East-West Rail study: small project, small impact

Study corridor in Yellow.

A state study of passenger rail service via Stampede Pass (report, slides) reveals options that are relatively inexpensive but also not ambitious enough to provide competitive options between cities.

The most expansive option would run Spokane to Seattle with a running time of 8:35 (!). As with any indirect route, it mostly has to be about travel between the intermediate cities, not the endpoints: indeed, travel within the Yakima valley comprises much of the ridership. If this route were operating twice a day in a Covid-free 2020, it would draw 205,000 annual riders – or about a quarter of what Amtrak Cascades serves in a typical year with more trains serving bigger population centers. 97% of these riders would not go east of Pasco.

This line would cost $137m in new stations and track improvements, $253m for trainsets, and a net annual operating subsidy of $23m. Shortening the line or running once a day has the impacts you might expect. However, a Pasco terminus (running time: 6:05), while not a cheaper capital project, hits a sweet spot by lowering operating costs without much loss of riders.

These are not huge numbers as capital projects go, and surveys indicate significant local interest in trying out this service. Nevertheless, the travel times are not competitive with driving. Trains have advantages over intercity buses, but such an extreme time penalty suggests Washington either expand those buses or consider a much more ambitious rail program to achieve higher operating speeds.

Last year’s transportation appropriations bill funded the $250,000 study. Today, only the Empire Builder connects Spokane with both Seattle and Portland (7.5 hours), but only once a day and not scheduled for the convenience of Seattle-Spokane passengers. Zach and Bruce Nourish wrote up the potential of this corridor 4 years ago.

Sound Transit realignment process will extend another year

Although the overall realignment is punted until July 2021, several projects face decision points this year (image: Sound Transit)

The Sound Transit Board has given up on earlier plans to decide a capital program realignment this year, and will extend the process into the middle of next year. The new “path forward” is a comprehensive realignment plan and schedule for future project delivery by July 2021.

In the meantime, a more limited set of actions will be considered this year on projects that require urgent decisions. Projects already in construction will continue. The Board will continue to schedule design and environmental activities on other projects to maintain shovel-readiness. For baselining and construction decision points, the 2021 plan will proceed on a “placeholder assumption” that all future projects are delayed by about five years. Affected projects may encompass the Eastside BRT projects, some Sounder South improvements, the Link OMF South, Everett Link, and funding agreements for “early win” projects with local partners.

Sound Transit embarked on an effort to “realign” the capital program in April after the COVID pandemic and recession cratered revenue expectations. At the time, CEO Peter Rogoff pushed for prompt Board direction on resetting priorities: “Back in 2010, the board took some 18 months to arrive at what realignment decisions had to be made. We may not have the luxury of being able to wait 18 months to come to finality on these decisions given the sudden cliff that the economy may have jumped off.

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Pantograph transit tracker now available in Vancouver, BC and Portland, OR

Thanks to some unexpected free time these last few months, Pantograph is now available for three agencies in two new regions—our neighbors at TransLink of greater Vancouver, TriMet of Portland, and Lane Transit District of Eugene. 

Pantograph works in these new cities just as it does today in Puget Sound. Features include real-time mapping of vehicle positions, logging of coach/route assignments, detection of unusual coach/route assignments, tracking vehicle movements between bases, a missed trips dashboard—and so much more. TriMet is the first (and currently only) supported agency that also reports coach occupancy information, which is available in the app, though it appears at time of writing that they’ve disabled this temporarily.

To explore transit in these regions, simply go to the mobile-friendly website or download the iOS app. From there, you can pan over to the city on the map or manually select it from the header (web) or the Settings tab (iOS).

Since launching over a year ago here at STB, Pantograph has evolved significantly beyond its original capabilities: In August, I released the iOS app and new brand, followed shortly by the full rollout of assignment history, and the missed trip dashboard launched as transit cuts began in March. But the biggest changes yet came silently about a month ago—behind the scenes, it’s basically an all-new app. The server-side tooling that powers the service has been completely rewritten, making everything more efficient, accurate, and—most importantly—extendable. Adding a new region or agency can be as simple as adding a few configuration files, provided they have a compatible GTFS feed and a real-time API to complement it. 

Everett Transit looks at future options, including merger

Everett Transit could merge with Community Transit under one option

Months before the economic outlook turned gloomy amid the global COVID pandemic, Everett Transit was looking at financial trouble. Last year, the city-run system revealed that it forecast a $1.6 million budget shortfall that would continue due to Everett’s declining retail sales. While the agency has great plans to improve its network in coming years, they will have to be re-evaluated to preserve current service levels.

Everett Transit has launched its “Rethink Transit” survey, which runs online until July 13, with three options for the public to consider. Everett Transit is also re-introducing regular fares on all routes and services on July 1.

