Frank Chiachiere came of age riding transit on the East Coast, and has lived in Seattle for nearly 20 years. In 2007 he started the local transit blog Orphan Road, and began writing for STB in 2012. By day, he works as a digital product designer.
In my last post a few weeks ago, I argued that Sound Transit is uniquely exposed to changes in regional commute trips caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, that it has yet to pivot the ST3 package of investments in a meaningful way (aside from the wrong-headed proposal to consolidate the Madison and CID stations), and that this pivot should occur sooner rather than later. I also presented some principles for what should guide this:
Respond to the new transit ridership market
Focus on frequent service, not commuter service
Less intense peak periods are an opportunity
Re-invest in existing assets that no longer match their need
In this post, I’d like to share some specific ideas of how ST3 projects could pivot guided by these principles. I understand there are political and maybe even some technical challenges to this proposal, but as I’ve looked back over my many years of writing on this site, I realize I haven’t spent enough time articulating the thing I think ought to happen. So here it is, for what it’s worth.
My goal is to deliver a regional high capacity transit system that results in a better system and more riders given changes caused by Covid-19. As I alluded to earlier, I also think some of these changes present better solutions to the construction impact and cost issues that the ST Board is currently debating for the West Seattle and Ballard Link project.
Like many people in the Puget Sound region, Covid has changed my commute patterns and my use of transit. As a result – and perhaps not surprisingly – my posting here has gone down dramatically as well. But one thing I have been thinking quite a bit about is how the ST3 package could pivot for the post-Covid era. While the world has changed permanently, Sound Transit still seems to be planning for an era that is unlikely to ever arrive.
Outside the US, transit ridership is rebounding. Maybe not all the way back to pre-Covid levels, but in many places where transit has always been integrated into daily life, ridership is approaching a sustainable “new normal.” Domestically, transit ridership has rebounded to varying degrees, with commuter-focused services seeing the smallest return of riders. So how does this relate to ST3?
Cast your mind back to the Summer of 2021. Vaccines were finally available en masse (for adults, at least). There was optimism that some kind of normal might be around the corner. This is the time when companies were still putting out “return to office” dates. Against this backdrop, Sound Transit engaged in realignment planning. While Covid may have been the initial impetus for hitting pause on the projects, the main problem was surging construction costs that put many ST3 projects over budget.
Sound Transit is collecting feedback on the Chinatown-ID station for ST3 starting with an open house tonight. Much has been written about the various options, but it seems clear that the only option even remotely acceptable to the neighborhood is “4th Avenue Shallow.” Even that may be a bridge too far, per Naomi Isaka’s reporting in the Times:
The slightly less destructive path would be on Fourth Avenue, but even that option would create havoc for about 10 years by redirecting traffic through the neighborhood and constructing a massive staging area there. Advocates fear displacement of businesses and residents would inevitably follow.
Shallow 4th is also $500M more expensive than Shallow 5th. If the extra money and construction impacts resulted in a better rider experience, it might be worth it. But making people walk a block and 80 feet below ground to transfer isn’t a very rider-centric outcome either (although it’s better than some of the other options!).
However, on both the east and west sides of the bridge, the contractor’s work to fix problems with cast-in-place concrete plinths supporting the tracks has led to the identification of further challenges. These include issues with mortar pads, rebar placements and track fasteners, which the contractor has agreed to fix by re-casting the plinths to ensure the long-term reliability and safety of the extension. Details of the East Link issues can be found in the below-linked memo.
Continuing work is required to identify new project opening timelines for the four projects, which must include time for activation work once construction is complete. While the East Link extension was planned to open in mid-2023, construction challenges are currently projected to delay the completion by at least a year. An upcoming programmatic review will assess rail activation sequencing and time requirements to support the identification of new opening timeframes.
This confirms what we heard back in May, but without any new update on the actual opening schedule. You can see some images of the cracking in the agency’s presentation to the board. Landslide issues have cropped up in Federal Way as well. The Times has more.
“We are now hearing many community members questioning whether there needs to be a new station in the community at all – and as a matter of good government we need to answer that question. “To be clear, looking at alternative location options in addition to those currently proposed does not mean we don’t expand transit capacity downtown – it just means we assess a broader range of options. Let’s let the process figure that out, with the community fully at the table.”
Seattle (July 27, 2022) – Today, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that he will appoint Greg Spotts to be the next Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), pending confirmation by the Seattle City Council.
Spotts currently serves as the Executive Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer at the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, which oversees 1,500 staff positions, an annual budget of $230 million, and a capital program of more than $350 million. He has led the delivery of over $600 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects as well as efforts to make Los Angeles more walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly and sustainable.
