Signage changes for Link

The first of the new way finding signs will be piloted in downtown Seattle stations next week (image: Sound Transit)

Several improvements to Link station signage are in development. Numbered exit signs will be piloted at downtown Seattle stations next week, and other enhancements will be rolled out with system expansions in future years. The changes were introduced at a meeting of the System Expansion Committee on Thursday as the Committee approved a contract for sign services. At the same meeting, CEO Peter Rogoff indicated Sound Transit would drop the term “Red Line” and perhaps color-coded lines generally.

Exits will be numbered and paired with directories. The first signs will be piloted in downtown stations next week and the pilot will continue through 2020. Overhead number signs will direct riders to exits. Nearby wall-mounted directories will explain which numbers correspond to which streets or nearby destinations. The directories will include pictures of popular destinations nearby. Labelled exits were identified as a best practice in other systems, and are particularly useful for visitors, first-time users, non-native speakers, and high-functioning illiterate users.

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The political economy of the spine after I-976

The planned 2030 extension of Link rail to Tacoma is likely to be delayed. 65% of Pierce County voters backed I-976 (image: SounderBruce)

Last week’s apparent passage of I-976 has given rise to a fair amount of commentary affirming that voters were sending a message, and disagreeing about what they are saying. One could focus on the statewide rejection of taxes on cars, narrow support for car tabs in the three counties served by Sound Transit, a probable positive vote within the Sound Transit RTA, the clearly positive vote in King County, or the massive rejection of Sound Transit taxes in Pierce County.

Precinct data is clarifying. It’s unfortunately not yet available in Pierce County. However, current precinct data is available for Snohomish County and first night detail is available for King County. Clear patterns are evident among the cities where I-976 over- and under-performed relative to the 2016 ST3 vote.

The I-976 vote polarized voters within the RTA along geographic lines more than ST3. Seattle voters, already most likely to favor taxes for transit, opposed I-976 by yet larger margins than in 2016. The suburbs to the north and south with the lowest pro-ST3 votes became more adamantly opposed with huge majorities against the MVET. The divided response from voters calls into question the marquee Sound Transit projects extending rail far to the north and south.

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What next after I-976?

A Link station in Everett, previously scheduled for 2036, is certain to slip until much later (Image: SounderBruce)

Last night’s returns indicate I-976 is likely to pass. The next step is likely a court challenge, or several. What if the initiative is sustained? Let’s look ahead at the implications for Sound Transit.

If Sound Transit is forced to stop collecting the MVET, that reduces 2021-2041 revenues by $6.9 billion, or 12.3% of what was previously estimated. (Sound Transit mostly relies on sales taxes with a smaller contribution from property tax).

The impact of losing the MVET revenues is multiplied because it is front-loaded. The MVET is 18% of tax revenues through 2028, and just under 10% thereafter. That’s because the 0.3% Sound Move MVET must end in 2028 as a result of a previous Eyman initiative. When that happens, the 0.8% ST3 MVET would have moved to the lower 2005 car valuation schedule reducing those revenues about 30%.

In theory, if Sound Transit were to make up the lost MVET revenues with debt, it would accrue another $13 billion in interest and debt servicing expense. Practically, that’s impossible. Sound Transit runs up against statutory limits on debt long before that. Projections in the current financial plan indicate the agency may already be on track to approach the statutory limit in the 2030s. They also risk hitting limits on debt coverage as revenues are reduced.

Therefore, the impact of I-976 will mostly take the form of slower spending and delayed projects. Before the ST3 spending program peaks (i.e. when limits on debt are most constraining), they must slow outlays by about as much as the loss in MVET revenues. If the Board chooses, all promised projects can probably be built eventually because there’s no time limit on the authority to collect other taxes. But there’s no pathway to delivering the ST3 plan on the schedule anticipated in 2016 because there’s no longer enough money.

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ST 541 not dead yet

ST Express 541 (Image: SounderBruce)

Last we heard, just a few weeks ago, Sound Transit’s draft service plan was to discontinue ST 541 (Overlake – University District), along with ST 540 (Kirkland – University District). This week, the Rider Experience Committee is set to reconsider that plan. Up to ten one-way trips will remain on ST 541. That’s significantly less than the 20 round trips currently provided, but it indicates some rethinking of service changes on SR 520 in response to rider feedback.

The staff memo points to recent growth in ridership on ST routes over SR 520, including 541 and 542. There’s also a nod to rider input during public involvement about capacity concerns on the remaining 542 trips. Average weekday ridership on ST 541 this Spring was 873.

There now commences a period of monitoring ridership shifts on all of these services. The ten remaining trips on ST 541 will be evaluated prior to each service change. Route 544 operate for at least 24 months so that the market can develop and the full ridership potential can be evaluated. After two years, it too may be adjusted based on performance.

