Senators Agree to Transportation Package with ST3 Authorization

A bipartisan group of Senators yesterday announced that they had reached agreement on most elements of a transportation package that included authorization for Sound Transit 3. The authorized tax levels were lower than the Sound Transit request, which limits the potential size of the package and increases the reliance on sales tax. However, the agreement would still allow the agency to proceed with a package roughly the size of Sound Transit 2 (ST2).

The Senate agreement would permit up to $11 billion in tax revenue over 15 years. There is some confusion resulting from there being two different $15 billion sums in the discussion. The original Sound Transit request is for $15 billion, would provides room for the Board to explore which tax types are least unpopular and find the optimal package size.

The second $15 billion is a potential overall capital project package size, which ST staff used in an exercise and Martin speculatively mapped to projects. Staff picked this number because it was the same size as ST2 and therefore considered politically practical, but the ST board has not decided on the package’s size. Due to bond financing, a $15 billion package requires about $9 billion in taxing authority.

In other words, the lower authorization restricts Sound Transit’s options. If enacted into law, the agreement means that ST3 would be largely supported by an increase in the sales tax, with smaller increases in the MVET and property tax, and there would be much less scope to go beyond the size of ST2.

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Sound Transit Updates the Long Range Plan


On December 18, the Sound Transit Board approved updates to the Long Range Plan, last revised in 2005. The corridor map saw 13 additions. There were also several text amendments. Most were uncontroversial, particularly those that were bringing the LRP up to date with other policies adopted since the last LRP update in 2005. Some, particularly those that seemed to have implications for ST3, were more challenging for the board.

I’ll describe the text amendments first, and then the map changes.


Interesting amendments included the adding of a goal to “support vibrant, walkable communities and place-making around HCT stations” (T4); to “consider adding infill stations that were deferred in Sound Move or ST2 as part of a future system plan” (T9); support for “efforts that will maintain speed and reliability for buses using freeway HOV or managed lanes” (T20); a commitment to “favor cities and counties with supportive land use plans” (T13); “integrating the planning and operations of local and regional transit agencies” (T14); affirming that streetcars could be a service included in the LRP if they operated in exclusive or managed rights-of-way (T27).

Two amendments provoked lively discusssion. Text amendment T1 described criteria used to select projects.  Representatives from Pierce County sought clarification that the criteria were not in ranked order (perhaps concerned that ridership was the first item listed?). Staff confirmed the criteria were in no particular order.

Of more consequence, text amendment T18, offered by Murray and O’Brien, would have opened a discussion about funding alternatives for a second tunnel through Downtown Seattle (and other similarly significant regional facilities). This drew opposition from other areas. Some saw it as a distraction from the completion of the spine (to Tacoma, Everett and Redmond). Others were concerned about the implications for subarea equity. Although a tunnel is one option for service to West Seattle, it would also be useful to other regional services, including rail on SR 520, as capacity was reached on the existing tunnel. Therefore, it would make sense for all of the areas to contribute. Despite the implications for West Seattle, it was assumed that a second tunnel would not be built before ST4. That amendment was rejected on an 8-6 vote.

A number of corridors were identified for future study (T23-T26), but not included in the map at this time. Most familiar to readers of this blog is the Northern Lake Washington HCT crossing. Earlier in the process, a Kirkland-Sandpoint crossing was proposed as a map amendment. That amendment was withdrawn. The text amendment defers inclusion of such a crossing on the map, instead suggesting future study of cross-lake options when ridership demand exceeds capacity for existing cross-lake transit options or East Link. Along with the Sandpoint to Kirkland crossing, such a study would include alternatives on SR 520 and SR 522. Other corridors identified for future study run from Issaquah Highlands to Overlake (via Sammamish and Redmond), and along NE 145th from State Route 522 to Link.


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Cost-Effective ST3 Options on the Eastside

A ST 535 waits to re-enter I-405 (WhenEliseSings/Flickr)

What would Sound Transit do in East King County if it were trying to maximize the effectiveness of the ST3 package? How many transit riders could be served within the constraints of a likely ST3 package?

I’ve borrowed Martin Duke’s calculation of a $2.6 billion “budget” for East King. Martin estimates this from the $15 billion request to the Legislature, converted to $10 billion in 2014 dollars (to align with the corridor study cost methodology). With $800 million committed to completing East Link to Redmond, that leaves $1.8 billion for other projects.

The approach is to calculate cost per rider (using the mid-range of estimates from the corridor studies). The options are ranked and the best are selected, unless they duplicate an already selected option. Many of the options are close substitutes, so it makes sense to select only one. For instance, 405 BRT occupies three of the top six slots, but only the highest ranked of these is selected. I ignore other options which were not reviewed in the corridor studies (such as the bridge to Sand Point).

