Contributor Dan Ryan joined the blog in 2015 after several guest posts. He grew up in Ireland, and has lived on the Eastside for 15 years. Dan is a recovering economist with a day job in telecommunications. Apart from transit, Dan frequently writes about suburban land use issues.
Sound Transit’s System Expansion Committee unanimously approved a motion on Thursday to advance work on a Link station at NE 130th. If adopted by the full Board later this month, as seems likely, Sound Transit will proceed with design work and the first of the construction required to avoid serious disruptions to riders if the station were built entirely after Lynnwood Link has opened.
The motion defers to next year a second decision: whether to continue toward an early partial build or early full build. The early partial build would construct enough of the station to avoid an extended window of single-tracking trains through the construction zone after 2024, but would open the station for service much later. The early full build would complete the station so it could open in 2025 soon after the rest of the line.
The Sound Transit Board will reopen the decision, approved by the Board just two weeks ago, to rename the University Street Station in downtown Seattle as Union Street/Symphony station. The news came at the conclusion of Thursday’s Executive Committee meeting when Claudia Balducci announced that she would bring a motion for reconsideration to the next Board meeting.
Last month, you recall that we voted on the naming of the University St station. I wanted to just let you all know I’m going to bring a motion to reconsider that decision. I’ve come to believe Robert’s Rules of Order actually contain deep wisdom on the human condition. One of those rules says if you vote and you feel you have made a mistake, you get to ask for reconsideration. My decision on that was based on the tension between the rider experience and wayfinding, versus the safety impacts of how our system works with acronyms for stations. Since that vote I’ve visited that area. The doors are nowhere near Union St. And there’s been some reporting that showed we have acronyms like Angle Lake station. Do you know the acronym for Angle Lake station, colleagues? “200”, nothing to do with the name of the station. So we have that precedent already of that acronym. I think we should really revisit it and I’ll be asking that we do that at the next Board meeting.
The Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing yesterday on several bills relating to Sound Transit. The most significant is SB 6606, a bill from Senator Marko Liias to reset MVET valuations. That bill saw a substitute amendment that would somewhat offset the revenue reduction to Sound Transit. The offset would not be enough to satisfy Sound Transit’s request they be made whole for lost revenue. Four other bills relating to Sound Transit were also examined, but are unlikely to proceed.
Liias’ bill, as we reported last week, repeals several sections of I-976. It would also replace the valuation schedule for vehicles subject to the motor vehicle excise tax. The new schedule is similar to one adopted by the Legislature in 2006, whereas Sound Transit uses an older schedule dating to 1999. Liias’ proposal would tweak the schedule for vehicles more than ten years old, thereby avoiding a small tax increase for owners of the oldest vehicles if they were to simply adopt the 2006 schedule.
A substitute bill from Senator Liias, filed on Monday, maintains the revised schedule from the bill as first introduced, but adds two significant amendments.
The idea surfaced recently in Sound Transit’s ongoing examination of fare enforcement. Making it easier for riders to pay fares is one part of the response to concerns about the impacts of fare enforcement. Currently, Sound Transit can accept transfers from other agencies if riders are using an ORCA card, but not otherwise.
The disadvantages are obvious. Buses are slowed by cash payers and paper transfers. Link, by not accepting these transfers, somewhat indirectly drives ORCA card adoption. A policy change would also import the lively market in fraudulent use of transfers into the Sound Transit system.
There also appears no practical way to manage the inter-agency accounting. The ORCA system shares fare revenue between operators by electronically tracking transfers, a task which becomes impossible with paper.
Senate Bill 6606, introduced last week by Senator Marko Liias, is the latest effort in the Legislature to resolve the three years old controversy over the MVET valuation schedule. The bill would potentially reduce Sound Transit tax revenues by just over $1 billion over the next 20 years.
The MVET valuation schedule has been a political challenge for Sound Transit and the Legislature since the first higher car tab bills began arriving in mailboxes in early 2017. Sound Transit has levied a 0.3% MVET since 1996, and added another 0.8% MVET with ST3 in 2016. The latter heightened awareness that Sound Transit was using a valuation schedule from 1999 that assigned relatively high values to newer cars. An alternative schedule which the Legislature approved in 2005 will not take effect for Sound Transit taxpayers until 2028. That is the year when the original 0.3% MVET expires after bonds are paid off, and the remaining 0.8% MVET is reset to the newer, generally lower, schedule.
