Test drive: GIG carshare

Still actively discouraged from taking the bus, I had the opportunity to try out Gig car share recently. While the overall experience won’t surprise any Car2Go/ReachNow/ShareNow user since they ditched the smart cars, there are a few changes that might give the venture a chance where others failed.

The ride

Finding a car on the app has a similar interface to the old apps. You can reserve it up to a half hour before your trip starts. I had several cars to choose from within easy walking distance in the Volunteer Park area. It was a much less frustrating experience that my past troubles in the Columbia City Station area, but that could be a function of geography and the pandemic.

The experience is entirely keyless. Everything is done with the app, but you can ask for a keycard if you don’t have a smartphone.

All 250 cars are Toyota Prius. This is Seattle, so you’ve all ridden in a Prius before.


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Amtrak Cascades faces a long road back

Budget shortfalls and COVID-19 have hit Amtrak Cascades service hard, according to a post last week on the WSDOT blog. Only one train per day is currently running in either direction. Long-distance service like the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight have been reduced to three runs per week.

Before COVID hit, WSDOT and Sound Transit were working on re-starting service on the Point Defiance bypass after a deadly derailment in 2017. Sound Transit, which owns the bypass tracks, hadn’t committed to a date for re-opening the bypass, as it and WSDOT completed all of the recommendations from the NTSB accident report.

Now, with fewer people traveling, the demand for extra trips has lessened considerably. “When service returns to the Bypass, the demand for intercity travel increases, the pandemic risk is minimized and the state transportation budget issues are resolved, we will move forward with adding two more daily roundtrips between Portland and Seattle,” writes WSDOT’s Janet Matkin. In other words, it’ll be a while. On the plus side, the agency has more time to procure new train sets to replace the Talgo Series 6 that were recommended for retirement.

TBD headed to the ballot

As expected, the Seattle Council approved a November ballot measure to renew its
Transportation Benefit District 9-0 and preserve existing Metro service. The real action was in the amendments. (The discussion begins at 1:11:00 in the video above).

The expiring measure included a 0.1% sales tax and $60 vehicle license fee. As the latter may not be legal due to I-976, there was debate about increasing the sales tax rate. Regrettably, the amendment to raise the rate to 0.2% lost 5-4. Morales, Sawant, Mosqueda, and Strauss voted for the higher rate.

However, a compromise measure for a 0.15% increase passed 8-1, with only Pedersen opposed.

An amendment to extend the measure to a 6-year package, expiring in April 2027, passed 5-4, with Morales, Sawant, Lewis, and Gonzalez opposed. Detractors focused on the imperfection of a city measure with regressive revenue tools, and sought to create a “sense of urgency” for something better. Proponents argued, correctly, that 2024 is the right time to try a county measure, and that a city measure expiring concurrently would provide no contigency for a county failure. Move Seattle also expires in 2024, creating more traffic on the ballot.

There was maneuvering around the limits on various special accounts for West Seattle buses, free and reduced price ORCA, and the like. In the end, “essential workers” (in the pandemic sense) became eligible for ORCA subsidy.

Seattle TBD vote is today

Seattle City Council (32884844902)

Today at 2pm, the Seattle Council is voting to send renewal of the Transportation Benefit District (TBD) to the November ballot. As eight of nine council members are already on record in support, passage of something is inevitable. The uncertain parts are what amendments will go with it.

The baseline legislation is a renewal of the 0.1% sales tax for 4 years. This is a significant cut from the status quo both because it doesn’t include the vehicle license fee from 2014, but also because sales tax revenues have fallen sharply.

  • Amendment 1 would extend the term to six years.
  • Amendment 2 would raise the sales tax rate to 0.2%; this roughly replaces the lost vehicle license revenue for a typical level of economic activity.
  • Amendment 3 would extend the ORCA opportunity program from seniors, youth, and low income people to include “essential workers” as commonly understood during the pandemic.

Amendment 2 is clearly an effort to devote more resources to transit, which is straightforward for advocates. Amendment 1 depends on your read of the political and legal situation. Amendment 3 is a difficult tradeoff between social justice objectives and getting as much bus service as possible on the road.

There are also rumors of an amendment to split the difference at 0.15%.

You can sign up to testify, beginning at 12pm, here.

King County letter cracks door for regional TBD

Seattle - City Hall Park & King County Courthouse P

A letter from King County Executive Dow Constantine and four Councilmembers (Balducci, Dembowski, Upthegrove, Kohl-Welles) expressed support for the Seattle Transportation District (TBD) effort, while pledging to pursue a countywide measure “at an appropriate time.”

The letter is delicately balanced between applauding Seattle’s effort to maintain service, while stressing the need for a regional measure “to provide the greatest mobility, equity, economic, and sustainability benefits.”

It specifically mentions the importance of “the equity and sustainability goals included in King County Metro’s Mobility Framework,” the agency’s (quite good) service allocation formula.

