25 Replies to “Podcast #85: I-976 is bad”

  1. I don’t know if he was speaking in earnest, but I do think Bruce Dammeier is on to something when he says Pierce County would be better off with Express Bus priority on I-5 than we will be with light rail.

    Not only would the plan cost less and be (much) faster to implement, but it would also address some of the concerns you touched on in the podcast about how Sound Transit doesn’t offer as much to a lot of Pierce County.

    Light rail will only ever run to Tacoma, but ST express buses already connect to Puyallup, Sumner, Bonney Lake, South Hill, Lakewood, and Dupont . Those places are where Bruce Dammeier’s constituency comes from, and a good number of them are riding ST express and the Sounder on a daily basis. Improvements to those modes of transit would be useful, popular things Dammeier could deliver to those communities – light rail is never going to be that.

    1. Although I don’t recall him ever campaigning in favor of bus lanes on I-5, such an achievement would be most welcome. It is only cheap, though, if an existing lane is converted (and the traffic engineers always resist by asking where there is room for another lane). There also needs to be access for buses to get to and from these lanes without swerving across general-purpose lanes. Federal Way has done that (though HOVs do clog that lane). Pierce County hasn’t even begun to embrace continuous bus paths.

      Some will see express bus lanes as competing with light rail. But the south end of the Red Line (1) primarily serves connectivity among locations between downtown Tacoma and Seattle; and (2) will eventually have its capacity maxed out somewhere in the Rainier Valley as trains head inbound during morning peak.

      1. Truncating at Federal Way, rather than running all the way downtown, solves most of those issues. There won’t be any express buses running from Pierce to Seattle well before Link reaches Pierce county.

        No sure why you are concerned about Link capacity in the RV. Ridership forecasts show Link will be able to handle peak ridership. SW King will depend on Link, but by the time you get to Pierce, if Link is having peak capacity issues, you look to Sounder to absorb the growth at peak with longer trains & additional trips.

    2. If he can make real HOV lanes happen, that would be great. The question is whether he’s arguing in good faith. Many people campaign against rail because they say buses would be more efficient, but when a BRT proposal comes up they campaign against it because they say it’s too expensive or we need the GP lanes. The article I saw didn’t say he would work toward HOV lanes, it just said he wants to secede from the ST district if the Tacoma Dome extension won’t be finished by 2036. Seceding without replacement would lead to no express buses in Pierce County because Pierce Transit doesn’t have the money and it has a lot of local needs. So we’d be back to the 500 to Federal Way as the only option. If Sound Transit withdraws from Pierce, Sounder goes away with it.

      RossB and I and others have argued that the Tacoma Dome and Everett extensions aren’t necessary; we could do well with frequent feeders to Federal Way and Lynnwood, which was the plan under ST2. Real HOV lanes and enforcement would make those feeders even faster. WSDOT’s minimum for HOV lanes is a modest 35mph, which isn’t as good as 55mph but it’s something, but it won’t enforce even that. That’s part of the reason why we’re building the Tacoma and Everett extensions in the first place, and why people have reservations whether 405 Stride will really be “commuter rail on rubber tires”.

      1. I’d almost go farther and argue that we should wait to break ground on the Tacoma Dome extension until after Stride is up and running. If Stride works, then great we can have a conversation on whether that’s a better way to serve the I5 corridor between Tacoma and Federal Way. If Stride doesn’t work, then you move forward with TD Link as proposed. Get TD through EIS, but otherwise chill until we have real data from Stride.

    3. I think a good start would be to make HOV3 the norm on I-5 and other busy corridors. That would certainly be a more palatable compromise to relevant agencies than taking the entire lane for buses, while it would likely make things a great deal better as well.

    4. The 594 is a good bus, and replacing it with Link all the way will slow things down. Throw in a half-hour ride on a connecting bus, and much of Tacoma becomes farther away from Seattle than Bellingham (about 1.5 hours on the Bolt Bus).

      1. This is just not true. The 590 that leaves Tacoma Dome at 5:34AM is scheduled for 66 minutes to 4th and Jackson.
        Link’s run time according to the project site is 35 minutes to SeaTac, and 31 minutes from SeaTac to ID-Chinatown Station, so…66 minutes.
        And it only gets worse later in the morning. The bus leaving at 7:03 takes 72 minutes. It’s even worse in the evenings going back to Tacoma.
        This is my daily commute and I cannot wait for Link to get here.

      2. That’s a prominent problem with Link (especially with it routed in the RV). It’s probably one of its most significant design flaws, that it is being built so far out, yet can’t reach the freeway speed limit even on straight sections.

