What Could $800 Million Do?

Bertha is broken. Seals around the machine’s main bearing are damaged, meaning muck is inside the bearing, causing heat and damage. At minimum, it will take several months to repair the seals, and possibly replace the bearing. Governor Inslee has even been asked whether it’s “time to pull the plug”. I propose a thought experiment – if we were to cut our losses and stop now, carefully avoiding the sunk cost fallacy, what could the money left over do to meet our mobility needs in the corridor?

First, let’s consider the high risk of failure. There’s been no indication so far as to the cause of the seal damage, or whether it might happen again. This matches WSDOT’s unwillingness to discuss risk or plan adequate contingency, as we’ve seen throughout the project.

An anonymous source on the project has told us that despite comments by WSDOT, the repair will not be possible from behind the machine, only from the surface. If true, and without a clear plan for preventing the problem again, this raises a serious question – what happens if this happens again under a building, and at greater depth?

Let’s say that to avoid this eventuality, we stopped now. The state has spent about $2 billion of their $2.8 billion limit, assuming no overruns (cough). The Port of Seattle funding, separately, is intended for viaduct teardown and surface street construction. So what would that $800 million, assuming we could spend it on anything, get us?

  1. Reconnecting the street grid in South Lake Union. Part of the reason people have to use the viaduct in the first place is that Denny and Mercer are such a mess. Allowing that traffic to load balance across several more streets would make the entire grid more performant, at about 20,000 daily inbound/outbound trips to the 99 corridor. That’s $50 million.
  2. The Center City Connector. Increasing transit ridership downtown reduces demand on north-south streets, adding 30,000 daily trips. That’s ~$110 million, but is eligible for $30 million in federal funds.
  3. RapidRide bus priority projects. The Transit Master Plan identifies a lot of small capital improvements to give RapidRide priority, and there’s a good Metro analysis of what could improve RR. Altogether, the C and D lines could pick up 15,000 new riders for only about $10 million, $5 million of which could be federal.

Continue reading “What Could $800 Million Do?”

Help Sound Transit Simplify Fare Enforcement

With University Link coming online in about two years, Sound Transit’s fare enforcement needs are about to increase considerably. Sound Transit has asked the legislature for a simple bill to save them (and you) money enforcing fares, and it could use our support.

Today, law enforcement has access to a system that allows them to issue citations on the spot. Sound Transit fare enforcement officers (FEOs) can’t do that.

Right now, when an FEO on Link finds someone who hasn’t paid, they first photograph the person’s ID. At the end of a shift, each FEO has to spend almost three hours doing the paperwork to send all the data they collected to a district court. Finally, the court processes them and attempts service on the people identified. This is a mess – it wastes hours every day, and the rate of returned service is very high.

Sound Transit wants to streamline this process. If FEOs have the tools to issue citations at the time of enforcement and avoid the court process, the agency thinks it won’t have to hire any more FEOs for University Link.

Sound Transit first requested permission from the state patrol to use the same system as law enforcement, but were told that fare enforcement would have to *be* law enforcement to use it.

Eventually, the district court requested a simple bill to save both governments money and create a standard citation for Sound Transit fare enforcement to issue in the field. The House bill (HB 2111) passed with bipartisan support, as it not only helps Sound Transit but also increases farebox recovery and generally makes government a little more efficient. Now the Senate companion, SB 5961, is stalled in Transportation, where an apparent failure of two district courts to communicate with each other led to incorrect testimony in opposition. Seriously.

This is a worthwhile way to save us all a little money. What we’re asking is that you call your Senator and say “please ask your friends on Senate Transportation to move SB 5961 ASAP.” Because this is embarrassing.

Hyperloop Turns Out to be Used Exactly as Predicted

On California High Speed Rail Blog, Robert Cruickshank (who also writes guest posts here) writes about a California ballot initiative to replace HSR with… hyperloop.

In August, I made the prediction that the hyperloop proposal, which appeared at a pivotal moment in CA’s HSR project, would be in effect attack on HSR: “The hyperloop idea will peel off some of CAHSR’s support, putting HSR at more risk…”

Generally, publicly sourced alternatives to any infrastructure project are a strategy to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt (or FUD). We see this whenever light rail comes to the ballot – a group of otherwise anti-transit activists will propose bus rapid transit that we don’t seem to hear about either before or after the rail campaign.

