32 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: Why the U.S. Has No HSR”

  1. Could the Magnolia bridge be replaced by a gondola? What’s the magnitude of cost for that?

    1. According to its study, it would take drivers just over two hours to get from Magnolia to Elliot Avenue West during the morning commute under the “no build” option,
      The above from Former Seattle mayor: SDOT plans for Magnolia Bridge replacement ‘disgraceful’. What’s interesting is McSchwinn wasn’t concerned about the 2 hours but the fact replacing the bridge enabled driving DT period. This is the guy considered to right-wing-nut to be re-elected.

      As a practical consideration, it’s less than 2 hr to commute from Everett. So, would making it more desirable to drive in from the ex-urbs actually create more carbon emissions? While people choosing not to live in Magnolia would help keep down prices, consider the home built instead is likely to be new construction and much larger than one in Magnolia.

      1. Well, 520 added tolls and lost a lot of drivers due to tollophobia. You’d have to compare both 520 and I-90 together.

      2. Initially yes. But as “tollophobia” has subsided people have started to rationally do the math regarding the value of their time. Keeping in mind that unconjested roads have higher throughput than those that are gridlocked I suspect (but can’t prove) as many or more people are crossing Lk WA on the new 520, despite the tolls, as were prior to tolling.

      3. As someone who goes across 520 on weekdays regularly (for hiking) , I really doubt that the numbers are even close. I go at various times — the heart of rush hour, a bit early, a bit late. Traffic has picked up from when they first put the tolls in, but it is still way below what people did when it was free. People are clearly still avoiding 520.

      4. Here’s a 2012 study (has it really been that long!) that shows “peak rush-hour traffic is pretty close to what it was before tolling.” It’s understandable that off peak people will avoid a toll and divert to a different route. Given the cost of tolling the only option would be be lifting the toll entirely which makes sense when virtually the entire cost of collecting the toll goes to a company in Texas. But, unlike the HOT lanes I think that option is contractually ruled out.

        The anti-tolling lobby has been strangely silent since 2012 which speaks volumes. I did find a 2018 study done by Stantec (sorry, it’s a PDF and including an HTML link is above my skill level). It’s mostly focused on toll revenue rather than traffic volume. Nothing wrong with that; reducing VMT is the green agenda, right? Anyway, my read of one chart in the report is that prior to tolling Average Annual Daily Traffic (AADT) was ~90,000. The immediate result of tolling (2012) was to reduce that number to ~60,000. The volume has grown linearly since then and currently is in the range of 70-75,000.

        Take home, tolling resulted in the same number of trips across the bridge during peak commute. Effectively, those whose time was money paid the toll and reaped a significant advantage. For the carbon counters that means whales saved; sticking it to the rich & saving the planet.

      5. Interesting Sightline link. The study is five years old, but if those numbers are correct, then tolling has resulted in a significant reduction in traffic across the bridge. The only spot where it is close is for the reverse rush hour (east in the morning, west in the afternoon). Even then it is only just a moment where the old graph touches the new one. From the looks of it, someone who heads to the East Side at 8:30 AM will encounter the same bad traffic. But leave at 8:00 or 9:00 AM and it is significantly better. (The graph isn’t that detailed, so I am guessing as to the exact peak time). Furthermore, it is never quite as bad as it was before, but it is close. As someone who does the reverse commute, maybe this is exactly what I’m experiencing. If I’m unlucky, then the trip across the bridge will be as bad as ever. But 15 minutes before or later and I’m fine (which wasn’t the case before the tolling). But the big takeaway is what you mentioned, that the biggest decrease was outside of that time.

        But if the graph is accurate, then even during rush hour, the number of trips across 520 has gone down considerably. For the traditional commute (into Seattle in the morning, out in the evening) it is much better. For the reverse commute the peak is still bad, but that period is much shorter (the peak is much pointier).

      6. RossB,
        That is indeed the study I was looking at. One thing to look at is prior to tolling the traffic volume was pretty constant. Since 2012 it’s shown a strong linear increase which I think shows people just getting used to the idea of “pay to play”.

        The study gets pretty deep into the weeds and it seems to me the main concern/goal is maintaining the revenue stream rather than maximizing vehicle trips across 520. I don’t really have a problem with that but I’m sure there are people who’s commute got worse because of the diverted traffic. What would be interesting to see all graphed together is commute time by time of day for I-90, 520 and 522. Obviously it got way better on 520 for those willing to pay the piper. I-90 has seen a lot of traffic revision related to East Link. Not sure if the reconfigured roadway is better or worse with respect to capacity and travel times. 522 was bad and I’ll bet got noticeably worse.

