Sound Transit to decide evaluation criteria for program realignment

Projects already in construction will be prioritized. Others go in the realignment process (slide: Sound Transit)

A series of meetings this week will select criteria for Sound Transit’s program realignment. A Board workshop will be held on Wednesday. On Thursday the Executive Committee expects to recommend evaluation criteria for projects to be altered or delayed. On June 25, the full Board is to approve those criteria before a further series of meetings evaluates what is to be done with each project.

The most current recession scenarios, shared with the Board last Thursday, predict a sales tax loss of 26%-31% this year and 27%-35% in 2021. That’s compounded by lost fare revenue, but also offset partly by $166 million in CARES Act assistance.

Added up, the current revenue loss expectation is for $743-$953 million through the end of next year alone. The model appears to anticipate a long recession with revenues persistently below past projections after the pandemic has passed.

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News roundup: about to start

Boarded-up storefronts on Pine Street in Seattle during COVID-19 pandemic

This is an open thread.

Seattle’s growth slows again as Eastside grows faster

Redmond has grown 31% since 2010 (image by author)

Seattle added 11,440 residents in the year ended last July, faster growth than any other city outside the sunbelt, and enough to make Seattle America’s fastest growing large city since 2010. But that is still the fewest residents Seattle has added any year this decade, and a halving of the peak growth seen in 2016. Meanwhile, the Eastside has accelerated with more growth just as Seattle has been slowing. There’s been a shift too from King County to neighboring suburban counties. Seattle metro area growth has begun to resemble the more typical suburban pattern elsewhere in the country.

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SDOT Link Survey

SDOT’s got a new survey out about light rail to West Seattle and Ballard. It’s different than the usual fare with a bunch of alternatives on a map. Instead, it’s a high-level questionnaire about principles.

It asks respondents to rate 20 different values as “important” or “not important”. These values are sorted into bins called “dependable transit”, “vibrant communities”, “climate action”, and “equity”.

I’ve sometimes argued that the system doesn’t value enough simply running the trains frequently, rapidly, reliably, and directly to the activity centers. Instead, the agency ends up mitigating “impacts” instead. Well, if you agree with me, or don’t, this is the chance to have your say. All of these the values are great (except, of course, plazas), but please resist the temptation to list everything as “extremely important”, and instead help the agency set priorities among things that have tradeoffs.

There’s also some demographic information you should fill out, although the survey software is too buggy to allow you to choose more than one race.

Will the Seattle TBD be renewed?

The Seattle TBD funds additional service hours on Metro route 120 since 2019 (image: Zack Heistand)

In 2014, Seattle voters approved a six-year tax package for Metro transit via the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD). It included a 0.1% sales tax and a $60 vehicle license fee, and the taxes expire this December. In recent weeks, there have been hints that the expected renewal may not be on the Fall ballot. Via the Seattle Times on Friday evening comes a report confirming that regional leaders are focused on a bond measure for Harborview, with other tax measures taking a back seat. The STBD taxes may be allowed to expire or the sales tax be extended at its current rate only, roughly halving the revenues of the Seattle TBD.

Meanwhile, a meeting of regional transportation boards heard last Tuesday that Metro is preparing a 20% service reduction in response to a projected budget shortfall of $2 billion over the next decade. The worsening projections include both the expiration of STBD funding and an extended period of lower sales tax revenues countywide.

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Metro considering reservations for late-night trips

king county metro 2015 New Flyer XT60 4504 in Night owl Rt.7

To support social distancing guidelines, King County Metro is considering a reservation system so that riders don’t get passed up on late-night routes (1 am to 5 am), according to an agency survey.

Today, drivers are authorized to pass up riders at the stop once the number of passengers reaches 12 (for 40-foot buses) or 18 people (60-foot). This is an inconvenience during the day, but it’s much worse at night, when buses come even more infrequently. Having to wait for another night owl bus an hour later can mean the difference between getting to work on time and not.

For years, night owl service was all but unusable. Several years ago, however, thanks in part to increased funding from the city, Metro revamped late night routes and created a useful, if limited network based on the most frequent routes.

Comment on the survey by May 31.

A guide to researching Seattle’s transit history

A scanned map of the Forward Thrust transit plan (SPL)

Believe it or not, Seattle has had a long and illustrious history of public transit and exotic forms of transportation, dating back to the beginning of American settlement in the region midway through the 19th century. While rail nerds on the East Coast have the luxury of picking between hundreds (if not thousands) of good books about their local railroad and transit history, we’re stuck with comparatively few options (but that is improving). I’m here to guide would-be transit scholars into the world of online (and in-person) research, based on my own experience writing about local transit history for Wikipedia.

