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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dublin’s Luas is a light rail tram system with two lines in service. Luas Cross City is an extension through the core of the city that will also connect the existing lines. It is anticipated to open for revenue service in December.
Metro will no longer operate shuttle service from several park-and-rides to Seahawks games at CenturyLink Field.
The news came in an email from the Seahawks to season ticket holders:
The Federal Transit Administration has ruled that Metro Transit is no longer permitted to operate its game day bus service from the Eastgate, South Kirkland and Northgate park-and-ride lots. Seahawks fans that normally use this bus service will need to find alternate means of getting to CenturyLink Field for Seahawks games.
There are a number of great alternatives already in place, including regular Metro service, Sound Transit ST Express buses, Sounder Trains, and Light Rail service.
To find the best mode of transportation to CenturyLink Field on gamedays, visit Metro’s Trip Planner. Enter your address and find schedule information for transit options throughout the Puget Sound.
Long-time readers and Seahawks fans will recall that FTA rules restricting shuttle operations to sports events are not new. In 2008, the FTA declared that public transit operators could not operate shuttles to sports events if a private charter operator was willing to do so. After a charter operator entered the market, Metro was unable to offer game-day shuttles. Metro shuttles were restored in 2010, thanks to an appropriations bill amendment inserted by Senator Patty Murray. The amendment granted Metro an exemption from the FTA rule. The charter operators who had briefly taken Metro’s place were more expensive, less convenient to access, and did not accommodate handicapped fans. A subsequent lawsuit by charter operators against the Murray amendment was unsuccessful.
Metro’s exemption expired in 2016. During the 2016 season and early 2017 season, as Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer explained to us, the Seahawks contracted for game-day operations and that partner subcontracted to Metro. The Seahawks now appear to have ended the arrangement with their contractor.
The Seattle City Council is considering the city’s 2018 budget this week, and may consider an amendment to remove funding for the Center City Connector streetcar. A key procedural deadline is on Thursday. At a Select Budget Committee meeting Monday, several members voiced skepticism about the project.
The CCC connects the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars with a frequent connection in exclusive right of way through central Seattle. It is anticipated to carry over 8,000,000 annual riders when it opens in 2020. The capital cost is $177 million, inclusive of utility work. Of this, $75 million is covered by an FTA Small Starts grant, $25 million of which is to be appropriated in the FY 2018 budget. (Another $8 million is federally funded via the PSRC). The Council authorized SDOT to accept the grants in July. The CCC is in final design with the first utility work scheduled this month.
Proposals to amend the budget must be introduced by Thursday at 2pm, and the support of three members is required. An amendment could prevent Seattle issuing bonds to cover its portion of the project costs. In Monday’s session, Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Kirsten Harris-Talley all appeared to likely to support amending the budget. The budget will be finalized over the course of several meetings in November with a final vote on November 20.
Criticism of the project focused on the risk of federal funding falling short, doubts about ridership projections, and SDOT contingency planning for funding risks. Council members also questioned the race and social justice implications of a downtown transit project over buses serving disadvantaged neighborhoods. But the discussion was also a replay of the decision to build the streetcar. For instance, Lisa Herbold:
“The streetcar, from my perspective, has limited utility as a transportation infrastructure tool for people to get to and from their workplace. It may have value as an economic development tool.  One of the performance measures  is increasing access to transit service and we really need to be evaluating our investments in how we are helping people get to and from their daily obligations.“
CM Harris-Talley asked whether the city should redirect spending to buses. Should spending be on “routes that only serve key parts of the city, instead of investing more into our buses which allow us flexibility.  In a city that is growing quite quickly, we don’t know where all the centers are going to be.”
CM Rob Johnson warned of the consequences of stepping back from a project with generous federal support. The federal grants would be repayable, and there would be downstream impacts to the city’s ability to capture federal resources for other projects.
Bellevue is planning a permanent men’s homeless shelter in the city. After a proposed location in the Eastgate area drew controversy, the City considered two alternative locations including one near the planned Sound Transit Link maintenance facility in the Bel-Red area. Sound Transit has opposed this because it is within an area to be marketed for TOD after it is no longer needed for construction staging.
With active construction already underway on East Link, Sound Transit claimed the dispute may imperil the East Link timeline if unresolved.
A nonprofit group, Congregations for the Homeless, has operated a shelter in Bellevue for several years. In recent years, it was in a Sound Transit owned building in Bed-Red that was no longer available once OMF-E construction commenced. More recently, they’ve operated out of a temporary facility on 116th. That building is substandard and cannot be operated year-round, adding to the urgency of a permanent site. For a while, the City appeared to have found a site at the County-owned Eastgate Public Health Center, across the street from the Eastgate park-and-ride. [This paragraph updated for clarity about the history of the CfH shelter in Bel-Red. Comment below]
The reaction of neighbors at Eastgate has been negative. Though not immediately adjacent to homes, Bellevue College is nearby and there are townhomes a few hundred feet away. In April, the Council approved a letter of agreement with the County to consider the Eastgate site, but also asked staff to study two other candidate locations including Bel-Red. This effectively deferred a Bellevue decision on the preferred location, while allowing work with partners to proceed at Eastgate.
