Kirkland’s NE 85th BRT station

Buses will operate separately from cars on a new middle level of the interchange. (Image: WSDOT)

At an open house on Thursday evening, WSDOT and Sound Transit shared design concepts for the I-405 BRT station at NE 85th St in Kirkland. The station is an ST3 project opening in 2024. The latest design features better connections to local transit and an improved pedestrian environment. None of these make up for the poor location choice. The station will serve just a few hundred riders daily after a capital outlay planned to exceed $300 million.

The NE 85th/I-405 interchange is located one mile northeast of the downtown Kirkland transit center. Today, it is a large cloverleaf with 85th St passing below the freeway. From the west, sidewalks end a half-mile before the station at 6th St, from which there is a 180 feet elevation gain to the freeway. To the east is a low-density commercial strip with modest prospects for redevelopment. This is an unpromising starting point, but the design makes a strong effort to create a station that is as accessible as possible. Continue reading “Kirkland’s NE 85th BRT station”

Most SR 520 bus service to remain unchanged: restructure focuses on Metro 255

Metro 255 at the Montlake Flyer stop (Image by author)

The once ambitious restructure of bus service between Seattle and the Eastside over SR 520 has been reduced in scope and is expected only to include a truncation of Metro 255 service at UW.

At last Thursday’s King County Regional Transit Committee meeting, Metro staff confirmed that Sound Transit no longer intends to propose any changes to their routes on the corridor. Peak-only Metro routes from the Eastside will also continue to serve downtown. The original restructure proposal had included ten routes, of which the greatest ridership is on Metro 255 from Kirkland and Sound Transit 545 from Redmond.

The reduced scope of the restructure comes against the background of increased optimism about downtown bus movements during the ‘period of maximum constraint’. The removal of more than 800 daily trips from the downtown transit tunnel and construction elsewhere in downtown would strain street capacity and slow transit service without mitigating measures.

The One Center City partners plan several changes to improve downtown capacity without removing so many buses from downtown. On 5th and 6th Avenues, a new northbound transit pathway can serve up to 40 buses an hour (though more likely 25-30 buses). Likely routes on this pathway are peak routes including 74, 76, 77, 301, 308, 316, 311, 252, 257.

On 4th and 2nd Avenues, signal and priority changes will speed bus movements and give pedestrians leading signals improving safety when crossing. On 3rd Ave, all door boarding and all-day bus operations will speed operations there. Through travel for cars will be prohibited during day time hours, but cars will still be permitted to turn right on to the street and must turn right off the street after one block. SDOT, Metro and Sound Transit are sharing in the $30 million cost of street improvements downtown and in Montlake.

Together, these steps allow buses to operate more effectively than they do today through downtown, with up to 25% better travel times on 4th Ave. The added pathway on 5th and 6th alleviates pressure on all avenues. Bus passenger capacity across downtown would increase by 3700 in the PM peak hour, and overall people-moving capacity by all modes would grow by 7500 per hour.

With greater downtown capacity, early proposals to truncate ST 550 at International District station, to route West Seattle buses to First Hill, and to loop route 41 on Pike/Pine, have all been shelved.

Continue reading “Most SR 520 bus service to remain unchanged: restructure focuses on Metro 255”

High speed rail economic study makes exaggerated claims

High Speed Rail in Taiwan (Image: jiadoldol)

Last week in Vancouver BC, Washington Governor Jay Inslee talked up how “the convenience of a one-hour trip between Vancouver and Seattle would create countless opportunities for people in both B.C. and Washington”. He cited an economic analysis that a high-speed rail link between the two cities could create up to 200,000 jobs and $300 billion in increased economic output annually. Inslee has characterized this as a 20:1 return. How seriously should we take these claims?