My hope is that this pattern helps transit supporters identify this behavior when it happens and helps us prevent this type of attack on transit from getting traction in the future.

Lazy KUOW Hit Piece

This morning, KUOW has a piece on Broadway construction, but with bad data and huge omissions, it reads like a hit piece against transit. The opening sets the tone:

For most of us, years of light rail construction on Broadway has been a traffic headache.

There’s nothing provided to support this assertion but the basic point that there are now fewer lanes where there were previously more. In most rechannelizations, traffic flow is improved. The article goes on to imply that there’s some question about whether the Capitol Hill station will be a “people magnet”:

Once finished, the idea is for the light rail station to be a people magnet for businesses along Broadway.

This is ridiculous on its face; the station will have several thousand daily users, who will walk by the surrounding businesses on their way to the station. Of course, it’s in question whether those thousands of people will drive business, but it’s assumed that a handful of parking places are more valuable:

But the waves of construction – the station, a streetcar and a bike lane – will have disrupted parking on the street for about three years.

Yes, because a few parking places is worth more than a streetcar, a bike lane, and a subway. Combined. The rest of the article is a list of complaints from businesses, including one that could have used some fact-checking:

“No need to drive when the station is open, but it’s still three years from now? I have to find out the way to survive that long.”

First, University Link opens in two years, not three. Second, the streetcar, which will bring thousands of people per day, opens in a matter of months. Not mentioning either of these things is lazy reporting. KUOW can, and usually does, do better.

Edit: I noted U-Link would open in two years, but construction on Broadway for U-Link will probably be done in 12-18 months, as a lot of the last year is systems testing. The title of the KUOW piece, claiming “three more years” of construction, is completely false.

Build a Ballard Subway

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 1.01.40 AM
Well what did you think I was going to write about?

Last week, when Sound Transit and SDOT presented the options for Downtown to Ballard, only one option truly fits into a vision of a completely connected city; a city where transit is just as good as owning a car, if not better; a sustainable, resilient, forward-thinking city. That option is D – the subway option. Today is the last day to get your comments in supporting it.

It serves the most people, both today and tomorrow.

When Seattle adopted its urban village strategy, it committed to growing in urban centers and urban villages. Because Fremont and Ballard are both hub urban villages rather than just residential urban villages, they’re expected to grow faster than the rest of the city’s urban villages already. The subway option is the only option that serves every urban village between downtown and Ballard – and the only grade separated option that serves both the Ballard and Fremont hubs.

From the Seattle comprehensive plan

Rewarding neighborhoods that have accepted growth in urban villages also tells people across the city that they, too, have a path to getting transit. Providing this positive feedback will help engage people in planning for growth so that their neighborhood comes next!

Making the higher investment in a core line today also means that when we add on to both ends, we make transit competitive for many more trips. Whatever route the line takes northward, the more urban village nodes it connects them to, the more people will choose to use it. The fact that it does so at such high speed also means even the stations built farther away will have more impact. Remember, this isn’t just about Ballard – it’s about going a lot farther.

It’s exciting and commands attention – what we’ll need to win.

Remember 2011’s Proposition 1? It failed – not because it wasn’t full of good stuff, not because of any cost or benefit, but because it had no major project to make people excited. What people are voting for has a far greater impact on their vote than how much it costs.

This doesn’t just matter for the vote itself – when more people see themselves using a system, more demand funding for it in Olympia, more people volunteer for the campaign, and more people get engaged to fight for the next extension. And that gives us another reason the subway option is by far the best choice:

It puts transit on the offensive in Olympia.

Our region has twice voted decisively to spend many billions of local dollars on transit, and we asked for nothing from the state transportation budget. Municipalities don’t step up like that to fund highway projects, they ask the state to do it for them. Rather than fund Sound Transit 3 by ourselves, we should demand a state match for transit projects, just like most states provide to their transit systems – and with the Metro hostage well on its way to being rescued, we may soon have the leverage to win state funding.

Every transit agency in the state benefits from this frame – Vancouver needs light rail, even Spokane has considered a streetcar, and we desperately need a real statewide passenger rail network as an alternative to continued highway expansion. As Greyhound reduces services, intercity connections outside the Amtrak Cascades corridor are becoming an ever-higher priority as well, and local bus networks are all underfunded.

It supports West Seattle, and the rest of the city and region.