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Planning RapidRide K in Bellevue & Kirkland

RapidRide B (image: Kris Leisten)

King County Metro has begun preliminary design for RapidRide K connecting Totem Lake, Kirkland, Bellevue and Eastgate. Some details emerged in a pair of recent briefings in Kirkland and Bellevue.

RapidRide K routing in Bellevue and Kirkland (image: KC Metro)

The line is anticipated to open in 2025. As mapped in Metro Connects, the long range plan for expanding Metro service, the K Line would replace portions of route 255 from Totem Lake to the South Kirkland Park & Ride, current routes 234 and 235 between South Kirkland and the Bellevue Transit Center, and Route 271 between Bellevue Transit Center and Eastgate.

Planning for RapidRide K has funded by a WSDOT Regional Mobility Grant, and just over half the planned $90 million budget for capital improvements is covered by Metro local funds. The $43 million balance is expected from an FTA Small Starts grant. Metro intends to seek other grant funds and partnership opportunities for capital improvements that could support a more robust service. At the Bellevue Council meeting this week, Metro staff made clear that they will be looking for the cities to bring something to the table, and is not necessarily depending on the uncertain FTA process.

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Sound Transit Board resists adding Seattle rail options over cost concerns

Link train crossing the Duwamish (Image: Mike Bjork/Flickr)

Yesterday, the Sound Transit Board adopted a final set of options for the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for Link extensions to Ballard and West Seattle. After a contentious discussion that frequently focused on cost challenges, the Board voted down a Pigeon Point tunnel in West Seattle. Options for a central Ballard station at 20th Ave NW were not included in the DEIS either. Lacking support among board members, the central Ballard station was hardly discussed and it was not voted on. 

Two options were added to the DEIS. As expected, the Board approved adding an alternative elevated alignment in the Yancy/Andover corridor area of West Seattle. That would reduce the number of homes to be taken for construction, but also shifts the Delridge station north with inferior station access.

At the meeting, the Board unanimously accepted an amendment to add a partial elevated option in SODO. The added option elevates the new line and stations, with the existing line at grade. It also retains the E3 busway which would disappear with a fully at-grade alignment. A fully at-grade option was among those adopted in May.

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Sound Transit set to finalize West Seattle & Ballard EIS alternatives

Link at Othello (Image: SounderBruce)

This afternoon, the Sound Transit Board will finalize the list of options to be examined in the Link Extensions Draft EIS for West Seattle and Ballard. A motion on the agenda adds just one more option in West Seattle to a initial list of alternatives adopted in May. Several other alternatives that were recently studied would not proceed any further. These include the Pigeon Point Tunnel in West Seattle and all of the options to locate a Ballard station near 20th Ave NW.

Let’s recap how we reached this point. Sound Transit has been analyzing options for the Seattle ST3 lines since 2017. In May, the Board made a selection from those alternatives to be considered in the draft Environmental Impact Statement. In response to input received during the scoping period, the Board also directed staff to examine a half dozen other options that might also be added to the EIS. An initial analysis on those options was completed last month. With that information in hand, the Board now has to lock down the final list of options to go through the EIS process.

The Board may adopt further amendments at Thursday’s meeting. If not, these are the project options that are will be studied in the EIS, or not:

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Why ridership on ST 550 melted down

ST Express 550 in the DSTT (Image: Oran Viriyincy)

ST Express 550, connecting Bellevue to Seattle, is the highest ridership bus in the Sound Transit Express system. In the last two years, it has shed more than one third of its ridership. Issaquah-Seattle route ST 554, also operating on I-90, has seen ridership decline 14% over the same period.

Recently, a Sound Transit Committee received an analysis that explores the reasons why. It’s unlikely very much of the lost ridership could have been avoided. It’s nevertheless concerning because the I-90 express routes ought to be building a market for transit ahead of Blue Line trains running to Bellevue in 2023 and Redmond in 2024.

ST 550 has become progressively more difficult for riders to access as several major stops have closed. The South Bellevue P&R closed in June 2017 for East Link construction with a loss of 519 parking stalls. That was followed by the closure of Convention Place Station in July 2018 and Rainier Freeway Station in September 2018. However, the greatest loss of ridership came with the closing of the downtown transit tunnel to buses in March 2019. On average, Metro and Sound Transit routes formerly in the tunnel have seen 20% ridership losses since March.

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A transit bridge across the Montlake Cut?

Montlake’s bascule bridge pictured on Seattle Yacht Club’s opening day of boating season (image by author)

The Seattle City Council’s Planning Committee recently considered whether to endorse a second bascule bridge serving transit across the Montlake Cut. Current city policy does not favor a bridge for transit unless specific triggers are met. However, changing circumstances in Montlake may warrant a revisit. Although last week’s discussion was inconclusive, the question is likely to recur as construction proceeds on SR 520 and WSDOT begins a consultative process with stakeholders in the project later this year or early 2020.