The economic analysis, funded by Microsoft and the Washington Building Trades, was prepared as an addendum to a study by WSDOT of HSR costs and ridership. It was released in January, a month after the main report. The analysis estimates 38,000 jobs will be created, directly and indirectly, during construction. More speculatively, the authors claim up to another 160,000 jobs will be created through agglomeration effects, effectively growing the Seattle and Vancouver urban area economies by reducing travel times from outlying cities. While agglomeration effects are a real phenomenon, the size of the claimed effects is preposterous. The reader is asked to believe that about sixty jobs can be created for every daily rider on the train. Continue reading “High speed rail economic study makes exaggerated claims”

Reimagining Wilburton

Alternative 2 from the Wilburton DEIS (Image: City of Bellevue)

Bellevue is considering an upzone of the Wilburton area east of Downtown across I-405. A draft EIS, currently open for public comment, examines much greater height and more intense urban activity. The Citizens Advisory Committee is also looking broadly at development standards and public investments to improve the livability of the city’s traditional Auto Row.

The area, despite being so close to downtown, is relatively underdeveloped. Apart from a hospital cluster in the northwest, it’s largely a mix of auto dealerships, big box retail, and older strip malls. Existing zoning generally allows development between 35 and 70 feet (excepting the hospital where allowed heights range up to 200 feet). That has not been enough to induce much developer interest and Bellevue anticipates little future growth under the no-action scenario, with the current 3.6 million square feet of development expanding to just 4.2 million by 2035. Continue reading “Reimagining Wilburton”

Senate approves SB 5955 MVET bill

The roll call from last night’s vote to approve a reduction in ST3 car tabs

Last night, the Senate approved SB 5955, changing the valuation schedule for the ST3 MVET (Motor Vehicle Excise Tax). Up to two-thirds of the cost is remedied by reducing payments from Sound Transit to the Puget Sound Accountability Fund. The vote was 30 yeas, 14 nays, with 5 members excused. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives which has already approved similar reductions to the MVET, but without an offset for the lost Sound Transit revenues.

Sound Transit levied a 0.3% MVET in Sound Move in 1996. That levy used a schedule that overvalues newer cars relative to resale values. In 2006, the Legislature approved a new valuation schedule that aligns to resale prices. The 0.3% MVET, because of bond requirements, continued to use the older schedule. This levy expires in 2028.

In ST3, voters approved an additional 0.8% MVET. The enabling legislation specified that it should use the familiar older schedule until 2028, then snap to the more accurate 2006 schedule in 2029. At the time, few noticed how this works, but it became suddenly controversial in 2017 when owners of newer cars received their much higher car tab bills. Some felt overcharged because the effect of the higher rates was compounded by a schedule that “overvalued” their cars.

For car owners, the bill would credit car owners for the difference in valuations for the ST3 MVET. Effectively, they’d pay on whichever schedule shows the lower value. Owners of cars less than ten years old will see bills reduced, and owners of older vehicles are not affected. The bill includes refunds for past payments before September 2018.

The credits reduce Sound Transit revenues by $780 million through 2028. Offsetting this are up to $518 million in reduced payments to the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account. As the revenue reduction increases Sound Transit debt, there are additional debt servicing costs which could increase the total impact up to $2.3 billion by 2041 if not mitigated. However, reducing the revenue hit by 65% will proportionately reduce the associated debt servicing hit.

Continue reading “Senate approves SB 5955 MVET bill”

Sound Transit’s debt limit

Sound Transit anticipates a steep increase in debt after 2025, approaching statutory limits by 2035.

At recently as 2012, Sound Transit had less than one billion dollars of debt. That increased to $4.6 billion by the end of 2017. The ST3 program will push it much higher, peaking at a projected $17.6 billion in 2035. That path puts Sound Transit close to legal limits as major ST3 projects are delivered. After 2035, as most major projects are completed, the outstanding debt could be reduced.

Sound Transit’s ability to take on more debt is constrained both by statute and by policy. Most immediately relevant is a statutory limit of non-voted debt at 1.5% of the assessed value of property within the RTA. This is the same limit all Washington State municipalities face. With 60% voter approval, the statutory limit would increase to 5%, though other policies and bond covenants would prevent the debt ever getting that high. The cushion between actual and allowed debt is most narrow in 2035, when the $17.6 billion in outstanding debt nudges against the $20.1 billion limit.

All financial projections over such an extended period are uncertain, combining assumptions about revenue growth, federal grants, project costs, and interest rates many years into the future. The legal debt limit may be lower than anticipated if the growth of assessed property values slows. Some risks correlate in unhelpful ways. Prolonged slower growth would mean lower tax revenues and less ability to borrow to fill the gap.