Planning from the end of this line to West Seattle and Burien is currently under way, along with many other corridors (see page 11), and we’ll likely see options for those corridors come out in the next few months. Picking the subway option for Ballard now will result in the highest ridership for any continuation of the line to West Seattle, making rail to West Seattle more competitive and likely to be funded in ST3.

Overall, the more transit we have planned and prepared to fund in Puget Sound, the stronger our ask in Olympia, and the higher the compromise position will be for the authority and funding we need. WSDOT does this well – they put projects on the map years ahead of time, building support and a sense of inevitability that helps them get funded. Sound Transit will only benefit from doing the same, so let’s help them. Please support the subway option – option D – in Sound Transit’s online tool.

Key Additions to the Long Range Plan

Let’s serve Kirkland right.

We’ve written recently about Sound Transit’s update to their Long Range Plan (LRP). This list of potential projects is what Sound Transit draws from when developing future ballot measures. It can contain projects that range from completely designed and shovel ready to opportunities for study.

Sound Transit has framed their current outreach as serving two needs – updating the LRP, and prioritizing projects for Sound Transit 3. These are different goals. The largest projects likely to be in ST3 are already in the LRP – completing Link’s first spine, potentially expanding Sounder and Tacoma Link make up the bulk of an ST2-sized measure.

Most of the comments I’ve seen people make focus on influencing those projects that are already in the LRP. That’s a solid goal, but it leaves a hole in our advocacy. Just as Sound Transit 2 contained the corridor studies now under way toward Sound Transit 3, Sound Transit 3 will need to contain study work for potential projects in Sound Transit 4 – and Sound Transit 3 projects will need to be designed to accommodate those potential expansions.

Given the advocacy I know has already taken place and the corridors that already exist in the LRP, there are two things I think we need to be sure to add to the LRP for study:

First, a third north-south corridor through Seattle. However we serve downtown to Ballard and West Seattle, a huge swath of the city will still be between the two lines. A new Ballard line won’t serve the Greenwood or 99 corridors, but we’re seeing growth in both, and that will only continue. A West Seattle line can’t serve California, 35th, and Delridge at the same time, much less Georgetown and South Park.

The key here is that any new tunnel in downtown Seattle (as is being considered as part of the Downtown-West Seattle study already) should be designed to carry two lines, not just one, without having to shut down for future reconstruction.

Second, a Sand Point alternative to connect Kirkland to our regional system. Right now, shortsightedly, the Ballard-UW-Kirkland planning focuses exclusively on using SR-520. I wrote about this more than three years ago, and from that post, I’m resurrecting the image above, which shows alternatives considered by a study designed to push rail compatibility on 520.

Using 520 to get from UW to Kirkland would be some 50% longer than Sand Point, costing more and dramatically increasing travel time. Plus, with Children’s Hospital expanding, a Sand Point alternative wouldn’t just serve thousands more people, it would serve tens of thousands more jobs.

Considering the massive political hurdles to building through UW campus again, retrofitting 520 and giving Olympia another hostage, and trying to build new infrastructure in Montlake and Medina, it might even be cheaper to build a new bridge/tunnel/whatever than to build all that extra mileage. We should be studying it, not precluding it before we balance the options.

Possibilities in Olympia

On Thursday, the Senate Transportation Committee held a ‘work session’ in order to receive public comments on their proposed transportation package. I took the trip down, along with several other STB readers. So first, thanks very much to Jon, Alex, Allison, and Mark for joining me!

There isn’t much actual news. Elected officials from all over the state came on Thursday to ask for highway expansion, and while some of them asked for transit authority, I didn’t hear any of them ask the Senate to start funding transit directly, nor did I hear any testimony at all for passenger rail. There were individuals and organizations saying the package was a non-starter, but they were far too few.

There’s no way to know right now what’s going to happen, but with King County preparing to go to ballot with a Vehicle License Fee or sales tax package to save Metro, they’re no longer reliant on the legislature passing a package. If the package does pass the Senate, it’ll do so with enough Republican support that it may pass the House, so my hope is that the package is killed before it leaves the Senate.

For most people, context completely disappears when an issue drags on this long, so this also seems like a good time for a recap:

Continue reading “Possibilities in Olympia”

Sound Transit Long Range Plan Open House

20131113-060625.jpgLast night, Sound Transit had the first of six open houses asking residents of the district: What do you want to see from Sound Transit next?