The Legislature funded a second parallel bridge across the Cut in the Connecting Washington package in 2015. WSDOT envisions the bridge being constructed in a third phase of the SR 520 ‘Rest of the West’, but has not released a timetable.

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Financial risks to the ST3 plan have grown

Compared to expectations in 2016, capital costs are likely to be much higher as inflation in capital expenditures and right of way acquisition have run far ahead of general inflation (image: Sound Transit)

By the time most ST3 projects are delivered in the mid-2030s, Sound Transit is projected to accumulate over $17 billion in debt. Managing that debt load is critical to delivering the program on time.

Sound Transit’s debt capacity is limited in several ways. There is a statutory limit that total debt cannot exceed 1.5% of the property tax base within the RTA district. There are other constraints, contained within financial policies and bond covenants, that limit bond servicing costs relative to available cash flow. Sound Transit monitors all of these so the future debt load remains financially sustainable and within legal limits. If future projections indicated any of these limits would be exceeded, it would become necessary to delay projects or reduce operations.

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Census reports steady growth in local transit use, walking

More Seattle residents taking transit to work (data: American Community Survey)

US Census data released on Thursday confirmed more Seattle residents are taking transit to work. More are walking too. Bike commute rates remain low, however.

Even though the Census’ American Community Survey sample is a large and sophisticated process, sample variation is inevitable and there are occasional anomalies at local geographies. So it’s more productive to step back and look at trends than focus on shifts in one mode in one year. (I’ve assembled some tables with local statistics here). 

In 2010, 18% of workers living in Seattle took transit to work. Last year, this had grown to 23%. It’s a sharp contrast to other major cities where ridership is trending down.

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Rideshare tax increase will fund streetcar & other projects

First Hill Streetcar (Image: Atomic Taco)

On Thursday morning, the Mayor will propose increasing taxes on rideshare trips that begin or end in the city of Seattle by 51 cents beginning in 2021. (see coverage from Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal). Among the beneficiaries of the tax is the Center City Connector which would see $56 million over five years, closing the deficit in funding that project after the City Council recently approved another $9 million for a reworked project design.

If the tax increase and spending plan are approved, and the project otherwise stays on track, it would resolve the streetcar’s funding gap without a messy budget cycle duel over other priorities for general fund spending. The 51 cent levy adds to an existing 24 cent levy on rideshare trips that supports licencing and wheelchair access. That levy might be reduced, but the total levy proposed by the Mayor’s office would be 75 cents in any case to meet the spending goals.

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Expanding Sounder South

Sounder Train at Kent Station (image: Sound Transit)

Sound Transit is seeking public comment on a program of possible expansions to Sounder South. These are likely to include additional daily runs on Sounder and station platform improvements to allow 10-car trains to operate (up from 7 cars today). Sound Transit envisions a series of improvements rolling out through 2036, with planning on the first projects beginning in 2020.

The ST3 program included $934 million (2014 $) in Sounder South capital improvements to improve access and capacity. There is an additional $325 million to fund an extension from the current terminus at Lakewood to serve two new stations at Tillikum and Dupont in 2036.

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Regional plan to shift employment from King County

King County has far outpaced neighboring counties and the current regional plan in employment growth since 2010 (data: PSRC & Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The region’s economy has logged strong growth since the end of the Great Recession with 26% more jobs than in 2010. That growth has been led by King County, which has contributed 74% of the increase in employment in the four-county Puget Sound area in 2008-2019. Regional leaders are planning to force a redistribution of employment growth with less job growth in King County, and more jobs closer to communities in Pierce and Snohomish County that have seen fast housing growth.

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Downtown Kirkland to be an urban center

Short video from City of Kirkland explaining the Urban Center designation to citizens. (source: City of Kirkland)

Downtown Kirkland is likely to be designated as an Urban Center early next year. On Tuesday evening, the City Council is expected to approve applications to King County and the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC). If approved, it will be the region’s 30th regional growth center. 

The proposed “Greater Downtown Kirkland Urban Center” encompasses the central business district, the I-405 BRT station at NE 85th and the Rose Hill Business District just beyond, the Sixth Street corridor including Google, and the northern half of the Houghton-Everest neighborhood center. Also included to form a contiguous and regularly shaped center are some more residential areas around downtown with mostly higher density residential uses.

Land use within the proposed Urban Center in Kirkland (image: City of Kirkland, click to enlarge map)

The proposed center is home to over 6,700 residents and more than 17,000 jobs. Those include three of the top five employers in Kirkland. The center is expected to add another 9,000 jobs and to double in population by 2035.

