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.
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.
The Mayor’s presentation reported about 24 million rideshare trips last year would have been eligible for the tax, a number expected to grow to 28 million this year. The math of the new levy clearly assumes continued rapid growth in these numbers. Tax revenues are projected at $24 million in 2021 and increase to $27 million by 2025 (implying some 50 million rideshare trips in the city by then).
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.
Sound Transit owns the tracks south of Tacoma, but the tracks between Seattle and Tacoma are owned by BNSF. That means improvements and slots for added trains must be negotiated with BNSF. The 2016 plan was vague on what improvements would be made because it involved both a negotiation with BNSF and a lengthy examination of trade-offs in selecting options for expanded service.
Some of those trade-offs have come into view. Adding trips at peak hours would serve more riders than adding trains at other times during the day even though those other times are sparsely served. It’s also less disruptive to BNSF freight operations which are mostly outside the peak Sounder window.
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.
The concentration of employment growth in Seattle and Bellevue has been a mostly positive feature of the recent boom. With more jobs have come more housing in the heart of the region, and growth in Seattle’s urban housing stock has outpaced the growth in suburban subdivisions. The more sustainable urban development has many obvious advantages. But housing growth hasn’t quite kept pace with jobs growth, bidding up rents and home prices. The frontier of affordable housing has been pushed into burgeoning bedroom communities in Pierce and south Snohomish counties. Politicians in those counties have blamed Seattle for not building enough housing, though more of the fault rests with King County suburban cities which have restricted new housing and grown more slowly.
The increased centralization of employment has been good for transit ridership. People who work in densely developed places are more likely to use transit to get there even if their homes are in the suburbs. 48% of downtown Seattle employees arrive by transit and downtown drive-alone counts have fallen even as employment has grown. Transit ridership has grown consistently even as it has fallen in every other major US city in recent years.
Politicians on the PSRC board, particularly those from Pierce and Snohomish counties, perceive this as a jobs/housing imbalance. Their residents face long commutes to distant Seattle and Bellevue. If they could shift more employment to their own county, their residents would find jobs and a shorter commute in their own geographic area. For this reason, the draft preferred alternative includes “a policy-driven shift of 5% of the region’s forecasted employment growth from King County to the other three counties”. Over the life of the plan, 60,000 fewer jobs would be created in King County, and would instead be shared among the other three counties.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 extendedreview, 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.
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.
At a meeting of Kirkland’s Transportation Commission last Wednesday, Metro staff conceded there were “some advantages” to the Redmond connection. The materials shared include a list of technical analysis criteria without detailing how any of the alternatives performed. The Redmond endpoint, they said, would be further studied only if it provided “distinct advantages”. In the end, Metro argues that the “overall difference between options is not large enough to warrant shifting from Metro Connects terminus in Totem Lake”.
The upshot is no further staff work on the Redmond RapidRide option. When Metro engages with the community this fall, bus riders will be asked to consider only alternative paths to Totem Lake. Ironically, the intent to avoid duplication with Metro 255 means riders on Market St and Juanita risk losing direct service to Seattle if an overlapping path is chosen.
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.
The network map in this area has seen few changes in two decades. Recent ridership declines on many routes, despite significant growth, suggest a revitalization of the network was overdue. The restructure comes after several earlier efforts fell through. In 2015, Metro developed a plan to restructure service around the opening of UW and Capitol Hill rail stations, but the SR 520 portion of that plan was withdrawn early in the process. In 2017, the expected closure of the Downtown Seattle Transit tunnel (DSTT) to buses prompted another look at SR 520 service. Redmond, perhaps looking to another restructure after Redmond Link opens, balked and the scope was narrowed to include only Kirkland.
In 2017, WSDOT published a feasibility study of high-speed rail (HSR) in the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland corridor. It estimated a $25-42 billion capital cost for a rail line that would carry about 5,000 riders a day in 2035 and would just cover operation costs by sometime in the 2040s. This hardly appeared promising, but was enough to prompt a trickle of funds from the Legislature and regional partners for a “business case” study.
We have obtained a copy of the business case study which WSDOT will send to the Legislature this month. How does it advance our knowledge beyond what we learned in 2017?
In broad terms, the financial outlook for high-speed rail in
this study looks a lot like the numbers presented two years ago. The business
case doesn’t attempt to revisit the capital cost estimates of the earlier study.
