We’re Hiring a Reporter

Last year we said goodbye to Zach Shaner, as he moved on from being STB’s paid writer to the next stage of his career. It was painful, but that spot turned into Lizz Giordano, who quickly became our go-to reporter on a variety of subjects. Now Lizz is moving on to a position at the Everett Heraldwhere she will deliver her brand of well-researched and technically curious writing to that audience. Our sadness at seeing Lizz leave is tempered by our excitement at her opportunity to work on a bigger stage.

If Snohomish County matters to you, subscribe to the Herald and support the creation of more high-quality journalism. But for us, this means we have an opening again.

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We’re looking for a skilled writer with an interest in transit and land use issues and open to a part-time position. He or she would be responsible for a few pieces a week, although hours (and therefore output) are negotiable. Reporting skills are more important than domain expertise. However, knowledge of the local political terrain, transit operations, and land use issues are assets. Outside of the land use and transit beats, you’d be free to use the remainder of your time to pursue other writing opportunities.

Continue reading “We’re Hiring a Reporter”

Swift Green Line Moves Along, Now With Federal Funding

The future southbound Swift station at Paine Field

On Monday, Community Transit announced that it would accept a $43.2 million Small Starts grant from the Federal Transit Administration, completing the last of the $73 million in funding required to complete the Swift Green Line. Portions of the line have actually been under construction for a year, thanks to special authorization from the FTA, and many of the future stations in Everett are paved and ready for new canopy “skeletons” to be installed later this month.

The grant was approved by Congress last year, but was threatened in President Trump’s proposed elimination of the FTA’s Capital Investments Grants program. Sound Transit spokesperson Kimberly Reason told The Times ($) that the program’s grants for Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link are “still at risk” and that full funding agreements would not be signed until this summer for Lynnwood and next year for Federal Way.

Continue reading “Swift Green Line Moves Along, Now With Federal Funding”

ST Exploring New Escalator Strategies

Sound Transit Operations & Administrative Committee meeting April 5, 2018
The escalator presentation runs from 8 minutes into the video until 1:08.

Last Thursday, Sound Transit staff gave a presentation to the Board’s Operations & Administration Committee in response to the March 16 breakdown of two down escalators on the same level at UW Station, resulting in long queues to enter the station during the evening peak period.

On March 16, one escalator was broken down for over two hours before ST personnel became aware it had stopped. Once the other broke down, staff miscommunication delayed calling the contractor that maintains the escalators — KONE — to come out and repair the escalators. Then, KONE took two and a half hours to get a repair crew to the station, despite being under contract to respond within one hour.

Continue reading “ST Exploring New Escalator Strategies”

Monday Evening: Speak for Housing

On Monday, you have a chance to speak to Seattle city council members about one of the greatest challenges facing our society: building more houses for people. In Seattle, our housing shortage does not arise either from a lack of technology nor of capital, but primarily from laws that reserve more than half of the city’s land area for the most spatially-inefficient kind of urban housing ever to achieve mass adoption — the detached single-family house, with mandatory setbacks and car parking — and stringently regulate development on the tiny slice of land where multi-family housing is allowed.

Unlike other challenges we face, many of which require help from reluctant or recalcitrant higher levels of government, we in Seattle control* our own land use laws. We have nobody else to blame for the invisible wall of exclusionary zoning that we allow to stand around our city. The good news is that we have elected City Council members who, mostly, understand our housing problem and care about rectifying it. Last week’s Council vote, to stop forcing many people who live in transit-rich areas to have parking spaces they may not want, suggests our council members are willing to turn concern into legislation, even over the objections of a vocal, litigious, and extraordinarily privileged ($) minority.

The bad news is that privilege dies hard. To listen to much of the testimony at a zoning hearing is to fall into a netherworld where building more homes will not help our housing shortage; where open resentment of immigrants and newcomers is acceptable; where people who live in pre-war bungalows that would never meet today’s codes denounce modern apartments as Dickensian fire traps and health hazards; and imagined slights by the city bureaucracy invalidate years of open public process. To be a person who speaks at these hearings, for the radical proposition that roofs over people’s heads are both a public and private good, is definitely Type II fun.