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Kirkland and Sound Transit agree on connections to NE 85th BRT station

Flyover animation of the I-405 BRT station at NE 85th in Kirkland (credit: Sound Transit/WSDOT)

Last year, Sound Transit and WSDOT shared their design of the three-level I-405 BRT station at NE 85th St in Kirkland. After prolonged negotiations, the City and Sound Transit reached agreement earlier this month on connecting the station area to downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

At a forecast $260 million, NE 85th is one of the most expensive and complex stations in the ST3 system. Ridership forecasts are low. The City of Kirkland estimates 250-300 daily transfers at NE 85th in 2025. Sound Transit estimates fewer than 1,000 riders even by 2040.

Reaching or improving on those low expectations depends on bus and pedestrian/bike connections. The station will not have parking. Even the east edge of downtown Kirkland is separated from the station by 3,000 feet and a 200 foot elevation gain. The ST3 plan addressed this by budgeting another $45 million for bus lanes on NE 85th between the station and 6th St. Subsequent study found those lanes would be ineffective, freeing up funds for improved non-motorized connections instead.

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Sound Transit may build inline stop at Brickyard, shifting I-405 BRT to center lanes

At the meeting of the Sound Transit System Expansion Committee on Thursday, an order was approved to begin project development and environmental review on an inline station for I-405 BRT at Brickyard. Along with expanded HOT lanes approved earlier this year, this will allow BRT to operate in managed center lanes along almost the entire length of I-405.

WSDOT and potential Sound Transit investments in I-405 (image: Sound Transit)

The ST3 plan envisioned BRT operating in mixed traffic all of the way from Lynnwood to Brickyard, with buses only moving to the center lanes near NE 128th in Kirkland. This was a necessary outcome of the lack of direct access ramps along the northern stretches of I-405. Earlier this year, Sound Transit identified several new locations where buses could operate on the shoulder, mitigating the impact of general traffic lane congestion.

In the 2019 session, the Legislature approved funding to add a second express toll lane as far north as SR 527. This included direct access ramps at Canyon Park and SR 522, though not at Brickyard. Alone, using these stops would mean skipping Brickyard: buses would need to move from the inside to outside lanes and back to inside again within an infeasibly short distance. Adding a direct access ramp at Brickyard will allow buses to serve all stops while operating continuously in the ETL.

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SDOT makes budget request for streetcar design rework: Connector may open in 2026

Seattle Streetcar (Image: SDOT)

At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday, members were briefed on a forthcoming budget request to restart the Center City Connector project. If approved, $9 million will be expended in the 2019-2020 budget cycle on design of the revised project. Advancing the revised parts of the project to 30% design will allow SDOT to restart the FTA grant process in late 2020. The planned opening date is now set for 2026.

The project was placed on hold in April 2018 after Seattle Times reporting raised questions about the costs of operating the line, highlighting a dispute between SDOT and Metro about labor costs that was not surfaced to the City Council in approving the budget. An initial review quickly identified $23 million in additional capital costs. After an extended review, the most recent estimate is that the project is short $65 million for SDOT capital costs and another $23 million for utilities. A further $75 million is dependent on FTA grant funding, and therefore uncertain, but the project is understood to remain within guidelines for the expected grant.

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Under pressure from Kirkland, Metro to drop proposal for RapidRide to Redmond

RapidRide in Bellevue (image: Shane in the City/flickr)

Earlier this year, Metro started planning for the Kirkland-Bellevue-Eastgate RapidRide, set to open in 2025. An early question was where to locate the northern terminus. Metro’s Long Range Plan developed in 2016 includes a representative alignment connecting downtown Kirkland to Totem Lake via Market St. Since then, the North Eastside Mobility Plan (NEMP) outreach revealed a stronger demand for east-west connections. As a result, the March 2020 service change will create a new Metro 250 route with Bellevue-Kirkland buses continuing to Redmond.

Metro’s preliminary analysis appears to have suggested Redmond would be a better end point for RapidRide, a finding consistent with the recent analysis for the North Eastside restructure. After urging from the City of Kirkland, however, they are ending work on the Redmond alternative and focusing only on options serving Totem Lake.

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North Eastside buses will be restructured in March 2020

Metro 255 exits the South Kirkland Park & Ride (Image credit: Shane in the City)

On July 10, the King County Council formally approved March 2020 service changes for Metro. The service change implements the North Eastside Mobility Project with extensive changes to service in the Kirkland area. The service change had passed unanimously out of the Council’s Mobility & Environment Committee on July 2.

Kirkland’s peak commuter services are mostly unchanged, but nearly every all-day route will see changes. The service change adds five new routes, deletes eight, and changes two others. Nearly 20,000 riders a day are on existing routes affected by the changes.

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