The long-term debt plan is very sensitive to small changes in the financial plan in the early years. Consider the bills to correct MVET valuations. The tax revenue loss from updating the valuation schedule is just $780 million between 2017 and 2028 if there is no other mitigation from the Legislature. The implications for Sound Transit debt are larger. Absent offsetting cost reductions, the lost revenues must be replaced by debt. The average interest rate is anticipated at 4% through 2021 (reflecting low recent bond rates), and 5.3% thereafter (a more typical pre-recession cost of debt). Sound Transit pays a 1% origination fee on bonds and typically begins repaying principal after five years. The principal and interest payments are themselves funded with more borrowing. At those rates, the MVET reduction accumulates to $1.6 billion in outstanding bonds by 2035, or $2.2 billion by 2041. That appears to just fit within future debt limits, but the margin of error is much too narrow for comfort in a decades-long financial forecast.

Could Sound Transit borrow to replace a loss of federal funding? Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link alone were anticipated to receive $1.67 billion of federal grants, with several billions more in future New Starts loans on other projects. There is some short-term flexibility in the plan, as Sound Transit is still far from its maximum debt capacity. But extend out the cost of replacing those grants with accumulated interest, and the debt impact roughly doubles by 2035. More debt in the 2020s means exceeding debt limits in the 2030s. A significant shortfall in federal funding would almost surely mean delays or scope reductions somewhere in the capital program. Continue reading “Sound Transit’s debt limit”

Eastside cities & transit agencies lobby for tolling on I-405

Future expansion of I-405 would add two more HOT lanes from SR 522 (pictured) to SR 527 (Image: WSDOT)

As Sound Transit steps up planning for I-405 BRT, WSDOT is preparing to extend managed HOT lanes from Bellevue south to Renton. Meanwhile, a political consensus in favor of tolling has solidified. After an unsteady start, managed lanes have grown more popular with the public. Eastside cities are recognizing both the benefits in managing traffic and the need for toll revenue to fund future capacity expansion. Eastside cities have joined with transit agencies and local employers to lobby for continued tolling and an expansion of toll lanes at the north end.

Continue reading “Eastside cities & transit agencies lobby for tolling on I-405”

How to pay for fixing the MVET

Train departing Angle Lake Station. (Image by author).

Here’s the idea in a nutshell. Revise the valuation schedule for the MVET, per HB 2201, so that the ST3 MVET (0.8%) is levied on the more accurate 2006 schedule. Pay for it by extending the Sound Move MVET (0.3%) that is otherwise scheduled to expire in 2028. The extended 0.3% MVET can use the 2006 vehicle schedule too, and can be set to expire once the funding gap is made whole. Sound Transit’s ability to deliver voter-approved projects on time will not be impaired. Car owners will see an immediate tax cut, offset only by a delay in the expiration of the Sound Move MVET after 2028.

Let’s recall some MVET history and ST3 financing. Continue reading “How to pay for fixing the MVET”

High speed rail study predicts low ridership

China Railways High Speed Train at Beijing South Station (Image: calflier001)

WSDOT’s recent study of high speed ground transportation in the Cascadia Corridor raised hopes that much faster rail connections to Vancouver and Portland may be in our future. The Governor has requested a more comprehensive study in 2018.

Depending on the technology and alignment chosen, a high-speed rail service could cover operational costs by 2035. However, capital costs may be large, with estimates ranging as high as $42 billion. Annual ridership in 2035 is just 1.9 – 2.6 million, rising to 3.1 – 4.2 million annual riders by 2055. That seems too low to warrant such a large investment unless costs can be dramatically reduced. Policy makers may conclude the more promising path is to pursue incremental upgrades.

Range of estimated capital costs (Image: WSDOT/ch2m)

Key findings

The study examined high-speed rail and maglev technologies with maximum operating speeds of at least 250 mph. The hyperloop is briefly reviewed, but that technology is too speculative for useful cost estimates. After screening, three conceptual north-south corridors were studied in most detail, all serving the Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver markets. Corridor 1A serves seven stations with a combination of urban core and periphery stations. Corridor 2 serves only the urban cores and Portland Airport. Corridor 4 is a lower cost option serving just three suburban stations. The latter option reduces costs somewhat, but also reduces ridership because the slower local rail connections to business districts increase total travel time for many users. Continue reading “High speed rail study predicts low ridership”

Where next for King County’s $20 billion roads program?