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Center City Connector on hold again amid fresh funding gaps

Seattle Streetcar (image: Joe Kunzler)

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has paused work on the Center City Connector (CCC) and several other projects as the city wrangles a steep revenue deficit. The pause appears likely to further delay the start of service. But the recession also threatens the longer term future of the streetcar. Needed revenues from the rideshare tax are less likely to materialize, and there is sharpened competition for scarce general fund resources.

All told, the paused projects are expect to reduce SDOT spending this year by $58 million, or 8% of the $739 million budget. That roughly fills this year’s budget gap for SDOT. SDOT’s revenues are expected to fall short of plan by more than $50 million, including an expected loss of $13 million in general fund support, a $20 million shortfall on parking tax revenues; and at least $7 million less in street use fees. SDOT’s near term options are constrained as they are continuing projects already in construction. At the same time, the West Seattle Bridge is unexpectedly failing, setting SDOT up for a costly repair bill, or even more costly replacement.

The Center City Connector would connect the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars through downtown Seattle. The project was funded in the budget passed in 2017, but then placed on hold in April 2018. After identifying a series of design flaws and cost underestimates in the plan, an independent review added $88 million to the estimate in the budget, and potentially more if assumed FTA grant funding were to fall through. But the city nevertheless determined to get the project back on track, taking two steps to move the project ahead.

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News roundup: already

Rainier Square Tower, May 2020 from 4th Avenue and Union Street

This is an open thread.

The bikes are back

Monica Nickelsburg reports that the Jump bikes, now acquired by Lime but, confusingly, still painted red and using the Jump Uber app, are back on the streets this week.

Credit: Jump

The Lime brand has largely pivoted to scooters worldwide, but here in Seattle they’re still waiting for the City to figure out how scooter permits will work. “Hopefully we will see scooters in the next couple of months”, said Jonathan Hopkins, Director of Strategic Development at Lime.

The initial deployment of 500 bikes, all electric, will cost $1 plus 36 cents per minute to rent. This is quite a bit more than Lime’s rate last summer of 25 cents per mile minute. But then again, transit alternatives have deteriorated a bit, in both frequency and perceived safety. For comparison, a typical UberX fare might be $2.20 plus $1.60 per mile, which may be a wash depending on how fast you ride, and how much you mind being in a car with a stranger.

I don’t know how this will play out. I thought that the killer app for these bikes was the last mile to and from transit services, but that’s less compelling now for several reasons. Are there enough people moving around our denser areas in situations where a personal bike, car, or taxi service aren’t more economical, convenient, and hygenic?

Time to open more streets

The city’s Stay Healthy Streets are an innovative, low-cost way to increase people space by bootstrapping on the existing greenways network. Kudos to the Mayor and SDOT for a creative solution. But as businesses start to re-open, we’ll need a much more aggressive approach, one that goes beyond the low-density residential areas and into commercial districts: sidewalk cafes, pedestrian-only zones and more.  

Summer starts next week, so the time is now. As the mayor herself said in the aforelinked post, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We have a long summer and fall ahead.

From Boston to Bothell, other cities are taking initiative:

Meanwhile, across the country traffic is starting to creep back up.  

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Community Transit plans phased reopening in July and September

A bus at Mountlake Terrace TC

With Snohomish County well into Phase 2 of its pandemic recovery, Community Transit is set to begin restoring its bus service over the next few months. On July 6, CT will bring service levels back to 75% of pre-pandemic trips to accommodate an increased need on heavily-used routes. A 85% restoration will take place in September, followed by a potential full restoration by spring 2021.

Community Transit will also begin collecting fares on all routes on July 1. Drivers will wear face coverings and will be able to wear face shields when passengers are boarding from the front door. The agency is encouraging riders to wear face coverings, but not making them required.

Transit ridership in Snohomish County began to increase in May and is expected to return to high levels as more employers reopen. Retailers have been permitted to reopen for in-store shopping and most national chains have followed suit for their locations in the county.

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News roundup: more

Closed section on Link light rail train due to COVID-19 pandemic

This is an open thread.

Metro recovery starts Monday

King County Metro

Metro announced yesterday that it is largely restoring pre-pandemic service levels on Monday:

The result is Metro will operate more than 11,000 weekday bus trips, or 85% of its pre-COVID service level. Saturday service will be 8,200 trips (99%) and Sunday service will be 7,000 trips (99%). Starting Monday, Metro’s will increase the number of transit operators providing service from 64% to about 80% of pre-COVID levels.

Ridership is still down about 70%, but King County is likely to enter Phase 2 soon and have activity pick up. Quite a few non-core routes will remain shut down, but many peak expresses will return.

