Which Way for Washington’s Intercity Rail Program?

Wikimedia

There are two possible futures for Cascade rail service. Are they mutually exclusive?

It’s been a whiplash-inducing year for intercity passenger rail in the US.  The “Green New Deal” suggests the possibility of sweeping high speed investments at the same time as California’s project is retrenching.  Colorado, a growing Western state where the population is similarly concentrated along a single north-south interstate, is starting to think about intercity passenger rail service.   And here in Washington, Governor Inslee continues to move forward a high-speed rail business plan and the legislature continues to dribble out funds to study it, while at the same time WSDOT picks up the pieces from the DuPont crash.

Long-time Cascades watchers, though, know there’s another, older plan for upgrading interstate rail service. Released in 2007, the Long Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades was created to guide Cascades development through 2023.  According to WSDOT’s Janet Malkin, this plan is very much alive and we should expect an update by the end of the year.

The Long Range Plan (LRP), which we’ve covered previously, envisions a Seattle-Portland running time of 2.5 hours, down from nearly 3.5 today, and 14 daily departures. Seattle-Vancouver would similarly be about 2.5 hours and have 4 trains/day.  It proposes dozens of projects, including double and triple tracking, high-speed bypasses, and new high-speed track.  Trains would still be diesel, and have a top speed of 110mph.

Future travel times from the 2007 Long Range Plan

The 2007 publication of the LRP was fortuitous.  Just two years later, the world would be mired in recession and the Obama administration, in search of signature high-speed rail stimulus projects, would eventually steer $800M in federal funds to Washington State rail.  Thanks to the LRP, the state had a bunch of off-the-shelf projects to submit.  After governors in Florida and Wisconsin rejected the money, Washington ended up with a windfall. 20 projects were funded, including the purchase of new locomotives and a rehab of King Street Station.

With the Point Defiance Bypass now complete, the stimulus projects are officially over (though work continues on mudslide mitigation and a new Ballard ship canal crossing).   It’s time to think about what’s next: Should the state choose going forward: incrementally update the existing rail corridor, or build an entirely new one, as the Governor’s HSR plan envisions?  Do we even need to choose?

Continue reading “Which Way for Washington’s Intercity Rail Program?”

A new contract for Metro’s Access program

Metro Access Van (Credit: King County)

Michelle Baruchman in The Seattle Times, on Metro’s new 5-year contract with MV Transportation to provide Access service:

Advocates in King County say they have raised concerns about Access for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the county began planning for an audit of the service, said Deputy King County Auditor Ben Thompson.

In June 2017, the county Auditor’s Office released a report that laid bare issues that contributed to low ridership and costly services.

Among them: limited payment options; lack of outreach to low-income populations, communities of color and people with limited English proficiency; inadequate oversight over contractors and ineffective punishments for poor service; excessively long trips and frequently late or early arrivals.

Paratransit service is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Like many federal mandates, it comes without much funding, making it susceptible to budget cuts when downturns hit. Furthermore, King County ordinances mandate that the service go above and beyond the ADA minimum.

My understanding is that, at the low point, there were just a half-dozen Metro employees overseeing what was one of the largest contracts in King County, down from more than triple that before the financial crisis.

This new contract will take some of the customer service aspects back in-house, meaning Metro should be more responsive to problems.

West Seattle – Ballard Link staggers towards the EIS

The original genius (or sin, if you prefer) of the legislation that created Sound Transit was that it yoked together the region’s high capacity transit needs. The suburbs and the cities had to work together to get what they wanted, or no one would get anything, like a municipal prisoner’s dilemma.

The West Seattle – Ballard link extension (“WSBLE” in Sound Transit’s lingo) is pushing that 25-year-old decision to its limits.  Pierce and Snohomish County reps want WSBLE to be fast and cheap, lest it jeopardize the extensions to Tacoma and Everett (to some of them, WSBLE it isn’t part of the “spine,” so the whole thing is a kind of agency scope creep anyway).  Seattle reps, meanwhile, are hearing an earful from their voters and maritime interests about elevated alignments at the termini.  These reps also know that without the votes from Seattle’s west side neighborhoods, there might not have been enough support to get ST3 over the finish line to begin with, and certainly not enough money to support Snohomish’s speculative and expensive detour to Paine Field.

Like I said, yoked.

Continue reading “West Seattle – Ballard Link staggers towards the EIS”

What makes a train safe?

Cascades at Kelso (WSDOT Photo)

Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times:

More than 50 Talgo railcars that have served the Amtrak Cascades line since 1998 will be replaced “as soon as possible,” the state announced Wednesday, a day after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the lightweight vehicles didn’t adequately shield passengers in the 2017 fatal Amtrak crash near DuPont.

