Sunday Open Thread: Eastside Transportation Forum

Eastside leaders gathered in Bellevue on May 5 to review transit and other transportation projects coming on the Eastside.

0:00 Claudia Balducci, King County Council Member for District 6
5:57 John Howell (Moderator), Founding Partner, Cedar River Group
7:25 Ariel Taylor, King County Council Staff
18:10 Roger Millar, Secretary of Transportation, WSDOT
40:15 Peter Rogoff, CEO, Sound Transit
45:15 Ric Ilgenfritz, Executive Director, Planning, Environment, and Project Development, Sound Transit
1:03:35 Rob Gannon, General Manager, Metro Transit
1:08:50 Victor Obeso, Deputy General Manager, Metro Transit

The Overheated MVET Debate

If reduced MVET revenues impact project delivery, suburban parking projects are first in line to be delayed

Last night, the Washington House of Representatives approved HB 2201. The bill effectively resets the valuation schedule for the 0.8% ST3 portion of the MVET to the lower of the 1999 and 2006 schedules. The outcome is lower taxes for owners of cars less than 10 years old, and a refund for those who have already paid their 2017 car tabs.

Reversing voter-approved taxes, barely five months after the ballot, isn’t a great look. But it is within the Legislature’s authority (second-guessing of initiatives is not new). Democrats have responded to sincere voter anger. The MVET increase was greater than many expected even if voters who carefully read the ballot ought to have understood. Owners of newer cars are taxed against a scheduled valuation higher than their vehicle resale values. Even though Sound Transit has used the same schedule for twenty years, and never presented it otherwise, it just seems unfair.

If HB 2201 becomes law, Democrats expect it to correct the anomalous MVET valuations while delivering ST3 projects on schedule.

The bill creates a credit for taxpayers offsetting the difference in valuation schedules. Crafted this way, HB 2201 doesn’t interfere with Sound Transit’s bond program and doesn’t require defeasement of Sound Move bonds. It means the 0.3% Sound Move MVET, pledged against bond repayments on the now obsolete 1999 schedule, is not prematurely repealed and can remain in place until the bonds are paid off in 2028. Unlike some Republican proposals to simply switch schedules across the board, HB 2201’s credit does not increase taxes for owners of older cars.

The vote was 64-33, with all Democrats in favor. Republican reaction was mixed. Some are willing to accept any tax reduction; others decried that the bill didn’t meet their more ambitious goals. The bill moves to the Senate today where Republicans may make a play for larger tax cuts.

The revenue impact is modest. $780 million in revenues is 1.4% of the $54 billion program over 25 years, albeit front-loaded so the real impact is higher than the year-of-expenditure (YOE) calculation. The credits only run through 2028, after which the Sound Move 0.3% MVET expires and the ST3 MVET switches to the ‘lower’ valuation schedule.

Continue reading “The Overheated MVET Debate”

Who should use the park & ride?

Riders walk to a shuttle bus near Eastgate P&R

Every morning, dozens of riders board shuttle buses one block from Eastgate Park-and-Ride. All but a handful are coming from the parking garage, after storing their cars there for the day. This particular shuttle bus travels to Amazon’s Brazil building in South Lake Union. Other companies appear also to use suburban transit parking as pickup points. Unmarked white buses are frequently seen adjacent to other Eastside P&Rs.

A few riders arrive by bus. Absent direct shuttle service, many might take transit to work. So one may ask whether we should be concerned that publicly funded transit parking is being used by private transit services.

Maybe it depends on what we think these shuttle riders would do in the absence of shuttle buses. Would they use public transit, or drive to South Lake Union? Shuttle buses to South Lake Union are filling a gap in the transit market, albeit one Metro is endeavoring to serve.

At the same time, transit parking is expensive to build. At many locations, it is insufficient for demand. Utilization at Eastgate hovers near 100%, so shuttle riders may be displacing other transit users.

The wholesale parking market is increasingly competitive. Churches and other parking lot owners who have surplus parking on weekdays find it easy to lease space to nearby offices. Many office employers, squeezing more people into smaller spaces, use offsite parking and shuttles for employees. When Sound Transit went looking for parking in Bellevue to replace lost capacity at South Bellevue P&R, there were no nearby alternatives. Every lot in the area was already fully used. Residential neighborhoods near popular transit routes find an increasing number of ‘park-and-hide’ users.

Generally, we should welcome this. It means parking, on- and off-street, is being used more efficiently. The first step to moving beyond ubiquitous driving in the suburbs is to use existing parking more intensely.

But parking scarcity creates a search for less regulated parking. Where can I park for free without getting a ticket? Transit lots are lightly monitored and maybe more readily abused.

2016: Did growth outpace our willingness to build homes?

Growth accelerated in 2016, with more suburban markets leading the way

Census data released last week showed yet another acceleration of regional population growth. King County maintained a high growth rate, added another 35,700 residents in the year ended July 1, 2016. But neighboring counties saw higher growth rates.