Ridership is somewhat better, but break-even on operating costs remains
somewhere in the 2040s.
Regional leaders are nearing agreement on Vision 2050, a growth plan for the Puget Sound area through 2050. On Thursday, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is likely to approve the release of a Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS). The new plan significantly shifts the distribution of regional growth to concentrate around high-capacity transit centers.
Once adopted by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the plan’s requirements will cascade down through county and city plans to growth targets and zoning changes for every city in the region.
The Vision 2050 plan will ramp up expectations for future housing and employment needs, reflecting how the rapid growth of recent years has blown through the targets set in the Vision 2040 plan in 2008. The Vision 2040 FEIS foresaw a population just shy of 5 million by 2040. More current forecasts anticipate the region will hit 5.33 million by then, and 5.82 million by 2050. There’s a lot of growth to be accommodated just to catch up with the deficit in the last plan. The pessimistic regional view in 2008 perhaps contributed to today’s housing shortage by setting growth targets too low to accommodate the boom of the 2010s.
Earlier this summer, a draft SEIS laid out three options. All options raise the overall targets to keep up with the higher forecast, but each lays out a different path for reaching those targets.
The middle option, “Stay the Course”, would continue the policies in the current Vision 2040 plan. That generally has the highest growth rates in the largest ‘metropolitan’ cities, with progressively lower growth rates in larger suburbs, smaller suburbs, and rural areas. A less concentrated growth alternative “Reset Urban Growth” would alter targets to more closely fit actual growth patterns. As we’ll see, some parts of the region have experienced a growth profile very different from the plan, and the “Reset Urban Growth” would arguably recognize those trends.
The more concentrated growth alternative offered was “Transit Focused Growth”. This alternative recognizes the massive investments in regional transit since the last plan was adopted in 2008, and pushes more growth into the vicinity of light rail and BRT stations.
Earlier this year, the King County Council ordered a review of funding options for Metro Connects. This Wednesday, the Regional Transit Committee receives a status update on the effort. It considers a $220 million increase in annual funding for Metro, enough to get Metro to its long-range service goals.
Metro Connects is Metro’s long range plan, designed to integrate with Sound Transit expansion through 2040 and to meet the transit needs of city and County comprehensive plans. The Metro Connects plan, adopted in 2015, envisions a 70% increase in Metro bus service hours by 2040 over 2015 levels. That would increase transit ridership to 1 million daily boardings, and enable frequent service within 1/2 mile for 73% of county residents.
Metro’s current funding isn’t enough to reach this goal. Tax and fare revenue grow naturally over time as the economy and population expand, but only by enough to cover 30% of the additional capital costs and 50% of the extra service hours identified. The under-funding of Metro Connects has already led to the deferral of several RapidRide Lines that were hoped to open by 2025. That gap would widen if the Seattle Proposition 1 is not renewed in 2020. The Seattle TBD pays for about 10% of current service hours.
The draft ST3 plan in March 2016 extended rail beyond Lynnwood in two steps. The first, in 2036, would bring service to North Lynnwood, serving stations at West Alderwood Mall, Ash Way, and Mariner. The second, in 2041, extended around the SW Everett Industrial Center (Paine Field) and north to Everett Station.
When the plan was finalized two months later, the extensions were combined so the Paine Field and Everett stations would open five years earlier. It was a telling decision that all the extra financial resources of the final plan were put into the northern segment. This looks like an error. While all parts of Everett Link have their value, the immediate rider needs are mostly between Lynnwood and Mariner.
Rearranging the Snohomish subarea resources could still open those stations by about 2030. The trade-off is that accelerating some capital spending generally means delays elsewhere. This may mean a later opening of service to Paine Field and Everett where the need for light rail is less urgent.
Famously, Snohomish County has bad traffic, the worst in the nation by some measures. A significant part of this stems from the booming bedroom communities from which thousands commute daily to Seattle. Almost as many Snohomish residents work in King County (145,000) as in Snohomish (158,000). For those who use transit, Lynnwood Link will deliver faster and more reliable travel times. It could serve these riders even more efficiently with more stations a little further north to intercept buses from across the County.