And then it makes its offer:

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News roundup: traffic is back

Dungeness Line (Olympic Bus Lines) bus at King Street Station

This is an open thread.

Bothell transit hub will connect SR 522 & I-405 BRT

Planned transit hub connecting Stride BRT routes in Bothell (image: Sound Transit)

A transit hub northwest of a rebuilt SR 522 and I-405 interchange will serve as the eastern terminus for Sound Transit’s planned SR 522 BRT. It will connect Stride BRT on SR 522 to Stride BRT on I-405. Sound Transit is dropping plans for some BRT buses to serve Woodinville, and replacing those with a Sound Transit Express branded connection.

These, and other updates to SR 522 BRT plans, are shared in a Sound Transit online open house that runs through August 23.

With expanded express toll lanes on I-405 between SR 522 and SR 527, the Stride BRT on I-405 will be accessible at SR 522 from BRT platforms on new direct access ramps. The SR 522 BRT, meanwhile, will terminate at a bus loop and layover area just to the northwest. That makes for a straightforward connection between the two services and to other buses operating in the area.

The transit hub resolves several other tricky issues in Bothell that Martin explored last year.

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Federal Way Link breaks ground, virtually

“Powering Progress: Federal Way Link Extension Groundbreaking” by Sound Transit

Federal Way Link, the last of the core ST2 light rail projects, has finally broken ground. In lieu of the traditional ceremony with elected and community leaders speaking from a podium and tossing dirt, Sound Transit has chosen a pandemic-friendly alternative: a virtual groundbreaking.

Sound Transit’s virtual groundbreaking (linked above) has short videos from many local officials and representatives from businesses and organizations like the Multi-Service Center and the Federal Way Black Collective. The golden shovels, a hallmark of the regular groundbreakings, remain and are handed off with some nice cuts in the video.

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Action Alert: Tell Council to Save Transit Funding

Nose Of A 2018 New Flyer Industries XDE60

Last Friday, the Seattle City Council Transportation committee met and passed an initial round of amendments to a proposed Transportation Benefits District (TBD) on to full council.  The last amendment, to increase the funding from 0.1% to 0.2% sales tax, was proposed by CM Tammy Morales and eventually withdrawn so that council could have more time to consider and get feedback from their constituents. 

Though we agree with the concerns voiced in council that adding a regressive sales tax is not ideal, the proposed plan would cut TBD service funding by 75%: a far more regressive outcome.  This funding is needed to maintain bus service that an increasing number of Seattlites will depend on just as we try to recover from a recession that is hitting people with lower incomes the hardest.  

This change means replacing the $60 Vehicle Licensing Fee (VLF) from 2014’s TBD with a 0.1% sales tax, which will still represent a tax cut for households with lower incomes who own a car.  A household would have to spend $60,000, not including rent or groceries, to match the VLF for one car. For lower income households that already fully rely on transit, cutting service could be devastating.

Full council is meeting next Monday, 7/27, to finalize the package that will appear on the ballot.  Please join us in letting the City Council and The Mayor know that you support the full .2% TBD and emergency funding for transit next year using this quick form.

Link coronavirus cheat sheet

If you are a (responsible, of course) user of public transportation, there’s a good chance that you’re eagerly awaiting the day that Link will once again run at frequent service levels. In the meantime, you might (perhaps after missing a train one day) have made sure to download the massive PDF Link schedule to your phone to make sure you aren’t left waiting on an platform with other people for up to 30 minutes longer than necessary. In any case, even a less-frequently-running Link Light Rail has a schedule that stretches on and on, despite mostly repeating at 20 and 30 minute intervals. Disappointingly, you won’t find the right schedule on OneBusAway either, so you settle for the endless grid of numbers.

Since an endless grid of numbers is hard to navigate (especially when you’re in a hurry), I’ve put together a more compact schedule. Arrival times are shown for six stops (both termini, and both the start and end of the downtown and Rainier Valley parts of Link). The arrival times of the first and last few trains are shown in detail. In between, it just shows what minute of every hour you need to be there to catch the train (with a +1 to indicate a trip extending into the next hour):

Action Alert: Save Transit, Fully Fund the TBD

The most progressive change we can make to the proposed Seattle Transportation Benefit District (TBD) is to make it larger.  Even if we focus on funding transit service as we urged last week, the initial proposal of a .1% sales tax with nothing to replace the current $60 Vehicle Licensing Fee will mean big transit cuts.  Those cuts won’t be academic, they will mean cutting critical service just when many Seattleites will need it the most.

After I-976 passed last year it took away the city’s ability to include a Vehicle Licensing Fee as part of the new TBD.  This would mean about a 50% cut to the TBD funding in normal times, but in the post Covid-19 recession, the cuts are much bigger.  Sales tax receipts have fallen off a cliff and the recovery could be slow.  We should be looking to use all the funding available in the TBD, the full .2% sales tax, so that we can return service after as the recession wanes – but we should also be looking for emergency funding for next year.  