Pierce added 18,600 residents, more than twice the average of the preceding five years. Snohomish added 17,500 residents, vs an average 10,900 per year between 2010 and 2015. Constraints on development in King County may be diverting new residential growth into the suburban cities of Snohomish, Pierce, and beyond.

Outlying counties also grew. Thurston County added 6,000 residents and Kitsap 4,300. Both were significantly higher than most recent years.

Measured as growth rates, King County grew 1.7% in 2016 (same as 2015); Snohomish grew 2.3% (vs. 1.6%); Pierce 2.2% (vs. 1.5%); Thurston 2.2% (vs. 1.3%.) Kitsap expanded 1.6%, well above recent norms though lower than a spike in growth in 2015.

Where did the growth come from? The Census breaks down the sources of population change. Natural increase (births – deaths) is predictably stable and contributed 28% of last years growth. Net international migration declined slightly and accounts for 25% of growth in 2016.

Domestic migration rates shifted dramatically toward suburban counties in 2016

47% of growth is domestic migration which grew spectacularly in 2016, everywhere except King County. The Census defines domestic migration as moves between US counties, and has not reported whether the increases in Snohomish and Pierce represent moves from King County or from elsewhere. Even if from elsewhere, many of these new residents may have preferred to live in King County. Both Snohomish and Pierce added more residents via domestic migration than King in 2016, and both more than doubled the pace of domestic net migration over the previous year. Thurston almost tripled.

There’s a clue in driver license data. New driver licenses issued to out-of-state drivers are a measure of gross migration from other states, whereas the Census measures net flows from other counties. The driver license data indicates a continued increase in gross migration to King from other states, but stable migrations from other states to neighboring counties. Follow the math, and it suggests migration from King to adjoining suburban counties. The shift toward suburban growth is local displacement of former King County residents.

It’s hazardous to read too much into one year of data. We also lack the city-level data for a finer analysis at this time. We’ll report on that next month. But the trend of the last few years – that King County would grow at a faster pace than its neighbors – decisively reversed in 2016.

We’ve reported before about the centralization of growth around Seattle and some of the central Eastside cities. High home prices and rents suggest no slowing in demand for housing in close-in communities. But the numbers hint demand for housing in King County has run up against outdated growth targets and other barriers to accelerating construction of more homes. Housing prices and rents are increasing regionwide, with large increases reported in once-peripheral markets like Issaquah and Marysville.

Growth has not slowed in King County. Central cities like Seattle and Bellevue have been rocketing through outdated growth targets for several years. But cities face no penalty for not increasing capacity as long as they are “meeting GMA requirements”, i.e. planning for a growth forecast that predated the boom. Zoned supports as many housing units as the GMA requires, but fewer than the market needs to supply. Easing barriers to market rate housing is politically fraught. The process of adjusting growth targets upwards is likely to work slowly through another comprehensive planning cycle.

Even though the region’s worst traffic is on long commutes from the far north and south, concerns about local traffic congestion can defeat efforts to create more housing in centrally located suburban inner suburbs. Will we look back at 2016 as the year exurban sprawl returned?

Several more charts after the jump: Continue reading “2016: Did growth outpace our willingness to build homes?”

Link Connections on SR-520: take the survey

ST 545 is among the routes that may be rerouted to UW station in Fall 2018 (Image: Atomic Taco)

King County Metro and Sound Transit have begun an outreach process to transit riders in the SR 520 corridor. Transit users and community members are invited to take a survey, running through April 2. Town halls will be held at University of Washington, in Redmond, and in Kirkland.  This will be the first of several opportunities for public input planned as service proposals evolve.

Six Metro routes (252, 255, 257, 268, 277, 311) and six Sound Transit Express routes (ST 540, ST 541, ST 542, ST 545, ST 555, ST 556) may be affected. Generally, the agencies are interested in truncating most service on SR 520 to the University of Washington light rail station. Several of those routes already serve UW, so possible service changes go beyond simply truncating the remaining routes to downtown.

Candidate routes for truncation at UW serve Kirkland, Redmond and Woodinville. A final proposal is also expected to include more frequent service on many routes, along with more service earlier or later or on weekends. New service between the Eastside and South Lake Union will be considered.

The immediate impetus for service changes on SR 520 relates to several construction projects in central Seattle including the anticipated closure of the bus tunnel and Convention Place Station by the end of 2018. Absent other changes, bus performance through downtown will be slowed significantly. The One Center City proposal truncates many bus routes at rail stations outside of the downtown core. Some of the changes are temporary remedies until Link extensions to Northgate and Bellevue are open.

On the other hand, changes to SR 520 bus service offer permanent benefits to riders if executed well. Rail to downtown is faster and more reliable than buses on I-5 and surface streets. The service hour savings can be redeployed to more frequent service on Eastside buses or service to more places. But understandable concerns about the efficiency of bus to rail transfers at UW remain.