Detail from the draft Regional Roads Network Map

Elected leaders from across King County will gather on February 2 to consider legislative strategy and revenue options for the Regional Transportation System Initiative. A Technical Committee of City and County staff have identified $20 billion of regional roads improvements (in 2018 constant dollars) to be funded by 2040. With that analysis in hand, the next step is to consider how to fund this program. Many of the options before the Elected Officials Committee require approval by the Legislature and/or voters.

The RTSI was convened in early 2016 by King County and the Sound Cities Association (King County cities other than Seattle). Staff have met regularly to identify needs and funding options. The scope of the effort encompasses principal and collector arterials and state routes in the County. The RTSI effort does not include freeways and major highways, which are generally state-funded, or transit infrastructure.

The work of the RTSI has its roots in concerns about roads in the unincorporated areas of the County. The 2016 report of the Bridges and Roads Task Force identified a funding gap of $350 million per year for maintenance of bridges and roads. There is a structural gap in funding infrastructure in unincorporated areas because annexations have removed much of the tax base and what remains outside of the cities is small relative to the rural population. Unincorporated King County has 12% of the County’s population, but only 9% of the property tax base and 3% of taxable sales.

That discussion about rural roads and bridges expanded dramatically to encompass many of the roads needs of all the suburban cities. Many communities face heavy demands on their roads due to traffic passing through to other places. It was the task of the technical staff to think systematically about those demands. Bringing the traffic woes of the suburban cities into the conversation meant more local projects to appeal to more voters, but also ballooned the size of the task.

A little less than half the estimated cost, or $9.1 billion, is generally classified as maintenance and preservation. That’s a broad category that includes pavement and replacement of structures, but also enhancements such as ITS, lighting, storm water and non-motorized improvements. The remainder, $10.6 billion, are capacity projects drawn either from PSRC Transportation 2040 models or local comprehensive plan project lists.

Continue reading “Where next for King County’s $20 billion roads program?”

Microsoft’s expansion in the suburbs

Microsoft’s planned campus revamp (image: Microsoft)

Microsoft announced last week a major investment in their Redmond campus, expanding their footprint to accommodate up to 8,000 more workers, but also renovating and reinventing their campus. 12 older buildings will give way to 18 taller ones with a net addition of 2.5 million square feet.

Urbanists, and other observers, were quick to notice an apparent contrast with Amazon which has built its headquarters in Seattle and avoided suburban offices. Many Bay Area tech companies, after having started in the suburbs, are putting down roots in cities too. Several regional companies like Weyerhaeuser and Expedia have decamped to Seattle. Microsoft doesn’t appear to have ever considered such a move, and is confident that it can create an urban vibe within its historic footprint. Continue reading “Microsoft’s expansion in the suburbs”

The regional housing gap

King County’s population growth has consistently outpaced housing creation. Housing is percentage of prior year total units.

Last year, the population of King County grew 48,600, or 2.3%. The housing stock grew 14,700, or 1.6%. The gap, 0.7%, is a rough measure of our failure to create enough housing.

This is the sixth straight year when population growth exceeded housing creation in King County. Snohomish and Pierce appeared more balanced until 2014, but now face heightened housing pressures as displacement of King County workers from expensive local housing markets grows.

The gap between population and housing growth is an increase in household size. Over this decade, 11.5% more King County residents have squeezed into 8.3% more housing units. That might not seem so large, but it’s about 27,000 missing homes. Those on the margins of the housing market live with parents longer or take on more roommates. Some are homeless. The housing shortage also manifests in rationing via higher rents and rising home prices.

