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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The business case for high speed rail

High speed trains in Tokyo (Image credit: Flickr/tokyoform)

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.

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The next regional growth plan will be transit-focused

Fast growing Bellevue (image by author)

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.

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A funding plan for Metro Connects comes into view

The projected funding would add a million Metro service hours by 2030 and place the agency on a trajectory for further expansion (Image: King County)

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.

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Could Link to Mariner open early?

Near the Ash Way P&R on I-5 (image: SounderBruce)

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.

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Reevaluating Woodinville BRT

Woodinville (Image: SounderBruce)

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.

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Kirkland’s RapidRide should connect to Redmond

Frequent Transit Network in Kirkland in 2024, after the North Eastside Restructure and I-405 BRT, but before RapidRide

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”

Montlake bus lane, flyer stop, to close in June

The transit-only lane on the Montlake off-ramp will close this June (image: WSDOT)

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.

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