Work has begun on SR 522 BRT, with the first BAT lanes in Bothell coming online in late 2020, and Sound Transit’s Stride BRT service opening in 2024. Although phase 1 design recently concluded and the project is now entering the Conceptual Engineering and Environmental process, planners continue to evaluate how to serve the low-ridership Woodinville segment.
The BRT extends from the Shoreline Link rail station along NE 145th where Sound Transit will add bus queue bypasses and signal priority for transit at key intersections. On SR 522, the patchwork of existing BAT (business access & transit) lanes will be filled in to create an uninterrupted lane for transit from 145th to Bothell. In Bothell, the BRT is likely to operate on downtown streets, serving UW Bothell and connecting to I-405 BRT at NE 195th St.
Beyond that, there is a 3.5-mile segment to the Woodinville Park & Ride where the planned service is more basic. The ST3 plan does not fund any capital improvements east of I-405 and the buses operate in general purpose freeway lanes on I-405 and SR 522. The 10-minute headways west of I-405 drop to every 20 minutes into Woodinville.
Expectations for ridership on the Woodinville segment are low. Sound Transit models suggest 8,800 daily boardings on the BRT in 2042, of which just 100 are at the Woodinville stop.
In March 2020, Metro will implement a restructure of service in the North Eastside. Most attention will focus on the truncation of Metro 255 to connect with Link at UW station. Another key element of the improved Metro network is route 250. This new route connects downtown Bellevue to Kirkland and runs through to Redmond. It splices together the most productive parts of several current routes (234, 235, 248) for a more frequent connection serving three of the Eastside’s major downtown centers.
The route is likely to be successful. It is, however, a step away from the Long-Range Plan (LRP) Metro adopted in 2017. In developing the North Eastside restructure, Metro assessed that this routing has more value than the Rapid Ride routing assumed for 2025. Sometime this year, Metro will kick off planning this year for a 2025 RapidRide route in this market. As they do so, Metro should reflect the learning of the North Eastside process, adopting route 250 as the preferred option for service north of Bellevue, with Kirkland-Redmond service substituted for the less useful Kirkland-Totem Lake segment. Continue reading “Kirkland’s RapidRide should connect to Redmond”
WSDOT is preparing for the Rest of the West, the remaining phases of construction on SR 520 between Lake Washington and I-5. First up is the Montlake Project, where construction may begin as early as May. For transit riders, this means the Montlake flyer stop and the transit-only lanes on the Montlake Boulevard exit will both close in June. Several planned mitigations will blunt the impacts to transit riders.
The closure of Montlake flyer stops means buses not exiting the freeway will no longer stop in the Montlake area. In mitigation, WSDOT is funding additional weekend and evening service on Sound Transit route 542 through March 2020. That added service commenced with the March 2019 service change. The closure of the freeway stations are targeted for June 15.
In October 2018, WSDOT opened a temporary transit-only lane on the westbound ramp to Montlake Blvd. The lane, about 1100 feet in length, allowed buses to go almost to the top of the ramp before merging to the front of the queue of cars waiting to turn to Montlake Blvd. Originally scheduled to operate for just six months, the lane was extended three more months as the construction schedule was worked out. It has been very popular with transit users who have seen significantly better bus performance in the area.
Beginning June, that lane will also close. The existing exit ramp will close and be replaced by a narrower temporary ramp along the north edge of the work area. In this more constrained space, WSDOT could make room only for two general purpose lanes and a pedestrian-bike connection to the SR 520 trail. At the request of Kirkland and other Eastside cities, WSDOT studied options to maintain the transit lane, but none appear feasible. Continue reading “Montlake bus lane, flyer stop, to close in June”
Sound Transit has significantly refined the design for I-405 BRT which is anticipated to begin service in 2024. The final set of refinements from Phase 1 of design were shared with the System Expansion Committee at their March meeting. The design changes reduce travel times on the corridor and improve reliability. The shorter travel times make the service more appealing and ridership estimates have been raised correspondingly.
Construction will mostly occur in 2023-2024. WSDOT will begin construction of two stations (NE 44th in Renton and NE 85th in Kirkland) much earlier. Both are lengthier and more complex projects, and NE 44th is scheduled as part of the widening of I-405 south of Bellevue starting in 2019.
