Book Launch & Panel Discussion: Free Public Transit


There’s a new book out called Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators.

On Monday, May 21st, the Transit Riders Union is hosting a book launch and a panel discussion of past, present and future efforts to advance the vision of free public transit here in the Seattle area. The event will be held 6:00-8:00pm at University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE. You can RSVP on Facebook here.

Panelists will include Rosalie Ray, author of one of the book’s chapters; Ifrah Abshir, a leader in the successful campaign to win transit passes for Seattle public school students; City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Teresa Mosqueda; and several more guests. I will emcee the event.

The book explores the winning strategies and pitfalls of case studies of free public transit ranging across thirteen countries: the United States, Montreal, Toronto, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Sweden, Brazil, Mexico, Poland, China, France, Belgium, and Germany. As much a manifesto as a guide, this explosive book, the first ever on the topic in English, is written for those who want to truly revolutionise their city and move it forward.

Katie Wilson is General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union.

Designing ST3 for the Future

Train stations, circa 1911

by Jon Scholes, President / CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association

Thanks to businesses, elected leaders and community groups that shaped and endorsed it, Sound Transit 3 is moving forward, with planned expansion to Ballard, West Seattle through downtown in the form of a new tunnel.

Community leaders from across Seattle have thoughtfully considered the future of our growing city as they reviewed numerous options for stations and alignments. Their recommendations for additional study are excellent and should be adopted by the Sound Transit board.

ST3 was a bold bet on the future of our city and region, and the vision and leadership that got us to this point must continue as we design and build the system.  Light rail helps make a place, meaning we have an obligation to build a system that thoughtfully integrates into the communities it connects. Light rail helps make a city, so we must consider how our city will be in 20-50 years and build the system for that need. Light rail helps people make connections, meaning the system we build should maximize connectivity for the most people with the greatest ease.

As Sound Transit stakeholders and leaders make decisions on next steps, the following considerations are important to realizing these principles:

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Everett & subarea equity

Everett Station will be the northern terminus of the Link light rail network in 2036 (Image: SounderBruce)

A week ago, the Everett Herald carried an Op-Ed by three Sound Transit Board members from Snohomish County. The authors, Paul Roberts, Dave Earling and Dave Somers, criticize Sound Transit for not completing the light rail spine as quickly as possible. They go on to argue the strict subarea equity policy, where Sound Transit investments go to the subareas that pay for them, should be changed. The end goal, of course, is earlier delivery of rail to Everett at the expense of projects in other areas.

The three board members argue that the transportation needs of the region are not contained within subarea boundaries. They may have particularly in mind the enormous daily flow of Snohomish County residents to jobs in King County. This burden is amplified by expensive housing in Seattle and the Eastside that pushes more households to commute from relatively affordable places in Snohomish and Pierce Counties. Lower income communities also generate less revenues, meaning the areas with the greatest socio-economic needs have the least ability to fund local transit improvements.

The crux of the issue for Snohomish County is that their subarea is small, contributing just 13% of Sound Transit revenues. Their major ST3 investment, a 16.3 mile rail extension from Lynnwood to Everett, is disproportionately expensive at just over $3 billion in 2014 constant dollars. (In actual year-of-expenditure dollars, Snohomish will spend $6.2 billion on light rail capital, including a ridership-based contribution to the downtown tunnel).

In the design of the ST3 plan, Snohomish’ demands stretched available resources and the political consensus. Any plan had to finish the spine, and also serve Paine Field, whatever the needed subsidies from taxpayers in other subareas. Lengthening ST3 from 15 to 25 years made it possible to meet those demands more or less within Snohomish’ tax capacity. The stretching of Sound Transit debt capacity accelerated timelines so Everett service was moved up from 2041 to 2036.

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When to Care About Cost, and Not

Expensive but revolutionary (Flickr/TGr_79)

Every big transportation project starts with a cost estimate. The tedious debate on whether the project costs too much, or is just right, is a proxy fight over whether it’s a good project or not. The estimate spirals upwards, which breeds cynicism among opponents while providing an opportunity to revisit all of the old arguments. Since those arguments were never really about fiscal return on investment, no one has actually changed their mind.

It’s a pattern that’s repeated through Sound Transit 1, the Monorail, the Deep Bore Tunnel, Sound Transit 2, and now the Center City Connector. For Sound Transit 3 and High Speed Rail, the cycle may just be beginning. Some overruns and delays were worse than others: Sound Transit 2’s slippages appear to be an order of magnitude milder than Sound Transit 1. Some of those projects survived, while others died. Among all of those, only ST1 has actually been around long enough for many people to find it indispensable.

Amid this sea of misdirection, sophisticated observers should keep a few points in mind.

