5 Questions About the Streetcar Halt


Yesterday, Mayor Durkan suspended almost all work on the Center City Connector (CCC) Streetcar that would join the First Hill and South Lake Union lines using dedicated lanes on First Avenue. The trigger was a jump in the cost estimate from $177m to over $200m, partly due to estimation “errors” and partly because costs for all construction projects are skyrocketing in the current economy. This is a setback for Downtown and its people-carrying capacity, obviously, but there are too many unknowns to really understand the long-range implications.

  1. What is the impact on FTA funding? Seattle expected a total of $75m from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for this project, and canceling it would forfeit this money. If this affects FTA awards for other transit projects like Madison BRT, as streetcar boosters warn, then it will be one of the more disastrous decisions in Seattle’s transportation history.
  2. Is this a pause or a cancellation? The Deputy Mayor’s language clearly describes a mere pause to get a handle on costs by the June 19th project review. However, advocates on both sides reasonably see this as a prelude to killing it altogether. If it is just a short delay, this might have salutary effects. Construction would have coincided with the city’s period of maximum constraint, where the viaduct comes down, Convention Place Station closes, and so on. Although CCC will be an efficient way to move people in the long run, a slip short enough to stay on the FTA’s good side might allow Seattle to stagger the impact of multiple projects.
  3. Where does the money go? Transit-oriented streetcar opponents mostly argue that the same amount of money would achieve much better outcomes if spent on buses. This is a great test of that hypothesis. There is now an extra $100m, minus the continuing utility work and costs to exercise contract cancellation options, in the transportation account. Can it go to more bus hours, which is hard to do with Metro’s capacity limits and leaves no legacy after it’s spent? Could we build more rapid bus corridors? Do the currently planned bus corridors need more money because of escalating costs? Or will the money be siphoned off to tackle homelessness, provide tax relief, or do something else unrelated to transit?
  4. What would have paid for the overruns? If the streetcar never opens, we will never get the answer to this. But the $23m shortfall would have been filled from something, and this is the converse question to #3.
  5. How will we move through downtown? A lot of Seattle’s job and residential growth is happening in greater downtown. ST3, when built out, will provide the capacity to move about 36,000 people per hour* through the two tunnel lines. That’s a colossal number of people — but it may not even absorb the growth in jobs in that area over the next few decades. Third Avenue is near its bus capacity. Although One Center City may yet piece together some right of way, the CCC’s dedicated chunk of First Avenue would have been very useful for moving people efficiently. Redistributing resources to bus routes that go further into the neighborhoods has its merits, but doesn’t solve the problem of the city’s most important bottleneck.

* assuming 60 trains per hour and 600 people per train on the five approaches to downtown.

News Roundup: Parking Lots Disappearing

Lovely residential street in Seattle.

This is an open thread.

A Mariners Ticket is a Link Fare, Through June 3rd

Disembarking at Stadium Station

Thanks to a sponsorship deal with the Mariners, for the first two months of the season both digital and printed baseball tickets also serve as a valid Link fare. Until June 3rd, riders can present the ticket for that day’s home game to fare enforcement up to 3 hours before first pitch (typically 1:10 or 7:10) and through the end of the day.

To further eliminate excuses for skipping the train, Uber is discounting rides to the two Link terminal stations (UW and Angle Lake). Even though Sounder and ST Express aren’t included in the deal, a broad segment of the region now has an inexpensive means of avoiding game traffic entirely.

ST spokesperson Kimberly Reason says that the arrangement with the Mariners is a pilot. The finance staff estimated the agency makes about 24 cents per Mariners attendee (whether or not they take the train). At the end of the pilot, the team will write a check based on the attendance over the entire period.

A fare-free transit system isn’t good for most transit riders until other revenue streams fund transit service beyond the point of diminishing returns. However, an ideal (but unenforceable) framework would charge regular users a flat fee to fund the system while letting everyone use the system occasionally for free. This gives more people a stake in the system, makes the marginal cost of riding zero, and eliminates the friction of handling fares from those infrequent users.