The other safety valve to the housing shortage has been the displacement of King County families to neighboring counties, and particularly to the South Snohomish suburbs. The role of Pierce and Snohomish Counties in the regional housing market goes beyond more housing units. Specifically, they provide much of the new single-family housing growth in the region. Seattle is 21% of the region’s housing stock, but just 2% of added single family housing since 2010 is in Seattle. Distant developments on the edges of the urban growth area have helped to fill a second housing gap, a deficit of housing for families in King County. But in recent years both Pierce and Snohomish are increasingly unable to keep up with demand. Continue reading “The regional housing gap”

Redmond’s station designs

Hand sketch of the Downtown Redmond station (Image: Sound Transit)

Last Thursday, Sound Transit and the City of Redmond held an open house to share the latest designs for the two stations on the Redmond Link extension, planned to open for service in 2024. Following a Sound Transit Board decision in June to ratify alignment recommendations from the City of Redmond, the agency has moved quickly advancing design on stations in Downtown Redmond and Southeast Redmond.

The Downtown Redmond station is a simple elevated design between Cleveland St and NE 76th St. Elevating the station eliminated conflicts with pedestrians and vehicles crossing the line. The Redmond Central Connector trail is diverted very slightly to the north. There will be space for bus access and layover on both sides of the station area. The station platform is centered above 166th Ave NE, with entrances at either end.

Downtown Redmond Station Site Plan (Image: Sound Transit)

East of downtown Redmond, the alignment quickly comes to grade before passing underneath SR 520 where the off-ramps to Redmond Way will be rebuilt. It then turns sharply to the southwest where a second station will be built in the Marymoor area. That larger station is close to the southern perimeter of SR 520. The city this year adopted a package of zoning amendments intended to remake the Marymoor Subarea as a denser mixed use neighborhood. With downtown increasingly built out, Marymoor is likely to become an important growth area for Redmond. Continue reading “Redmond’s station designs”

Reforming the regional growth centers

Activity (Population and Employment) by Center 2000-2014. Note the disparities between the largest and smallest centers. Click to enlarge. (Image: PSRC)

Since the 1990s, Regional Growth Centers (RGCs) have played a central role in the growth strategy of the Puget Sound region. There are now 29, along with nine manufacturing/industrial centers (MICs) and other local or county- designated centers. Centers are a mechanism to focus growth and prioritize transportation investments. But the performance of centers is varied. Some, including the six centers in Seattle and downtown Bellevue, have far outperformed others where growth is anemic or non-existent.

This has prompted a revisiting of the regional center system that recognizes variations between centers.  The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) has released a draft proposal for comment (through November 8). It envisions a two-tier system of ‘urban’ and ‘metro’ centers. Metro centers must meet more stringent criteria. They should have existing density of 30 activity units (population+employment) per acre, vs. 18 for urban centers. Planned targets are also higher at 85 activity units vs 45 for the urban centers. Transit service at metro centers should generally be light rail or equivalent BRT, whereas frequent bus service may suffice for an urban center. That threshold would designate ten metro centers in King County, and one each in Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap Counties.

Beyond the regional growth centers, there are new criteria for manufacturing and industrial centers (MICs) which will also see a two-tier classification. The MICs process creates a new path for designating MICs, not only recognizing the largest centers, but also preserving industrial land from encroachment. There is a more consistent process for countywide centers, where King County currently has stricter standards than other counties. There is recognition of military installations. Military bases operate outside regional plans, but several are large enough to have important transportation impacts.

Updating standards for centers across four counties is politically fraught because every city is closely watching the prospects for their local centers. The King County centers (81% of center employment, 78% of center population) are far ahead of their suburban counterparts. The PSRC disburses $250 million in transportation investments annually, and the suburban counties wouldn’t stand for such a lopsided share of funding.

To avoid disruption to underperforming centers, several compromises have been made to delay impacts. The preliminary framework does not recommend revisions to the funding priority for different types of regional centers at this time. Neither is there any imminent prospect of de-designating existing centers. The first evaluation of existing centers will take place in 2018-2020 as part of the VISION 2040 update. Centers have until 2025 to achieve consistency with new standards, and the PSRC board has flexibility in evaluating existing centers after 2025 if they are close to meeting the criteria. Continue reading “Reforming the regional growth centers”

Seattle Council proposes budget without further threats to CCC streetcar

First Hill Streetcar (Image: Atomic Taco)

Last evening, the Chair of the Seattle Council Budget Committee, CM Lisa Herbold, released her initial package of budget changes. This is a set of proposed amendments to the budget the Mayor proposed last month. The initial package reflects updated revenue assumptions and council member requests.