        As a result, there have been some contorted takes, such as “Federal Way Link is Not About Seattle” (https://seattletransitblog.wpcomstaging.com/2015/03/17/federal-way-link-is-not-about-seattle/), which is clearly not the case when you see what ST plans on doing with the express buses. I’ve taken an attitude of “it is what it is,” and looking forward to at least the frequency and consistently.

        This is also why I’m skeptical of the two south infill stations, including Graham Street, which is great and all, but people have places to go, and with many more people than the entire Rainier Valley going south of the airport, that’s a lot of people who will have a longer trip for the sake of a small number of passengers who have access to other Link Stations.

      3. Yeah, something that moves at the speed of a Link train is good for Columbia City->downtown, ok for SeaTac airport->downtown, poor for Federal Way->downtown and terrible for Tacoma->downtown. Basically, the longer the distance, the worse it gets.

        It kind of reminds of the CalTrain, which has about the same speeds and stop spacing as Link. Once, I was down there and rode a company shuttle from Sunnyvale to San Francisco in the afternoon, then rode the CalTrain back in the evening. In spite of the bus ride being right in the middle of afternoon rush hour, and the HOV lane being just 2+ and not moving all that great, the bus ride there was *still* faster than the train ride back. Because when you’re going 30-40 miles, a 40 mph top speed with stops every 1-2 miles all the way, just takes too much time.

        That’s not to say that Link’s stops don’t have purposes – they do, and they make it far easier to visit Rainier Valley than it was before. I’m just skeptical of *that* being the way to get to Tacoma. During peak hours, Tacoma has the Sounder to bypass I-5 traffic. The rest of the time, express buses do the job just fine.

        That’s not to say, of course, that the 594 can’t be improved. My limited riding of it is weekends and I have observed two significant flaws. First is the slow crawl through downtown, to the point where Belltown->SODO takes as much time as the cruise down I-5 from SODO all the way to Tacoma. Within downtown Tacoma, the bus, again, gets stuck in traffic, even on weekends. And, coming back from Tacoma, the Lakewood tail (which almost nobody seems to ride) makes the punctuality in Tacoma at the whims of I-5 traffic over in Lakewood.

        Fortunately, these problems are solvable. At least outside of rush hour, the 594 should just run between downtown and Tacoma Dome, cutting out the chronically-congested Lakewood and downtown Tacoma sections. Those that really want to get to Lakewood can transfer to the 574, but most Lakewood people who want to ride the bus to Seattle will just do what they’ve already been doing and drive to Tacoma Dome to catch the 594 there. For downtown Tacoma, the solution is frequency upgrades to Tacoma Link. Add more trains and run it every 6 minutes all day long, so the transfer penalty at Tacoma Dome is minimal.

        On the Seattle side, I’m not convinced that the bus has to crawl through every inch of downtown either. Starting in 2023, there will be Link trains at the International District every 3 minutes peak, 6 minutes off-peak. That’s often enough that the time saved by avoiding traffic and stoplights downtown outweighs the transfer penalty of switching to it. So, just truncate the bus at the International District station. We can also get rid of the 586. With Link going International District Station->UW in 10-12 minutes, the one-seat ride from Tacoma->UW isn’t necessary anymore. Throw in all the savings from the I-5 Lakewood slog, the Tacoma Dome slog, the downtown Seattle slog, and the 586, you can probably double the frequency of what remains of the 594 from International District->Tacoma Dome, without increasing operating costs. This means a bus every 15 minutes all day, rather than every 30 minutes.

      4. There definitely needs to be a distinction between peak and off-peak. Obviously when someone like asdf2 talks about the bus being much faster than Link, they are talking about off-peak, and perhaps late evening (I used to take the 578 every day at 9:30pm and entrance-to-exit Seattle to Federal Way was remarkably consistent, taking almost exactly 20 minutes maybe 3/4 times). Obviously these are speeds that could never be reached by Link. But the problem is that if Link is only moderately better than peak buses, and every off-peak trip is stuck at moderately better than peak speed, that’s a problem.

        I actually think of CalTrain more like Sounder, since it is heavy rail. The problem with CalTrain is as you (asdf2) pointed out, its stops are too close together. I’m pretty sure it reaches 60mph when it has enough distance to.

        What would be nice if Link has some sort of peak stop-skipping like CalTrain does. It certainly can’t do something like baby bullet CalTrain service, but something like this: two consecutive trains leave IDS. The first train skips Stadium and stops at SODO. The second train stops at Stadium and skips SODO. Both Stadium and SODO get trains every 12 minutes instead of every 6, but the trip for nearly everyone is faster, because it saves 20 seconds of dwell time per stop, and probably another 20 seconds worth of acceleration and slowing down. If this were done throughout the RV, and having all trains serve the major stops (like IDS, the airport, UW, etc.) then it’s not hard at all to imagine 10-15 minutes being saved on a trip to Tacoma. It gets better when you consider that with people sorted into trains more or less by destination, you have much lower dwell time on crowded trains.