Sound Transit staff and Mayor McGinn both spoke about how this process works, and the mayor pointed out that getting a Sound Transit expansion package will also require legislative work – advocacy from us in Olympia. I wish there had been more people – between ST staff and the mayor, the presentation was the most complete explanation of how Sound Transit operates that I’ve heard yet.

The rest of the event was time for Sound Transit and consultant staff to talk to attendees about what they wanted, collect comments, and generally answer questions, much like most public meetings. They did some cool stuff, taking video of people answering questions, and working on a time-lapse of a big map on which attendees can put colored dots where they want transit.

There were a lot of good meeting materials – an overview from top to bottom of why Sound Transit exists, what it does, and how it plans. I haven’t found PDFs of the boards Sound Transit had up, but they have a very clear web page about the process.

Turnout last night was low. I think it’s difficult for people – even transit advocates – to really understand the steps an agency has to go through before funding and building a project, and so going to a “long range plan open house” doesn’t seem that exciting to many. The people who did show up were a cross-section of the most experienced and involved advocates in Seattle, there just weren’t many new faces. I hope to see that improve at the other events!

I think we’ve written about Sound Transit’s overall process before, but I’ve heard some specific misconceptions recently, so rather than a big explanation of how we get to ST3 and ST4, I just want to make a few points:

Continue reading “Sound Transit Long Range Plan Open House”

Surprise! Fourth Special Session – And a Highway Package that Must be Stopped

This weekend, I received leaked details of a massive, $12 billion highway package from an anonymous source in the legislature. Even worse than the last package we saw, it reduces bike/ped funding further, and adds new highway projects, including a massive JBLM interchange that likely includes widening I-5, and dozens of other highway expansions. This package includes funding for the west end of 520 – partly a positive, but it completely funds the project, making tolling I-90 unnecessary. Avoiding tolling on highways is a poor choice for both congestion and sprawl.

Tomorrow, the legislature will begin debating this new package (unofficially of course, as ‘debate’ doesn’t start until a session does, but it does start tomorrow), and they’ll almost definitely soon enter a fourth special session to consider it.

To protect my source, I can’t post the documents, but here’s a screenshot of much of the highway expansion component (click to expand). This package would cause significant increases in CO2, congestion, and sprawl, and offer a bare minimum of transit options. In the long run, driving sprawl like this also dramatically increases the cost to provide transit options.

Highway ProjectsWhile VLF or sales tax at the county level, or a property tax at the city level, aren’t ideal ways to preserve Metro service, they’re better than megahighway projects across the state. If the legislature were funding Sound Transit 3 along with this, it might be a different story, but they are not. This is much, much worse than the Roads and Transit package local voters soundly trounced in 2007. It’s our job to urge our legislators to vote against it.

Transit Reception on Monday with Mayor McGinn and Councilmember Conlin!

Do *you* want to expand rail in the city? I know I do, and so does the City of Seattle. Please come join Mayor McGinn and Council member Conlin at Spitfire next Monday night from 7-8 to talk to them about their vision for expanding transit. Now that all four of the high capacity transit corridors in the Transit Master Plan are in progress, and Sound Transit is expanding their Long Range Plan in preparation for ST3, this is an exciting time for both rail and BRT.

I think readers have a lot of questions about how we’re going to fund these corridors and what timeline they’re on, and this is a great opportunity to ask!

This City of Seattle event is immediately followed by Cascade Bicycle Club’s “Evening with Earl” from 8-9pm, hosting Earl Blumenauer, Congressmember for Portland, a fantastic urbanist and founder of the Railvolution conference. If you’re going to stay for that, please RSVP to Brock Howell.

These are two great opportunities to hang out with a lot of great transit advocates – don’t miss them!

A Special Session Would Be a Disaster: What We Can Do Instead

On Thursday, I wrote about the State Senate listening tour’s Seattle stop on Monday (Bartolome Day), and why we’re in a much better position than they think. I want to add more detail about what the Senate is trying to do, and how we can do an end run around them.

The Problem

The Republicans (and the two turncoat Democrats) have outlined a “ten point” scheme (PDF) they want implemented as part of any transportation package.

Most of these are designed to privatize operations, or cut pay and benefits for workers. The last one is the worst for transit: it “would make changes streamlining the state’s existing regional transit authority boards.” Hmm… where have we heard that before? It’s yet another attempt to make the Sound Transit board directly elected, and susceptible to attacks from moneyed interests. Given the political pressures that exist today, suburban ST board members could even direct ST money for road projects, as has been a desire of some legislators in the past.