The South Lake Union Streetcar and Trailhead Direct will not operate. Metro promises the Reduced Schedule and Canceled Trips pages will have specific weekday schedule information on Saturday.

As September’s service change will cut about 15% off last January’s route network, we may be at this service level for quite some time, and worse off on weekends.

Sound Transit Board argues realignment criteria

The Sound Transit Executive Committee failed on Thursday to reach agreement on realignment criteria for ST3 projects. Board members sought a set of agreed criteria for a better-tuned realignment, but in the end voted only to send a framework of possible criteria to the full Board without recommendation.

A “blunt instrument” delay of five years for all projects not currently in construction would be affordable. To maintain flexibility, early design work would generally proceed on the original ST3 timeline, but construction would take place much later to conserve revenues. But the Board is looking for a realignment process that does something smarter than simply sliding all the timelines.

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Mt. Baker laundry site to become affordable housing

Mt. Baker Station with former UW laundry facility in the background (Apple Maps)

Seattle Office of Housing (PDF):

Three parcels totaling 3.79 acres of land and more than 179,000 square feet, opposite the Mount Baker Link light rail station.

Transformative opportunity to develop affordable housing, ground floor early learning, and open space near high capacity transit.

The laundry facility, next to Mt. Baker Station, was one factor in the suboptimal placement of Mt. Baker station itself, as we noted in 2012.  The neighborhood went through a controversial rezoning process in 2014. 

In 2018, the UW made the contentious decision to close the facility and eliminate 100 jobs. Laundry services were awarded to a private contractor.

Last year, the legislature passed a law allowing UW to transfer the property to Seattle for affordable housing.  Also last year, as part of the MHA rezone, the site was rezoned for up to 95 feet. 

More cuts in Metro service in 2021 & 2022

RapidRide C in West Seattle (image: Andy Tucker)

With the September 2020 service change, Metro will restore service to about 85% of pre-COVID levels. However, that’s just a precursor to a series of service reductions Metro is preparing over the next two years, with a cumulative reduction of 20%-30% of service from previous levels rolling out through every service change in 2021 and 2022. Capital spending will be reduced by 30-40%. The Regional Transit Committee is to receive a briefing on Wednesday detailing how Metro is preparing their 2021-2022 budget.

The near-term finances are rough, though somewhat offset by a once-off infusion of $242 million of CARES Act funding, and some dipping into reserves. A little over half of Metro funding is through dedicated sales taxes. Sales taxes for 2020 are now expected to come in 29% short of the forecast from earlier this year. Fares are not currently being collected. Ridership remains 71% below normal levels, so fare revenue will be much lower even after fare collection resumes. The CARES Act funding buys Metro time to restructure operations, but doesn’t address longer term deficits.

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News roundup: no more

Closed seats on King County Metro bus due to COVID-19 pandemic

This is an open thread.

Metro to come back in September with 15% less service


Due to a dramatic ridership decline as a result of COVID-19, Metro has reduced bus service to match ridership demand. But with revenues cratering, yesterday it announced a permanent 15% service cut compared to pre-pandemic levels for its September service change. This includes a 50% drop in Seattle-funded service, allowing it to continue to the following March service change even though the Transportation Benefit District (TBD) expires in December.

Metro is facing a $200m drop in projected 2020 sales tax collections, and an $80m fall in farebox revenue, largely offset by $243m in CARES act funding. For the period 2020-22, Metro estimates sales tax and fare shortfalls of $465m and $130-150m, respectively.

The restored network will “focus primarily on a network of all-day routes throughout King County, including preserving frequent service on Metro’s busiest routes, while restoring peak service sufficient to meet returning demand to the extent possible given the current financial challenges.” Beyond mid-day service, Metro continues: “While some weekday peak-period commuter routes will be restored, many peak routes will remain suspended in anticipation that long-term commuter ridership demand will take time to recover as many large employers continue having employees telework. Night, evening, and weekend service also will be significantly reduced.”

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Metro’s 2015 restructures, revisited

2 Express Diesel

King County Metro has some challenging times ahead. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to lead to a recession, one which is forecast to be as bad or worse than the great recession of 2008. Funding from the CARES act can help offset losses in the short term, but Metro will almost certainly have to reduce service at some point.

Given these circumstances, it may be helpful to look back at last time Metro looked at implementing service cuts. Metro’s cuts were going to be implemented in four phases from 2014 to 2015, but only the first phase ended up being necessary. Seattle Transit Blog covered these reductions extensively with an overview, as well as detailed analyses of changes in Seattle/North King County and the Eastside. Though most of these reductions did not get implemented, they include a dramatic restructure of bus service (rather than a simple reduction of service across the board) throughout the county. With a reduction of bus service levels on the horizon again, it’s a good time to look back on some of these restructures and see which ones may come back, and what should be changed this time around.

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