      5. Because Caltrain has locomotives, it takes lots more distance and time to speed up and slow down than Link light rail does. However, the top light rail speeds are horrible!

        Finally, ID will be the 18th stop (I think) after a train leaves Tacoma Dome. That adds lots of time for a rider.

      6. Lots of issues here.

        Every speed/spacing level has different advantages and disadvantages. A closely-spaced city subway serves the most urban trips. E.g., if Link had stations at Bellevue Ave, 15th, and 23rd, it could replace the 43 and be the core Capitol Hill route. Conversely, a faster Sounder could get to Tacoma in 30-35 minutes instead of 60, and a half-hourly Sounder would be almost as good as a subway to Kent, Auburn, and Puyallup. Link is a hybrid between the two, so it’s good for intermediate trips like UW-SeaTac but it starts falling behind when the distances reach Westlake-Tacoma or Westlake-Federal Way. In the north end, Westlake-Everett will be as fast as Sounder and in the midrange of ST Express, because the distance is shorter and it’s all grade-separated. But at Tacoma it’s 15 minutes slower than Sounder or ST Express.

        We warned Pierce repeatedly before ST3 about this travel-time issue, but Pierce county/cities said Seattle-Tacoma travel time was a secondary issue, and Pierce residents have not mentioned travel time at all.

        Light rail can run up to 65 or 85 mph but ST’s spec was 55mph. That allowed it to get cheaper trains and have tighter curves and inclines. ST’s original vision was a lot more surface track (Mt Baker-SeaTac), where >55 would be a hazard anyway. ST didn’t think far enough about how that much surface-running would interact with Tacoma’s distance. (What would Westlake-Tacoma travel time be if it were all surface south of Mt Baker?) Now the tight curves are what make it difficult to retrofit faster trains. ST says it’s looking into how to speed up the trains. It would have been better to start with a faster spec in the first place, or have a two-tier network rather than a hybrid one.

        People don’t ride the 594 from Lakewood because the downtown Tacoma detour adds an inordinate amount of time because of the highway layout. It goes from 512 to I-5 to 705 to Commerce Street to Pacific Ave, and that takes a long time. The 574 is much more direct between Lakewood to Tacoma Dome, and is thus faster from Lakewood to SeaTac. Mr Dublin prefers the 574, and others may too. The upshot is that a route from Seattle should go to either Lakewood or downtown Tacoma, not both. The peak expresses do this. The 504 should simply drop downtown Tacoma. If a Lakewood-Tacoma express is necessary; it should be another route.

        My Caltrain pet peeve is the number of stops. It takes 90 minutes from San Francisco to San Jose, when driving takes only 45 minutes. I don’t know its spacing is as close as Link, but it’s too close to connect two of the three anchor cities in the Bay Area. Fortunately, Caltrain addresses it with peak express runs and baby bullets. (I don’t know the difference; when I rode it peak to Palo Alto it was before baby bullets but all the peak trains were A/B type expresses. That brings the travel time down to a reasonable 60 minutes.)

        Link expresses would require four tracks. We can’t retrofit them now.

        The Georgetown bypass idea (SODO-TIB with two intermediate stations) is unlikely because it was in ST’s long-range plan but the board deleted it in 2012 when it updated the plan. South King and Pierce didn’t say one word to defend it, even though they would be the beneficiaries. They thought the current Tacoma plan was sufficient, and were more interested in the Burien-Renton line and a BAR station.

    5. I’ve interacted with Dammeier a bit and, while he’s definitely right of center for most STB readers, I found him a serious politician. If we assume ST2 is built out, I think he’s really on to something, as the Federal Way station will be a straightforward transfer for bus service. With the rebuilt SR18-I5 HOV-to-HOV interchange, you can actually built a pretty good STX/PT network that feeds service to Link without needing to build the actual Tacoma Dome extension.

      The region still needs the south OMF to be built on time, but based upon the locations ST has indicated, you’ll need to build very little south of Federal Way station, allowing ST to defer the bulk of Tacoma Dome station.

      I still think Sounder will need an investment to expand peak capacity sooner than later, but Tacoma streetcar phase III project is garbage so please just kill it. I can easily see Dammeier push for Pierce to be excluded from any “ST4” attempt to backfill I-976 revenue, or even to ratchet back Pierce to closer to ST2 tax levels.

  2. Mr. Dammeier and everybody else, let’s get one thing straight. Service capacity of any bus transit system is permanently limited by a very few facts.

