Seattle-area rents drop significantly ($) for first time this decade as new apartments sit empty. Watch for anti-housing “concerned neighbor” groups to pivot from saying “more housing won’t make rents cheaper” to “these falling rents prove we don’t need more housing.”

    This has already happened in my neighborhood’s Nextdoor forum.

    1. The thing is, this drop may just be a short-term blip and they’ll start rising again. It is the middle of winter which is traditionally the lowest period of home-searching, as people wait until the holidays are over and it warms up. We mustn’t say “The housing crisis is over” and then it reverses a few months later. Construction stopped between 2008 and 2011 because of the recession. In 2011 demand came back and rents started rising again, In 2012 people said that year’s wave of new-apartment openings would saturate demand and stop runaway rent increases. They said the same thing in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, Notice a pattern? If we had followed the growth-skeptics’ advice those years and stopped construction or not upzoned, the shortage would be worse now and the rents higher. As they said in the Revolution, don’t believe it until you see the whites of their eyes. We need more than a year of a sustained drop in demand/prices before we can be sure it’s a definitive trend we can safely base policy on.

      1. Agreed on all points. This small drop brings us back to where we were maybe at the beginning of last year. Most of the people who have been priced out over the past five years are still priced out. Prices are still higher than they were when the original HALA report was released. The need for building more housing so that we have enough for people moving in and for people who lived here a few years ago has not gone away. But the second this news comes out, we see calls to maybe pause and rethink the HALA upzone.

      2. Given the current state of the economy in Seattle, I highly doubt that prices are going to decline substantially (to the level of 5 years ago). There has been a large shortage of apartments. New construction may have finally caught up with demand, which means that the market will likely reach an equilibrium where there is enough supply to meet demand.

        It’s possible that prices will decline a bit, but the best we can realistically hope for in the current economy (outside of specific efforts to build affordable housing) is that prices stabilize. For prices to decline tens of percent, you’d need a large oversupply caused by too much construction, which is likely not going to happen without being triggered by a pull back of the economy (which would have many other negatives).

      3. Also the outside capital (Wall Street / foreign investors, big REITs) might be starting to look at other US cities for housing development. Seattle had a good run and those investors have made good money, but it is always about the next place to build. The local developers don’t have the infrastructure to build in other cities, but they might ratchet back their pace of construction. Rents will go back up at some point.

        Cities like Denver and Nashville where housing was quite cheap are now suddenly places where developers can make money on apartments, perhaps easier than in Seattle, because land is starting to get scarce in areas convenient to jobs and amenities.

        Plus, wherever Amazon HQ2 lands is going to see a feeding frenzy of land purchases.

      4. Lots of new buildings have just come “on line”. While pre-purchasing condos isn’t unusual pre-renting is virtually unheard of; probably because of the typically short term nature of the beast. Since all these new buildings are starting out with zero occupancy it’s skewing the average on available units. How many of you out there just had your landlord call to tell you your rent just dropped 20%? 10%? 5%? On the up side, fewer people are getting told their rent is going up… again. Once the units start to fill, and they will, the teaser rates will disappear. What you end up with is more expensive, albeit nicer units than what was replaced. If you’re lucky the total number has increased enough to keep pace with demand. Bottom line, rents are going to go up to match the increased wages of high tech workers. Service workers and folks with fixed income need not apply.

      5. “The local developers … might ratchet back their pace of construction”

        Or they might bid on lots they’re being priced out of by wealthier national developers.

        Bernie is right about the effect of new buildings: it takes months to lease hundreds new units available all at once. Rent is soft during that period but then returns to its previous stage. Whether it goes “up” significantly after that depends on how much remaining demand there is, and whether a critical mass of those are rich. enough to bid up the rents to get exactly what they want..

  4. I would add today’s interesting news tidbit about the pent-up demand for the E-BART service to Antioch. It will be interesting to see the resulting ridership numbers once this opens.


    For reference background, the combined population of Antioch, Oakley and Brentwood is about 210,000 (with Pittsburg and other nearby unincorporated areas the total is about 300,000). After studying options to serve the area by sharing rail with existing railroads (like Sounder), their leaders decided that the best long-term solution was to instead build and operate an exclusive DMU track in the Route 4 freeway median. A BART extension further east than far west Pittsburg had been debated for decades (noting that the area was always part of the original BART district) but was never built because it was considered too expensive.

    I think that the capability of DMU to feed high-frequency rail transit lines is a good rail service strategy that is always available and should be given more analysis in our region. I can’t help but wonder how extensive our rail network could have been had we committed to lower-cost DMU strategies for the areas outside of North King in ST3.

    1. I would add that they had already committed to widen State Route 4 as well as pay for E-BART anyway, so designing for the median operations strategy and providing the needed additional right-of-way wasn’t ultimately that complicated.

    2. I’m certainly a fan of DMUs, but I think they are most relevant in places with lots of disused/underused but intact rail rights of way. e.g. Lots of midwestern cities, although most of them don’t care. I think the main use case here would be Sounder North, which, last time I looked, could comfortably fit all its riders onto a two- or three-car DMU consist.