A year ago, we reported on future ridership maps that showed a 2040 ST3 system with ridership concentrated in and near Seattle. We subsequently got a closer look at the station (and segment) level detail behind those maps.
The tables below are the high-end estimates for boardings 2040, organized by rail segment. These estimates are from September 2016, and may have been modestly refined since. In particular, I-405 BRT estimates are now higher than in 2016, as project improvements have greatly improved travel time. Variations in future growth vs current plans will surely raise or lower ridership in some places. On current trends, that means more ridership in Seattle and less in some suburban cities, but growth patterns may be different in 20 years.
The busiest stations? All are in downtown, and the two Westlake stations are first and fourth in the rankings, with 48,800 and 28,900 boardings respectively, along with thousands of transfers. International District, Capitol Hill, University Street and UW will all top 20,000 riders per weekday.
A striker amendment to be offered this afternoon sets a 2035 date for full electrification of the Metro bus fleet, but also responds to Metro’s concerns about the feasibility of this timeline. The revisions to the language means 2035 is set as a goal rather than a requirement in the ordinance. Metro will develop an implementation plan including fleet purchase plans through 2040.
As we reported yesterday, Metro has concerns about the readiness of battery bus technology which is still in its relative infancy, and about the costs of charging infrastructure. Those cost concerns are multiplied in a rapid transition to electric which could see hybrid vehicles retired prematurely to meet a 2035 deadline. By resetting the 2035 date to a goal, and regularly reevaluating progress in future, the revised legislation resets the balance between the climate goals of a cleaner fleet vs the uncertain technology and the service impacts of large outlays on battery buses.
King County Council is considering an ordinance that would accelerate the planned transition to a fully electric bus fleet from 2040 to 2035. Staff have warned too a rapid transition would come at a steep cost, with large near term budget investments leading to service reductions.
The cost worries take two forms. The upfront investments, particularly in charging infrastructure, are large. Battery electric buses have higher total life cycle costs than the hybrid buses they are to replace. The opportunity cost of increased expenditures on fleet replacement and charging infrastructure is less revenue available to provide service. But it gets much worse with an accelerated transition where hybrid buses are unnecessarily retired before the end of their useful life. For some of the hybrid fleet, this would also mean repayment of federal grants that helped finance their purchase.
Now that Redmond Link has officially broken ground, significant construction will be beginning in the Spring along the 3.4 mile extension from Redmond Technology Station to Downtown Redmond. Two new stations will be added in Downtown Redmond and just across the freeway at Southeast Redmond. The station designs are making their way through design review. The scope of the review is limited and most structural elements of the line are excluded. But it is an opportunity for the rest of us to see what the stations will look like.
At Thursday’s System Expansion Committee meeting, staff shared options for opening the NE 130th Link station ahead of the currently scheduled 2031 date. An early opening will be less expensive in capital dollars and avoid rider disruptions later. But the earlier expenditure has some modest impacts for Sound Transit’s indebtedness at an arguably sensitive time for other projects.
Three options are now on the table. The default is to proceed with the ST3 plan to build an infill station in 2031 after Lynnwood Link has opened in 2024. Seattle would prefer to build the station concurrently with the Lynnwood line and have the station open by 2025. Staff offered a third partial build option which would build just enough of the station to avoid the worst construction impacts, but defer other construction until later so the station opens years after Lynnwood Link.
Metro is considering a program of income-based fares that would fully subsidize fares for riders with very low incomes. A public launch is targeted for July 2020.
The program would expand on the current ORCA Lift which offers 50% discounts across local agencies to those with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level. Currently, that cutoff is $24,980 for a single person or $51,500 for a family of four. The expanded program is expected to include unlimited fare-free travel for those with incomes below 80% of the federal poverty level. This cutoff would be $9,992 for a single person or $20,600 for a family of four. (updated for an error in the original calculation).
On the eve of the new year, it’s time to review the old. In 2019, we dove deeper into ST3 planning. Transit advocates mused on ST4. As the year drew to a close, we also contended with a possible reduction in funding for already approved projects and current bus service in Seattle.