But speak we must. Housing in the city, both subsidized and market rate, is an ethical and economic imperative, and if we fail to speak for it, we leave our elected leaders out on a limb. On Monday’s agenda is the citywide HALA rezone, a long-discussed, modest rezone of existing urban villages, coupled with a linkage fee. This rezone is worthy in its own right, and you should speak for it, but it must be thought of as a beginning, rather than an end; a down payment on a much more extensive and diverse housing stock that we have yet to legalize. As Minneapolis is considering, we must fundamentally reexamine single-family zoning throughout the whole city.

  • What: Public Hearing: Mandatory Housing Affordability in Districts 3 & 7
  • Where: Seattle Central College, Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway
  • When: April 16, 2018 6:00 PM (be early! — speaking is first come, first served)

If you’d like to join up with an awesome, supportive group of people, consider Seattle 4 Everyone or Seattle Tech for Housing.

* Well, mostly. The playing field isn’t really level — upzones go through an exhaustive state environmental process that the status quo mostly never had to.

News Roundup: Cars or People

Mercer Island station under construction, March 2018

This is an open thread.

Time to Start Planning for the Next Transit Measure

Credit: SDOT

In 2014, Seattle residents voted 62% – 38% to raise taxes to prevent cuts to King County Metro Transit Seattle routes after a Countywide transit measure had failed just months before. A rebound in County revenues has allowed Seattle to instead use the money to add more transit service and ease overcrowding.

As the measure is set to expire at the end of 2020, Seattle is looking to partner with King County to pass a region-wide transit measure.

“Every time we add a new bus we get a bus and half worth of people that want to ride,” said Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien in an interview with the Seattle Transit Blog. “We don’t have to convince people to ride transit, we just have to deliver it and they want to use it.”

The measure generates about $50 million a year through a $60 annual vehicle license fee and 0.1% sales tax. That influx of cash pays for roughly 270,000 hours of additional bus service annually.

“When we did it the first time, a few years back, we intentionally set a relatively short-term horizon because partners throughout the County had said, ‘we know we failed in April, but please don’t foreclose Seattle joining with the rest of the County at some future date,’” O’Brien said.

And if the County does want to partner with Seattle on a future transit measure, O’Brien wants to support it.

“There are transit needs throughout the entire county, and Seattle voters are very pro-transit,” O’Brien said. “There are some very transit-dependent communities outside the city of Seattle that would really like to see more transit and they could use the help of Seattle voters to carry a county-wide initiative.”

Continue reading “Time to Start Planning for the Next Transit Measure”

Congestion Pricing is Way Bigger than the Other Stuff

Aurora Ave before southbound BAT lane: photo by Oran

For months, SDOT watchers have been agonizing over the fate of One Center City’s program of bus and bike lanes, as well as the Center City Connector streetcar and its dedicated lanes. Mayor Durkan’s new proposal to toll the city center makes these petty squabbles by comparison.

Obviously, there’s a lot of process before anyone pays a toll. But if, somehow, the proposal survives and sets tolls as high as necessary to avoid congestion, that implies open streets downtown. That is way better for transit than fighting block-by-block for bus and BAT lanes.

The big exception here is bikes: backpedaling on ambitious bike lane plans plus faster traffic flow actually makes the status quo worse for the two-wheeled. That’s all the more reason to switch the emphasis of One Center City from bus lanes to bike safety.

However, in a bad sign for anything happening at all, on Sunday Danny Westneat started off the equity backlash, though he at least proposed constructive alternatives like allowing specific cars only on certain days. Ultimately, there’s a finite amount of road space and we will ration it somehow. Today, it’s by willingness to put up with traffic delays, and tough luck if you need to get there fast. Congestion charges sort by a combination of wealth and the value of someones’s time, and tough luck if you put a very low value on your time. A rotation scheme is equitable except for those with access to multiple cars, a perverse incentive if ever there was one. But the main cost is that there are days where you can’t drive downtown at all at any price in time and money.