Continue reading “Link Connections on SR-520: take the survey”

We have traffic because we drive so far

Afternoon traffic on I-405 near Canyon Park. Photo by SounderBruce.

We are regularly reminded that traffic congestion is growing across the region. The median Seattle metro area worker commutes nine miles to work. What if we could live closer to our workplaces? Drivers would drive fewer miles, and spend less time in traffic. Everybody who lives closer to work would contribute less to the congestion experienced by everybody else. This would reduce traffic even if everybody drives. But there’s a multiplier as denser places have higher transit (and walk, and bike) shares. Reduce travel distances by 10%, and there’s a more than 10% reduction in vehicle miles traveled.

Who has the longest and shortest commutes? The U.S. Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics has a handy mapping interface to their Origin-Destination Employment Statistics. I’ve charted the length of commute journeys for major cities in the region, per the PSRC classification of Metropolitan, Core, and Larger. (Here’s a similar chart for smaller cities).

The shortest commutes are enjoyed by residents of Mercer Island, Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond. 75% live within ten miles of their work (vs. 52% for the region). Of course, these are the nearest cities to the two largest employment centers in the region. Commuters from more distant cities to downtown Seattle and downtown Bellevue must travel further.

Among the cities on the chart, the longest commutes are from the exurban communities of Maple Valley, Monroe, Arlington, Lake Stevens and Marysville. 71% of workers who live in those cities are more than 10 miles from their work. 31% are more than 25 miles away. These aren’t the very worst commutes in the region, however. Residents of some of the tiny mountain ‘smaller cities’ drive extraordinarily long distances to work.

Incidentally, Covington and Bonney Lake, both seeking larger city designation so they can grow faster, would have longer commute distances than most of the larger city peer group.

It will surprise few that people who live near Seattle and Bellevue have shorter commutes. But it invites an obvious question. Why is the regional growth strategy constructed around five Metropolitan Cities and 29 Regional Growth Centers? Why not draw more residential development closer to the two dominant business centers?

Continue reading “We have traffic because we drive so far”

Should Small Cities Grow Faster?

Downtown Snoqualmie

For over a year, regional planners have wrestled over growth plans with six small cities that are planning to ‘grow too fast’. Last month, the PSRC Executive Board tabled a decision on reclassification that could have eased the way for faster growth in Covington and Bonney Lake.

Six smaller cities, four of them in King County, are planning for growth that runs ahead of regional targets.

The region’s growth management strategy, VISION 2040, focuses most development within an urban growth boundary. Inside the growth boundary, the highest planned growth in each county is in “Metropolitan Cities” like Seattle and Bellevue. The next highest growth rates are planned for “Core Cities”, with progressively lower growth in “Larger Cities” and “Small Cities”. Small cities outside the contiguous urban area should grow more slowly than cities within.

In the last round of comprehensive plans, Six small cities created plans with growth capacity well above their regional targets. Four of these (Carnation, Snoqualmie, North Bend and Covington) are in King County, and two are in Pierce (Gig Harbor and Bonney Lake). In response, their plans were certified conditionally until they could come into compliance with regional goals. To date, the conditional certification has not impacted their access to grant funding, but might do so in the future.

Small cities have lower growth targets because they are typically further from major business centers. This means longer commutes that increase demands on regional transportation infrastructure. Unplanned growth impacts traffic in neighboring communities and on rural roads. The character of small towns is to be preserved. (Some small cities are indeed charming, others maybe less so). But slow growth strains the budgets of many smaller towns, dependent on an influx of new residents or businesses to fund existing services and infrastructure.

Continue reading “Should Small Cities Grow Faster?”

Eastside Park & Rides to Close for Link Construction

South Bellevue Park & Ride (photo by author)

Two park & rides on the Eastside will close in early 2017 for East Link construction. The South Bellevue P&R, with current capacity of 519 cars, is expected to close later in the first quarter. It will reopen in five years with an expanded capacity of 1,500 cars in a five-level garage. In the second quarter, the smaller Overlake Transit Center P&R will close for up to six years so it can be used for staging materials. Capacity at Overlake is about 220 cars. The future Redmond Technology Center Station will include a 320-stall parking garage.

Sound Transit will lease five new Park-and-Ride lots on the Eastside (in blue), and add capacity or service at several others.

Closure dates are dependent on construction scheduling and will be announced 60 days in advance. As the dates are confirmed, a more extensive public outreach effort will educate riders about alternatives.

To serve users during the closures, Sound Transit has expanded two existing leased lots and leased space at five new locations, accommodating 350 cars in total. All of the added capacity is at churches in Bellevue excepting one Renton location. The leased lots opened in December. That is less than a 1:1 replacement, but there is also unused capacity at some other Eastside locations such as South Sammamish, Houghton, Newport Hills, and Tibbetts Valley in Issaquah.

