Podcast #100: Thinking Bigger

Author and journalist Matthew Yglesias joins us to discuss his book, One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.

West Seattle camera enforcement coming this week

SDOT blog:

Beginning today, January 11, 2021, the automated photo enforcement system on the Spokane St Swing Bridge (low bridge) will turn on, and unauthorized low bridge users will be subject to a $75 citation for every trip across the low bridge

To keep the low bridge clear for emergency vehicles – as well as transit and heavy freight – we’re saying, “don’t go low.” Instead, please use alternate routes when traveling to and from West Seattle by car. We will be monitoring low bridge traffic volumes in early 2021, and the data from January and future months will inform whether we can expand access. See our webpage for more details. 

West Seattle folks – let us know in the comments if anything’s improved.

Feds sending relief to local transit agencies

TransitCenter:

This makes new bill more responsive to the specific budget problems each agency is facing due to COVID. Many regions underfunded in the CARES Act (like New York and Seattle) are now in line to receive proportionally more from this package. Others received aid greater than 75% of their operating costs in the CARES Act, so they would not get additional funds through this bill. Many fall in between, with grants that bring them up to the 75% cap.

Yonah Freemark has more estimates on Twitter:

The bulk of the funds will presumably go to Metro and Sound Transit.

Mayor Durkan will step down after one term

Jenny Durkan:

New vaccines put hope on the horizon, but we are in for tough months ahead and an even tougher recovery. 

As mayor approaching the last year of my term, that meant a choice. I can spend the next year campaigning to keep this job or I can focus all my energy on doing the job — a job that will face all the similar difficulties of 2020. 

There was only one right choice for our city: doing the job. Next year will be consequential to our recovery and the trajectory of our city.

Durkan’s term will be no doubt remembered for this summer’s protests — her announcement comes the same day that a federal Judge held the Seattle PD in contempt for its use of tear gas — as well as the fights with City Council over Amazon and the head tax.

From a transit perspective, Durkan secured the renewal of the STBD made a good hire for SDOT. We also saw some wins, like ORCA Opportunity and the Center City Connector (though it was short lived – the CCC is now on pause again)

But the mayor also had a knack for bold chin-stroking pronouncements, like congestion pricing and the 15-minute city, that made for good headlines but were never truly operationalized (though there’s still a year to make good on them!).

The 2021 race should be interesting, to say the least. It seems likely that more than one Seattle City Council member will try for the big chair, along with the usual cast of first-time contenders and maybe even some old names getting back in the ring.

New details on Ballard-West Seattle link stations

14th Avenue in Ballard

Sound Transit has another online open house up, now with more details on station locations and elevation. We’ve covered the alignment alternatives in previous posts, so let’s focus on the stations. Two notes to start with: first, if you like mezzanines, you are in for a treat! Second, opening dates are pushed out past 2035 due to COVID, though that could slip further pending reprioritization discussions at the board level.

Links go directly to station images or pages where appropriate.

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SDOT will repair the West Seattle Bridge

SDOT blog:

Today, Mayor Jenny A. Durkan announced that she has instructed the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to restore travel across the Duwamish by repairing the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge. SDOT has nearly completed Phase I of this two-part repair process, as the stabilization work concludes in December. She also directed SDOT to continue early design work for an eventual replacement of the bridge.

“Fast, cheap, good: pick two” is the old project management saw and the city appears to have chosen “fast and cheap.” The bridge could be open just around the time (2022) a COVID-19 vaccine is widely distributed and “normal” commute patterns reassert themselves.

Neither Sound Transit nor the city seemed super keen on a joint car-rail bridge, which could have put the light rail schedule at risk. So the options came down to a 1-for-1 replacement or a repair.

Kicking the can down the road and waiting to see what happens in a post-COVID world makes some sense, but won’t come without a cost. A replacement would have been eligible for outside funding, while repairs will likely have to come out of the city’s general maintenance funds, which are already stretched, or via a car tab fee, taking money that used to be earmarked for transit.

