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.
Bus Rapid Transit on I-405 and SR 522 is likely to be delayed. Only the Burien to Bellevue service is now expected to open on time in 2024. Expectations for service on the northern part of I-405 and SR 522 have slipped into 2025.
In Bothell, Sound Transit intends to open a bus base by 2023. The update to the Board flags some issues with permitting and right of way acquisition. If the base can open by 2023, however, that will open the way to an on-time start of service on south I-405 between Bellevue and Burien in 2024. Other construction on south I-405 is mostly being conducted as part of WSDOT’s expansion of express toll lanes in the area and is on schedule. Sound Transit is in final design for the in-line stop at NE 44th in Renton and was about to start construction before the COVID-19 delays intervened. Pre-construction work is underway at the planned transit center in South Renton.
This afternoon, the Sound Transit Board will consider participating in King County’s program to offer free transit passes to participants of several state benefit programs that are income-based. King County intends to eventually expand the program to all households with income below 80% of the federal poverty level. At the same meeting, the Board is expected to update fare enforcement policies and reduce penalties for non-payment.
Very low income transit passes
The free transit passes for very low income households complements the existing ORCA lift program. While the existing program offers 50% discounts for households with low incomes, the expanded program reduces to zero the cost of passes for the very lowest income households. In combination, this means a single person could have a free transit pass if their income is below $9,992, or a 50% discount with income up to $24,980. A four person household could avail themselves of free transit if their income is below $20,600 or a 50% discount with income below $51,500.
When first proposed by King County, the free transit passes looked set to cause some confusion because it could not be used across all local agencies. Riders could travel for free on King County Metro services, but would have to pay on Sound Transit. With Sound Transit now set to participate in the program, this inconsistency is resolved, but a new inconsistency arises unless Pierce and Snohomish County agencies also participate.
King County voters will not be asked to vote on a Metro funding measure in August after all. In a statement on Monday afternoon, Claudia Balducci announced the decision not to proceed with the countywide measure. This seems to clear the way for Seattle to run a replacement of the expiring taxes for their transportation benefit district in August.
Had the corona virus crisis not intervened, King County was expected to finalize a measure this month funding the service currently paid for by the Seattle TBD and increasing service elsewhere in the County by perhaps 450,000 hours annually (equivalent to just under 10% of total current Metro hours). The King County measure would also have funded a low income free fares program that is already scheduled to launch in June, and might have funded electrification at some bases.
The proposal had obvious challenges. Transit measures are risky with county voters even in a better environment. A loss at the ballot box in August would have meant existing Seattle taxes expiring in December, and it probably would not have been possible to run a replacement Seattle measure before the Spring. A November Seattle measure would have been awkward because it could only be filed before the day of the August election.
King County is contemplating a 0.2% sales tax increase that would replace the expiring Seattle TBD taxes and raise a total of $160 million annually for Metro. The package under discussion would extend the service hours funded by Seattle’s 2014 levy, currently about 350,000 hours annually in Seattle. It would add new funding for 450,000 to 550,000 hours elsewhere in the County.
The planned August 4 ballot measure must be filed by May 8. Effectively, the deadline for a King County decision is much sooner. Seattle is not yet on board and wants to see the County proposal this month so the city has time to deliberate whether to support the County measure or pursue their own. A series of meetings up through March 23 are scheduled to finalize the County’s proposal.
Metro is funded by a 0.9% countywide sales tax. Since 2014, this has been supplemented by a $60 vehicle license fee and 0.1% sales tax in Seattle. Those will expire at the end of December. I-976 removed the city’s authority for the vehicle license fee, but the tax continues to be collected while litigation is ongoing. With Seattle paying higher taxes than the suburbs, service became correspondingly more Seattle-centric. Suburban leaders want a countywide tax that extends the improvements in Seattle service levels since 2014 and ‘levels up’ the transit service outside the city.
Metro Connects is King County Metro’s long range plan. Developed in 2016, it lays out a 25 year vision for the evolution of the Metro network. The plan envisioned a 70% increase in Metro bus service hours by 2040 over 2015 levels. In recent months, Metro has been updating their analysis of how much the plan would cost to implement, and delivered an initial update to the Regional Transit Committee last week. The analysis has already identified billions of dollars in additional costs over the projection in 2016.
The Metro Connects plan was, by design, an unconstrained and unfunded vision of the future network to meet the needs of 2040. Baseline expectations for tax and fare revenue indicated enough funding for just 30% of the additional capital costs and 50% of the extra service hours originally identified. Early goals including RapidRide expansion have been scaled back. The initial plan was to open 13 new lines by 2024. In 2018, that was reduced to just 7 lines by 2027.
A report last June found Metro could reach its 2040 targets with a renewal of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (about $54 million annually) and another $220 million in county funding. A county ballot proposition is being considered for this August, but it will likely be sized at no more than $160 million including replacement of the Seattle levy. That can only be a down payment toward the 2040 targets. Last week’s update to Metro Connects’ costs push those goals further out of reach.
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.