Deals like this one provide small glimpses of that ideal system. By (in effect) giving Sound Transit a cut of baseball ticket revenue, a large number of novice riders don’t have to mess with fares and have strong incentives to ride. Let’s hope it makes enough of a measurable difference that all parties decide to continue the experiment.

Seattle Edging Closer to Implementing Impact Fees

Credit: SDOT

With over a quarter of blocks missing sidewalks and a backlog of street projects, the city is contemplating adopting a transportation impact fee as a way to help pay for new infrastructure needed to handle growth.

Last week during a meeting of the Seattle Sustainability and Transportation Committee, Councilmember Mike O’Brien instructed city staff to begin developing a transportation impact fee schedule for these one-time charges paid by new development.

Impact fees were authorized by the 1990 Growth Management Act, and today most urban jurisdictions have adopted some kind of impact fees for roads or parks. The City of Sammamish has adopted some of the highest transportation impact fees, charging new single-family homes close to $15,000.

Seattle has considered impact fees for years. A 2015 staff report recommended further study of park and transportation impact fees, but competing priorities delayed the work. Councilmembers sitting on the Sustainability and Transportation Committee received an update on the progress last week.

These funds must be used within ten years of collection and spent on projects that provide capacity for future growth. Impact fees cannot be used to pay for existing deficiencies, but they can be used for transit or greenway projects, according to Kendra Breiland, a consultant from the firm Fehr and Peers.

“When you start thinking through all these parameters, many cities have started moving towards recognizing they can spend these funds not just on those traditional auto capacity projects, but we can spend them on much more multimodal projects,” Breiland told the committee.

She said transit projects could include off-board fare payment, transit signal priority, rapid ride corridors, in-lane bus stops or curb bulbs.

Continue reading “Seattle Edging Closer to Implementing Impact Fees”

Everett Transit Wants Frequent Routes

Projected transit frequency during peak hours, 2040 (Everett Transit)

Everett Transit has released its Draft Long-Range Plan, which proposes a huge increase in frequent service by 2040 to feed into Link and Swift. Earlier network concepts were refined down to two ideas: coverage or frequency, and the latter won out in the minds of Everett’s planners. During peak hours, a handful of routes would have frequencies of up to 15-20 minutes, including corridors that have poor service today or don’t exist yet. Feedback is being accepted until March 30 via an online survey and a final plan is planned to be adopted in April.

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Pushing to be Included in ST3

Preparing for high capacity transit along SR 522, Kenmore established a Transit Oriented Development district steps from the existing Metro Park and Ride. Credit: Lizz Giordano

This post is part of a STB series examining how suburban cities are preparing for light rail. Read the intro post here and how planning has reshaped Redmond’s urban form to leverage light rail.

Years before many other Sound Transit 3 projects even begin construction, bus rapid transit will be moving commuters along SR 522 between Woodinville and the future Shoreline light rail station at 145th St.

The BRT project, one of the early deliverables in ST3 and anticipated to open in 2024, might not have materialized without a push from residents and elected officials along the corridor. Not wanting to be left out of the third phase of transit expansion, a coalition from Woodinville, Bothell, Kenmore, Lake Forest Park and Shoreline attended Sound Transit meetings asking for better transit options.

“We weren’t slated to get anything out of ST3. We were not on Sound Transit’s radar at all,” said Mark Abersold, a resident of Kenmore who joined the five-city coalition. “We eventually want light rail in Kenmore, so we campaigned to get increased bus service and a light rail study.”

Abersold said it was Kenmore’s Mayor, David Baker, and city staff who recruited residents and nearby cities to join the BRT campaign.

“We knew Kenmore all by itself wouldn’t be a loud enough voice, so the city took the lead and created a coalition of five cities,” said Rob Karlinsey, Kenmore’s city manager.

“We got a big win out of ST3,” Baker added.