Researching the past is very similar to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, and reaching the end result can be highly rewarding — to the point of being addictive. And it’s not hard to get started with the help of online and old-school resources that can answer pretty much any question you’ve ever had about our transit systems. This guide is meant to help budding transit nerds find their way in the jumble of resources out there, but hopefully seasoned readers can also discover something new here. Note that some of this information was written in the pre-pandemic era, so some resources will not be available until things return to near normalcy.

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Metro ridership flat, but with more night trips

King County Metro

Metro ridership is holding roughly steady at about 100,000 boardings per weekday, or about 75% off 2019 levels. After last week’s restoration of some mid-day trips on some routes that are still relatively popular, Metro is sending out 6 more buses at night on the 7, A, and E to thin the crowds on those routes.

Previous trends continue: the ridership drops are most severe during peak commute hours, while routes and times dominated by “essential” workers and the transit-dependent have smaller falls.

News roundup: climbing again

Essential Trips Only sign on King County Metro bus on Pike Street in Downtown Setatle

This is an open thread.

Fares and service to be partially re-introduced on June 1

These signs will be removed at Link and Sounder stations (photo by author)

For those who are still riding transit for essential business or activities, it’s time to dust off your ORCA cards and keep your cash and cards handy. Three regional agencies have announced plans to re-introduce fare collection as part of a phased recovery process.

Beginning on June 1, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, and Community Transit will have fares on some or all services for the first time since March. The two-month pause in collection has impacted revenues for most agencies and contributed to an increase in “unsanitary conditions” according to Sound Transit. Link will also be boosted to 20-minute frequencies on weekdays, while Sounder remains on its reduced schedule.

Sound Transit will charge discounted “recovery fare” of $1 for Link riders and $2 for Sounder if paying at a ticket vending machine or using the Transit Go mobile app. Riders with ORCA cards will have to pay the regular fare that are assigned, including for LIFT, youth, and senior/disabled riders. ST Express will remain fare-free, with riders asked to use the rear doors unless in need of accessible accommodation.

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Metro faces steep challenges in 2021

RapidRide expansions may be delayed (image: Kris Leisten)

Last week, King County Metro General Manager Rob Gannon delivered a sobering assessment of Metro’s challenges in returning to normal service. Funding from the CARES Act has back-filled most of the revenue declines for 2020, but massive shortfalls in fare and tax revenue lie ahead after that once-off money runs out.

Between foregone fares and lowered tax revenues, Metro expects a revenue shortfall this year between $240 and $265 million. That is mostly replaced by $243 million in CARES Act money that is being disbursed through the FTA. There are strings attached to what kind of spending can be supported through CARES Act dollars, but Metro anticipates the money will be completely or very nearly completely spent down in 2020.

Beyond that, the prospects for further federal aid are uncertain, and certainly will not be sustained at the rates in recent stimulus legislation. The revenue forecast from the King County budget office is for a reduction in sales tax alone of $397 million between 2020 and 2022, though budget director Dwight Dively indicated on May 5 that he expects the actual deficit to be somewhat worse.

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Pierce Transit’s first bus rapid transit line to split between mixed and exclusive lanes

The “Mountain” station design option (Pierce Transit)

Pierce Transit has released a new virtual open house for its bus rapid transit project, which is in the middle of final design. The bus rapid transit line will travel along 14 miles of Pacific Avenue (State Route 7) from Downtown Tacoma and Tacoma Dome Station to Spanaway, replacing the popular Route 1. The agency hopes to begin construction next year and open in 2023, which remains unchanged at the moment despite the pandemic and its financial effects.

The Pacific Avenue bus rapid transit line, which has not been named or branded yet, will take some cues from Community Transit’s Swift lines rather than RapidRide. Stations will be spaced a quarer-mile apart and feature off-board fare payment (including ticket-vending machines), allowing for all-door level boarding from its raised platforms. The buses will have on-board bicycle racks, more capacity than normal Route 1 coaches, and come at a frequency of 10 to 15 minutes.

The buses will also benefit from exclusive lanes and BAT lanes that run for about 7 miles in the south Tacoma section of the Pacific Avenue corridor. Transit priority signals are also in the works, which would provide overrides for buses and allow for the addition of queue jumps at intersections outside of the exclusive lane corridor.

