Commuters face a collision of multiple transportation projects in a small place at one time. While delay of the Washington State Convention Center Addition project offers a slight reprieve, when buses do leave the tunnel sometime in 2019, the One Center City (OCC) plan is intended to keep buses, people and cars flowing through downtown during the “period of maximum constraint.”
After spending more than a year planning, the OCC group missed its goal of having a final mobility plan with near-term and long-term recommendations completed by December 2017. Though scheduled to meet monthly, the OCC Advisory Group hasn’t met since last September.
Nor has the city begun implementing the near-term recommendations released last September by the group. Those recommendations include installing a cycle track on 4th Avenue; shifting more buses to 5th and 6th Avenues; and converting 3rd Avenue to an all-day transit-only street.
Christiana Figeueres was the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, who led the COP 21 climate talks in Paris. She got better results on climate action from 195 world leaders than the state legislature has produced.
On a recent week-long business trip to Melbourne, Australia, I had the pleasure of attending a Twenty20 cricket match. I’m not a cricket die-hard. But as someone who’s coached youth baseball for a number of years, I’ve had to reflect a lot on its fundamentals. It was fascinating to see how minor and arbitrary choices in competition design take a game with similar athletic elements and turn it into something entirely different. It was an interesting meditation on what might have been had the designers of baseball been a little less imaginative.
For a Seattle resident, Melbourne’s transit system is also an exercise in alternate history. Melbourne has a lot of basic similarities to Seattle: about the same metro population, many immigrant groups, buildings from a 19th-century gold rush, a vertical Central Business District (currently a forest of cranes), and boundless single-family sprawl beyond. Admittedly, the topology is much less challenging.
But there were a series of midcentury decisions that turned out quite differently in Melbourne. Broadly speaking, Melbourne didn’t throw away its railroads when cars were the Next Big Thing. And so, the city is an outlier in several respects:
Pierce Transit solicits qualifications for foot-ferry service feasibility study. It boggles my mind that Tacoma and Pierce Transit are considering this when their fixed-route bus service is pathetic and their future connection to the Link spine is threatened by state and federal cuts.
City council gets first look at draft amendments to parking reform legislation.
Sine die came this evening in Olympia, with the Legislature managing to get its work done on time. There will be no extra sessions.
The big drama of the session was over Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5955, which started out a year ago as a bill to simply reimburse newer car drivers for the difference between the older and newer valuations on the Sound Transit portion of their motor vehicle excise taxes (car tabs). It would have resulted in a $780 million hit to Sound Transit’s revenue stream, and eventually $2.3 billion lost due to interest. This year, the Senate amended the bill to partially backfill Sound Transit’s revenue by redirecting money from the $518 million in education funding from ST taxes back into Sound Transit. The House Transportation Committee did an about-face on that move. In the end, the bill died on the House cutting room floor, with no agreement around any approach. Continue reading “Legislature Calls it a Year; ST Revenue Dodges Big Hit”
Over a decade ago, when Bonnie Todd, executive director of operations, joined Sound Transit, the agency was focused on constructing the first phase of the light rail system. With less than two years before Link was scheduled to begin operating from downtown Seattle to SeaTac, Todd was charged with building and shaping the future operations department. In honor of International Women’s Day, the Seattle Transit Blog’s Lizz Giordano interviewed Todd about her experiences. (Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)
LG: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your 10 years at Sound Transit?
BT: Well, we opened light rail. That was huge. When I first got here, there wasn’t even really an operations department. There was this little group called ‘Transportation Services’; I’d always laugh and say that sounded like a hotel shuttle. I’ve since found out that on the West Coast it’s not an uncommon term for an operations group.
But [the operations division] was very small; the agency had been very capital-focused. When I came in, there was maybe 21 months until we were going to open light rail. There hadn’t been quite the focus on operations and it really crept up on us.
One of the things that was very enticing about the job offer was that I really had a blank canvas of sorts to work with. I had worked for the American Public Transportation Association for about four years, where I did audits of rail transit agencies all over North America. I had a real understanding of what worked well and what didn’t and what was critical to put in place for an operations department to be efficient, be safe and have the right processes in place. Continue reading “Q & A with Sound Transit’s Executive Director of Operations”
After almost three years without any significant service cuts, we’ve gotten pretty used to happy service change announcements from Metro. The latest change, which begins this coming Saturday, March 10, is no exception. Service additions are sprinkled throughout the system without much countervailing bad news. (The redundant route 99 does disappear, but ridership numbers suggest that no one will notice.) This service change brings no major restructures of service, so increased service is the big story. It’s scattered throughout the system, but with a particularly welcome and overdue focus on the greater Kent area.