The ST3 program included, at the suggestion of the City of Renton, a new transit center with a 700 stall park-and-ride in South Renton near the intersection of I-405 and SR 167. Relocating the downtown transit center, however, left observers questioning how much transit would serve downtown in future. Mayor Denis Law, among others, viewed a relocated center as a positive step for downtown.
“The current location does not provide adequate public transportation services for Renton residents; nor does it meet the needs of businesses and commuters in the valley area of the city. As downtown redevelopment continues it will also pose challenges for buses to navigate. This new transit vision will lead Renton into the next phase of our community’s growth, both in our downtown core and at the new transit center location.”
The downtown transit center, in the view of the city, was not compatible with plans for a pedestrian-oriented downtown. There were issues with crime, and drivers to the parking garage added to downtown congestion. The city intends to restore two-way traffic on South Third and South Second streets, revitalizing them as neighborhood streets rather than commuter routes.
Planning to improve Renton’s downtown has moved forward. With it has come a more worked-out view of future transit service. Renton now intends to maintain a downtown transit center, but with several operational modifications to reduce supposed impacts to downtown.
In 2014, Kirkland embarked on an effort to reform over-sized residential parking minimums that were much higher than neighboring cities. The effort was a failure, raising minimum requirements for many buildings where they should have been lowered. Just two years after the revised requirements were enacted in 2015, a series of failed developments are forcing a second look.
It had started promisingly. Partnering with Metro, overnight parking counts were conducted at multifamily buildings across the county. A second round gathered more local data. A model of right size parking needs was developed to match minimums to current usage. But fears of spillover parking and a hostile reaction from neighborhood activists overwhelmed the analysis.
What emerged were parking minimums far above current demand. The adopted rules started with the right-size parking averages, then added a 15% cushion for varied demand at some buildings, then layered on another 10% for designated guest parking. The result fairly guaranteed nobody anywhere would ever lack a parking spot in a residential building, even if many stalls went unused.
The prior code included an important data-driven element that mitigated its worst impacts. A developer could conduct a parking study, demonstrating lower utilization at similar buildings, and gain a ‘parking modification’ to build only the stalls they needed. Since 2015, parking modifications have been padded with the same 15% cushion and 10% guest parking as the base code.
In Totem Lake, the previous code was more flexible, allowing a case-by-case parking analysis to encourage urban development. That was updated to the same restrictive standards as elsewhere in the city.
What happened next should not have been a surprise. High and inflexible parking minimums are a tax that increases the cost of housing. In a sufficiently high-demand market, some projects pencil anyway. In Totem Lake, where rents are lower, parking requirements can kill an otherwise feasible project. In just two years, several projects with hundreds of homes have been cancelled.
As the rebuilt SR 520 bridge reaches Montlake tomorrow, a look back at the original SR 520 bridge on its opening day, where cars queue to drive across for the first time. A glimpse too at other Seattle freeways then under construction.
Bellevue is nearing approval of a comprehensive update to downtown zoning. It could mean taller buildings up to 600’ in some areas of the downtown core. It’s the culmination of a multiyear process to improve downtown livability, improving the pedestrian realm and fostering a more distinctive skyline. Approval by the City Council is anticipated this Fall.
Despite fairly significant increases in allowed height, the zoning update is not intended as a major increase in developable capacity. Buildings may be much taller, but not much greater in mass. Increases in FAR (floor/area ratio) are limited in most of downtown. The goals are slimmer and more diverse building forms, and more public space and sunlight at ground level. Many in the city leadership view downtown buildings as too uniform, making for a sometimes dull skyline.
The most unambigous upzones are in the OLB zones between 112th Ave and I-405, and around the future Downtown Link station. This area is conspicuously under-zoned today, with height limits of just 75 to 90 feet. Those would increase to 200 feet south of NE 4th, and 350 feet north of there.
Elsewhere, the rezone redistributes growth within downtown, often equalizing what are now different height limits for residential and commercial towers. The net impact is to encourage more residential towers in the corporate-heavy center of downtown, while making office development easier in some areas around the core that have recently seen mostly residential development. That’s something of a policy reversal. Previous zoning had encouraged office development in the tallest part of the “wedding cake” with more residential on the outer areas of downtown.
In the center of downtown, permitted height would increase from the current 450 feet to 600 feet. But, maximum FAR limits would remain unchanged. Other restrictions on building form will encourage slimmer residential buildings, particularly if developers take advantage of the height increase.