Continue reading “Pushing to be Included in ST3”

Tapping ORCA Will Soon Get Less Confusing

Video by Welwyn22

For those of you who, like me, have been caught miscounting taps before boarding Link Light Rail or Sounder, Sound Transit is going to make the system more user-friendly. Per ST spokesperson Kimberly Reason, a change to the “tap off” tone, to make it unique from the “tap on” tone, is in the works. However, there is no timeline yet for when the change will happen. The change is in the work queue for ST’s information technology vendor.

It will still be possible to forget to tap at all, and get warned and given a $124 citation even if you have a monthly pass covering the highest possible fare for the ride. State law sets the minimum fine.

Nor is there any plan to deal with the regressiveness of the flat $124 ticket. That fine still seems out of proportion for riders with limited financial means who have already paid $36 for a monthly Regional Reduced Fare Permit ORCA pass or $54 for a youth or LIFT monthly pass. Even high school students with free unlimited monthly passes on a youth ORCA card could be cited. I got to talk briefly with a fare enforcement officer, and he confirmed that even students with passes that are free to the student get warned and could get the $124 citation.

The state sets the minimum fine (which is slightly more than enough to cover court administrative costs when the fine actually gets paid), but Sound Transit could choose to increase the number of warnings for riders in different fare groups, or at least do so for full passholders or some groups of reduced-fare riders, or simply honor full passes.

Continue reading “Tapping ORCA Will Soon Get Less Confusing”

High speed rail economic study makes exaggerated claims

High Speed Rail in Taiwan (Image: jiadoldol)

Last week in Vancouver BC, Washington Governor Jay Inslee talked up how “the convenience of a one-hour trip between Vancouver and Seattle would create countless opportunities for people in both B.C. and Washington”. He cited an economic analysis that a high-speed rail link between the two cities could create up to 200,000 jobs and $300 billion in increased economic output annually. Inslee has characterized this as a 20:1 return. How seriously should we take these claims?

The economic analysis, funded by Microsoft and the Washington Building Trades, was prepared as an addendum to a study by WSDOT of HSR costs and ridership. It was released in January, a month after the main report. The analysis estimates 38,000 jobs will be created, directly and indirectly, during construction. More speculatively, the authors claim up to another 160,000 jobs will be created through agglomeration effects, effectively growing the Seattle and Vancouver urban area economies by reducing travel times from outlying cities. While agglomeration effects are a real phenomenon, the size of the claimed effects is preposterous. The reader is asked to believe that about sixty jobs can be created for every daily rider on the train. Continue reading “High speed rail economic study makes exaggerated claims”

News Roundup: Another Helpful Debunking

Elliott Bay panorama from Columbia Center

This is an open thread.

Monorail Survey Hints at Potential Improvements

Artist rendering of new Westlake Monorail Station

Seattle Center and the Seattle Monorail have a survey in the field:

With plans underway for renovating KeyArena and bringing a new NHL hockey franchise to Seattle, Seattle Center and Seattle Monorail Services are planning ahead by exploring how to make it easier to use the monorail to travel to and from Seattle Center and connect to Link Light Rail.

With One Center City (possibly?) on the horizon and an NHL franchise looking likely at a rebuilt Key Arena, many people are looking to Seattle’s oldest grade-separate transit system, the 1962 World’s Fair Monorail, to evolve from a tourist curiosity to a legitimate piece of transit infrastructure.

Key Arena will re-open in the early 2020s, but the arena’s light rail station won’t open until the mid-2030s. That leaves a 10-15 year gap of concerts and sporting events that could benefit from improved mobility.

ORCA support (which we advocated for), the bare minimum for integration into the transit network, is coming in “spring of 2019.”  Improved access to the station and a re-design to allow direct access from the street (as opposed to the Westlake Center Food Court) are also under consideration:

A Bell St. station and a doubling of frequency (also possible, given enough funding) would be icing on the cake.