Buses will continue to serve South Bellevue during the closure. These include ST 550, 555 and 556, and Metro 241 and 249. The southbound stops will be relocated across the street. Road capacity will be reduced during some of the construction, but a reversible lane ensures two lanes can remain open in the peak direction throughout.

The closure of the P&R at Overlake Transit Center is being mitigated in part with ST Express service to nearby Overlake Village on ST 541, launched earlier in 2016. Sound Transit Express service on the SR 520 and I-90 corridors was increased in 2016, improving the frequency of service at several historically under-utilized lots.

Continue reading “Eastside Park & Rides to Close for Link Construction”

Trouble on Paradise Lake

This field off SR 522 is the planned site of a 360-unit apartment development. (Photo by author)

Some years ago, I lived in a residential community east of Woodinville. It’s a typical late 1970s subdivision with houses on acre-lots surrounded by tall trees; the kind of place where deer graze in the yard by day and bears sometimes visit by night. After the Growth Management Act was adopted in 1990, the neighborhood was miles outside the King County Urban Growth Boundary. Zoning was amended to RA-5, effectively freezing pre-GMA development in place with five-acre minimum lots.

The neighborhood backs onto Paradise Lake Road, a winding rural road into Snohomish County. It was startling, therefore, to learn last week of a large apartment development on 17 acres of farmland alongside that road. The project comprises fifteen three-story apartment buildings with 360 apartments. Other than a church and middle school across the road, it’s a low density rural area with older homes on large lots.

A developer drawing shared at a public meeting on Wednesday evening.

The rural area, it turns out, is bisected by the Maltby Urban Growth Area (UGA). It’s a long sliver of “urban” area along SR 522, mostly light industrial uses on the north side of the highway as it snakes up the hill from Woodinville toward Monroe. Five miles beyond Woodinville, the UGA was extended in 2005 for a church construction on Paradise Lake Rd. A neighboring landowner asked to be included in the urban area. For obscure reasons, the Snohomish County council agreed and rezoned the farm as Planned Community Business (PCB).

The zoning also allows multifamily. Hence the peculiar sight of fifteen three-story apartment buildings in a pocket of UGA surrounded on three sides by R-5 zoning, the 5-acre minimum lots that are designed to prevent development into the rural areas.

It is denser than many new developments in exurban Snohomish County, and will provide more homes than a comparably sized single family subdivision. More affordable too; though many residents will face long commutes, rents are about half the level of core urban markets. But it’s a textbook example of density in the wrong place. The only businesses are a pair of gas stations at the highway intersection, so every errand will involve driving. Roads lack lighting and sidewalks. The 720 parking spots required reflect a realistic estimate of the mode share and traffic impacts. The only bus in the area is the twice daily CT 424 which passes, without stopping, on SR 522. Continue reading “Trouble on Paradise Lake”

Kirkland in ST3, and Beyond

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ST3 rail will terminate on the other side of this intersection in South Kirkland in 2041

The ST3 program is widely viewed as disappointing for Kirkland. The city wasn’t quite passed over: I-405 BRT will serve Totem Lake and NE 85th St in 2024, and rail will extend to South Kirkland in 2041. But most observers focus on the missed opportunity to connect Downtown Kirkland via the Eastside Rail Corridor. Why did this happen, and what are the implications?

It’s instructive to start at the beginning. In mid-2015, ST3 was anticipated as a 15-year package including rail to Redmond and BRT on I-405. Other Eastside rail investments would follow in ST4. Recognizing the risks of waiting, Kirkland developed a Bus Rapid Transit proposal with Sound Transit and Metro buses running in largely exclusive right-of-way along the ERC. The reduced capital costs, it was hoped, could fit within a 15-year program.

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Destinations that can be reached via transit/walking in one hour from Downtown Kirkland. ST2 and early improvements to the Metro network deliver more than the ST3 program. Source: King County Metro

As a 25-year program came into view, the calculus shifted to potentially include a rail line between Kirkland and Issaquah. But Kirkland’s study highlighted several advantages of a busway. It could serve more destinations including Seattle (with four times the demand of a Bellevue-Kirkland service). It connected more activity centers within Kirkland, and eased the challenge of serving Downtown Kirkland. A busway might better balance trail uses, though not enough to appease South Kirkland neighbors who were determined not to have any transit passing their homes.

Kirkland was convinced of the advantages of BRT on the Corridor, but other stakeholders were less supportive. Sound Transit, improbably, estimated only about as many riders on the BRT in 2040 as the corresponding Metro routes today, emphasizing time penalties of deviating off the corridor to serve denser areas. The tortured history of BRT “alternatives” to rail on the Eastside ensured transit lobby groups would be skeptical. Issaquah worried about the implications of Kirkland BRT for its own rail plans. Even Bellevue placed a greater emphasis on I-405 BRT as a major north-south connection.