Alon Levy has a blistering response to the NTSB recommendation that is well worth reading in full:

[T]he Talgos on their own, with a typical European locomotive, would not have derailed. Moreover, after the derailment, they stayed upright, unlike the Amtrak coaches in Philadelphia or the Metro-North ones in New York. The reason people died is that the train fell from a bridge. As far as factors that are controllable by the coach builder go, the Talgos performed well.

[…]

So why is the NTSB so dead set against them? In three words: not invented here. The Talgos were designed and built in Europe. They are designed around European ideas of crash avoidance. Trains here have buff strength requirements too (and are too heavy as a result), but they’re much laxer than those of last generation’s American regulations, because at the end of the day lighter trains are no less safe than American tanks on rails. Lighter trains, designed to brake more quickly and not to derail in the first place, underlie the superior train safety of Europe to that of the United States – and Europe is downright dangerous compared with Japan, whose ultralight trains kill passengers in crashes at maybe 1/15th the per-passenger-km rate of American ones.

Replacing all 4 Series VI train sets would cost about $100M, according to the Times piece.  WSDOT doesn’t have to follow the NTSB recommendation, but it seems like they want to.

Continue reading “What makes a train safe?”

News Roundup: Hat Trick

5th & Marion (SDOT)

7 Takeaways from the Point Defiance NTSB Hearing

Schematic of the 2017 crash site (NTSB)

The National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing yesterday on the fatal December 2017 Amtrak derailment on the Point Defiance Bypass. The Seattle Times, Trains, and Curbed have reports. Here are a few takeaways, after watching the briefing:

Responsibility for safety was diffused, but the buck stops with Sound Transit. Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, Sound Transit, WSDOT… with so many agencies involved, lines of accountability were unclear. Amtrak’s role, in particular, is ambiguous – the company owns neither the tracks nor the trains, but as the nation’s passenger rail operator it is supposed to oversee pre-revenue testing and certify the plans.  In the end, the investigators made one thing clear: “Sound Transit had the ultimate responsibility to ensure that that project, the point defiance bypass, was safe and ready for revenue operations.” Additionally, investigators called out ST, which owns the tracks as the “host railroad,” for providing insufficient signage and schedules for the bypass.

There was a general lack of training. The crew lacked familiarity with the Siemens Charger and didn’t know what to do when the “overspeed” warnings started going off (which was actually a separate issue from the failure to see the curve). Neither the conductor nor the engineer had enough time with this route and this locomotive.

“Everyone hated that curve,” the engineer told investigators. The curve was extra sharp connecting the bypass to the main line. The Wall Street Journal reported after the crash that the bypass project was value-engineered to save money, resulting in a sharper-than-ideal curve.

Continue reading “7 Takeaways from the Point Defiance NTSB Hearing”

City Council Candidate Forums

It’s candidate forum time! Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) is hosting events for City Council districts 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7. Tom at Seattle Bike Blog has the dates along with a good summary of what’s at stake:

In some ways, this is harder than passing grand measures because it requires getting dirty and working through the finer details of compromise and change that our city needs if we are going to continue shifting more and more trips to biking, walking and transit. Neighborhood streets need to change. The amount of housing, especially near frequent transit service, needs to grow. Economic, racial and disability barriers need to be torn down. None of this work will be easy, and we will need a Council that is ready to hold the mayor accountable for completing this work.

See also Patrick Taylor, The Urbanist:

The vision involves welcoming new people throughout our city (even in single-family zones) while building more affordable housing so those who are here are not pushed out. In this reality, climate change is real and demands action to re-envision our city and prioritize pedestrians, people biking, transit, and our Vision Zero goal of zero traffic deaths by 2030.

There are a whopping 57 candidates for council this year, according to Erica C. Barnett, who’ll be helping to host the MASS forums along. You can find Facebook links to the forums on the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Facebook page.

We’ll be doing endorsements again this year. As always, let us know in the comments if there are candidates we should be keeping an eye on or specific criteria to consider.

Update: here’s a list with dates and locations, via TCC< since some have asked.

District 6 Candidate Forum
Tuesday, May 21, 5:30-7:30pm
Phinney Neighborhood Association, 6532 Phinney Ave N.

District 3 Candidate Forum
Thursday, May 23, 7:00-8:30pm
Washington State Labor Council, 321 16th Ave S.

District 2 Candidate Forum
Tuesday, May 28, 6:00-7:30pm
New Holly Gathering Hall, 7054 32nd Ave S.

District 7 Candidate Forum
Wednesday, May 29, 6:00-8:00pm
SEIU 775 Auditorium, 215 Columbia St.

District 4 Candidate Forum
Thursday, May 30, 5:30-7:30pm
Cascade Bicycle Club, 7787 62nd Ave NE.