Personally, I’m simply not moved by the equity argument. The downtown core is well-served by transit from nearly everywhere. Driving there is already expensive and difficult, so the extremely price-sensitive take the bus or train. The great mass of working class people that drive to do their jobs are getting paid (or forgoing paid work) to sit in traffic. It is worth it for them — or the people that pay them — to give them clear streets to be more productive. And finally, congestion pricing is revenue-positive, providing space to compensate the handful of disadvantaged people hurt by such a system (also, congestion may cost Metro $100m annually, even more money that could be plowed into increased service).

Technical merit is never a guarantee that a project will deploy, but if it does Mayor Durkan will have a transformative transportation legacy in downtown.

Reimagining Bellevue for Light Rail

New mixed-use development along the future light rail alignment. Credit: Lizz Giordano

This post is part of an STB series examining how suburban cities are preparing for light rail. Read the intro post here, or about how planning has reshaped Redmond’s urban form to leverage light rail and Kenmore’s push to be included in the ST3 plan.

During Claudia Balducci’s first campaign for Bellevue city council in 2003, she was cautioned against using the words “light rail,” advised instead to say “high capacity transit”. But looking back, Balducci said, city sentiment was already shifting.

“By 2008, people who were running had to be in favor of light rail to be a credible candidate,” said Balducci, who currently represents the sixth district on the King County Council and served on the Bellevue City Council from 2004 and 2015. “So even the people who were less enthusiastic about it would say on the campaign trail, ‘Yes, I support light rail,’ because it had come so far in public support.”

That support was apparent when 56% of Bellevue residents approved the 2008 ST2 package, which will bring light rail and six stations to the city by 2023. Ironically, Bellevue would soon acquire an anti-light rail reputation as a dramatic years-long battle over the downtown alignment unfolded. But even before the measure passed, councilmembers and city staff were already beginning to reimagine large swaths of the city, starting with the Bel-Red area, with light rail in mind.

“We saw light rail not just as the other mode of transportation, but really as an economic engine,” said David Berg, director of Bellevue’s Transportation Department. “It’s an economic development driver.”

Continue reading “Reimagining Bellevue for Light Rail”

Audit Tells Metro Give Homeless a Break

Ongoing updates: More US transit agencies that offer free monthly-or-longer passes for riders experiencing homelessness have been added to the post since publication. More will be added as they are found.

RapidRide B
RapidRide B to Bellevue. Photo by Kris Leisten.

On Wednesday, King County Metro General Manager Rob Gannon announced some changes to its fare enforcement practices, as a result of an audit.

The audit made five recommendations:

  1. Transit should establish a performance management system for fare enforcement, including establishing baselines, setting targets, and developing measures for outputs and outcomes.
  2. Transit should conduct a rigorous fare evasion study to understand the level of fare evasion on RapidRide at least every two years.
  3. Transit should review its fare enforcement model for alignment with county and agency goals and equity principles (emphasis added) and use the results to update its model and the fare enforcement contract.
  4. Transit should work with the fare enforcement team to develop and implement a system for gathering data necessary to monitor for the equity impacts of fare enforcement.
  5. Transit should prioritize implementation of its stalled technology project to ensure that fare enforcement is conducted in the most efficient manner possible.

King County spokesperson Scott Gutierrez pointed out a couple key differences between Metro’s and Sound Transit’s enforcement policies:

  • While Metro gives each rider a warning the first time they are caught not paying on RapidRide, that warning never “falls off”, the way it does after one year on Sound Transit.
  • Youth riders get two warnings before a citation is given the third time the rider is caught. This has the side effect of providing better proportionality between the fare and the $124 citation that is set by the state. But, again, the warnings don’t “fall off”.

Per the announcement by Gannon, Metro just started giving the second warning for youth riders. Per Gutierrez, Metro is also reviewing the policy of not having warnings fall off a passenger’s record.