Continue reading “Kirkland in ST3, and Beyond”

Bellevue’s Transportation Levy

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Representative projects to be funded by the transportation levy. Map: City of Bellevue

Bellevue has a progressive transportation levy on the ballot next month that will step up investments in neighborhood safety and connections. The levy augments baseline spending in Bellevue’s Capital Improvement Plan, accelerating local projects that would otherwise wait many years for funding.

Bellevue is growing quickly, and the growth has been accompanied by increasing public demands for better non-motorized connectivity as well as local congestion relief. The upshot is an $800 million deficit between the 20-year list of capital projects and projected revenue, much of that in transportation. A particular need for funding to accelerate safety, connectivity, and neighborhood congestion projects was identified.

The proposed tax rate is 15 cents $1,000 assessed value. The median Bellevue homeowner would pay $96 annually (on an assessed value of $640,000). The measure yields $6.7 million, or an estimated $140 million over 20 years. A second, similarly sized, levy for fire facilities is also on the ballot.

While not a very large program (about one-third the size of the Move Seattle measure in per capita/year terms), the mix of projects is impressive. There are no large highway expansions. Major planned efforts to extend the arterial street system in the BelRed area to coincide with the completion of East Link (where the City will seek TIFIA funding) are not included.

This measure, rather, supplements baseline capital funding to address the backlog of small locally-oriented projects that would otherwise be built over decades. 223 projects are identified as candidates, and the city’s interactive map shows projects spanning every neighborhood in the city.

Some story boards from the Bellevue Transportation Department illustrate the range of what would be funded. Priorities include:

  • New sidewalks and trails will be accelerated. Bellevue’s CIP has a 30-year backlog of identified high-priority projects, many of which will be supported through the levy.
  • Neighborhood safety. Candidate projects include 84 locations for traffic calming, 12 school safety projects, and 55 pedestrian crossings.
  • Bicycle facilities with 52 identified projects to provide 57 miles of new or upgraded bike facilities citywide. Funding Bellevue’s Bicycle Rapid Implementation Program would expand the city’s network of bike routes from 107 to 128 miles, but more importantly would improve the quality of these routes, reducing unmarked shared facilities (wide lanes and shoulders) from 65 to 35 miles and adding 23 miles of separated bike lanes.
  • Enhanced technology, including LED streetlights, video monitoring and analysis of accidents and near misses, parking and driver information systems.
  • Neighborhood congestion, largely signals and intersection improvements. Notably, capacity is not being increased via added lanes or new roadway.
  • Sidewalk and trail maintenance. This mostly comprises repairs and maintenance to defective sidewalks and trails due to root heave or aging. The city would also sweep trails and streets more frequently.

The measure is City of Bellevue Proposition No. 2, “Levy for Neighborhood Safety, Connectivity, and Congestion”, and deserves your support.

Displacement is a Thing, Sometimes

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Highland Village Apartments in Bellevue. Photo by Author.

Sightline had an interesting report recently about displacement of older (presumably more affordable) homes by new development. They looked at 19 apartment complexes built in Seattle (all of the 8+ unit developments the King County Assessor considers as built in 2016). Those developments created 1,764 new homes while displacing only 21 older homes, a compelling 84-to-1 ratio. 12 developments on former commercial sites did not displace any older homes at all.

That’s great news, but what’s this? In Bellevue, the King County Housing Authority stepped in to buy a 76-unit apartment complex that was to be demolished for 87 town homes. Rents at Highland Village Apartments average $1,200 per month, well below the average Bellevue rent of $1,930. The KHCA spent $20 million to buy the complex, located on NE 8th St between Downtown Bellevue and Crossroads. The KHCA will now renovate the apartments, maintaining rents near their current level.

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Before and after in Kirkland. The newer buildings are technically multifamily, but appeal to buyers in the single-family market. (Before: Google Street View, 2011. After: Photo by Author).

The Sightline report reminds us that development generally expands supply and is mostly good for affordability. But the story of Highland Village is hardly unique. It may be more typical in a certain kind of pricier suburban community. Highland Village look like hundreds of other older multifamily developments in this region. Two stories; on an arterial but not in downtown; surrounded by surface parking; in a low-rise neighborhood where the zoning will not permit much greater height or density (and perhaps not the market either). Rents are lower because the buildings are depreciated. Older small single family houses may get more sympathetic news coverage because they appeal to boomer nostalgia, but older multifamily units are the most affordable unsubsidized homes in most cities.

Like Highland Village, many older apartment buildings are ripe for redevelopment to higher-priced homes.

Continue reading “Displacement is a Thing, Sometimes”

I-405 Tolls Fund More Highway Capacity

I-405 near Canyon Park. Photo by SounderBruce
I-405 near Canyon Park. Photo by SounderBruce

While they remain controversial politically, the HOT lanes on I-405 between Bellevue and Lynnwood are increasingly popular with transit users and the drivers who use the lanes. Higher than forecast driver demand has led to higher toll revenues, and those revenues are being put to work to benefit drivers in the corridor. The first improvement is a 1.8 mile shoulder lane for general purpose traffic between Canyon Park and I-5. The improvements may also benefit transit users.