        Another thing a combined report should show is if total trips have changed. It’s hard to guess extent tolling has on that because the economy and population have ramped up considerably. Along the same vein it would be interesting to see what effect it has on transit ridership. On one hand you’d expect the toll to increase ridership. But, I’m sure there’s a significant population commuting across the Lake who’s time is worth more than the toll. Prior to tolling transit could be almost a wash or possibly faster than driving alone. Now, if you’re willing to cough up the price of a fancy coffee you can get to work way faster in your SOV. The toll is a tiny fraction of the lease payment on a new Tesla.

    2. “Magnolia gondola” has a nice ring to it. But how would you attach a car to a gondola? Could it carry more than one car at a time?

      McGinn’s comments were entirely reasonable. Why would there be a major increase in driving from Magnolia? It’s not allowing more density, and the few pockets that are densifying are close to the Dravus and Emerson crossings, not central and western Magnolia close to the Magnolia Bridge. The shift from one-car-per-family to one-car-per-person happened decades ago, and household sizes have gotten smaller, not larger. Vehicle miles driven since the recession has alternated between a slight increase to a slight decrease to nothing, so while there may be a slow increase from Magnolia over decades (as if SOVs will be viable that long), I don’t see a rapid increase that requires panic bridge constuction now. As for the claim that it would take one our or two hours to drive one mile out of Magnolia in the AM peak, that doesn’t sound very credible and what evidence is it based on? From other quarters I’ve heard that the Magnolia Bridge doesn’t have many cars on it so it’s not really necessary. This gridlock claim was the same reasoning used to justify the 99 tunnel.

      1. I think asdf2’s concise (and correct) response was based on the fact that a gondola would not provide automobile access; hence it’s not a “replacement” for the bridge. As for cost it would be way more than can be justified even if every current car driver used the gondola. That said, the cost of an auto-crane might not be too different than what the State currently does with our Marine Highway (aka WSF).

        The argument for replacing the bridge isn’t to increase capacity but to maintain long standing access that has created the current built environment. As for the two hour stat I’m just quoting what was publish. And we know that those funding a study generally have a predetermined result in mind.

        I think the discussion should be on using replacement funds to provide a viable alternative to driving DT. A pedestrian/cycling/transit option does that but only if that option considers connectivity on either side of the bridge akin to what residents “bought into” when choosing to live in Magnolia.

    3. Ok, google told me it would cost 12-20 million per mile. It’s about a mile from Interbay to the top of the hill. Bridge replacement would cost 400 million.

      Yes it’s crazy and will never happen, but bridge replacement is also crazy and might just happen.

    4. A gondola doesn’t make sense. Magnolia is too dispersed — there is no logical place to put one. Urban gondolas connect very urban areas, areas with a lot more population density than Magnolia.

      As to what will be done, the easiest would be to widen Dravus. Another possibility (that might cost about the same) would be to replace it with a bridge close to Armory Way, as explained in the Seattle Times article (https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/seattles-magnolia-bridge-is-about-worn-out-but-city-says-it-cant-afford-a-replacement/). The bridge would likely be two lanes each direction. At that point, you could have one lane each direction of the Dravus Street bridge be bus only. That is a lot cheaper than replacing the Magnolia (Garfield Street) bridge.

  2. Nice video. It does a good job illustrating the disjointed state of US HSR. For me, I think Virgin Rail has done a great job advertising and raising cash, however, the fact their system will have minimal grade separation (Florida has the highest number of train fatalities in the nation), average speeds of near 80mph, smelly diesels and a system catering more to tourist than residents, makes me think its prospects for “true” HSR are dismal. It will be more of a successful tourist ride than anything.

    I would like Texas Central’s system if I thought they could come up with 15-18 billion without federal assistance. I just don’t see the private sector buying that much in bonds. Or will Softbank fork out the dole?

    If California wasn’t so damn infested with seismic zones I would feel a lot better about its prospects. Once it gets its spine running from Merced to Modesto, similar to what Virgin USA is doing, it will garner the necessary advertising to draw investment. But will this new cash infusion be enough to get the line through the mountains and fault zones? I don’t see this happening unless someone like Amtrak Joe wins the presidency and sends a supplemental life line.

    Outside the accident, for the last 10 years Amtrak Cascades has implemented a good plan, ie, removing detours, adding runs, adding sidings and running faster trainsets. But it needs to move to the next level by adding electrification. With all that the Northwest has to offer in terms of quake zones, rivers and mountains, I think a Northwest line could prove more costly per mile than California’s. Washington would better be served with a phase approach in which Everett-Seattle-Tacoma is the initial electrified run and then the system is incrementally extended from there.

