Amtrak Cascades faces a long road back

Budget shortfalls and COVID-19 have hit Amtrak Cascades service hard, according to a post last week on the WSDOT blog. Only one train per day is currently running in either direction. Long-distance service like the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight have been reduced to three runs per week.

Before COVID hit, WSDOT and Sound Transit were working on re-starting service on the Point Defiance bypass after a deadly derailment in 2017. Sound Transit, which owns the bypass tracks, hadn’t committed to a date for re-opening the bypass, as it and WSDOT completed all of the recommendations from the NTSB accident report.

Now, with fewer people traveling, the demand for extra trips has lessened considerably. “When service returns to the Bypass, the demand for intercity travel increases, the pandemic risk is minimized and the state transportation budget issues are resolved, we will move forward with adding two more daily roundtrips between Portland and Seattle,” writes WSDOT’s Janet Matkin. In other words, it’ll be a while. On the plus side, the agency has more time to procure new train sets to replace the Talgo Series 6 that were recommended for retirement.

SDOT making it easier for businesses set up shop outdoors

On the first day of summer, I complained that the City hadn’t opened more streets to pedestrians, specifically in high-density commercial districts, to allow for more outdoor social distancing and commercial activity. I figure I should follow up to note that the day after my post went live SDOT announced it was opening up several more Stay Healthy Streets, including Bell St. in Belltown.

Then, a few days later, SDOT announced an expanded street use permit system for businesses to use for outdoor retail and restaurant activity. SDOT is streamlining the permitting process for these applications: instead of the usual 2-week public comment, businesses can open right away and inform their neighbors that they’re doing so. Businesses can set up in the sidewalk if right-of-way is sufficient or in a parking space.

These are all great ideas. I’d still love to see entire streets closed off for both public gathering and retailing in some of our commercial neighborhoods. I can name at least a dozen blocks in Seattle’s urban villages and downtown that could easily support outdoor street life if permitted.

Check out the twitter threads below from the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board meeting where these plans were presented last week if you want to learn more, and thanks to SDOT for getting this program up and running before the July 4 weekend.

HALA, zoning and racism five years later

Seattle triplex
A neighborhood-destroying triplex

Five years ago this month city released the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda recommendations, a.k.a. the HALA report, aimed at making Seattle more affordable and, well, livable.  Thanks to lots of work from the mayor(s) and council, many of the 65 recommendations have since become law, including marquee items like Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) and ADU reform. Alan Durning, a committee member, wrote an excellent summary of the whole effort back in February. 

One big change that many housing advocates still see as a missed opportunity is the recommendation to end the ban on duplexes and triplexes that currently blocks affordable housing on 2/3 of the city’s land. 

You may recall that the report included language alluding to the “racist” history of single-family zones.  Someone on the commission leaked a draft to the Times, and when the commission didn’t have their story straight, it became a controversy and then-mayor Murray jettisoned the proposal to save the rest of the HALA work. 

2015 was also the first year of district-based elections and many assumed that neighborhood groups would run the table (in fact the districts were drawn specifically to make that happen).  Best not to poke the bear, some reasoned.

Since the report was released, much has changed in terms of both the local political landscape and national trends around zoning law.

Continue reading “HALA, zoning and racism five years later”

Durkan, SDOT propose a smaller Transportation Benefit District for this fall’s ballot

Mayor Durkan and Seattle DOT today proposed a 6-year renewal for the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (TBD), which would go before the voter this fall. Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee, will bring it before the City Council for approval, ending months of speculation about the fate of city bus service.

The slimmed-down TBD, which we previewed last week, TBD would fund about 50,000 service hours in years 1-4, rising to 80,000 in years 5 and 6, presumably as the economy improves. That’s far less than the 350,000 hours the TBD currently purchases, but SDOT hopes that it’s enough to maintain the baseline 15-minute network throughout the city.

Continue reading “Durkan, SDOT propose a smaller Transportation Benefit District for this fall’s ballot”

Time to open more streets

The city’s Stay Healthy Streets are an innovative, low-cost way to increase people space by bootstrapping on the existing greenways network. Kudos to the Mayor and SDOT for a creative solution. But as businesses start to re-open, we’ll need a much more aggressive approach, one that goes beyond the low-density residential areas and into commercial districts: sidewalk cafes, pedestrian-only zones and more.  

Summer starts next week, so the time is now. As the mayor herself said in the aforelinked post, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We have a long summer and fall ahead.

From Boston to Bothell, other cities are taking initiative:

Meanwhile, across the country traffic is starting to creep back up.  

Continue reading “Time to open more streets”

Mt. Baker laundry site to become affordable housing

Mt. Baker Station with former UW laundry facility in the background (Apple Maps)

Seattle Office of Housing (PDF):

Three parcels totaling 3.79 acres of land and more than 179,000 square feet, opposite the Mount Baker Link light rail station.