The next transit measure

The future Northgate Link Station under construction Image: Lizz Giordano

Tom Fucoloro, Seattle Bike Blog:

Many walking, biking and transit investments promised by the 2015 Move Seattle Levy vote face delays and cuts while major high-dollar car-centric projects got priority. Perhaps we need to rethink how we fund these projects in our city. And we also need to go a lot bigger. The Move Seattle Levy is set to expire at the end of 2024, the first time the 9-year levy renewal pattern will fall on a very-high-turnout Presidential election year.

I think this is right, and it’s also the story of Sound Transit. Recall that the original ST2 was a a combined “roads and transit” measure that flopped in 2007, only to come back as a transit-only package and win handily in 2008.

Give Seattle specific transit projects to vote on and they will generally say yes. Heck, even the Monorail needed five tries to finally lose at the polls.

ST3’s finances and COVID delays mean it’s unlikely we’ll see a regional ST4 package in 2024, but Seattle can absolutely be thinking about an ambitious capital project in that timeline, perhaps something from Seattle Subway’s list.

What’s left of Rainier RapidRide

RapidRide R Concept via Metro

Heidi Groover, The Seattle Times:

The 7 was essential before the outbreak, too. Riders boarded the route 11,000 times a day, making it one of Metro’s five busiest bus lines. But with crowded and late buses, Metro labeled the route as in need of improvements and planned to convert it to a RapidRide line with special stops and signals by 2024.

Now, those plans are on hold. 

As part of its latest budget proposal, Metro intends to pause work on the RapidRide R line to Rainier Valley and several other projects in the wake of financial losses from the pandemic. 

In a cruel twist of fate, given how important Rainier Valley transit continues to be during the pandemic, the Metro/SDOT outreach survey went out just as the lockdowns went into effect. In addition to branded buses and shelters, the RapidRide R would have consolidated several stops and extended trolley wire all the to Rainier Beach Station.

While the RapidRide branding is currently off the table (though federal funding may still be possible?), SDOT is still working on transit and pedestrian upgrades to Rainier Avenue. Many were completed this year and several more are due in 2021-22, though they may be pared back, as the Mayor’s recent budget states that “Levy reductions in 2022 will reduce the amount of elements in scope of work for Route 7 improvements.”

SDOT takes a hit in Mayor’s budget proposal

Mayor Durkan announced her 2021 budget proposal on Tuesday, with cuts in many departments due to COVID-19 and, in the case of Seattle PD, a push from the council and the community to redirect spending elsewhere.

One of those elsewheres will be SDOT, which is inheriting SPD’s parking enforcement division along with its ~$15m annual budget. But even with parking enforcement moved over to the SDOT ledger, the department would still have an $85m funding gap on a $608m budget. Director Zimbabwe will present the new budget to council later today.

The Center City Connector is still on pause, but the Northgate pedestrian bridge over I-5 is still funded. Also new is a $100M bond(!) to help with West Seattle Bridge repairs. Madison BRT is also full steam ahead, having received a green light from the FTA’s project management oversight consultant as well as $35.8M in funds from Sound Transit (part of ST3).

What was once a bold vision for 7 multimodal corridors has unfortunately been pared back significantly. As Dan wrote last week, Metro’s deteriorating finances mean that the only in-city RapidRide routes currently funded are the G line (Madison), the H (Delridge) and the J (which we used to call Roosevelt-Eastlake but now won’t even reach Roosevelt).

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Route 40 improvements at 30% design

SDOT presented the Seattle Transit Advisory Board with a set of design concepts for the Route 40 corridor, slated to get priority bus treatments as part of the Move Seattle Levy. One of the most popular routes in the system, Route 40 also intersects with several other popular routes on its way from Downtown through SLU and Fremont to Ballard.