Though sales tax is a regressive funding source, it’s far better than cutting the transit people will increasingly rely on. This recession is hitting people who were already struggling to afford Seattle the hardest. About 19% of Seattle households don’t own a car and that number will almost certainly rise – cars are expensive.  Inaction means forcing people on a tight budget to buy a car or continue to maintain a car because transit doesn’t serve their needs.  

Metro should also be looking to structure service to match the demand that exists rather than demand that used to exist.  Focus funding on supporting people trying to get to jobs that don’t conform to 9-5 schedules downtown.  Transit needs to be flexible and support people’s individual economic recoveries.

We have to think about this in post Covid-19 terms.  This is a ballot measure for November with funding that won’t start until April of 2021.  As the pandemic fades and more people have to rely on transit, demand will go up sharply.  Our transit agencies will need to be responsive and meet that demand where it is – and have the funding to back it up.  

We should also be looking to improve transit funding for the future.  The legislature has the power to enact progressive options for future transit funding packages. A future TBD should be at the King County level and use a progressive funding source.  That work needs to start now so that we’re not having this same conversation again in a few years.

There is a Seattle City Council meeting on the proposed Transit Benefit District this morning at 10 am.  Please join us in urging the council to be bold and save our transit by:

  1. Increasing funding as much as possible (both .2% sales tax and emergency 2021 funding); 
  2. Focusing funding on Transit Service; and
  3. Structure transit service to better serve the needs of people who are transit dependent

The Transportation Committee meets at this morning at 10 am (7/17/20.)  You can share your thoughts by email or sign up to testify here.  

News roundup: do better

King County Metro 2015 New Flyer XDE35 3713
Zach Heistand/Flickr

This is an open thread.

Sound Transit & other agencies in push for federal assistance

Sound Transit and King County Metro, along with agencies in other major cities, are making a concerted effort for more federal assistance in the upcoming COVID-19 relief package. Yesterday, the leaders of 27 major agencies joined in calling for up to $36 billion in aid for transit to cover COVID-related expenses and replacing depleted local tax revenues in 2020 and 2021.

Transit operators face a variety of needs. For legacy systems, decreased farebox revenues have put extraordinary pressure on operations while costs related to COVID mitigation have increased. For newer systems that are growing, the recession will reduce local tax revenues for years, imperiling expansion timelines.

While King County Metro is reducing operations, Sound Transit is facing a delay to planned rail and BRT extensions. Current operations are a relative small part of the Sound Transit budget, but the long-term loss of sales tax revenues combines with statutory limits on debt to put the current planned system expansion timeline out of reach.

Among the various assistance measures being debated, the most valuable to Sound Transit could increase the federal share of existing Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) by 30%. A similar provision is in the Investing in America Act recently passed by the House.

In the current FFGAs, Lynnwood Link received a federal match of 36% or $1.17 billion. Federal Way Link received a 25% match for $790 million. A 30% increment to those FFGAs would mean $1.9 billion of additional federal support for Sound Transit.

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Maximizing ridership is easy

There’s a certain thread of argument in transit advocacy that is frustrating because it is totally factually accurate, and yet completely misses the point. The latest example is this report on American light rail by the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, called The Economics of Urban Light Rail: A Guide for Planners and Citizens.

America has way fewer light rail boardings per route-mile than Europe and Canada. However, Seattle does well, one of only 5 in the US to have more than 3,000. No surprise: the strongest indicators of success are frequency and density around stations, two standards Link currently meets.

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SDOT making it easier for businesses set up shop outdoors

On the first day of summer, I complained that the City hadn’t opened more streets to pedestrians, specifically in high-density commercial districts, to allow for more outdoor social distancing and commercial activity. I figure I should follow up to note that the day after my post went live SDOT announced it was opening up several more Stay Healthy Streets, including Bell St. in Belltown.

Then, a few days later, SDOT announced an expanded street use permit system for businesses to use for outdoor retail and restaurant activity. SDOT is streamlining the permitting process for these applications: instead of the usual 2-week public comment, businesses can open right away and inform their neighbors that they’re doing so. Businesses can set up in the sidewalk if right-of-way is sufficient or in a parking space.

These are all great ideas. I’d still love to see entire streets closed off for both public gathering and retailing in some of our commercial neighborhoods. I can name at least a dozen blocks in Seattle’s urban villages and downtown that could easily support outdoor street life if permitted.

Check out the twitter threads below from the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board meeting where these plans were presented last week if you want to learn more, and thanks to SDOT for getting this program up and running before the July 4 weekend.

Sunday Open Thread: East Link in Bellevue

A recent view of the East Link alignment through Bellevue, courtesy of Bellevue Transportation Department. Heavy civil construction is expected to be substantially complete in Bellevue this Fall, except on the central Bellevue segment where it will complete early in 2021.

This is an open thread.