The State House would surely reject legislation like this, but the concessions necessary to get the current Senate to vote for a package would be disastrous. As Mike Lindblom pointed out on twitter yesterday, I even missed how bad it got this year:

Continue reading “A Special Session Would Be a Disaster: What We Can Do Instead”

Tell the State Senate It’s Their Last Chance

On Monday from 6-9pm, the Washington State Senate’s listening tour has its Seattle stop. Note that the location has changed – it will now be at the First Presbyterian Church on 8th, on the west corner of First Hill.

Originally, this ‘listening tour‘ didn’t have a stop in Seattle at all – even though it’s jointly led by a Democrat and a Republican. That should be your first indicator that our legislature is heavily biased toward suburban and rural interests.

So what should we say? Most organizational advocacy lately has been for “transit in a state package.” I submit to you that asking for transit as part of a state package is a really bad idea.

First, the last package we saw contained no projects in Seattle. Nothing. All of our gas tax would be shipped out of the city for suburban and rural projects (probably part of why they didn’t want to include us in the tour). We have obvious needs – the 520 project is severely underfunded and has overrun by hundreds of millions already, SR-99 is already in the red, and our ferry terminal needs replacement, to say nothing of our local arterials, to which the state used to contribute.

Let’s say we get a state package that includes, say, a reborn Columbia River Crossing highway, expansion of US 395 in Spokane, and expansions of SRs 167 and 509 – and no money to fix state funding problems for their projects in Seattle. The last thing we want is to have the *authority to tax ourselves* tied to a package that exports our tax dollars to induce climate change and sprawl.

Remember “Roads and Transit”? A local measure that was more than half rail transit failed. The best case scenario the state House passed provides a couple hundred million for transit, and that had no prayer of passing the Senate. We don’t need to take that offer.

Here’s the real deal: The county has the ability to fix this funding problem, today. They could run a property tax measure, stabilizing Metro funding. It’s not as progressive as the value-based motor vehicle excise tax we’re asking for from the legislature, but it’s much more progressive than cutting service. As an emergency backup, the city of Seattle could do the same thing, as could many of our suburban cities.

In fact, Seattle and King County could go to ballot at the same time, proactively increasing transit funding if both passed. We could fund Metro to a level that let them institute a low income fare, and even much of the Seattle Transit Master Plan.

While we’re playing nice, we really have the state over a barrel. An alliance of anti-tax and pro-environment forces could stop a highway expansion package in its tracks, and we can solve our own transit funding issues if we really have to.

So on Monday, join us at First Presbyterian – and let’s tell the state it’s their last chance to fix this. They think they’re holding us hostage (much like the Republicans at the national level are doing), but this is their last chance to provide authority for Metro, likely with direct funding for operations, as nearly every other state provides – or we take away their leverage over Seattle voters to expand highways.

Murray May Oppose Westlake Cycletrack

[UPDATE from Martin: to my knowledge, Sen. Murray hasn’t responded to Ben, but he responded to PubliCola: “Murray says he doesn’t know the specifics of the Westlake cycle tracks proposal, but says he’s for cycle tracks in general.

‘I support cycle tracks. I used them in Europe. If they think I am opposed, then they’ll be surprised.'”]

Yesterday, I received an invite to an Ed Murray fundraiser by the Northwest Marine Trade Association asking me to “Save our parking! Save our businesses!”

The message attacks “Mayor McGinn’s cycle track which will absolutely have a devastating impact on the well-being of the Westlake Community.”

From an email conversation with one of the organizers, I learned Murray has told them that he’ll delay design and construction of the Westlake Cycletrack and commission a new study of business impact. I’ve asked the Murray campaign for a clear statement, and will follow up here if I receive a response.

Ironically, trading some parking for bicycling infrastructure leads to an increase in business. With bicycling skyrocketing in Seattle and driving alone falling, the need for parking is diminishing, and the need for safe bike routes is increasing.

When Murray talks about transportation, he often explains he would work regionally – but this project is a high priority of the Puget Sound Regional Council, even receiving funding from them last year. For him to oppose this project (or, you know, “let’s do another study” when construction is about to begin) would mean he’d throw regional *or* local needs under the train when presented with opposition to a project from his backers.