Shoulder lanes will be added in 2017 between SR 527 and I-5. Map: WSDoT
Shoulder lanes will be added in 2017 between SR 527 and I-5. Map: WSDOT

As demand has grown, average peak time toll rates have crept up from $1.75 in late 2015, to $2.40 in the first quarter, to $2.72 in the second. In June, the HOT lanes served 1.2 million vehicle trips, over 800,000 of those tolled. With higher prices and HOT lane volumes, WSDOT now anticipates revenues will exceed earlier forecasts by about $20 million per biennium.

The lanes have worked well for transit too, with Metro seeing 8.2% more riders. Average travel savings are 2.1 minutes in the AM and 5.8 minutes in the PM. Community Transit’s peak ridership is up 3% with improved travel times for most routes.

Initially, express lanes were tolled at all hours. In a concession to tolling opponents in the Legislature, that was pared back earlier this year so tolls now apply only between 5am and 7pm weekdays. The lanes are open to all drivers at other times, although center HOV ramps in Bellevue and Totem Lake are HOV/transit only when tolled access is not available.

Travel times for drivers in the general purpose lanes are generally better than before, particularly southbound. In the northbound direction, traffic flows more freely through Bellevue and Kirkland. But this has exacerbated a bottleneck at SR 522 in Bothell, where five lanes (2 HOT + 3 GP) converge into three (1 HOT + 2 GP). The highway remains congested until near I-5. Nearly 1,000 vehicles an hour merge onto I-405 at Canyon Park in the PM peak, adding to delays.

Continue reading “I-405 Tolls Fund More Highway Capacity”

New Riders in ST3

Link Morning Commuters at Westlake. Image by Oran.
Link Morning Commuters at Westlake. Image by Oran.

The completion of the Sound Transit 2 plan will more than double Sound Transit’s ridership from about 150 thousand today to 350 thousand, and ST3 will nearly double that again to between 561 and 695 thousand daily riders.

The ST3 plan would result in 657 to 797 thousand daily transit riders in the region in 2040. Bench-marked against a ‘no-build’ alternative, however, only 9% of those would be new to transit. Opponents of the measure repeat this factoid to argue ST3 will be ineffective in increasing transit mode share in the region, that it’s a poor value for money, and that it will not relieve congestion. Torture the data point enough, and it seems to yield a ludicrously high cost per added transit rider. But it’s a misleading number in several ways.

‘Cost per new rider’ is recognized as a terrible measure of value. The FTA discarded the measure in 2003 for a more comprehensive measure of system user benefits that includes travel time saved by all users. ‘Cost per new rider’ devalues the experience of existing riders and the time-saving and other benefits that accrue to them. Hundreds of thousands of riders will have a faster, more comfortable and more reliable journey.

Would anybody assess the value of a new highway only by counting new drivers? No. Any analysis of highway benefits would include time and money savings for all users, and so it is with transit. A focus on new riders also penalizes investments in core transit corridors (exactly where high-capacity transit needs to be). Providing alternatives to driving are important, but getting some people out of cars is not the only benefit of ST3.

Less obviously, the ‘no-build’ alternative is not the status quo. It is a highly optimistic 2040 scenario that incorporates all the long range plans of other transportation agencies and regional planners. The PSRC, WSDOT, Metro, and other transit provider plans are all completed whether currently funded or not. In this alternative world, bus service is far more ubiquitous and faster than today, and traffic is better managed to keep those buses moving reliably.

Why construct the ‘no-build’ this way? It maintains consistency between Sound Transit planning assumptions and the plans of all other agencies. But the assumptions underlying the ‘no-build’ scenario set a high benchmark that make rail benefits look smaller:

  • In the ‘no-build’ alternative, drivers face per-mile fees across the region to manage traffic levels. With better-managed traffic levels, buses move faster.
  • Travel times in HOV lanes are well-managed by raising HOV requirements as high as necessary for reliable transit speeds, or converting HOV lanes to bus only lanes. The political will to make these changes is uncertain, and not currently in evidence.
  • The ‘no-build’ alternative also assumes the complete build-out of WSDOT plans, many of which are currently unfunded.
  • Other transit agencies are assumed to complete their long range plans. Concurrent with the PSRC’s Transportation 2040 plan, the ‘no-build’ includes a doubling of local transit service. Those are only partly funded. The funding gap grows if ST3 is not completed and local agencies have to pick up the workload of the ST3 rail network.

In short, the no-build alternative isn’t free. It assumes large unfunded investments by other agencies, and those costs will grow if Sound Transit cannot build out the rail network after 2023.