This is the last week to take the survey on proposed revision to SR 520 bus service. The survey closes Friday midnight.
With the planned closure of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, the transit agencies have offered two alternatives that would extricate SR 520 buses from anticipated congestion on Seattle surface streets. Both would require most bus riders from Kirkland and Redmond to transfer to Link Light Rail at UW Station. Option B is frequency-focused, with more service truncated to UW at all hours, but more frequent service on major routes from Kirkland and Redmond. Option C is connections-focused, with somewhat less frequent buses, but more connections between more markets.
We described the alternatives here, and a recent open house here. Our complete One Center City coverage is here.
For several months, a group of King County cities and other stakeholders have been meeting as part of a Regional Transportation System Initiative (RTSI). Their goal is to identify a funding solution for County roads and regional arterials in King County. A Technical Committee is working to define the scope of the regional roads network and its unmet needs. An Elected Officials Committee had their first meeting last Tuesday, considering a strategy for a regional package with funding options that could be authorized by the Legislature in 2018.
The RTSI is convened by Sound Cities Association (SCA) and King County. SCA represents the cities of King County other than Seattle. Seattle staff are also participating. Other staff support is provided by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).
While billed as a transportation system initiative, what is taking form is a roads program. As described by SCA, “while significant investments were recently approved for the larger system of freeways, major highways, and high-capacity transit, there remains a significant funding shortfall to address mobility and maintenance on the system of principal arterials, state routes, and collector arterials that connect communities in King County”.
The Technical Committee identified a draft regional network of some 1,366 center-line miles of King County roads. These comprise principal arterials (32%), minor arterials (54%), other freight routes (2%), frequent transit routes (6%), and county-designated arterials (6%). Those categories overlap so there are, for instance, other frequent transit routes within the principal and minor arterials.
It will be up to the Elected Officials Committee to define funding options, and to take those to the Legislature in the 2018 session. Their preferences have not been publicly discussed, but a County-wide Transportation Benefit District (TBD) is preferred by rural members of the King County Council and some mayors. TBDs have limited taxing authority, and could levy up to 0.2% sales tax and $100 MVET with voter approval. The intent to work with the Legislature suggests higher taxes or other funding sources. Continue reading “Is a roads ballot measure in our future?”
The One Center City plan for handling near-term disruption in Seattle downtown transit and traffic grinds forward. Anticipating the end of bus operations in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, staff are narrowing down the options. At last week’s advisory group meeting, we learned several project elements that are moving forward, and some that are not. It’s not clear whether the pared down program of operational improvements will be enough to prevent a substantial deterioration in service performance.
Meanwhile, the exit of buses from the tunnel, previously anticipated for September 2018, is likely to be delayed. On Monday, the King County Council Committee of the Whole approved an amendment delaying Metro’s vacation of Convention Place until at least March 2019. If the Convention Center doesn’t have its permits by June 2018, or if WSCC is not ready to take over the site by September 2018, then joint operations could continue until at least September 2019. The delay might allow another look at One Center City options that need more time for implementation.
What has been dropped?
The earlier proposal to terminate ST 550 at International District Station was dropped because of adverse impacts to riders compounded by East Link construction elsewhere on the route. The closure of the D2 roadway in late 2018 mean route revisions remain necessary, but the 550 will be operating through downtown on surface streets once the tunnel closes. It is not expected to operate on 3rd Avenue.
East Link to Downtown Redmond is scheduled to open in 2024, and the Sound Transit Board will update its preferred alternative on June 22. “Concept refinements” are now being considered. These are minor updates to the alignment including changes to station locations and the vertical profile of the guideway. Redmond last week approved a letter to the Board setting out what they hope to see.
In Downtown Redmond, a public process early this year considered four options: elevated vs at-grade, east (between 164th and 166th) vs west (between 161st and Leary). The Downtown Transit Integration (TRAIN) Study (large pdf), and public response, prefer the “East Elevated” option. That places the station opposite the Redmond Town Center parking garage. It allows easier bus-rail transfers because buses could approach both sides of the station, eliminating most street crossings for transferring riders. The shorter guideway for the East option reduces by several blocks the impacts to the Redmond Central Connector trail, and elevating the guideway eliminates vehicle and pedestrian conflicts if gates were opening every four minutes at peak.
Redmond’s second ST3 station is in Southeast Redmond in the Marymoor area. Here, the city prefers an at-grade alignment. Both affordability and trail connection considerations figured in that choice. Continue reading “Redmond stations”
Last evening, Metro and Sound Transit released service change concepts for revised bus service on SR 520. This kicks off the second of three rounds of public input, including an online survey and several open houses in mid- to late June. Because these are service concepts, they do not describe capital improvements in Montlake or elsewhere could be combined with either service option.