For transit advocates, the most notable elements are (a) the absence of any request to cut Center City Connector funding; (b) the statement of intent to consider speed and reliability improvements in South Lake Union and First Hill;  and (c) several pedestrian improvements. Without an amendment to reduce streetcar funding, that part of the mayor’s proposed budget moves forward.

Budget pressures were eased somewhat by $2 million in extra general fund revenues identified in the revenue update, mostly due to increased construction activity. There were also $2 million in other savings identified by staff across city operations. Those updates eased any pressure to seek new savings in the budget.

Continue reading “Seattle Council proposes budget without further threats to CCC streetcar”

Center City Connector survives budget hurdle, may see improvements

Seattle Streetcar (Image: SDOT)

Last week, the Seattle City Council Budget Committee reviewed SDOT funding for 2018, and some members appeared ready to reconsider city funding for the Center City Connector. The Mayor’s budget proposal would finance $50 million of the projects $177 million capital cost via bond sales backed by Commercial Parking Tax revenues. Another $14 million is funded via utility funds, with the balance from other sources including $83 million in federal grants.

Ridership on the CCC. Green is incremental, baseline in red. (Image: SDOT)

To amend the Mayor’s budget, the first procedural step is a “green sheet” sponsored by three Council Members (so called because they were once printed on green sheets of paper). In a lengthy Committee discussion last week, Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Kirsten Harris-Talley all appeared likely to support such an amendment. The deadline for submitting amendments was on Thursday, October 19.

The green sheets were published this morning ahead of a 9.30AM meeting of the Budget Committee. No proposal to reduce or delay Connector funding appeared. This moves forward the Mayor’s proposal to fund the streetcar as the budget is finalized over the next four weeks.

There was no comment at this morning’s meeting why members hadn’t introduced a green sheet proposal. Instead, CM Mike O’Brien introduced a Statement of Legislative Intent to extend additional funding for “speed and reliability recommendations for the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines”. The SLI is co-sponsored by Council Members Sally Bagshaw, Lorena González, Rob Johnson, and Kshama Sawant. SLIs do not specify funding levels, but indicate a policy direction that Council Members wish for staff to evaluate.

Continue reading “Center City Connector survives budget hurdle, may see improvements”

I-405 express lanes successful, necessary for I-405 BRT

ST Express bus enters the ETL lane at Bellevue (Image by author)

WSDOT’s express toll lanes on I-405 opened in September 2015. Having recently passed the two-year mark, the Legislature may consider next year whether they should continue. At stake is not only the improved efficiencies of the managed lanes. As Peter Rogoff highlighted last week, an end to tolling would force a rethink of the Sound Transit BRT program that only makes sense if buses can move reliably in well-managed lanes. The loss of tolling revenues would also defer highway investments benefiting drivers.

By many measures, the lanes have been a success. At peak, each express lane carries more vehicles than each general-purpose lane. In some places, vehicle throughput in the tolled lanes is up to 30% greater than the regular lanes. Overall, the busiest parts of the corridor are now transporting 20% more vehicles, or 30% more people, than before. Pricing allows more people to travel with greater reliability and higher speeds than the congested GP lanes.

The lanes have been popular with drivers from the beginning. Politically, they were less favored at first. Improved operations, a strategic retreat on night and weekend tolling, and toll-funded investments at the north end, have made the lanes more popular.

Transit Performance: The lanes also deliver faster and more reliable transit performance. Metro travel times on I-405 have improved 15-29% in the PM peak, and 3-7% in AM peak. Community Transit times have improved 7% northbound, and are more reliable in both directions. In 2015, Community Transit added $2.6m in schedule maintenance costs on I-5 (added service hours so buses could arrive at their scheduled times). Community Transit has not needed to make similar investments in the more reliable I-405 corridor. The variability of travel times on I-5 remains twice that of I-405.

Sound Transit reports a +1% improvement in performance on I-405 routes, vs. a 6% deterioration on other routes in the same time. Ridership has increased 4%. Continue reading “I-405 express lanes successful, necessary for I-405 BRT”