    1. Even better than improving speeds would be improving frequency. The schedule shows four northbound Cascades daily; bumping that to half-hourly or hourly would make it a no-brainer compared to the slow car or the out of the way, security-theater-burdened plane.

      1. There were to be 7 runs (including Amtrak Coast) but the accident curtailed the two new runs for the time being. I also think the long range plans had 2 additional runs which would max out the line (between freight, Sounder and Cascade the lines are getting peaked out).

    2. With WSDOT committed to removing the Talgo VI trainsets “as soon as possible” there’s going to be a need for new equipment on the Cascades corridor. Amtrak might be able to supply rolling stock for the corridor, but Amtrak’s existing equipment would be slower than the Talgos unless WSDOT decides to fund a project to upgrade the running speeds along the corridor. The corridor is built to Class 5 standards which would allow 90mph top speeds subject to BNSF’s approval.

      WSDOT could buy more Talgo 8 trainsets or go for Siemens Viaggios like Brightline in Florida. Either way, WSDOT has some important decisions to make about improving the Cascades corridor.

      1. The last purchase was for 2 Siemens and I think the purchasing states (California, Illinois, Washington and few others) have an agreement to purchase more at a bargain. So my guess is Siemens. It would be nice if they could sweeten the order and buy enough for 8 runs.

      2. What would be awesome would be the restoration of the Pioneer line. That would take up a Portland-Seattle slot.

      3. The original plan was for Washington to be part of the corridor pool of cars ordered for California and Illinois.

        If this winds up happening, it will be the same Siemens stuff Brightline has, which will be a huge step backwards because it will mean high level doors and stairs and a wheelchair lift at each door – basically a return to the 1950s in terms of car access. It means staff to open the doors aren’t going away any time soon.

        What we really need to watch is what Chicago Metra is working on. They need cars that are fast unloading and are compatible with low level platforms. My hope is they will be able to get a low floor design of some sort with a between-wheel gangway and maybe that could be given a regional train seating layout.

      4. Those are the Siemens locomotives.

        I was responding to the comment about the cars. Originally Washington was supposed to also get the same corridor cars that Illinois and California were supposed to get. They would basically be a second generation Superliner.

        The Nippon Sharyo car structure was shown to not meet FRA crush strength and so the contract was cancelled. In the end those corridors will get Siemens cars with the same car structure as what Brightline / Virgin USA is getting, but that will mean stairs at each door to reach places that have low level platforms.

  3. I see that the public-private relationship by rail is fundamentally different than other long-distance modes. With highways, the public owns and maintains the corridor facilities (but mostly not the terminals). With air travel, the public controls the corridors, and owns and maintains the terminals. In both cases, the user fees (fuel taxes) don’t fully pay for the system, although both were originally set up to try to be cost-neutral. I sometimes wonder if we should move rail tracks to public ownership and maintenance as an initial step, and let private sector interests own the trains and stations themselves (noting that the irony of many passenger rail service is that the US does the exact opposite).

    Our freeway system contains excess right-of-way, and that appears to be the most strategic locations to build tracks . Consider that freeways usually were built in places that provided the easiest and cheapest connectivity anyway, and they have existing noise and visual impacts. They seem to be great starting points to find a corridor segments.

    Then a revenue model away from a fuel tax has to be implemented. While general tax sources could provide some funding, it doesn’t seem politically viable as a long-term concept.

    I think it’s probably going to have to rely on creating multi-track strategies and involve freight. Fast goods movement is an increasingly popular concept. A world in which the ports owned the tracks would be a model. I even wonder if our ports had tracks and automated container systems to off-load ship cargo at a terminal in Ellensburg or an Amazon distribution system overlaid on a passenger rail corridor would change the entire rail financial model.

    Finally, I think it’s easy to forget that rails themselves require intense overnight maintenance to keep a line operating at reasonable speeds. This has to be considered when building a sustainable financial model.

    I don’t have a specific strategy in mind. I do think that it will require revisiting the basics of ownership and control though. The existing model doesn’t appear to ever fit high speed rail except in very unique situations.

  4. This is an open thread so here we go.

    I am suggesting to who ever has influince in SDOT or Metro to consider looking in to purchase a lane wide right of way from SIMON. Simon owns Northgate Mall. I would like to see a bus only lane from Northgate Way to 103rd St southbound on 5th NE. It would help with the traffic on that street and also reduce a very dangerous intersection at Northgate Way and 5th Ne. The majority of the problem is from cars (like my own) trying to turn left from west bound Northgate Way to south bound to 5th Ne.