University Link Will Likely Open Early

Since early this year, we’ve noticed that Sound Transit’s quarterly Link progress reports (pdf) show University Link with a lot of padding in the schedule – 169 days of what they call “float” (see page 13).

At today’s Sound Transit board meeting, staff presented a plan (pdf) to study how early University Link can open, and work with contractors and Metro to implement it! While we’ve noticed this float for a long time, this is the first time Sound Transit has officially confirmed the possibility, even tweeting it.

If University Link does open five months earlier than the currently expected September 24th, 2016 date, as early as mid-April by my count, it could mean a lot for a 2016 Sound Transit 3 measure. The early open could boost ridership, impacting living choices for students and employees starting at UW for the 16-17 school year, as U-Link would already be in operation when students make their living arrangements. A great September ridership number would be a great news item during a campaign. And, of course, the more people ride grade separated rail, the more they want.

This is no small feat – the other similarly sized projects in our region, WSDOT’s SR-520 bridge replacement and SR-99 tunnel, are both plagued with overruns and delay. Sound Transit is reaffirming today that under Joni Earl, they’re the most capable construction management outfit in the region.

The Impact Of A Hotel

Last week, the local hotel workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 8, sent a letter to Seattle DPD recommending that the 1620-room hotel project planned for the Greyhound site (and the rest of the block around it) require a supplemental environmental impact statement for downtown, rather than just an addendum to the existing downtown EIS, because it has a significant unplanned impact on downtown employment and housing affordability.

This project, to me, is fascinating. My first response, upon speaking with UNITE HERE earlier in the year, was frustration – slowing down downtown development drives up prices, impacting affordability and adding pressure for sprawl. But during that initial conversation, I realized my frustration was misplaced. A hotel doesn’t have those kinds of impacts – it’s not a factor in housing supply. Or, at least, not usually.

Right now, aside from the Greyhound station, the site where this hotel will be built also contains the old Bonair Apartments, a residential building that serves as de facto affordable housing. As Jane Jacobs covers for an entire chapter, old buildings tend to become affordable as they age, and the Bonair is an excellent example – most of its 48 units are priced low enough to be considered affordable by those earning 50% of Area Median Income (AMI).

The hotel project also contains affordable housing – 160 units (for 50 years). That housing, however, is only required to be affordable by those earning 80% of AMI – so while that level of affordable housing is also needed, this project isn’t a clear benefit. It will displace some low income people, many likely downtown service workers, and replace them with people making more money. Arguably, that’s still a wash – it’s the other side of the equation where the real impact lies, and why UNITE HERE is involved.

More below the fold. Continue reading “The Impact Of A Hotel”

Anti-Rail Forces Rejected by State Supreme Court

The HOV lanes and East Link (stolen shamelessly from ST)
The HOV lanes and East Link (from Sound Transit)

On Thursday, the Washington State Supreme Court published their 7-2 opinion (PDF), denying a laundry list of the usual anti-transit suspects their likely second to last attempt to block the construction of East Link.

This latest case started in Kittitas County – Freeman sued to block East Link there, perhaps looking for a more conservative judge than he’d find in King, and failed over a year ago. He appealed to the Supreme Court, and this week the result is clear: he’s burning his money on ways to block rail without success on any front.

The fight for rail in the I-90 express lanes is long – it started in the 1970s with the reconstruction and expansion of I-90, Sound Transit joined the party in 2004 to plan transit across the bridge, Sound Transit 2 funded it, and finally it’s happening!

Freeman’s suit alleged that because I-90 was partly (about 10%) built with state gas tax money, and state gas tax money is prohibited from use for transit projects, the state couldn’t lease the lanes to Sound Transit. There are a lot of specifics, but all of them were wrong, and unless you’re really fascinated by the legal contortions that folks like this will go to in order to try to stop transit, it’s really only worth reading the first couple of pages of background (PDF, look at pages 1-5), which are excellent.

So, assisted by attorney Phil Talmadge, who I expected better from, and the Eastside Transportation Association, a nonprofit you should never donate to, here’s the dirty dozen:

Kemper Freeman; Jim Horn; Steve Stivala; Ken Collins; Michael Dunmire; Sarah Rindlaub; Al Deatley; Jim Coles; Bryan Boehm; Emory Bundy; Roger Bell; and Mark Anderson.