Take the survey and let the Seattle Center and Monorail folks know what you think.

Metro and SDOT Want Feedback on Rainier RapidRide

KCM New Flyer XT60 4554
KCM New Flyer XT60 4554 by wings777 in the STB Flickr pool

Route 7, one of the most popular bus lines in the city, is getting a RapidRide makeover in 2021.  Metro and SDOT are kicking off the public process for the Rainier Valley line with an online open house through April 8.

10,800 weekday riders make the 7 the 5th busiest Metro route, behind RapidRide lines C, D, and E and the RapidRide-in-waiting Route 40.  Rainier Avenue is also a very dangerous street for pedestrians, and bicycle facilities are non-existent.  And while the buses themselves come fairly frequently, the also get stuck in traffic and bunching is common. All of which is to say there’s plenty of room for improvement here.

Chart comparing crashes on Aurora, Lake City, and Rainier Ave.
Crashes on Rainier Avenue are abnormally high

The open house materials break the 7-mile route into four segments:

  • Chinatown to Mount Baker, which includes Jackson Street along with the widest, straightest, northernmost section of Rainier Ave. Improvements here could include a Business Access and Transit (BAT) lane for bus priority or a bike lane, but not both.
  • Mt. Baker to Columbia City on Rainier Ave., which would continue to be a 4- or 5- lane general purpose traffic street
  • Columbia City to Rainier Beach on Rainier Ave., where a BAT lane is already planned
  • Downtown Rainier Beach to its light rail station on S. Henderson St., which could see protective buffer added to the bike lanes at a cost of some parking spots

Pedestrian/greenway crossings would be added throughout the route.  A few stops would be consolidated and the remaining ones would be upgraded to RapidRide standards.

Bike access would be via a “parallel” neighborhood greenway, which is unfortunate — there really is no true parallel street to Rainier Ave.  The materials include a lengthy note explaining why bikes and transit are not both feasible in the narrow section of Rainier between I-90 and Mt. Baker.  It stinks, as ever, that bikes and transit have to be pitted against one another, but as you can see on the right an unbuffered bike lane hugging a bus lane would not be a pleasant experience.

Finally, Metro is undecided about the tail end of the route at Prentice St.  Read our previous takes from 2011 and 2014 if you want to go deep on some ideas for what to do there.

The survey ends April 8.

Update: clarified SDOT’s involvement in the project

Residents Think Big During Early Scoping

The Advisory Group listens as Sound Transit presents comments received during early scoping for the West Seattle and Ballard Link Extension. Credit: Lizz Giordano

Residents are thinking big, and some of the proposals Sound Transit received during the early scoping period for the West Seattle Ballard Link Extension (WSBLE) could strain the ST3 budget.

ST presented the comments during a meeting of the WSBLE Stakeholder Advisory Group Wednesday night.

West Seattle residents are pushing hard for a tunnel — rather than an elevated track — as the alignment enters the West Seattle Junction, with some residents offering to eliminate the station proposed at 35th/Avalon to pay for the underground alignment.

“Don’t forget that you are building this for not only a generation but for centuries. An eyesore now will be an eyesore forever and tunneling is a much better option,” one commenter wrote.

Ballard overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a movable bridge over Salmon Bay, which residents pointed out could cause delays and impact reliability of the Link system.

“The fact that a bridge of any kind is being considered is ridiculous. The fact that it’s a *drawbridge* for a *rail system* being considered leaves me dumbstruck. This is a rail system in a booming metropolitan area that needs speed and reliability in its infrastructure. Even considering such a thoughtless, half-baked idea of a drawbridge terrifies me about the management at Sound Transit, even as a fervent supporter of Sound Transit,” one comment read. “If it’s not underground, don’t bother spending the money.”

Meanwhile, residents of First Hill want to see the Midtown station located east of I-5 rather than closer to existing stations.