Cost per rider is a somewhat problematic metric, in that it fails to acknowledge existing ridership. The studies don’t break out incremental ridership estimates. But it won’t affect our ordering of projects unless one project has much more incremental ridership than another. (More ambitious projects may have greater incremental ridership because they represent a larger change versus the status quo, so a total ridership approach does bias the analysis toward smaller projects somewhat).

I’ve also broken out the incremental costs and ridership of 405 “full” options against “phased” options. Viewed separately, the incremental investments for the full build-out do not perform well (highlighted in green in the table).

Within those constraints, it’s possible to get quite a lot of service on the Eastside. About 50,000 riders would be served on four BRT routes (in bold red in table). Kirkland, Bellevue, Redmond, Issaquah, Renton and the 405 corridor would all see local benefits.

The winners are:

  • BRT University District to Redmond via 520. At only $55 million, it’s by far the cheapest option on the table. On the other hand, with so little investment, it’s only modestly superior to today’s express bus service between Redmond and downtown Seattle.
  • BRT University District to Kirkland via 520 and the Eastside Rail Corridor. At only 8,000 riders, it’s still a relative bargain because it costs only $210 million.
  • BRT 405 Phased Build-out with trunk and branch service. The phased build-out is much more cost-effective, and realistic, than the full build-out which assumes a large unfunded investment by WSDOT. The trunk-and-branch service enjoys 20% better ridership than the single-route service with no additional capital costs. However, there are about $20 million per year in increased operating costs to consider, so the single-route phased build-out remains in play.
  • BRT Kirkland to Issaquah via the Eastside Rail Corridor, Bellevue Way, I-90 and via mixed traffic from central Issaquah to the Highlands. This is lower in the rank ordering, but makes the cut because we’re not selecting duplicate services on the same corridors. Service to the Highlands is in mixed traffic. But that is relatively inexpensive for 2,000 additional riders, so it improves the overall cost-effectiveness of this service.

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Building Transit on I-405

Photo by Oran
Photo by Oran

In recent weeks, Sound Transit has released several corridor reports for the Eastside.  These were previewed in meetings in May and June, but I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the options for Sound Transit on the Eastside. The reports offer quite a bit more detail, and some occasional editorial comment. First up, I-405.

Sound Transit has a long-held commitment to BRT on I-405, dating to Sound Move in 1996, and updating the I-405 master plan in 2002. The master plan envisioned all-day service with 10 minute headways along the length of the corridor. Since then, Sound Transit has built a number of HOV direct access ramps on the highway and transit center projects serving local and regional service along the corridor more generally. Most of those are toward the north end of the corridor, in places such as Totem Lake in Kirkland. Practically speaking, this has translated to a set of express services on the highway that are low-frequency outside peak, and subject to reliability issues in the increasingly crowded HOV lanes.

The challenges in serving the corridor are obvious. Development potential in Renton and downtown Bellevue is substantial, but low to moderate elsewhere in the corridor. Most potential stations are park-and-rides far from walkable communities. Building ridership requires more direct access to neighboring communities, but that adds cost and hurts reliability. Travel markets are widely dispersed, particularly at the ends of the corridor. Most trips on I-405 are only a few miles in length. But with 800,000 daily trips on the highway, it’s tempting to look to BRT as a strategy for reducing traffic.

Two representative infrastructure models are analyzed. Combined with two service models, there are four scenarios considered (they briefly discuss a fifth option, a variation in the alignment within Renton). But the infrastructure models are not either/or choices. They are representative models of a portfolio of infrastructure elements, so expect the ballot to involve some a la carte selection from among the individual elements.

The ‘phased build-out’, A3, assumes WSDOT will complete the BRT projects that are currently funded or have been identified as ‘next priority projects’. The ‘full build-out’, A2, assumes several additional capital improvements. It might make sense to think of A3 as one reasonably feasible set of projects for the 2016 ballot, and A2 as a wish-list for the LRP. A2 does depend in important ways on fulfillment of the full I-405 master plan by WSDOT, an effort likely to extend over decades. The incremental projects are mostly freeway stations and direct access ramps.

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Showcasing BRT on the Eastside.

Sound Transit has an under-appreciated opportunity to build a world-class BRT on the Eastside.

Train service faces well-known geometric challenges in East King. Cities are not linearly aligned, so high quality rail service means many rail lines. But the Eastside urban centers are mostly much smaller than potential stations in Seattle, requiring large investments in either feeder bus service or park-and-rides. Either way, conspicuously high costs per rider are inevitable.