      1. The 2017 3Q ridership report shows
        Sounder Commuter Rail Average Weekday Boardings by Corridor as follows:

        Sounder North – 1,750
        Sounder South – 15,696

      2. Sounder North ridership is depressed because of missing the population center (Lynnwood), the single track that limits the number of passenger+freight trains, and the frequent mudslides that close the line and discourage passengers even after it starts running again. DMUs may be a more economical way to serve the corridor, but ridership is dampened by these other factors that a different kind of train won’t help.

    3. A DMU spur may be a good fit for the Ortig project, as a feeder for South Sounder. I think the ST3 project documents specifically call that out as an option for the study (ST3 simply funds a study, I believe)

      Oddly, Bing maps actually does a much better job than Google maps for showing where there are existing rail lines. So if you want to be an armchair planner for DMU lines, that’s a good place to start.

    4. DMUs have been held back because of federal regulations that required battleship-heavy passenger trains that could withstand a collision with freight trains. The rest of the world just seeks to avoid those collisions by building more passenger-priority tracks to minimize simultaneous passenger/freignt use. The US restrictions have been relaxed in the past few years, and that’s part of the impetus for fully implementing Positive Train Control because that would make the DMU restrictions less important.

      DMUs have been suggested in Western Washington for Auburn-Black Diamond-Maple Valley, Orting-Puyallup (or wherever the track meets Sounder), and Everett-Bellingham. There are also a lot of other areas where DMUs might be feasible but it hasn’t been studied because of the historical restrictions. DMUs are supposedly much less expensive than Sounder-like lines, and some of them are so clean-cut and swooshy they look like light rail (“I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”), so if we took a new look at where inexpensive DMUs might theoretically be feasible, it opens up possibilities throughout the exurbs and around state. If, of course, the railroads didn’t charge monopoly prices for time slots, and if the state were interested in prioritizing it. But still it’s worth a map and an evaluation of which corridors might have what ridership at what cost. You know, the same thing we’re doing for the HSR corridor because the tech moguls want it.

  5. Rumor in the news is that the banks are becoming more cautious giving out construction loans because the rent rise seems to be leveling off. With less large projects, ADU, DADU reform is even more important.

    1. Large apartment buildings, small apartment buildings, ADus, and duplexes/row houses are somewhat different markets, so what applies to a large Wall Street-financed apartment building isn’t necessarily identical to these other types of buildings and loans. Large-building investors have an especially high expectation for a large fast return, and the size of the project makes it a bigger risk (a larger loan to lose), there are fewer block-sized lots available, permitting and design review may be more difficult, etc. I’m reminded of an annual conference I attend that went from 200 people to 1,500 people in ten years, and is now at 3,000+ in the second ten. The larger you get, the fewer venues can fit you, and the higher the cost. We went from university conference facilities and one hotel to basically convention centers and a half-dozen hotels, although not yet as large as filling WSCC or Moscone.Large apartment buildings are somewhat analagous. Yes, we should allow ADUs everywhere as Vancouver does. Even if it can’t solve the housing crisis on its own, even if only a small fraction of lots would be built, at least it gives renters more choices in density and price points, and homeowners more flexibility in what to do with their land. We’ve neglected the “missing middle” — everything between single-family houses and six-story apartment buildings, with the small exception of townhouses in a few areas.

  6. The New York Times has a great article about a proposed plan for congestion pricing in Lower/Midtown Manhatten: https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/01/19/us/ap-us-xgr-manhattan-tolls.html

    Summary: everybody pays (cars, trucks, Uber included), but it effects only Manhattan (south of Central Park), while drivers passing through Manhattan without getting off the highway don’t have to pay. Estimated toll charges: $11.52/car per day, $25/truck per day, $2-5/one-way ride on Uber/Lyft. Local residents of the congestion zone would not be exempt (if they can afford the parking, they can afford the tolls).

    Overall, it sounds like a great idea.

    1. Should also mention that the money raised would go straight into improving the NYC buses and subways.

  7. Bravo, Tacoma News Tribune, for pointing out how silly it is to park in the planting strip between your driveway and the street!

    What is Seattle’s laws regarding that, and can we pick up the enforcement?

  8. Bruce, I just wanted to say things for the thoroughness of your news roundups. They are fantastic.

  9. Danny Westneat is on the bandwagon for saving the Battery Street Tunnel. The City has to pay for the greater costs for rubble disposal, though.

    On that topic, has anyone wondered how they propose to turn the trucks around ON THE VIADUCT when they’re loading rubble for disposal? I expect that may be part of the plan in order to load them about level with where they’ll be dumped. Otherwise they’re going to have the trucks climbing up from Alaskan Way to Western to access the tunnel portal. Not to mention, how are they going to get the stuff INTO the tunnel and then the truck OUT OF it. You for sure can’t turn one of those big rigs around in just two laned.

    I guess they’d use conveyor belt, but this stuff is going to be nasty, with rebar sticking out in every direction. Yuk!

    It seems to me like it would be WAY cheaper to declare the existing parking under the viaduct a two way truckway, and dump the stuff into barges just south of Coleman Dock, like they did the spoils from the tunnel. No hills!

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