One commenter argued that “Midtown station will be best located near the base of First Hill. A new downtown station at 5th & Madison does not add much new service area. An underground station at 8th & Madison could serve Virginia Mason, Harborview, the Convention Center, and high-density residential neighborhoods without adding much length to the line.”

Continue reading “Residents Think Big During Early Scoping”

Community Transit Proposes Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 Service Changes

Under the service proposal, Route 196 buses would make an additional stop at Lynnwood Transit Center

Community Transit plans to expand once again, restoring pre-recession frequency on the Swift Blue Line and re-routing local buses for better connections and usability. The service expansion proposal covers Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 and would add about 49,000 annual service hours (12 percent over March 2018). It would be funded by the 0.3% sales tax increase approved by voters in 2015, as well as a 25-cent increase in fares for local and DART service due in October 2018.

Continue reading “Community Transit Proposes Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 Service Changes”

Metro Quietly Discontinues Touch-to-Exit

A video showing riders using the touch to exit feature on the first day

When Metro’s XT40 trolleys hit the streets on August 19, 2015 they also introduced the Touch to Exit feature to the fleet. The system, officialy the Vapor CLASS sensing system, uses a set of ultrasonic sensors mounted above the door. One the bus is fully stopped, an indicator light above the doors illuminates and if the sensors notice a break, the system sends a signal to open the doors. Shortly after not noting any breaks, the doors will shut automatically This means that all sets of doors can be operated independently, with the bus operator only having to take control of the front door.

In total, 279 of Metro’s buses have been outfitted with the feature, including all 174 electric trolleys, 20 RapidRide buses and 85 three-door articulated hybrids. King County DOT’s Public Affairs Coordinator Jeff Switzer explains that the goal was to improve the customer’s ability to exit by the back door and activate the back door themselves.

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Kenmore: Casting off an Industrial Past

Kenmore wants to bring a new mix-used development to the shores of Lake Washington and eventually replace the cement and asphalt plants.
Credit: Lizz Giordano

Home to one of the last remaining industrial ports on Lake Washington, the city of Kenmore longs to shed its manufacturing past and cultivate a new identity. Nestled at the top of the lake, the bedroom community wants to give passers-by a reason to stop.

“Rather than just fixing potholes and writing traffic tickets, we wanted to be about building community and getting people connected to each other,” said Rob Karlinsey, Kenmore’s city manager.

To do that, the city became a developer. Several years after incorporating, Kenmore bought a dilapidated 10-acre lot and resold the land after placing certain conditions on the parcels. A couple of economic cycles later, Kenmore’s new town square is taking shape — a year-round community space, 300 units of multi-family housing, and a medical clinic replaced an abandoned park-and-ride lot and a run-down grocery store.

“The new town square area is giving Kenmore something residents never had before, which is a place for people to gather,” said Mark Abersold, a current resident who moved to the city six years ago.

“We are hoping for a ripple effect that will be a catalyst for more redevelopment,” Karlinsey said, proudly showing off the new town square to the STB.

Continue reading “Kenmore: Casting off an Industrial Past”

News Roundup: Fourplexes Citywide

This is an open thread.

Reimagining Wilburton

Alternative 2 from the Wilburton DEIS (Image: City of Bellevue)

Bellevue is considering an upzone of the Wilburton area east of Downtown across I-405. A draft EIS, currently open for public comment, examines much greater height and more intense urban activity. The Citizens Advisory Committee is also looking broadly at development standards and public investments to improve the livability of the city’s traditional Auto Row.

The area, despite being so close to downtown, is relatively underdeveloped. Apart from a hospital cluster in the northwest, it’s largely a mix of auto dealerships, big box retail, and older strip malls. Existing zoning generally allows development between 35 and 70 feet (excepting the hospital where allowed heights range up to 200 feet). That has not been enough to induce much developer interest and Bellevue anticipates little future growth under the no-action scenario, with the current 3.6 million square feet of development expanding to just 4.2 million by 2035. Continue reading “Reimagining Wilburton”