Play out, if you will, an alternative where ST3 does not pass. Suppose other transit agencies are incompletely funded, or the political will for tolling and per-mile driver fees falters. In this very plausible scenario, failure to pass ST3 will reduce transit ridership by much more than 9%. In a world where buses are not faster or more reliable than today, the advantages of grade-separated rail are greater, and ridership gains are correspondingly larger.

Bellevue Chooses Development over View Corridors

Bellevue's City Hall
Bellevue’s City Hall. The protected views would have been from the balcony and a public area inside.

Last month, Zach explained how a view of Mount Rainier from Bellevue City Hall had become a roadblock to rezoning of several redevelopable sites near the East Main Link station. Last week, the Bellevue City Council voted 5-1 to not retain the view corridor. While the rezoning process is not over, this decision makes it much more likely that the East Main station walk-shed will support much higher development densities.

Bellevue is engaged in several rezoning efforts. The East Main Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) is reviewing the area immediately adjacent to the East Main station. The Downtown Livability CAC has made recommendations for areas which include the Sheraton site northeast of East Main, and most directly within City Hall’s view of Mount Rainier.

The goals around the station are commendably ambitious. Current height limits of 75-90 feet may be increased up to 200 feet at the Sheraton site, and up to 300 feet on lots to the south (including the Red Lion across from the station). The current FAR of 3.0 on the Sheraton site, and just 0.5 further south, would increase up to 5.0.

Bellevue City Council Chambers, and an adjacent balcony and interior concourse, enjoy a view of Mount Rainier over these sites. Current zoning doesn’t allow buildings tall enough to impinge on those views, but preserving the view would require that portions of the Sheraton site in the view corridor be built up to no more than 91 to 117 feet, and portions of the Red Lion site be no taller than 123-148 feet.

Council Members opposed to mandating a view corridor cited the detrimental impact to likely development. Kevin Wallace, in an earlier meeting, described the view corridor as “extremely close to a regulatory taking” because it had not been considered before developers began planning for the site.

Continue reading “Bellevue Chooses Development over View Corridors”

ST3 Must Include a Provisional Light Rail Extension into Kirkland

A two-mile rail connection to Kirkland would connect all the major cities on the central Eastside in ST3.
A two-mile rail connection to Kirkland would connect all the major cities of the central Eastside in ST3.

The debate leading up to the adoption of the ST3 draft system plan on March 24 was politically fraught on the Eastside. After Sound Transit and the City of Kirkland failed to reach agreement on use of the Eastside Rail Corridor, the Board elected to build neither rail nor BRT on the corridor in Kirkland. Since then, however, Kirkland has worked with Board Members on a rail extension from Bellevue to South Kirkland. The ST3 program also includes a study of future high-capacity transit through Kirkland, leading to a record of decision.

Rail to South Kirkland has changed the calculus around future transit in Kirkland. The environmental study is, strictly speaking, flexible with respect to both mode and alignment. But the starting point of a rail station at South Kirkland makes it almost inevitable that ST4 will include a rail extension into Kirkland and onward to Totem Lake.

With light rail to Kirkland more inevitable than ever, why stop short in ST3? A mere two-mile extension would bring rail to 6th St, serving the fast-growing Google campus which is expected to grow to several thousand employees. It would be within walking distance of other fast-growing employers in downtown Kirkland.

Sound Transit must add a provisional project on the Eastside to extend the rail line into Kirkland.

Some have pointed out, accurately, that the ST3 package includes significant investments in Kirkland. Nevertheless, transit users are understandably unenthusiastic. South Kirkland falls short of the major centers in Kirkland where most riders access transit.

Won’t Save-our-Trail challenge a rail extension? Save-our-Trail is opposed to the South Kirkland station and any environmental study of transit on the corridor. So their opposition is inevitable either way. Meanwhile, the narrowness of their support has become obvious. Public comment on the draft plan from Kirkland was overwhelmingly pro-rail, and Save-our-Trail were unable to solicit more than a dozen opposing comments despite an intensive campaign.

Neighbors and users of the trail are not well-served by political uncertainty or delays in extending transit. The earliest possible design work on compatible transit will deliver certainty, allowing the trail to be developed without the risk of later relocation or disruption.

Kirkland has a successful urban core that is the envy of many growth centers that will see transit investments in ST3. Had the political process played out more agreeably, Kirkland would have been connected to the high-capacity transit network in ST3.

Please let the Sound Transit Board and your Council members know they must finish the rail line to Kirkland.

How Much to Invest in I-405 BRT

Sound Transit has agreed to add a BRT stop with 200 surface parking stalls at NE 44th in Renton

After Sound Transit released the draft system plan in March, some Eastside cities were unhappy it included a smaller investment in I-405 BRT than they had sought. Bellevue and Renton pushed for something closer to the “intensive capital” BRT with more parking and more stations using express toll lanes.