    Without prohibitively-expensive changes in vehicle design, buses cannot be coupled. Meaning ironclad safety requirement that the faster a bus platoon goes, the more of its length consists of passenger-free air.

    Also, years of Link service in winter should provide miles of video along regional freeways showing trains moving at service speed, above and beside freeways full of trapped automobiles. Mixed with buses.

    Based on years of transit driving experience, including our own buildup to Link, I’m first to advocate making best possible use of freeway lanes- meaning if possible 100% reservation for buses, 24-7-365- while regional electric rail is under construction.

    But KIRO traffic reports tell the real story by the minute every single rush hour. Hours lost to collisions that permit a
    single driver’s mistake to immobilize thousands of people, both bus passengers and motorists. And what’s especially frightening…am I alone in noting number of professional truckers also involved?

    It’s ‘way worse than “Do The Math”. A region the size of ours needs its astronomically expanding population centers connected with electric trains on their own inviolable right of way. It’s a matter of arithmetic that the railroad we won’t build will send ever more of our economy to regions around the world that will.

    Good podcast.

    Mark Dublin

  3. Thank you Martin for your timely comments on 976. I hope you will please make it an editorial. We need to shake our fists here and note, “Eyman is nothing without a whole bunch of people who don’t care” plus it’s worth noting this was in an off-year election only on because some idiots at a certain corporation tried to exert undue influence drowning out the positive messages of grassroots campaigns.

    Also can you guys plz have Lizz Giordiano back in December? Just to talk about the Everett Transit-Community Transit merger talks. THANKS!


  4. The 24th of last month, decided to attend a Sound Transit Board meeting in the Ruth Fisher room in Seattle. Can still do this occasionally- though difference between traffic conditions now as opposed to when I first moved to Olympia in 2014 make such bus visits increasingly rare.

    Our own busline, Intercity Transit, is blocked so often by traffic and accidents I pretty much have to depend on my car and the back-roads to Tacoma. Can add an hour to the trip, but at least I’ll have coffee and bathrooms available.

    Parked at Tacoma Dome. Easy ride in via 574 to the Airport. And even better via Link to UW Station, for family business. Link to meeting back Downtown. My 3:15 Sounder departed and stayed on time far as Puyallup. Where conductor told us that owing to a successful suicide-by-train on the tracks just south, we’d all have to get off and transfer to buses to Tacoma and south.

    I took him up on alternative: remain on my train back to Seattle. Then my own usual choice of trips: Link to the Airport, and ST 574 to my car at Tacoma Dome. Around 6:30 pm, good transfer to beautiful new bus headed for my car. Five minutes north of Tacoma Dome on I-5, collision ahead doubled my trip time.

    Got home very late, on a night inadvisably dark for my eyesight. So to County Executive Dannemeier and all pertinent voters, here’s my suggestion. What our own next step needs may indeed not be either present fleets on either Link or Sounder, but what Southern Sweden calls the “Pagatog” (POGE-a togue) for “Little Boy Train.” Purple streamliners with bathrooms.

    For what it’s worth, out the purple-trimmed window one now sees a lot of cars in regular traffic. Could be programmed into primate DNA. But while our own “coding” my very well demand we drive, we’ve also got the brain-space to give ourselves the means not to leave our Saabs and Volvo’s where we don’t perennially get them stuck in traffic. Not sure a monkey can say “Depreciation.”

    Mark Dublin

  5. STB has done a good job covering 976’s effects in Metro and ST. I would love to know what kind of impacts it will have in smaller agencies elsewhere in the state. All I’ve heard about it Garfield County’s bus system being at risk of shuttering completely. What else? And what are current (pre-976) car tab costs around the state? Are they particularly high, or they already closer to $30 outside of the Seattle metro area? I’m just trying to get a sense of why WA voters cared about this vote one way or another outside the ST taxing zone. Even though I strongly disapprove of rural bus systems being reduced or eliminated, I ultimately don’t care that much, and am OK with voters getting their $30 tabs instead. But why should that nullify TWO previous votes in which Seattle has opted to tax itself for better urban and regional transit?

    1. It’s the $30 car tabs from the 1999 fallout of I 695, an administrative fee of I think $13, and any TBD’s their jurisdiction has. So with no TBD’s it would be $43 regardless of vehicle.

    1. Next time you feel like bellyaching about how the south end is getting short shrift, come back and read this comment.

  6. “Sumner/Puyallup as a giant catchment area” … I mean, isn’t that already turn? We are building giant parking garage to serve the suburban riders, and providing satellite parking and STX service to area like South Hill, Bonney Lake, and Orting to get people to Sounder.

    SR-7 is getting route 1 upgrade, but otherwise Sounder & its feeders is really all non-Tacoma Pierce county is getting.

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