The 40 is frequent, but chronically tardy – more than 20% of Northbound trips are delayed at almost all hours of the day. As is the custom with these sorts of corridors, attention is focused on the choke points. Here are some highlights. Remember that this is 30% design, so the usual Hunger Games rules apply: not every concept presented below will make it to the final project, may the odds be yadda yadda yadda

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RapidRide passes federal muster for Fall 2024 opening

A RapidRide bus at Bellevue Transit Center Image: Oran Viriyincy

SDOT’s proposed RapidRide G line will now open in 2024 after SDOT and the Federal Transit Administration have agreed that the agency has the chops to complete the project. FTA had raised concerns in February about staffing issues and other timeline aspects of the 2-mile BRT line, first conceived in 2011. Those concerns threatened the project’s federal funding as part of the Small Starts grant program.

A “project management oversight contractor” was brought in to help correct some of the outstanding issues in SDOT’s original application. The extended timeline includes more contingency and clarity about the org chart and the balance of responsibilities between SDOT and Metro.

The contractor has also provided a set of recommendations that are not blockers for the current small starts grant but are interesting to consider and examine. It’s like having a federally funded transit blogger:

Provide justification for the use of left-side platforms on this route, which requires a unique sub-fleet of buses, beyond simply stating that “The left side doors will be used to serve island platforms located in the center of the Madison Street BRT running.” References should be made to documents that describe other options that were considered, as well as the alternatives analysis evaluation process utilized.

Reconsider the statement in the draft FMP that an unspecified number of the five-door buses may have their two left-side doors removed if their use on MBRT is not required, since it would seem to be an unnecessary expense that would preclude those buses from ever being used on MBRT if the future need should arise.

A great question! The custom bus fleet has been a concern of ours as well. There are no easy answers here, since the current route veers between running in the median and running curbside. (First Hill advocates argued for the unique center-running section, which makes for great BRT, but is challenging if only partially implemented). But it ought to make SDOT and Metro stop and think if they really ought to make this route such a special snowflake without bringing the rest of RapidRide up to similar standards.

Explain why the non-revenue mileage appears to be high. The draft FMP states that the MBRT bus sub-fleet will operate 1,725 deadhead and other non-revenue miles per week, which is 26% of the total of 6,625 weekly miles.

That’s quite of non-revenue miles for a short, center-city route. Leave your explanations in the comments and maybe the FTA will refer to them down the road.

Update 8/20: SDOT’s Ethan Bergerson responds via email with a note about the left-side doors:

Center-running buses with boarding platforms on both sides was originally addressed in the development of the locally preferred alternative in 2015.  Left-sided boarding is necessary to build the bus-only lane in First Hill and over I-5 which does not conflict with right-turn movements. This decision was based primarily on operational analysis showing that center transit lanes would facilitate 40% faster and more reliable service by separating buses from lanes with right-turn movements.  Center transit lanes not only lead to more reliable service, they also help make more room for pedestrians in areas with narrow streets or sidewalks. 

No doubt the center-running lanes are better. It would have been great to have them for the whole route (and a few other RR routes as well).

Sound Transit’s ridership data shows early COVID impacts

Alert commenter Tlsgwm noted that Sound Transit has once again started publishing quarterly ridership reports, which had been MIA since last November. In July, the agency released the 2019 Q4 and 2020 Q1 reports simultaneously.

Sounder ridership was mostly flat (North Sounder was down by nearly 6% but overall Sounder dropped by 0.3%, a testament to how much South Sounder drives the numbers).

With the Downtown Transit Tunnel closing to buses last year, ST Express Bus ridership suffered, with Route 550 leading the decline. Operating costs per rider increased as well.

2019 ended with Link boardings overall 2.5% higher than 2018. Diving into the station-by-station numbers, though, shows the impact of the tunnel closure as well: UW and Westlake were up 12% versus the year-ago quarter and Chinatown / ID was up 20%, suggesting both more North end riders transferring from buses and more people exiting the system at the beginning and end of the tunnel.

2020 Q1 brought the two-fer of Connect 2020 and COVID-19, which hammered ridership across the agency, resulting in double-digit declines for ST Express, Link, and Sounder. Q1 ended in March, which means it was barely a few weeks of lockdown. 2020 Q2 numbers will not be pretty.

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.

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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.

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