Other news includes:
a new approach to Renton-downtown service on routes 101 and 102;
construction reroutes in Sodo and the Central District (including significant hassles for the relatively few riders of route 4’s Judkins Park tail); and
minor routing changes in downtown Seattle and downtown Redmond to match changing traffic patterns.
Employee shuttles are a common sight in many prospering cities. There are things to like as an independent observer: they often cover underserved source-destination pairs at no cost to the public. Conversely, they might make some public routes unviable, stranding non-employees who might have used the route. There are also sometimes conflicts with public transit for curb space.
Smaller employers don’t have the resources to set up these schemes at all. If the service replaces a widespread ORCA passport schemes, it takes resources from transit. Among the most farcical outcomes is the spectacle of empty Microsoft shuttles passing empty Amazon shuttles on SR520 where a public route could fill both legs.
Enter Metro’s “shared employee shuttles” program. This is part of the agency’s charter to promote alternate transportation solutions. Metro serves as a matchmaking service and “supervises” operations, but the funding and operations are private. The routes are meant to “complement” public transit routes rather than compete with them.
For employers, it’s a mixed proposition to be under Metro auspices. Metro says that state law makes them “the sole provider of public transportation services in King County,” so a rogue operation would be against the law. (The law a has an exception for single-employer shuttles.) Metro will facilitate right-of-way and curb space negotiations with cities. On the other hand, employers will pay a nominal fee for processing applications, and will have to share their performance and rider survey data with Metro.
The first “cycle” will accept proposals from groups of 2-5 employers through April 3, and the pilot program will run for about a year.
Declaring the first season of Trailhead Direct a success, King County is preparing for a second season while considering expanding the program to North Bend.
Trailhead Direct provided hikers an option to access trails in the Issaquah Alps using public transportation. The pilot program, which ran on weekends and holidays from early August to mid-October, aimed to reduce congestion at trailheads and broaden access to public lands.
Nineteen-seat vans ran every 30 minutes between 7 am and 6 pm, picking up riders at Issaquah’s two park-and-rides and stopping at three trailheads on Squak and Tiger mountains. Riders were charged an off-peak fare.
According to Lizzy Jessup, a project manager at King County Parks, about 900 hikers used the service, averaging roughly 40 riders a day. An on-board survey found over 90% of riders thought the service could reduce congestion at trailheads, and many riders wanted to see the service expand to more locations. The on-board survey also found hikers accessed the Trailhead Direct shuttles both by driving themselves to the park-and-ride lots and also by taking Metro route 271 and Sound Transit route 554 from Seattle.
Jessup said King County Parks and King County Metro Transit are still weighing possible changes to the route and timing of the shuttles for next year. She added that, due to low ridership, the stop at the Issaquah Highlands Park and Ride will probably be eliminated this year.
The two King County agencies also hope to expand the program and connect to trails in North Bend. Jessup said one consideration in North Bend is using satellite parking lots to add parking near trailheads.
On Tuesday, members of the outdoor community gathered to brainstorm ideas on alternative transportation to the outdoors and the future of the Trailhead Direct service, hosted by the Wilderness Society and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.
Thursday, Sound Transit’s Operations and Administration Committee moved forward a staff recommendation that would establish a flat fare of $3.25 for all Sound Transit Express bus routes. This change would increase fares by $.50 for 70% of ST Express riders.
The transit agency said this change would speed up boardings and make it easier for riders to understand the fare system. The full board is expected to vote on the proposal at its March 22 meeting, with implementation July 1, 2018 to coincide with Metro’s new $2.75 flat fare.
Currently, ST uses a two-zone fare structure, charging adult riders who cross county lines $3.75, and $2.75 for routes that stay within one county. Riders on two-county routes traveling only within one county can ask the bus operator for an override and instead pay the one-county fare. ST said 13 of its 28 Express bus routes cross county lines.
Sound Transit proposed two options: a $3.25 flat fare, or keeping the current system but eliminating the override for one-county riders on two-county routes. The agency said its goal was to simplify fares and have the change be as close to revenue-neutral as possible.
Rep. Judy Clibborn (D – Mercer Island), the chair of the committee, proposed an amendment that would strike most of the amendments made by the Senate. In particular, it would restore the $518 million in education funding paid for out of ST taxes sooner rather than later, and remove Sen. Marko Liias’ (D – Lynnwood) language expediting permitting decisions for ST3 projects. The amendment leaves the bill nearly identical to the version of EHB 2201 the House passed last year when Republicans controlled the Senate, and that it passed again earlier this year.