It’s possible this will come back one more time – part of the decision came down to only five members of the court agreeing that WSDOT could lease the space to Sound Transit. The other four think the lease wouldn’t be constitutional, but that they can’t weigh in until someone sues when the lease actually takes place. Kemper Freeman may very well waste more of his money, and our tax dollars, with his attempt to litigate away the will of his neighbors.

City Council Smacks CVS With Minimum Density Legislation

The proposed CVS (1st Ave N side)
The proposed CVS (Queen Anne Ave side) – single use, single entrance

Earlier this year, CVS suddenly started trying to build suburban-style, one story drugstores, chock full of parking, in the middle of three Seattle urban villages.

In a departure from a lot of the activism we often see, neighborhood groups organized to push back asking for more density, and today, the council unanimously passed temporary emergency legislation from Councilmember Conlin banning what he called “strip mall development,” sending a clear signal against underdeveloping neighborhood centers.

I’ve had the opportunity to be part of this since the beginning. Velmeir, the developer trying to build CVS, came to an Uptown Alliance Urban Design Framework committee meeting, presenting a fully designed pharmacy building and handwaving away any option of mixed use. Other Uptown Alliance members dug in, and found that they were trying to do the same thing in Wallingford and West Seattle.

A month or more later, when Velmeir came to their Early Design Guidance meeting, the first step to get a permit, they hadn’t changed a thing. Their design was rejected by the design review board (PDF), citing large blank walls and lack of any unique design elements – despite a design packet showcasing the art deco style of many buildings in the neighborhood. They tried the same design again in Wallingford, and that board rejected it for a different reason. They said it didn’t meet the height, bulk, and scale guideline – it wasn’t big enough!

Several neighborhood activists from both Uptown and Wallingford went to Councilmember Conlin and DPD, who worked together on emergency legislation (PDF) to block further development of this nature. The legislation requires minimum Floor Area Ratio (often FAR), something that to my knowledge has never been done before in Seattle.

For a 30 or 40 foot zone in a pedestrian overlay district (which exist in station areas and urban villages), any new building or modification of over 1000 square feet must have a minimum ratio of building square footage to site square footage of 1.5. For a 65 or 85 foot zone, this becomes 2, and for a 125 or 160 foot zone, 2.5. This isn’t a difficult requirement to beat; it just prevents these suburban-style developments.

I attended today’s Council meeting. Other than one crazy regular commenter, I believe every comment with an opinion on the legislation was in favor. Oddly, an attorney from Foster Pepper (retained by Velmeir) appeared, signed up to comment, and at the microphone, merely asked whether they had the latest version of the legislation the Council was considering. They did.

Just before the vote, Conlin gave some explanation and commentary. It got very interesting – he said (paraphrasing) that the land use code today is often used to limit height and density, but the Council thinks it can also be used to encourage them! He went on to say that this is just a step on that path, but “for the future of our city, it’s important that we go down that path.”

I’m generally wary of legislation to impose new requirements on development – many requirements, like parking, can put a price floor on new development higher than what the market would provide. Fortunately, this legislation may lead to a wider discussion of Seattle’s land use code that, if guided well, could lead to more affordability, more walkability, and stronger, more inclusive community. I applaud today’s move, and look forward to that discussion.

Improving Bus Route Efficiency

Frank’s post yesterday touched on one of the largest problems in bus service planning. Any changes that impact an existing rider, even if they’ll gain the system more new riders, will make that existing rider angry! The potential riders don’t know that they’ll gain something, and it would be absurdly difficult to identify and educate them, so the main voice in the room is the user at risk of loss.

In something like software, you can lose some customers, and then get new ones – which is why I think so many engineers feel like they can improve transit systems easily by coming up with better networks. That’s fun and awesome, but in public infrastructure (at least in the US), the customers have an impact on the decision, and often block changes that would be viewed by an engineer as beneficial.

A prime example is route 42, a bus that used to be a one seat ride from parts of SE Seattle to downtown. When Link opened, it largely duplicated the 42, and it would have been more efficient to move the 42’s funding to a shorter, more frequent, connection to the train. Because riders feared the loss of their one seat ride, though, they lobbied to block the cancellation, and the 42 was retained for years. This makes sense: pissing people off would lose County Council members votes, and potentially cost them future elections.

Most 42 riders switched to Link quickly. Ridership on the route dwindled. Eventually, it served so few riders that it could finally be cancelled without a political hit.