In descending order, our most read posts of the year are:
It’s time to start work on ST4 by Seattle Subway (June 25). Seattle Subway would like you to support a 2024 ballot measure for more rail in Seattle. “Traffic is over – if you want it”.
Build the Aurora Line by Seattle Subway (August 27). Where would those new rail lines go? Seattle Subway and Ryan DiRaimo make the case for an ST4 Aurora Ave line.
ORCA Pod Welcomes Monorail by Brent White (March 11). Despite our past urging, the Seattle monorail had too long remained outside the Orca family. No more. The change took effect in October.
Metro has revealed their preferred alignment for RapidRide K in Kirkland. The service will operate between Downtown and Totem Lake via NE 85th and 124th Ave NE on Rose Hill. In South Kirkland, it will follow 6th St and 108th Ave. The decision has implications for several other routes which will be moved or shortened.
The service, scheduled to open in 2025 will connect Totem Lake to Eastgate via downtown Kirkland and Bellevue.
Within Kirkland, there were two pairs of alternatives to consider. In North Kirkland, the 2016 Metro Connects long range plan would have routed the RapidRide along Market St (alternative A1). Metro instead has selected an alignment connecting downtown to the Stride BRT station on 85th, then to Totem Lake Transit Center via 124th Ave (alternative A2). The A2 alternative avoids overlap with Metro 255 service on Market St north of downtown Kirkland in the Metro Connects plan. That step would surely have been very unpopular with riders.
But there’s a less celebrated narrative in more recent data. Most of the progress this decade was before 2015. Light rail ridership was lower last quarter than a year ago. Bus ridership has been moving sideways since 2016. Despite large investments in off-peak service hours, non-work trips by transit aren’t growing. Where transit ridership is growing, it’s not always keeping pace with population growth.
The decline in Link ridership last quarter wasn’t large, just -0.6% vs Q3 2018, but is still remarkable only three years after opening several new stations in a fast-growing city. Ridership for the year to date is a massive 12% below the Sound Transit budget plan, as an expected boost to rail ridership after removing buses from the tunnel failed to materialize.
Last week, we reported on the under-performing Ride2 services in West Seattle and Eastgate which have experienced low ridership and outsized costs per rider. Yesterday, Metro announced they were ending both pilots effective December 20. (The news was first reported by West Seattle Blog).
The Ride2 services were created as one year pilots, and the end comes as the West Seattle version reaches that milestone. Eastgate, which experienced a change of provider from Ford subsidiary Chariot to Hopelink in February, ran for 14 months.
There were some interesting new details on how the services performed from Metro. Over seven thousand users had downloaded the phone app, though fewer than 15% had used the service within the last month as customer interest failed to develop.
King County has piloted several on-demand services that connect people with transit hubs. The services address first/last mile access issues up to three miles around transit centers. Recent data indicates that Via continues to perform well in the Rainier Valley with growing ridership and progressively declining average costs. Meanwhile, the Ride2 services in West Seattle and Bellevue have seen stubbornly low ridership and higher per-rider costs.
“Via to Transit” launched in April as a partnership with on-demand transportation provider Via. The service mostly operates in the Rainier Valley connecting riders to light rail service at Mount Baker, Columbia City, Othello, and Rainier Beach. A more limited version is available in Tukwila. Early results were promising and have gotten appreciably better as the program reached the six-month mark. Via now serves almost four riders per hour at a cost per rider just over $10. That’s above the average of Metro services, but is declining as ridership scales. It rates well against the coverage routes that are the more immediate alternative.
Implementation of I-976 has been put on hold temporarily pending the outcome of the coalition lawsuit in King County Superior Court. In a decision delivered this morning, Judge Marshall Ferguson also indicated that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of the case.
The ruling details testimony about the damage that would ensue if a temporary injunction were not in place. Metro would need to reduce transit service by 110,000 service hours (at an annualized rate) in March and would not be able to restore that service until September. Metro would permanently lose $2 million in grants tied to the amount of service. The City of Seattle would lose $2.68 million in vehicle license fee just in December if I-976 took effect on December 5. Cuts to the multimodal account would follow shortly, likely including critical programs relied on by special needs transit-dependent taxpayers including one of the plaintiffs.