  • The primary value of cost (and ridership) estimates is to compare the relative impact of different courses of action. The main drivers of absolute costs (and revenues) are much larger economic forces that no model can hope to capture, but the relative costs of different projects are likely to remain more consistent.
  • If a booming economy raises project costs and revenue without raising anyone’s tax rate, that is flimsy grounds to reconsider the project.
  • Absolute costs have almost no political valence, at least within an order of magnitude. It is hard to imagine a voter that opposed the $54 billion* ST3 package that would have voted for it at $30 billion. Both are colossal amounts of money and the $24 billion difference provides no useful context.
  • A good project is still a good project if the cost grows 20%; a bad one is bad at any price.
  • Given the above, civil servants, consultants, and political appointees that cut corners in the model to embellish a project’s estimate are not only exercising poor ethical judgment, they are also storing up trouble for the project’s future while doing little to help it in the present.
  • At election time, the alternative to a measure is not your preferred configuration of projects, but lower taxes.

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Island Transit May Ditch Its Fare-Free Buses

An Island Transit bus at Everett Station

Island Transit, a long held example of fare-free transit, may adopt its first fares for regular routes since it began service 30 years ago. The agency has been financially unstable since the recession, during which voters rejected a 0.3 percent sales tax increase to fund service, and has determined that current sales tax revenues would not be able to cover current operations without outside grants. In 2017, the transit agency raised $10.476 million from its sales tax and $674,000 from other non-grant sources, while its operating expenses totaled $10.502 million.

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News Roundup: Ridership King

Day Dreamers

This is an open thread.

Photo by preema seadiva in the STB Flickr pool

Guaranteed parking in South Kirkland

Kirkland Crossing Apartments at the South Kirkland Park & Ride

Many residential buildings are built with more parking than their residents need, and even more parking goes unused during daytime hours when residents are away. So it was encouraging to see a recent announcement from GarageHop. GarageHop is providing 40 spaces for commuter use in an apartment building at the South Kirkland Park & Ride.

GarageHop is a Seattle company that provides monthly parking spaces in apartment buildings, typically leasing spots in buildings with over-provided parking to commuters and residents of buildings without their own parking. This is their first foray into suburban transit parking.

Kirkland Crossing is a market-rate apartment building in South Kirkland, created as part of an award-winning TOD effort that opened in 2015. It was, somewhat ironically, built with excess parking. GarageHop puts these spaces to use by offering guaranteed parking for $80 per month. Customers sign up online and access the secured garage using their smartphone to park in their own reserved parking space.

Parking at the Metro lot across the street is free. However the lot fills daily (averaging 97% utilization in fourth quarter 2017). At busy times, there have been issues with spillover parking to neighboring businesses. The only guaranteed parking at the Metro lot is via a pilot program for carpools and those spots are only guaranteed until 830am. GarageHop doesn’t require a carpool and can be accessed at any time.

GarageHop joins Diamond Parking Service in the market for privately provided transit parking. Diamond developed a similar offer in partnership with Metro last year.

Market rates for parking, even with guaranteed access, aren’t high enough to attract developers to build structured parking for transit in the suburbs. But GarageHop’s offer is welcome. They are efficiently reusing parking stalls that exist anyway, and offering an additional option for transit users to access the system.

Convention Center Alley Vacation Passes Full Council

Yesterday, the Council passed the alley vacation for the Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) that the Transportation and Sustainability Committee approved last week, as we reported. The O’Brien amendment that would have gotten more money for transit from the WSCC in the event of serious service degradation failed 6-3, with only O’Brien, Sawant, and Herbold voting for it. The other Councilmembers chose not to reopen the negotiated benefits deal.

The overall measure passed. The official record has six votes in favor, Herbold abstaining, and doesn’t record anything for Juarez or Harrell; the video (1:03:45) is quite clear that all nine raised their hands in favor.

The legislation allows the DSTT to close to buses as early as March 2019. Whether it actually happens in March, or in in September instead, depends on the Master Use Permit process with a different city department, discussions between Metro and the WSCC, and actual construction progress. The race is now on for SDOT to complete its downtown transit improvements by March.

RapidRide H Will Bring Ped and Transit Improvements to Burien

King County Metro RapidRide 2013 New Flyer DE60LFR 6089

The next RapidRide H, which will replace King County Metro route 120 from downtown Seattle to Burien in 2020, could reduce travel times by almost five minutes between Burien and the West Seattle Bridge, assuming the transit agency and its partner DOTs make the recommended upgrades to the route, which is among the 10 busiest in the county.

Seattle DOT has settled on improvements for the Seattle portion, and Metro is consolidating stops and considering moving the route’s tail two blocks south to SW 150th St, closer to the commercial heart of the city while maintaining access to the transit center.

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Council Debates Convention Center, DSTT Closing to Buses

Convention Place Station

On May 1st, Seattle’s Transportation and Sustainability Committee reviewed the alley vacation for the Washington State Convention Center expansion, which will close the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel to buses. The core measure passed unanimously, but the most interesting discussion centered around exactly when buses would have to leave the tunnel.

The question has come down to the tunnel closing in March or September 2019. Either date would coincide with the regular Metro service change. If the WSCC gets its master use permit from SDOT by July 1st, it can start in March. However, SDOT cannot guarantee that the remaining street improvements meant to mitigate the bus congestion will be ready in time. Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s legislation would have attached the condition that the developer could not kick buses out prior to September. Councilmember Rob Johnson introduced an amendment that would strike this language, making the city’s position neutral in discussions between King County and the developer. The amendment passed committee 4-3*, so it will go before full council on Monday without any timing conditions attached.