Transformative opportunity to develop affordable housing, ground floor early learning, and open space near high capacity transit.

The laundry facility, next to Mt. Baker Station, was one factor in the suboptimal placement of Mt. Baker station itself, as we noted in 2012.  The neighborhood went through a controversial rezoning process in 2014. 

In 2018, the UW made the contentious decision to close the facility and eliminate 100 jobs. Laundry services were awarded to a private contractor.

Last year, the legislature passed a law allowing UW to transfer the property to Seattle for affordable housing.  Also last year, as part of the MHA rezone, the site was rezoned for up to 95 feet. 

The ever-present allure of capital funds

West Seattle Bridge construction, 1981

The simplicity of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) is a big part of its appeal: two straightforward taxes used to purchase Metro service hours. Back when it was first proposed, then-councilmember Nick Licata insisted that the money not go to what he considered wasteful capital projects (a.k.a. streetcars).

But several years ago, with Metro unable to sell as many hours as Seattle wanted to buy, City Council added some flexibility to allow for some of the money to be diverted to capital expenses. With bus hours exhausted, we and other advocates generally supported this idea. After all, capital spent to get buses out of traffic, either via queue jumps, dedicated lanes or signal timing fixes typically pays for itself many times over in reduced operating costs.

Now, with transit demand in a slump, that capital carve out could fund… the West Seattle Bridge?

It’s just a single offhand comment, so I wouldn’t read too much into it, but it reminds us that dedicated pots of transit money are in short supply right now and with ridership down, politicians may be eager to raid the kitty for other, tangentially related projects.

To be clear, the West Seattle Bridge will cost on the order of half a billion dollars to fix, and the TBD only brings in $50m/year. A diminished TBD (sans car tabs) might bring in half that, as Dan recently noted.

Still, the city doesn’t have any clear path to getting the money for the West Seattle Bridge or the Magnolia Bridge (or any of the other structurally deficient bridges for that matter). Whether it’s the STBD or Sound Transit funds, that money will have to be guarded vigilantly.

Metro considering reservations for late-night trips

king county metro 2015 New Flyer XT60 4504 in Night owl Rt.7

To support social distancing guidelines, King County Metro is considering a reservation system so that riders don’t get passed up on late-night routes (1 am to 5 am), according to an agency survey.

Today, drivers are authorized to pass up riders at the stop once the number of passengers reaches 12 (for 40-foot buses) or 18 people (60-foot). This is an inconvenience during the day, but it’s much worse at night, when buses come even more infrequently. Having to wait for another night owl bus an hour later can mean the difference between getting to work on time and not.

For years, night owl service was all but unusable. Several years ago, however, thanks in part to increased funding from the city, Metro revamped late night routes and created a useful, if limited network based on the most frequent routes.

Comment on the survey by May 31.

With Uber’s investment, Lime is getting back into the local bike share game

A Jump bike. Credit: Jump

CNBC:

Uber Technologies CEO Dara Khosrowshahi outside the New York Stock Exchange ahead of the company’s IPO, May 10, 2019.

Uber is leading a $170 million investment round in Lime, the electric scooter and bike rental company announced Thursday.

Bain Capital Ventures, Alphabet and separately its venture capital arm GV are also participating in the financing round, Lime said.

Under the deal, Uber will transfer its own electric bike and scooter division called Jump to Lime and the companies will further integrate their apps. Lime global head of operations and strategy Wayne Ting will become CEO of Lime while outgoing CEO Brad Bao will become chairman.

Lime had recently suspended bike operations here in Seattle and was in the process of switching to a scooter-only offering once the city’s scooter pilot was in place. Lime’s valuation has dropped by 80%, according to The Information ($).

Now it appears that Lime bikes will be back and Uber’s JUMP brand will be disappearing. I think most people agreed that the JUMP bike experience was superior (I know I felt that way), so it’s good to read that Lime’s new CEO agrees.

Despite a huge drop in bookings due to the coronavirus, Uber still has $10B in cash on hand to try and be the last one standing in the shared economy business: the company is reportedly looking at taking over Grubhub as well.

Meanwhile, Lime is optimistic about post-COVID prospects:

[CEO Wayne] Ting’s bet is that people are going to emerge from the pandemic wanting more socially distanced transit options, like bikes and scooters, instead of opting for crowded transit options, a stance echoed by rival Bird.

Already in some of its restarted cities, like Berlin and Columbus, Ohio, Lime is seeing average trip fares go up as people ride scooters for longer distances. Seoul is back to nearly all-time highs, Ting said.

Miss your favorite bus or train? Get a sticker!

With Puget Sound transit ridership down to a trickle, no doubt many of you are missing your favorite bus or train route. Cheer yourself up with a Transit Supply sticker pack! All the local agencies are represented here in adorable sticker form.