Three sites remain for a south light rail maintenance base

aerial view of 344th & I-5 in Federal Way
Aerial view of a potential OMF site at S 344th St in Federal Way. I-5 and the old Weyerhauser campus are in the background (Google)

The Sound Transit board will likely vote on Thursday not to include a controversial Federal Way Kent site on its short list for a South Sound maintenance base.  The system expansion committee voted unanimously on May 9 to remove the site, which hosts several auto-oriented retail businesses including a newly-opened Dick’s Drive-In.  It was controversial not only because of the popular fast food chain, but because it would have limited transit-oriented development (TOD) opportunities within the walk shed of a future Link station at Highline Community College.

We wrote about the site and the challenges of another controversial site, the nearby Midway landfill, back in January.  Since then, ST has been narrowing sites for consideration.  The Kent Reporter, which has had excellent coverage of the maintenance base issue, notes that we’re down to three sites:

  • Midway Landfill, west of Interstate 5, which has been closed since the 1980s and is owned by Seattle Public Utilities. Estimated cost: $1.3 billion
  • South 336th Street near I-5, which is the location of the Christian Faith Center church in Federal Way. Estimated cost: $750 million
  • South 344th Street near I-5, which is an industrial area in Federal Way, includes several businesses: Garage Town, which offers private custom storage facility; an RV storage facility; and Ellenos Yogurt Factory. Estimated cost: $800 million

At the time of the 2016 ballot, ST has assumed that the OMF would be located “in the Federal Way to Tacoma corridor.”  Last spring, however, the agency came to realize that the facility would be needed in service by 2026 in order to be ready for the West Seattle link extension, per Scott Thompson, a ST spokesperson.  That means placing it further north, either within the Federal Way extension (opening 2024) or very close by, in such a way as to “avoid pre-determining the location of the South Federal Way station.”

The decision to remove the Dick’s site was a good one. While it’s hard to imagine a more anti-TOD business than a drive in restaurant, politics makes strange bedfellows. If the presence of Dick’s today makes it easier to protect a future TOD development site down the road, so be it.

Of the sites remaining, Midway is estimated to cost half a billion more than the other two sites (for context, a West Seattle tunnel is pegged at $700m). While it may seem convenient to raid ST’s bank account to pay for toxic clean up (as Federal Way’s mayor has suggested), surely that money could be used more wisely for actual transit. I’m no expert on brownfield redevelopment, but reading the EPA’s Superfund page about the landfill makes me want to think twice about locating an employment center there.

Fortunately, there seems like an obvious solution. The site at 344th & I-5 scores the best on Sound Transit’s scorecard (see p. 53 of this technical analysis).  A collection of low slung auto-oriented buildings across the street from a Walmart, it’s far enough from a station not to interfere with future TOD opportunities.  And the price is right, too.

The scooters are coming… eventually

Scooters in Baltimore. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Mayor Jenny Durkan, writing at GeekWire:

We can bring scooters to Seattle with a thoughtful, well-planned pilot. In the coming weeks, we will begin drafting the next iteration of the bike share permit that will be approved by Council this fall. In conjunction, we will be working to stand up a scooter share permit pilot. This will allow the City to take a holistic approach to micro-mobility management.

We will focus on four non-negotiable principles: safety, fairness to riders, protection of taxpayers through full indemnification, and equity. While some companies may see these requirements as too restrictive, they are too important not to fight for.

To give you a sense of the mayor’s priorities, he word “thoughtful” appears four times in the piece and “safety” appears nine. Read the accompanying article in GeekWire for more details.

Continue reading “The scooters are coming… eventually”

Levy Spending is Slowly Ramping Up

Bike lanes on NE 65th St
Roosevelt Bus Lanes at 65th St (SDOT)

After a bumpy start, the Move Seattle levy is slowly starting to spend significant funds, SDOT staff told the Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

The meeting began with advocates from the MASS coalition giving testimony on the need for prioritizing buses in a time of climate crisis.  Committee Chair Mike O’Brien agreed, noting that if the city is going to ask people to ride transit, it ought to be reliable and convenient.

SDOT staff presented the quarterly oversight report, which includes a status update on dozens of levy-funded projects.  Spending has been lagging for several years now, due to a combination of factors, including an uncertain federal funding environment, difficulty hiring construction firms in this white-hot labor market, Mayor Durkan’s 2018 “reset,” and a surprisingly cold and snowy winter.  Indeed, money is being shoveled out the door even slower than SDOT had forecasted just six months ago:

 

Still, despite the snow and the Seattle Squeeze, this was the busiest Q1 to date in terms of project spending:

Staff were generally optimistic, pointing out that the Lander St. Overpass project is now $20M under its $130M budget.  On the other hand, contracting issues are causing challenges with the Northgate pedestrian bridge project (though the project as a whole hasn’t yet been delayed).