Prior to Council deliberation, SDOT staff presented the state of affairs and answered clarifying questions. The One Center City process is intended to address the “period of maximum constraint” — making sure people and buses can still flow through downtown when buses leave the tunnel, the viaduct comes down, and SR99 tunnel tolls divert traffic. This period would end as they haul away the viaduct debris and light rail gets to Northgate in 2021.

Of many ambitious ideas, the short-term SDOT plan has whittled down to three main things (see 54:00 in the video):

  1. Signal improvements on 2nd and 4th Avenues for greater transit priority and pedestrian safety. SDOT Interim Director Goran Sparrman and his staff felt confident this would be done by March.
  2. On 3rd Avenue, more ORCA readers, and possibly longer hours of car restrictions and/or the zone stretching further into Belltown. SDOT said this might be complete by March but thought September was a safer deadline.
  3. Extending the 5th Avenue contraflow bus lane from Cherry Street to Marion St, and then continuing further North on 6th Avenue. This has interactions with the reversible I-5 on-ramp at Cherry, which requires coordination with WSDOT and FHWA. While not a huge project that digs up the street, staff were less than certain this could be done by March.

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News Roundup: Be Excellent

Northgate Link Extension Construction

This is an open thread

Photo by AtomicTaco, STB Flickr pool

Design Changes Proposed for Lynnwood Link Stations

The future site of NE 185th Street station

Sound Transit has released a list of design changes for Lynnwood Link, requested by WSDOT and local governments following the 2015 EIS, with some major changes for stations at NE 185th Street and Lynnwood Transit Center, along with other minor tweaks. The changes, which are separate from Sound Transit’s quest to fill the $500 million budget shortfall that the project faces, should bring modest improvements to vehicular access at both stations, while scraping away at the property acquisition costs that have dogged the project over the last few months.

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Pierce Transit’s Restructure Bet Pays Off

(2011)Pierce Transit Gillig Hybrid #503

While many cities nationwide are seeing declines in bus ridership, a few transit agencies – including ours here in Seattle – are bucking the trend by restructuring their routes to focus on frequency and span-of-service, beyond just 1-seat rush hour rides into downtown. With a major restructure on the books for a year now, you can add Pierce Transit to that trend.

PT, was one of the agencies hardest hit by the Great Recession, has been climbing out of a hole.  A broad restructure (the first in the system’s 40 year history), which brought a sensible grid network and increased frequency to the Tacoma-area bus network, was proposed in the fall of 2016 and went into effect in the spring of 2017.  With a restructured network and 59,000 additional service hours, PT announced this week that ridership is up 3.8% in 2018 versus the same (pre-restructure) first quarter of 2017.

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Balducci Delays Elimination of Zone Resets

The Sound Transit Board of Directors took action last Thursday on the staff proposals for fare changes on ST Express, but the outcome wasn’t as planned.

Last spring, a Regional Fare Forum called for the end of zone resets, a feature on ORCA readers that allows riders to request a one-zone fare on a route that crosses into another zone, but requires the operator to push a series of buttons to allow the one-zone charge, and then another series of buttons to reset the default to two zones. The main reason the forum sought to end zone resets was to reduce programming costs for Next Generation ORCA. Getting rid of zone resets will also save some dwell time on buses by making boarding a little faster.

The King County Council voted to eliminate zone resets on King County Metro by implementing a flat regular fare of $2.75, while leaving reduced fares as are.

Community Transit is getting ready to raise each of its local fares 25 cents, while implementing flat commuter fares.

Sound Transit’s staff proposal played off a $3.25 flat fare proposal for ST Express regular fares against a straw Option 2 that would have charged $2.75 on all intra-county routes and $3.75 on all inter-county routes. Option 2 would have produced weird results like charging $2.75 on route 577 and $3.75 on route 578, even though the overwhelming majority of riders on those routes travel between Seattle and Federal Way. Other more intuitive options, like a premium $3.75 fare for routes that run express over a certain distance, were not considered. In the end, the flat fare proposal won out over the straw Option 2 by just 59%-41% in the survey responses.

Sound Transit Board Member
Claudia Balducci

Board Member Claudia Balducci, a King County Councilmember who participated in last year’s Regional Fare Forum, sponsored an amendment to delay the change in the adult fares. She said the reason the simplification to a flat fare was being made was for simplifying programming for NextGeneration ORCA, pointing out that it was disconcerting that NextGen ORCA would need such a programming simplification.

Disconcertingly, nobody mentioned the time delays caused by zone resets while boarding. In an email from Balducci’s office, she said that ST staff had told her only 7% of riders would be impacted by the elimination of zone resets, and that bus speed was not one of the elements being studied in the fare options.

Clearly, since there were no options that would have kept zone resets, there was no need to study that aspect. But that 7% figure for the percent of riders using zone resets indicates that most riders on 2-county routes’ travel time is actually being impacted.

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