A combination of more warnings, having them fall off after a shorter period of time than for regular full-fare payers, and having the fine be higher for full-fare payers than the minimum allowed by the state, could be key to solving the proportionality gap between the discount fares and the huge fine. The trick is to come up with a formula that will make a typical frequent rider end up losing the bet if he decides to never pay and just pay citations when he is caught. However, higher fines mean transit agencies have to spend less on fare enforcement to achieve the same deterrent effect — a point that was, unfortunately, not brought out in the audit.

Fare enforcement and riders experiencing homelessness

Continue reading “Audit Tells Metro Give Homeless a Break”

Wenatchee’s Link Transit Goes to the Ballot

1907 Irrigation Bridge

Nestled by the confluence of Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers, the City of Wenatchee is framed by some of the most dramatic scenery in the state. A small urban core of about fifty thousand people, squeezed into a bench around the confluence, serves as the primary urban center for a huge rural hinterland that extends roughly from Leavenworth at the southwest, Ephrata at the southeast, and 145 miles east of north up US 97 to the Canadian border. I think of Wenatchee as the gateway to Washington’s Big Sky Country, and it seems many other visitors are similarly taken, as the area is struggling with a housing affordability crisis ($).

Wenatchee is a railroad town, and it owes its location primarily to the choices of the Great Northern. Headed west from Saint Paul to Puget Sound, the GN crossed one of its major obstacles, the mighty and wild Columbia, at its narrowest point in Washington, before threading its way up the Cashmere Valley towards Stevens Pass. That westerly alignment, which made Wenatchee well-connected in the era of the railroad, has made the city an island in the age of the macadam road: there are exactly two road bridges carrying one paved road, WA 285, through the urban core, which can suffer startlingly bad car congestion given the small population.

The political and business leaders of Wenatchee have exhibited more progressive thought around transportation policy than one might expect. While the north end of Wenatchee Ave is a hellscape of roaring engines, drive-thrus and giant parking lots, the downtown business association formed a LID in 1989 [PDF page 40] to convert the historic central section into a calm, pedestrian-oriented street. WSDOT-owned land riverfront land on the east bank of the Columbia, once slated for a freeway, has become part of a non-motorized trail system, which notably includes a historic bridge over the Columbia initially designed for wagons and irrigation pipe. The city recently engaged the marginalized South Wenatchee neighborhood in a subarea planning process that yielded safe walking facilities as the top priority.

In a similarly forwarding-thinking vein, Link Transit was founded in 1989 to provide transit service to Chelan and Douglas counties. Today, the agency provides all-day bus and paratransit service throughout the urban core, with a more skeletal service radiating out to smaller towns along the US 2, US 97 and WA 28 corridors. In 2009, Link pioneered battery buses on a set of short, high-frequency urban routes — a bold move for a small agency. This November, car-free mobility in north-central Washington will take another big step forward if voters approve a 0.2% sales tax increase for Link. This ballot measure arises from a planning process which found that residents both wanted more transit options, and were willing to pay for it.

To find out more about Link’s plans, I exchanged emails with planner Lauren Loebsack.  Continue reading “Wenatchee’s Link Transit Goes to the Ballot”

News Roundup: Don’t Just Rebuild

In bloom, Bellevue style

This is an open thread.

Mayor Durkan Proposes Short-Term Downtown Mobility Projects

Typical morning traffic on I-5 approaching Mercer Street

Earlier today, Mayor Durkan announced a pair of initiatives that aim to reduce car traffic through downtown in the coming years.

A $30 million package of near-term mobility projects will come online through the end of 2021.  This period is called the period of “maximum constraint” caused by the Convention Center’s takeover of Convention Place Station and other downtown megaprojects. Simultaneously, the mayor announced ($) that the city would investigate a congestion charge and hopes to have it in place before the end of her first term in 2021.

Both projects are connected, with a stated goal of reducing 4,000 SOV trips in downtown during peak hours by 2019. It remains to be seen if the two would complement each other, or become yet another addition to the transportation puzzle that already has missing pieces (namely the now-frozen Center City Connector).