We’ll get more updates on the multimodal corridors, including RapidRide improvements, later this year.  Most corridor work will be in concert with Metro (e.g. RapidRidge G & H), though on Rainier Avenue multimodal updates will arrive in 2022, before RapidRide bows in 2024.

Finally, later this year SDOT also plans to identify a potential new location for the Mt. Baker transit center as part of the Accessible Mt. Baker project, which will be a welcome improvement.

Testify for Faster Buses at City Council Tomorrow

Via Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS):

We think the City needs to be more ambitious about prioritizing public transit on our roads. Buses carrying scores of riders shouldn’t get stuck behind a sea of single-occupancy vehicles! Last December MASS published a vision for bus priority in Seattle, including 20 stretches where we think dedicated lanes and/or signal priority can speed the trips of many thousands of people.

The City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee will meet tomorrow at 2pm to discuss RapidRide progress. Testify or learn more about how to support this effort at the link.

Sustainability & Transportation Committee
Seattle City Hall
Tuesday May 7, 2-3pm

Sound Transit + Metro Continue Rail Partnership, Bus Plans Still in the Works

Link Morning Commuters at Westlake. Image by Oran.

From the agencies’ joint press release:

“This agreement sets the stage for continuing Sound Transit’s fruitful partnership with Metro as Link continues to serve more riders,” said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. “We appreciate Metro’s readiness to partner with Sound Transit by controlling some costs immediately while pursuing further efficiencies going forward. The professionalism and commitment of Metro’s operators and leadership will continue helping to expand Link’s success in giving riders an alternative to ever-worsening traffic jams.”

A show of public hand-holding and kum-ba-yah singing caps a contentious month between the two agencies, as Sound Transit floated, then rescinded, a proposal to add supplemental bus service from private contractors.

Continue reading “Sound Transit + Metro Continue Rail Partnership, Bus Plans Still in the Works”

Shoreline Looking for Feedback on N 145th

City of Shoreline:

The City of Shoreline has been busy developing the preliminary design to update 145th Street (SR-523) from Aurora Avenue North to I-5. This new design will improve safety and ensure that this critical corridor can effectively serve Shoreline and the growing number of travelers who rely on it every day.

The timing is planned to coincide with the opening of the Jackson Park Link station in 2024.  Don’t let the word “multimodal” get you too excited.  Bike lanes will be “off-corridor” (e.g. greenways), and there won’t be much in the way of bus priority (there’s only one, peak-only bus, the 304, on this section of 145th).  Also the sidewalk will still be right up against the street, at least in one direction.

Note that this project is separate from the Sound Transit 522 BRT project, which will also use 145th east of I-5 and which will have dedicated bus lanes.

It will take nine years to plan, design and build the 1-mile Aurora-to-I-5 corridor, over three phases, at a cost of $63M. You can comment online by May 1.

Previous coverage: TOD at 145th, Fixing 145th, SR-522 BRT

News Roundup: Going Big

Sound Transit Express / King County Metro

This is an open thread

Sounder North Was Mudslide Free This Winter

Mudslide mitigation / WSDOT

I am totally tempting fate here by posting this, so sorry if I anger the gods, but I wanted to take a moment to recognize that there were no mudslide-induced cancellations on Sounder North this year. Sound Transit’s Bonnie Todd noted it at the last ST ops committee meeting (video – skip to the ~13 minute mark).

Todd noted the stark change from the winter of 2012-13, when 27.5 days of service were cancelled. Another 1500-foot catchment wall was added in the Everett area this year, further improving reliability.  Some dry months may have helped as well.

In 2015, I wrote about the mitigation efforts WSDOT and ST were undertaking.  Soon after I wrote that, sure enough, there was a mudslide.

More reliability is great news for both Sounder North and Amtrak Cascades.

Wifi Exits the Tunnel Along With the Buses

Tunnel Wifi Advertisement

The free WiFi in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel is no more. Readers asked us what happened, so I followed up with Metro and Sound Transit to find out.

“Our networking team reported that the equipment was past its end-of-life and was expected to be taken down after March 23rd when Metro exited the tunnel,” said Metro’s Jeff Switzer. “Unfortunately, an equipment failure on March 15th escalated the timeline by a week.”

Sound Transit is running the show now, but don’t expect the wifi to get switched back on. “The establishment of cellular and broadband data service throughout all our tunnels made it obsolete,” according to Sound Transit’s Geoff Patrick.

Continue reading “Wifi Exits the Tunnel Along With the Buses”