Transit Supply is the brain child of Chris Arvin, a San Francisco-based designer. He creates stickers, t-shirts and more to celebrate transit agencies in other cities including Boston, San Francisco and LA. Arvin started selling unofficial transit merchandise about a year ago, he told me. “There can be a lot of negativity around public transit, but so many people love it, and for them, transit is part of what makes up their community,” he said.

For Arvin, it’s all about bringing people joy. “When someone tags me in a selfie excited that their items arrived, or when I hear a story about strangers connecting over transit because of my merch, it makes me excited to expand and bring that to more cities.”

He says Seattle has been a popular request and there will be more coming in the future. “You’ve certainly got a lot of transit fans out there!” he noted.

Yep. And until we can all get back on our buses and trains, stickers will have to do.

A sheet costs $5.95 and can be ordered online.

Property tax exemptions

Edith Macefield stayed in her home

The Seattle Times editorial board recently performed a rare bit of service journalism:

Fortunately, limited-income seniors, disabled homeowners and veterans are getting a break, with a more generous property-tax exemption taking effect this year. This change is past due and needs to be communicated broadly, so everyone eligible is aware of the opportunity.

This is happening because of a legislative change last year. Instead of a fixed $40,000 income limit for participants, the program is now indexed to counties’ median income every five years. If median incomes rise, more people will be eligible for tax exemptions.

In King County, this raised the threshold to $58,423 this year. Income limits are rising in 13 of the state’s 39 counties. In Snohomish County, the level is now $55,473, in Pierce it’s $45,708 and Kitsap’s is $48,574. Seniors are defined as those 61 and older.

The changes increased the number of eligible property owners in King County from an estimated 37,000 to around 80,000. Yet only 16,000 currently take advantage of the program.

In other words, only 20% of eligible seniors, disabled homeowners and veterans are getting tax breaks available to them

Taxing property is the closest thing we have to a wealth tax in the U.S. unless or until Sen. Warren gets her way. More property taxes and fewer sales taxes would make Washington State’s tax mix more progressive. As a bonus, it turns out that land taxes are another way to encourage efficient use of a limited resource and help create walkable communities.

And yet, the proverbial fixed-income senior is often used as an argument against raising property taxes. Few people I speak with about this are aware that the exemption exists, let alone that it’s increased. So let’s get the word out, especially now that people may be more income constrained due to the coronavirus-induced recession.

New Sound Transit naming scheme favors numbers over colors

Example of how the “1” line could look

Last fall, Sound Transit announced a new naming scheme, and then quickly backtracked after community criticism over the term “red line.” Various schemes have been proposed in the meantime, including here on our site. Yesterday ST unveiled the revised scheme to the public.

STB alum Zach Shaner explains the changes on the Sound Transit blog:

Why are we doing this? Since 2012 our plan had been to switch to line color names for our light rail lines. In fall 2019 we began using the Red Line for Link and the Orange Line for Tacoma Link, and we planned to launch East Link as part of a new Blue Line in 2023.

The community quickly told us that our use of Red Line was insensitive to the history of redlining in our region. From the 1930s–1970s, banks and insurance companies routinely denied loans or insurance to people of color based on where they lived, concentrating people of color in certain neighborhoods and prohibiting them from other neighborhoods. Redlining perpetuated poverty and denied people of color the ability to build and pass down wealth. 

Though dozens of agencies worldwide use a Red Line in their systems, we agree that in English and in North America, the term Red Line unavoidably carries the weight of that racist legacy. We can do without it, so we will.

The agency also provided a detailed FAQ that tries to anticipate many objections and give people some more context. It emphasizes how the agency worked to avoid overlap with other systems like the letter-based RapidRide and Snohomish County’s color-coded Swift BRT.

Now that every agency has created its own naming scheme that doesn’t infringe on the others, maybe the next step could be to integrate them a little better, so that a rider might understand the whole system without having to know which specific taxing authority funds the service.

 

Transit app estimates local transit ridership decline

The people behind Transit, one of the more popular trip planning apps, have put together an estimate on how Covid-19 has affected every transit agency they track. Here are the figures for the Puget Sound.

The company says that the percentage declines are approximated based on previous years’ app usage, since they don’t have actual ridership data. Since these are all percentage declines against “normal”, you don’t see the typical weekend drop-offs. Still, some trends are obvious, such as the probably-shoulda-been-canceled Sounders home game on March 1.

Metro has also updated its own ridership measures, showing a continued decline over the month. There are now an average of 150,000 weekday riders, down from 400,000.

In related news, here is a big list of all local agencies, including many community-based shuttle services, that have had service impacts as a result of Covid-19.

Update 8:55am: Metro has an online tool for you to check whether or not a specific trip is cancelled.