Timm is currently CEO of Greater Richmond Transit Company, where her more than 400 employees operate successful regional bus routes serving the Richmond, Virginia area. Timm is known as a highly collaborative leader who forges strong relationships with community groups and partners, and for building an agency culture focused on dedication to public service and equity.
From 2016 through 2019 Timm served as Chief Development Officer for WeGo Public Transit in Nashville, Tennessee. Her efforts included directing development activities and agency staff across functions including engineering, outreach, customer care, planning, grants, marketing, communications, service quality and Innovation. She oversaw the implementation of major regional capital projects associated with the more than $6 billion nMotion Strategy that the Nashville region adopted in 2016.
SDOT says that the first phase of this transit lane could save riders on the Route 7 one minute per trip, but that the full extension could save riders 6 minutes during times of highest congestion on Rainier Avenue. That could translate to as many as 141 cumulative hours saved per day, given the ridership of that highly used bus route. Even as the pandemic and work-from-home measures have temporarily sapped ridership across much of the bus network, ridership on Route 7 has remained high due to prevalence of transit-dependent households and essential workers along the route, Metro reports.
A comprehensive overview of the state of Rainier Avenue in 2022 in the context of some much-needed bus priority work. Route 7 (and/or RapidRide R) is exactly the kind of route that will continue to have robust, all-day ridership post-COVID.
This is a side note, but it seems that SDOT has done everyone a disservice in keeping a zombie protected bike lane in the aging bike master plan for MLK (south of Mount Baker) and Rainier (north of Mount Baker). Given the traffic volumes on those corridors, its unlikely we’ll see bike lanes on MLK or Rainier any time soon. SDOT won’t radically reduce car capacity without air cover from City Hall, and the current administration and transportation chair are unlikely to provide it.
That said, there absolutely can and should be a flat, safe direct bike route through the Rainier Valley and we shouldn’t be playing bikes vs. buses hunger games all the time. How might we repurpose all that surface parking, for example, before new development fills it in? The city ought to commit to a real study with some viable options — even ones that require a capital investment — add one to the next Move Seattle Levy so we have something to get people excited about besides (say) replacing bridges in Magnolia.
The current ORCA website will be permanently shut down at 11:59 p.m. tonight, Thursday, May 12, and will transition to the new site on May 16. Customers can still add cash to their cards at vending machines, customer service locations and participating retailers.
In order to transition to the new ORCA system, fares will not be collected between 3 a.m. Saturday, May 14, and 2:59 a.m. Monday, May 16, on most area transit systems.
Above all, the position “requires incredible soft skills,” the search firm, CPS-HR of Sacramento, heard from staff and interest groups. “Most often, we heard about the need to listen,” a report said.
While relevant to any top executive, the feedback reflects worries by the board about reliving Rogoff’s first year, when colleagues complained to the human resources department about his abrasive manner. Rogoff apologized, narrowly escaped being fired, and completed executive coaching.
“I think it’s a great callout. A leader does need to have soft skills and we certainly need that in a CEO,” said board Chair Kent Keel, a council member from University Place near Tacoma. Keel mentioned a distinction between hard-charging “East Coast” and a subtler “West Coast” public agency culture.
Are we building consensus or are we building public transit?
Soft skills are fine, if what Keel means balancing stakeholder interests while building useful and usable transit projects. If he means the Seattle Process on steroids, that’s deeply concerning. The primary goal is to provide excellent and useful transit, not simply appease the squeakiest wheels, who often times don’t actually care about great rider experiences.
There is simply no transit agency in America attempting to build anything as ambitious as ST3 (arguably excepting Los Angeles?). The agency probably needs to look overseas, to Europe or Asia, where complicated transit projects actually get built in a reasonable frame for a reasonable budget.
The New York Times recently ran an excellent feature on Portland’s efforts to curb emissions while still building highways:
But despite Portland’s efforts, the number of cars and trucks on its roads has kept rising as the city and its suburbs have grown — along with tailpipe pollution that is warming the planet. While Portland has set ambitious climate goals, the city is not on track to meet its targets, largely because emissions from transportation remain stubbornly high.
Now the city faces a fresh challenge: To deal with traffic jams, state officials want to expand several major highways around Portland. Critics say that will only increase pollution from cars and trucks at a time when emissions need to fall, and fast.
The overall contours will be quite familiar to Seattle residents, but the chart comparing Portland and Seattle-area emissions per capita is quite an eye-popper.