At the north end of I-405, the representative project envisioned buses running in general purpose lanes between Lynnwood and Brickyard. Although it would be faster to operate in the HOT lanes, the HOT lanes lack center exits to several stops in the Bothell area, setting up an awkward trade-off of speed vs access. Sound Transit has now identified several new locations where the buses can operate on the shoulder. Combined with existing bus-on-shoulder operations, the BRT will be able to operate on the shoulder for most of the distance between Lynnwood and Brickyard southbound while still serving all planned stations. As this is the most congested part of I-405 (and the only part where toll lanes have not met targets for 45mph travel 90% of the time) the benefits of getting buses out of general traffic will be significant.
Although we are early in the ST3 program, some observers are already looking forward to extending Link light rail lines into the suburbs and adding more lines in Seattle. The ST3 plan funds severalstudies of suburban extensions. Current taxes do not support further expansions at the pace of ST3, however. Unless Sound Transit secures another large tax increase, capital spending beyond ST3 will be mostly squeezed out by the costs of managing what has already been built and financing the bonds accumulated in ST3.
The budget for future projects is constrained by Sound Transit’s tax authority. Sound Transit levies nearly all the taxes currently permitted by the Legislature; the only unused authority is a small rental car tax. Any prospect of further authority is hard to forecast. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine today’s Legislature granting more tax authority. Many legislators were unhappy about how the ST3 program far outran the smaller 15-year program they anticipated in 2015, and high car tabs remain unpopular. On the other hand, fifteen years is a long time in politics, and a new generation of legislators in the 2030s may take a sunnier view.
But let’s suppose we are limited by current law, or equivalently that voters resist new taxes. In that scenario, Sound Transit might ask voters in the waning years of the ST3 program to authorize more projects with an extension of current taxes. How much could Sound Transit build with voter approval if they just roll the current law taxes forward indefinitely? Less than you might expect. It turns out that a capital program extended to 2060 would have a run rate perhaps only a third as large as the 2016-2041 program.
Where will riders use the ST3 Link system in 2040? Longtime readers will be familiar with project ridership estimates, but most riders on Link are not going to the ends of the line. Along any line, ridership can be much higher on some segments than others. The suburban lines have weak ridership at the tails. Even the Seattle ST3 extensions have lower ridership outside of downtown than is widely understood.
The busiest part of the system is, of course, downtown Seattle with about 200,000 daily riders expected across both tunnels. Near downtown, the largest number of riders will traverse the North Line (about 108,000 daily riders near Northgate), the South Line (72,000 riders near Tukwila), and the east (65,000 riders crossing Lake Washington).*
Ridership to downtown Seattle from the ends of the Ballard and West Seattle extensions are smaller. West Seattle Link will carry 32,000 over the West Seattle bridge. Ballard Link has 34,000 riders on the segment west of Seattle Center. Taken together, this is scarcely more than the East Link ridership across Lake Washington.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff has suggested the agency is exploring creative financing options for Everett Link that shift some costs outside of agency debt limits. If successful, this would mitigate the risk of project delays as Sound Transit bumps up against statutory limits on debt in the 2030s, and may even accelerate the timetable.
“Our goal in terms of being able to serve Everett sooner is two-fold. One, to work with the communities as cooperative partners to see if we can’t focus on results and minimize bureaucracy to get a plan to get up here as soon as we can. That’s A. B, if there is a way that we can work out a financial arrangement where we could start incurring costs for this that would be exempt from the debt cap imposed on us, that might provide some opportunities to get up here sooner. We’re trying to be as creative as possible.
We’ve made that commitment to not only Paul Roberts, to Dave Somers, to Dave Earling, who’ve been on this for a long time. I don’t want to say it’s impossible. I’d like to continue with each passing year to see if we can’t drive that schedule closer and closer.”
Sound Transit, like any local government in Washington State, faces a constitutional limitation that non-voted debt not exceed 1.5% of the assessed value of property within its jurisdiction. This constrains the size and timing of capital investments as revenues must accumulate to cover most of the program. At its peak, the financial plan envisions $17.6 billion in debt by 2035, just as Everett Link is scheduled to open in 2036. The debt limit in 2035 is projected at $20.1 billion. There are many risks to that forecast, starting with the inescapable vagaries of a financial forecast two decades into the future. MVET reform alone could erode almost all of Sound Transit’s cushion unless accompanied by offsets. Several billions of anticipated federal grants are uncertain. Community pressures may drive some project costs higher.