Continue reading “Mayor Durkan Proposes Short-Term Downtown Mobility Projects”

Tacoma Dome Link Enters Early Scoping

Downtown Tacoma’s skyline, seen from Tacoma Dome Station

For the next four weeks, Sound Transit will be taking public comments on the Tacoma Dome Link Extension, which will bring actual high-capacity light rail service to Tacoma via Federal Way in 2030. Comments will be accepted via an online survey or at one of three public open houses in Tacoma, Fife and Federal Way.

Like the West Seattle/Ballard online open house earlier this year, the public is able to add comments directly onto a map of the representative alignment and vote them up/down. This time around, however, the project is a bit simpler in design: a largely elevated alignment along the southbound lanes of I-5 between Federal Way Transit Center and Tacoma Dome Station. The extension would have intermediate stops in South Federal Way, Fife, and East Tacoma, all with park-and-ride facilities. The only real hurdles facing the project is the crossing of the Puyallup River and integrating with the already cramped quarters of Tacoma Dome Station, as well as cooperating with whatever WSDOT is planning for the Puget Sound Gateway interchange in eastern Fife.

Continue reading “Tacoma Dome Link Enters Early Scoping”

ST Draft TOD Policy Lacks Specifics, critics say

Future TOD near the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station
Credit: Gerding Edlen, Capitol Hill Housing, Hewitt, Schemata Workshop and Berger Partnership

This spring, construction will finally begin on four seven-story mixed-use buildings above the Capitol Hill light rail station. Though an ideal place to build transit-oriented development (TOD), the land has sat empty since the station opened in March 2016. When the buildings are completed, probably sometime in 2020 according to Capitol Hill Seattle, 428 new housing units will be added to the light rail station walkshed. Of those new units, 41% — 176 of them — will be considered affordable housing.

Sound Transit is in the final stage of updating its TOD guidelines that the agency says will make TOD an integral component of transit project planning and delivery, and could support bringing new development online when transit stations open, rather than years later.

The ST3 plan requires the agency develop and implement “a regional equitable TOD strategy” and offer at least 80% of surplus property first to projects for families making 80% or less of area median income (AMI). The agency, which has until May to update its TOD policy, released a draft at the March 22 board meeting.

The draft policy declares goals such as “encourage [the] creation of housing options near transit with priority given to affordability” and “increase the value and effectiveness of transit by increasing transit ridership.” To reach those goals, the proposal lays out a specific set of strategies.

However, affordable housing advocates, who called the draft policy a step in the right direction while addressing the board Thursday, urged the agency to include specific housing goals in the TOD policy.

“While the statute sets a target over the entirety of the ST surplus properties, it would be beneficial to outline how these targets will be met,” said Angela Compton, an outreach coordinator with Futurewise. “Being transparent about this approach would provide a clear understanding of what ST is trying to achieve through this process.”

Compton suggested housing goals could be set by each site, corridor or year. Continue reading “ST Draft TOD Policy Lacks Specifics, critics say”

Bellevue Eases into Bike-sharing

LimeBikes lined up outside the UW Station Credit: SounderBruce

As the colorful dockless bike-shares, which began operating last summer in Seattle, stray past city boundaries, some suburban cities want to come along for the ride.

Bothell was the first suburb to issue permits for bike-share companies after bikes began popping up around town, most likely propelled north by the Burke-Gilman Trail. And now Bellevue is set to launch its own dockless bike-share pilot this May.

The city is starting small, permitting only 400 bikes at the pilot’s launch (roughly one for every 350 residents), and is only allowing e-bikes, which Bellevue says will “make the service accessible to a wider variety of potential users.”

Taking lessons from Seattle, where some dockless bikes are being improperly parked and blocking sidewalks, Bellevue’s pilot establishes bike hubs, using paint and racks, to identify preferred parking areas. Operators will be required to offer incentives, to encourage riders to use the hubs, and disincentives, to keep people from parking the bikes improperly. Geofencing will be used to keep bikes from being left in the middle of parks.

The city is laying out strict guidelines for rebalancing bikes nightly which the city says will “facilitate the convenient provision of bicycles where people want them while maintaining orderly and accessible public space and minimizing impacts to private property.”  

Continue reading “Bellevue Eases into Bike-sharing”