The primary exception is that Sen. Guy Palumbo’s (D – Maltby) language banning ST3 from eliminating light rail projects and bus rapid transit projects (even if the legislature does not cooperate with local cities’ efforts to have functional rapid lanes that won’t leave buses stuck in traffic) remains. This restriction is an unprecedented straightjacket that, if applied to ST1 and ST2 light rail projects, might have made them look a lot different than what has been built and is being built. The fiscal note did not attempt to cost out the impact of Palumbo’s amendment.
Beau Perschbacher, Policy & Legislative Director for the Washington State Department of Licensing, pointed out that, as currently drafted to take effect September 1, 2018, the bill could cost an extra $8 million for hiring extra contract programmers for the DRIVES data management project and other cost overruns, and urged the committee to push implementation out to July 1, 2019, as has been done with several other bills affecting the department. He quipped, “We have no expectation you are going to give us the extra $8 million.” He also pointed out that the bill is not clear whether the retroactive motor vehicle excise tax credit would apply to the vehicle or the taxpayer. He also pointed out that the retroactive credit could be found unconstitutional, and then DOL would have to administer a follow-up process to try to re-collect the taxes.
David Beard, Education Policy and Advocacy Director for School’s Out Washington, testified in favor of restoring the full education funding. He has been involved in planning efforts for what King County schools would do with the money.
Nick Federici, representing United Way of King County, requested restoration of the education funding, while pointing out that many of those affected are transit-dependent, and therefore have “skin in this game”.
Shelley Holder, representing Snohomish County, testified in favor of removing Sen. Liias’ permit expediting language, just as Rep. Clibborn’s amendment does. In response to a question, she mentioned that Snohomish County has taken no position on spending the education fund on education or transit construction.
Rep. Mark Harmsworth (R – Mill Creek) praised the amendment, but said “We’d like to see more, but we’ll take what we can at this point.”
Clibborn’s amendment passed by nearly-unanimous voice vote.
Rep. Jake Fey (D – Tacoma) said “I actually loved the senate bill,” and will be voting No.
Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (D – Mukilteo) said she would vote for the amendment and to pass the bill out of committee, but expressed hope that, during continuing negotiations, a way could be found to backfill Sound Transit’s funding “that isn’t on the backs of our children”.
Rep. Javier Valdez (D – Seattle) cited “the work of my predecessor” (Jessyn Farrell) as a reason to vote Yes.
The bill, as amended by the House Transportation Committee, passed 19-4-2.
The House is in session today, and could take up ESSB 5955 as amended, at any time. The two houses have through next Thursday to agree on the final bill language, unless they go into extra sessions to finish the budgets.
Last night, the Senate approved SB 5955, changing the valuation schedule for the ST3 MVET (Motor Vehicle Excise Tax). Up to two-thirds of the cost is remedied by reducing payments from Sound Transit to the Puget Sound Accountability Fund. The vote was 30 yeas, 14 nays, with 5 members excused. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives which has already approved similar reductions to the MVET, but without an offset for the lost Sound Transit revenues.
Sound Transit levied a 0.3% MVET in Sound Move in 1996. That levy used a schedule that overvalues newer cars relative to resale values. In 2006, the Legislature approved a new valuation schedule that aligns to resale prices. The 0.3% MVET, because of bond requirements, continued to use the older schedule. This levy expires in 2028.
In ST3, voters approved an additional 0.8% MVET. The enabling legislation specified that it should use the familiar older schedule until 2028, then snap to the more accurate 2006 schedule in 2029. At the time, few noticed how this works, but it became suddenly controversial in 2017 when owners of newer cars received their much higher car tab bills. Some felt overcharged because the effect of the higher rates was compounded by a schedule that “overvalued” their cars.
For car owners, the bill would credit car owners for the difference in valuations for the ST3 MVET. Effectively, they’d pay on whichever schedule shows the lower value. Owners of cars less than ten years old will see bills reduced, and owners of older vehicles are not affected. The bill includes refunds for past payments before September 2018.
The credits reduce Sound Transit revenues by $780 million through 2028. Offsetting this are up to $518 million in reduced payments to the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account. As the revenue reduction increases Sound Transit debt, there are additional debt servicing costs which could increase the total impact up to $2.3 billion by 2041 if not mitigated. However, reducing the revenue hit by 65% will proportionately reduce the associated debt servicing hit.