Ten routes, six Metro (252, 255, 257, 268, 277, 311) and four Sound Transit (540, 541, 542, 545), are included. Two all-day routes, Metro 255 serving Kirkland-Seattle and Sound Transit 545 serving Redmond-Seattle, carry two-thirds of current ridership. As expected, many buses that currently serve downtown Seattle would be rerouted to UW station freeing resources that would otherwise be consumed in downtown congestion. Changes would take effect ahead of the closure of Convention Place Station, currently scheduled for Fall 2018.
Either alternative improves cross-lake service for most riders, excepting those who prioritize one seat rides to downtown over all else. But the reinvested service hours target different priorities, and many riders will consider their individual circumstances in figuring which option they prefer. A notable highlight of the proposals is that both options include new service between South Lake Union and the Eastside.
A familiar story is playing out in Kirkland’s Houghton neighborhood. The Houghton-Everest Business Center is a collection of strip malls and small offices, mostly over 40 years old. Retail spaces are antiquated and undersized. The pedestrian environment, dominated by curb cuts to parking lots, is unsafe. But it is just a block from Google’s office, less than a mile from downtown Kirkland, and served by every major bus route in the city. The area is primed for reinvention into a prosperous mixed-use neighborhood if the zoning allowed.
After years of discussion and delays, an obtuse proposal emerged that probably prevents any redevelopment. The current 30’ height limit will be selectively raised to 35’ on a few properties. The added five feet would only be available to developers who create a new grocery or drug store over 20,000 square feet. Even then, the economics of new buildings will be constrained by added design review, 10% affordable housing rules, residential density limits, a rule that no more than 20% of the upper floors can be office, setbacks of 15 feet above the second floor, added road access requirements, and more.
The Kirkland City Council has yet to review the proposal, but can only rubber stamp it (a first study session is scheduled for Tuesday). The undersized zoning changes are the creation of the Houghton Community Council (HCC). The HCC has veto power over land use changes in most of Kirkland south of 68th St, and will block any Kirkland Council action that differs from their proposal.
Community Councils (“municipal corporations” in state law) were authorized by the Legislature in 1967 to ease annexation into larger cities, and were generally viewed as transitional arrangements. There were never many, and most were dissolved over time even though state law does not require a sunset. Just two remain. The Houghton Council dates to the annexation of the city of Houghton to Kirkland in 1968. The East Bellevue Community Council (EBCC) was created when unincorporated neighborhoods were annexed to Bellevue in 1969. No recent annexation has included the creation of a Community Council.
Mercer Island has reached agreement with Sound Transit on access to I-90. The agreement means the express lanes can close permanently to auto traffic as scheduled this weekend. A planned hearing this morning in King County Superior Court on Mercer Island’s injunction to prevent the closures is now cancelled.
The agreement includes $10 million in traffic improvements on the island and replacement parking for the South Bellevue P&R lot which closed for East Link construction earlier this week. Mercer Island Council approved the agreement shortly before midnight last night after a 6 1/2 hour executive session. Approval from the Sound Transit Board is anticipated at the June 22 Board meeting.
The Seattle Times first reported the deal outline, and the offer sheet is here. A further readout is anticipated from Mercer Island later today. [UPDATE: Mercer Island’s press statement is here]. Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff outlined major elements of the agreement at the O&A Committee meeting this afternoon.
Seattle’s growth is still accelerating. Census estimates released yesterday show almost 21 thousand new residents in Seattle in the year ended July 2016. With 704 thousand residents, Seattle is once again the nation’s fastest growing city with 3.1% annual growth.
We’ve become accustomed to fast growth, averaging 15 thousand new residents in Seattle annually between 2010 and 2015. So it’s impressive how Seattle has stepped up its game to add even more residents. As Gene Balk observed yesterday, Seattle is only the second top 50 city to grow more than 3% in one year this decade (the other was Austin in 2012). 3% growth in a mature city is a big deal.
Demand for urban living is strong, as evidenced by high prices for homes in walkable neighborhoods all over the US. But most cities have a hard time delivering those homes. Curbs on urban growth push many involuntarily to the suburbs, and most metropolitan areas are still becoming more suburban. More so than any large American metropolitan area, Seattle has densified as it has grown.
Seattle accounted for a massive 58% of all King County growth in 2016. Seattle’s acceleration was matched by a slowing of growth in many King County suburban cities. Total growth in King County in 2016 was about the same as 2015. A few cities on the central Eastside performed well. Bellevue (+1.3%), Redmond (+3.2%), and Issaquah (+3.6%) all showed healthy growth rates. But the rest of King County had its weakest growth since the recession, and expanded just 0.8%. Continue reading “Seattle booms on”