Some Eastside cities penned a joint letter, describing the proposal as comparable to ST Express service with improved headways, and demanding a much larger investment with more inline stops to create a BRT that is “the equivalent of light rail on rubber tires”. The attempt to forge a coalition of the I-405 corridor cities fell flat. Several East and South King cities did not sign. Some who signed were small cities that do not border I-405. None of the Snohomish County cities participated.

The amended system plan made some concessions. Sound Transit had agreed in March to relocate Renton’s downtown transit center to a more freeway-accessible location with 700 parking stalls. Renton pushed to expand the new South Renton transit center to accommodate 2,000 cars, and to add a second BRT stop at NE 44th St with parking for another 700. While the Board agreed only to 200 parking stalls in a surface lot at NE 44th St, the added center-line direct access facility adds $170 million to the cost of the BRT. An even more remote station with expanded parking at SE 112th in Bellevue was not included. Kirkland, taking a different approach, negotiated for more TOD in Kingsgate, reducing by 200 the planned parking expansion there.

I-405 BRT had lots of institutional momentum. The master plan for I-405, approved in 2002, envisions a BRT line with inline stations along I-405. To this end, Sound Transit has built transit centers and center ramps to the HOV lanes. WSDoT has created the express toll lanes north of Bellevue where buses could move reliably. With WSDoT now funded to extend the express lanes to the south, many observers expected a large investment in BRT on the corridor in ST3.

The plan ran up against uncomfortably low ridership numbers. Modelling suggests only 12,000 riders in 2040, and that the ridership isn’t increased at higher investment levels. A pared-down BRT, much of which runs in general traffic lanes, attracts as many riders as the ‘Cadillac’ version.

Recognizing that the proposal for higher investment levels didn’t stand up to close scrutiny, the Sound Transit Board in March advanced a draft system plan with just $735 million in capital investments, less than any of the options considered in the 2014 corridor studies. The low capital plan leveraged existing highway infrastructure with better and more frequent buses. Where center stations already exist, the BRT would run in the ETL lanes. Elsewhere, buses would run in general purpose lanes (or on the shoulder in a few locations north of Bothell).

Continue reading “How Much to Invest in I-405 BRT”

Our Improbable Growth Targets

Regional projections indicate a sharp slowing in Seattle and Bellevue, while Tacoma and Everett accelerate.
Regional projections indicate a sharp slowing of growth in Seattle and Bellevue, while Tacoma and Everett accelerate (year 2000 population=100%).

Recent Census data showed another year of strong growth in Seattle and Bellevue. Everett and Tacoma grew more slowly. This raised a familiar question: why are regional plans so out of step with recent experience? Seattle grew 2 1/2 times faster than either Everett or Tacoma in the last five years. Bellevue and other cities on the Central Eastside are also developing quickly. What would cause a reversal of these trends so that Tacoma and Everett can grow into their ambitious 2040 goals?

Regional growth plans are a mix of forecasting and policy-making. The State Office of Financial Management produces state and county forecasts. OFM population forecasts determine targets for housing growth, which are apportioned between cities by PSRC and county planning processes. In each county, the largest ‘Metropolitan’ cities (Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma and Everett) are allocated a portion of the anticipated growth. Other cities are allocated lesser shares of expected growth, as are unincorporated areas within the Urban Growth Area (UGA). Few unincorporated urban areas remain within King County, but many fast-growing suburbs in Pierce and Snohomish are unincorporated. Lower targets are set for rural areas outside the urban boundary.

The median housing target sets the floor for zoned capacity. Cities and Counties must zone for sufficient developable capacity. Some cities zone for greater capacity than required; others do the minimum to stay in compliance. Much planned development is within Regional Growth Centers.

Benchmarking recent data against the PSRC’s Land Use Vision puts the forecasts in context.

Pierce and Snohomish Counties have grown faster than King for decades. But King County recovered more quickly from the recession. Maybe it’s premature to conclude the ‘normal’ suburban growth norm won’t reassert itself. But other center cities in the US are also outpacing their suburbs. If the flight to the suburbs is really over, should we expect King to lag its neighbors in the future?

State forecasts are for Pierce and Snohomish County to outpace King, in a reversion to historical trends of faster growth in the suburbs
State forecasts are for Pierce and Snohomish County to outpace King, in a reversion to historical norms of faster growth in the suburbs.

King County, having recently outpaced forecasts with urban-focused growth, is expected to revert to the mean. Some of the reversion is just bureaucratic inertia as complex multi-jurisdictional planning processes play catch-up. The 2040 forecast implies a slowdown across King County with just 0.55% average growth over the next 25 years. That compares unfavorably to the 1.85% average countywide, and 2.4% in Seattle, observed over the last five years. This slow pace would restore the past balance between the counties.

Growth is to slow slightly in Pierce and Snohomish, but will outpace King County. Pierce and Snohomish planners are predicting dramatic changes in how their counties grow.

Continue reading “Our Improbable Growth Targets”