    There are 2 lanes west bound that turn left on to 5th Ne. If they turn after any bus goes south, the northern or right most turn lane gets stuck. The cars bundle up and start swerving and cutting off other cars. Then the west bound lights turn red. Many cars are stranded in the middle of the intersection. I have done it also, so I am partially to blame. I know from my own experience that this is not done on purpose. There is no warning. You drive through a green light, cant see around the corner and get stuck. The drivers are not always to blame. NOW I know that when I see a bus cross before the light turns green to not move. But I have been yelled at by walkers and people on bikes as if I was doing it intentionally. NOT the case.
    This would be a great time for SDOT or Metro to try to buy one or two lane widths rights to that side of Northgate Mall. They are already going to tear down and redevelope it anyway.

    It would be good for car traffic, pedestrian safety and maybe even business as they build the new ice arena practice facilities on that side of the mall. Win Win Win.

    Does this sound ok or are there flaws? I am anot an engineer or a road planner but I think it could work and for cheap. Let me know.

    1. You’d have to buy out the Key Bank. I’m also fairly certain that 1st sees more traffic and it definitely has a more dangerous pedestrian crossing with Northgate Way than 5th.

      1. You would start after Key Bank (thus preserving the existing crossing). The crossing by the library as well as the crossing at 103rd would be wider.

      2. Thank you for your comment. I agree that 1st probably has more traffic. Maybe we should push to have that section addressed as Lynwood link gets built out and the street gets repaved. I do not walk over there much so I don’t have to cross there, but I know it is dangerous and not well lit. The sweving west bound lane approaching 1st on Northgate Way doesn’t help either.
        Also I did not think about the ank because I thought Simon owned the land and may choose to develop that area slong with the rest, but that may be incorrect.

    2. OK, I think I understand what you are talking about. Basically a car starts out in the rightmost turn lane, behind the 67 bus in this picture: https://goo.gl/maps/qouYBF1qEccwPHLw7. After turning, the 67 almost immediately stops at the bus stop here (https://goo.gl/maps/hB692Bi4eKbCEATf6). If you are right behind the bus there is no problem. But if there are two buses there, or if you are behind several cars, then it backs up into the intersection.

      So, yeah, it isn’t good. Adding a bus lane would definitely help. But there are other ways of improving things. One would be the following (I hope what I describe made sense) :

      Make the rightmost turn lane a bus-only lane. This would take some work and create some issues. I think you would have to extend the turn lane (which becomes two turn lanes) further east. Right now it starts at about half way between 5th and 8th (https://goo.gl/maps/V8Hu6sEXQCVjpeJH7). To the east (closer to 8th) it is a two way turn lane. That would be replaced by a turn lane (for those heading west and turning south). You would need to carve out some space for those headed the other direction (heading east but turning north) but that wouldn’t take much room (you don’t have that many cars headed that way). You could also just eliminate that turn (no turning left there). Either way, once you eliminate the two way turn section, I would paint a double white line almost immediately after the turn lane starts. Basically, that means you have to get into the turn lane at the first available moment — no cutting in late. That helps traffic that is headed straight, as well as the bus. The bus (which is initially in the right lane) would stay in the right lane until the double white line starts. That puts it past the backup of cars turning left (which could clog the leftmost lane). Once it gets past that point, it moves to the left lane (which is a through lane) and then moves to the left again. I think that could work, but it also might result in some backups. You might need to extend the left turn light longer (which is not ideal, but still might be better than what exists now).

      That seems even cheaper. It would only require paint. In some ways it would result in better traffic flow as it would eliminate the two-way turn lanes.

      I do think your idea is a good one though. But I would modify it slightly. Assuming the crosswalks are the same as they are now, I would do the following:

      Create a pullout BAT lane a little bit after Key Bank, and ending right before the crosswalk at the library. Pullouts of this nature make crossing the street much easier. It does mean the bus has to merge back into traffic, but they would have plenty of room to do it. You could have a jump ahead light so that if the bus is stopped by the crosswalk, it would be able to get ahead of everyone at that point. Beyond that, I don’t think you would need anything. This takes away one of the main advantages of a bus lane (that it is faster than a regular lane) but it keeps the street more pedestrian friendly. The big question is whether it would be considerably slower for buses.

      A bus lane the entire stretch would be faster for buses, but it would still have to deal with cars turning into the mall (which is probably the big cause of the slowdown right now).

      1. Thank you for you comment as well. I had to read it a few times to understand all the details. I think that making the outer turn lane bus only would never be followed or enforced, but the rest seems to work.
        While Link is being built on 1st, and the mall being developed on 5th, there is an opportunity to improve both sections now.

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