When tax revenue is down, the threat of service cuts can also spur changes that make systems more efficient. But in most of the writing here about bus efficiency, it’s proposed that an agency take an existing route’s funding and shift it to another place where those dollars will get more riders. Improvement plans are written about, discussed at length, and perfected – but very rarely implemented.

It’s great to have a vision of how our bus network could serve more people with the dollars we have, but I believe we’re using the wrong frame when looking at things like David’s excellent frequent network plan. Organizing around the implication that a transit agency is being inefficient tends to draw a conservative group more interested in reducing their taxes than improving transit service. The benefits to existing transit users are small, diffuse, and outweighed by the loss aversion, so there’s no natural support base. Significant organizing work would be necessary to make changes like these, but it doesn’t gain traction.

So how can we implement a better network?

Let’s look back at our example of the 42. When Link opened, we weren’t moving money from one place to another. Sound Transit built a new rail line, with its own funding. Link dramatically improved service quality, so many 42 users switched, joining thousands who had never previously used transit at all.

Building Link took a lot of organizing that did gain traction, because it wasn’t for small, diffuse benefits – it was for a large, focused benefit. Our city got far better: Link improved our mobility, reduced emissions, and improved transportation affordability. In Link’s wake, Metro gained the political cover to improve their efficiency.

Organizing for rail is successful because it offers better, faster, transit that people trust won’t be cancelled or moved in the future. Our goals look very similar to the core of David’s plan, and we’re winning. This approach has more than doubled Seattle transit funding. Nothing else has come close.

We can go farther. The path forward will continue with a plan for rail connecting Ballard to Downtown, and soon Sound Transit will start planning for Downtown – West Seattle and Ballard – UW, as well as more outside the city. Seattle Subway will be organizing to win funding for those lines and to make them as awesome as possible. With your help, we’ll get the frequent network we all want, and with that network comes a proven path to make Metro’s system more efficient.

A Trip Around the Gadgetbahn Loop

Modern HSR in Japan

Now that it’s been a few hours, I want to add to Andrew’s post this morning.

Hyperloop suffers from many of the same problems that the monorail did when first proposed. The monorail backers also originally claimed that they would save money by being elevated, only buying land for the pylons. As they found out, people won’t just sell you air rights! And ANY landowner stonewalling would impact the project. He doesn’t get eminent domain, and that alone could kill the project, because dozens or hundreds wouldn’t want it on their property. Even with eminent domain, the land alone could be higher than his claimed total cost. Even the concrete pylons could be that much, not even counting the guideway!

Also like the initial monorail plan, there are no safety mechanisms to speak of. It’s not just the spacing that’s less than half of what it would need to be for an emergency stop, but where’s emergency egress? What happens if the system breaks down and the tube, baking in California sun, starts to heat up? How is it ventilated in an emergency, how does it repressurize, and how do people get down if they’re in a random place in the middle of CA? Answering these questions is difficult and largely not attempted. The monorail would have needed a walkway and regular staircases.

Here’s the kicker, though – Andrew pointed out the low capacity, less than a third of HSR. Even start with Musk’s extremely low-balled estimates – once you make him pay for the land he’d need, or you limit the system to headways where an accident wouldn’t kill the passengers in the next two trains, or you consider the real cost of concrete pylons for an earthquake prone area, this would easily become more expensive per passenger than CAHSR.

This is typical gadgetbahn. Like all gadgetbahn, it’s being presented as an alternative to a real project, diluting support for the real project and turning the burden of proof on its head. Like all gadgetbahn, it requires new technology, so it “could work if we would just try it!” And like all gadgetbahn, a set of its supporters, blinded by technolust and frustrated with reality, will clamor for that test track, often while attacking the real project. This is the beginning of what happened here with the monorail. The hyperloop idea will peel off some of CAHSR’s support, putting HSR at more risk when it’s one of the best ways to build a better future that’s accessible to people who can’t afford $100,000 cars. Fortunately, it’s not getting traction.

It’s possible Musk is simply being foolish, but it’s worth pointing out thaf his supercharger network, where he offers free lifetime charging to Tesla owners, is most developed in California along the CAHSR route. If HSR gains a foothold in CA, he stands to lose a lot of customers – not just there, but across the country, if a national HSR network spreads. Just as other car companies did in the past, it makes sense for him to find ways to dilute support for HSR.