The one obvious linear corridor for rail service on the Eastside, Seattle-Bellevue-Redmond, is already mostly funded, and the line will obviously be completed to downtown Redmond in ST3. So what should be the next priority for East King?

If the goal is to build something for the cities that were left aside in ST2, that suggests Kirkland and Issaquah. So naturally, thoughts turn to a Kirkland-Issaquah rail line. But Kirkland and Issaquah are not a significant trip pair. Not even enough to warrant a Metro bus today. So it makes sense, if at all, only as a portion of a network connecting all the major Eastside cities and Seattle.

This is where the rail proposal begins to run aground. For Kirklanders, there are two dominant trip pairs, Kirkland-Bellevue and Kirkland-Seattle. Serving both well by rail means LRT on the Eastside Rail Corridor to Bellevue and also a LRT crossing of 520. Kirkland to Seattle via an East-Link connection is too roundabout to beat today’s Metro 255 service. So there has to be a 520 crossing to be competitive. But that is a LOT of rail; far more than is reasonable for a relatively small city with an underwhelming commitment to progressive land use policies.

I’ll pause here to explain why quality service in Kirkland necessarily means the ERC rather than I-405. The Corridor passes Totem Lake, Houghton, and the South Kirkland Park and ride. It also gets close to downtown. Of these centers, the 405 can only serve Totem Lake. So any solution on the 405 wouldn’t even connect Totem Lake to other Kirkland population centers. One could build feeder bus systems to freeway connection points near the 405, but this quickly turns simple trips by transit into roundabout multi-transfer affairs where speed and reliability won’t even match today’s Metro services. Crowded as the north-south arterials in Kirkland are, they at least point in the appropriate general direction. A 405-centric option requires that trips to the south and west will, for most riders, start by heading east.

405 service may make sense for cities further north and south.  It’s likely the only viable connection from Bellevue to Renton, for instance, because the ERC south of Bellevue has engineering and property issues.  It’s just a clearly second-rate option in the central part of the Eastside.

So the right way to serve the Kirkland-Seattle pair is by BRT on the Corridor.  A dedicated busway on the corridor will pass the major population centers in Kirkland, and meet the HOT lanes on the 520 to connect with Link at UW or continue to Lake Union. Either way, it’s a big step forward for transit reliability and the estimated costs are just $180-240 million. The inferior 405 option is more expensive at $340-460 million, probably because it requires those expensive left-side ramps on the 405 of which there are none between Bellevue and Totem Lake. As for rail on the 520, the costs are 10-12 times higher for one minute saved and no additional ridership.

Once a commitment to UW-Kirkland BRT is made, the rail option for Bellevue-Kirkland is so much less promising. The corridor is just big enough to accommodate both, but it’s so obviously duplicative that it won’t pass the laugh test. With a UW-Kirkland BRT line passing the South Kirkland Park and Ride, a BRT line to Bellevue is already half-built. It could continue down the ERC until it runs out of corridor near the OMSF facility at NE 12th St. At that point, it probably needs to run on surface streets to reach the transit center on 108th Ave.  But it’s a relatively short jog, and can be made better with signal priority and dedicated lanes, and include appropriate Link connections for trains to Redmond/Overlake.

So the entire Bellevue-Totem Lake corridor can be 90%+ dedicated ROW, probably the longest such corridor in the US.

If future demand warrants, the corridor could yet be converted to rail. Yes, even a bridge to Sandpoint. By then, there will have been decades for development to orient itself toward the corridor, and local politics may be more congenial.

Metro service to cities north and east of Totem Lake may be redirected their bus services onto the new BRT line, buying themselves better reliability and travel time, and further shrinking headways through Kirkland.

Any reason this wouldn’t work? One challenge is that the ERC, while closer to downtown Kirkland than the 405, isn’t quite close enough to be walkable. So transit needs to deviate somewhat from the ERC to get closer to the population center. But that’s a challenge for any mode or alignment in the city, and easier to resolve for buses on the ERC.  The east end of downtown is where most future development is likely to go, and there is time for Kirkland to aggressively build out bus lanes in the area at fairly modest cost.

What about Issaquah?  The rail/bus decision there is largely independent of what happens in Kirkland. But any ST service to Issaquah will mostly follow I-90 anyway, so the advantages of rail over bus in HOT lanes isn’t large. BRT would make an extension to Issaquah Highlands easy. Sound Transit estimates $30-40 million in additional expense vs $450-610 million for a LRT tunnel.  Rail to the Highlands is pretty far down everybody’s priority list, so Issaquah needs to carefully consider whether it wants BRT to downtown and the Highlands, or rail to downtown alone.