The project is estimated to cost $150 million and will be funded by a mix of grants from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Sound Transit, the latter part of the ST3 package for the Pierce County subarea. Sound Transit approved its $60 million share in August, while Pierce Transit has reportedly secured $30 million in other funding. This leaves a Small Starts grant from the FTA to cover the remaining $60 million, which Pierce Transit has already applied for.

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News roundup: potentially grim

Sound Transit double decker bus servicing downtown Seattle on 5th avenue during Covid 19 shut down.
Bless you, PatricksMercy, for posting to the Flickr pool during the pandemic.

This is an open thread.

With Uber’s investment, Lime is getting back into the local bike share game

A Jump bike. Credit: Jump


Uber Technologies CEO Dara Khosrowshahi outside the New York Stock Exchange ahead of the company’s IPO, May 10, 2019.

Uber is leading a $170 million investment round in Lime, the electric scooter and bike rental company announced Thursday.

Bain Capital Ventures, Alphabet and separately its venture capital arm GV are also participating in the financing round, Lime said.

Under the deal, Uber will transfer its own electric bike and scooter division called Jump to Lime and the companies will further integrate their apps. Lime global head of operations and strategy Wayne Ting will become CEO of Lime while outgoing CEO Brad Bao will become chairman.

Lime had recently suspended bike operations here in Seattle and was in the process of switching to a scooter-only offering once the city’s scooter pilot was in place. Lime’s valuation has dropped by 80%, according to The Information ($).

Now it appears that Lime bikes will be back and Uber’s JUMP brand will be disappearing. I think most people agreed that the JUMP bike experience was superior (I know I felt that way), so it’s good to read that Lime’s new CEO agrees.

Despite a huge drop in bookings due to the coronavirus, Uber still has $10B in cash on hand to try and be the last one standing in the shared economy business: the company is reportedly looking at taking over Grubhub as well.

Meanwhile, Lime is optimistic about post-COVID prospects:

[CEO Wayne] Ting’s bet is that people are going to emerge from the pandemic wanting more socially distanced transit options, like bikes and scooters, instead of opting for crowded transit options, a stance echoed by rival Bird.

Already in some of its restarted cities, like Berlin and Columbus, Ohio, Lime is seeing average trip fares go up as people ride scooters for longer distances. Seoul is back to nearly all-time highs, Ting said.

Metro restores some trips, ridership still way down

Rapid Ride Metro Transit Bus reticulated bus headed to Seattle, WA from Edmonds. WA via Hwy 99 Aurora Ave

In response to “crowding” (by current standards) on some routes, Metro is restoring some trips this week on weekdays from 10am to 5pm:

Based on operator availability, we are dedicating roughly 15 additional buses starting today to six routes where coaches are either reaching capacity or passing up customers to maintain social distancing guidelines. These high-demand routes include:

  • Route 7
  • Route 36
  • Route 180
  • RapidRide A
  • RapidRide D
  • RapidRide E

The buses have been added on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., as that period has the highest ridership and most reports of pass-ups.

Metro continues to demonstrate operational flexibility that some observers, including me, thought was not in its nature. Other than the D, these are among the routes that have seen the smallest ridership drops, presumably because of transit-dependent riders and “essential” but not virtualizable jobs.

Last week Metro also released ridership numbers for the week ending May 1. Overall weekday boardings are at 105,000, or a 75% decrease from 2019. Not surprisingly, the drop is deepest in the weekday peaks, with late-night and weekend ridership declining much more gently. Meanwhile, bus service has dropped only 27%, meaning the average bus has almost three times fewer riders.

Whether to cut Sounder North?

Sounder Train at Carkeek Park (image: Sound Transit)

When we wrote recently about Sound Transit’s post-COVID funding shortfalls, the comments conversation turned quickly to Sounder North. The lightly used commuter rail line is everybody’s favorite local example of a transit service serving too few riders at extreme costs per rider. As the only Sound Transit rail serving Snohomish County to date, it has survived persistent concerns about costs in the past. Lynnwood Link is now nearing completion and is anticipated to open in 2024. Is it finally time to cut Sounder North?

Snohomish County, like other subareas, will shortly have to delay or suspend some future projects as the COVID-induced recession reduces tax and fare revenue. Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests cutting Sounder would avoid roughly one and one-half years of delays to Everett Link.

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