Light Rail’s Moment

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

It’s not just Seattle. Light Rail is having a moment in the sun right now. People like the flexibility if offers. Unlike heavy rail, which requires either a diesel locomotive or a dangerous high-voltage third rail, light rail can wind through neighborhoods relatively easily. Light Rail systems are about to come online in Phoenix and Minneapolis. Dallas and Denver also have relatively new systems on line, as do many other cities around the world.

But all forms of transit seem to be having a renaissance these days:

But during the last 10 years a transit renaissance has blossomed in many parts of the country. According to the American Public Transportation Association, public transit use has risen 30 percent since 1995, more than double the U.S. population’s 12 percent growth and higher than the 24 percent increase in vehicular travel during that period.

In 2006, the association said, 10.1 billion passengers boarded local public transportation, the first time that number topped 10 billion in 49 years.
A significant part of that growth has involved light rail, a transit category covering modern streetcars, trolleys, and ‘heritage’ trolleys.

Last year, light rail had the highest-percentage increase of all transit modes, enjoying a 5.6 percent ridership boost.

And remember — gas prices in 1995 were what, $1/gallon or so? It seems like transit use has nowhere to go but up.

NREL Hybrid Bus Study

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The National Renewable Energy Lab study showing the efficiency of hybrid buses over standard Breda diesels in King County’s fleet.

Apples and Oranges

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Speaking of the RTID, Josh Feit at The Stranger continues to advocate against the “Roads” piece of the “Roads and Transit” vote coming up in November. In doing so, he raises some interesting points that are worth unpacking.

Feit does make the useful distinction between current (or 2006) dollars and “year of expenditure” (“YOE”) dollars. As we’ve noted before, YOE dollars are really only worth considering when there’s some really unusual financing going on, like in the case of the monorail. With Sound Transit, they’re borrowing money at a pretty competitive rate, so the YOE numbers are only used by anti-transit folks trying to induce sticker shock. (When I buy a $300K condo, I don’t claim it’s a $600K condo, even though that’s what I’ll be paying over the course of a 30-year mortgage) So kudos to Feit for laying it out clearly.

However, he also says this:

Despite my bitterness about the $11 billion number that was thrown around to kill the monorail, I’m happy to shell out $10.2 billion or even $23 billion to get some mass transit in Seattle.

However, I am not able to stomach $6.7 billion or $14 billion on roads—roads— when I was told by everyone in town that $3 billion or $11 billion was too much for mass transit.

Though I voted for the monorail all five times, and still support the idea, I think it’s important to address the reasons why Feit was “told by everyone in town” that the project was too expensive, and why comparing the $6.7B/$14B for roads to the $3B/$11B makes little sense.

First, as you’ll notice, $14B is twice $6.7B, while $11B is nearly four times $3B. In other words, the monorail’s financing (using very long-term bonds) meant that we were paying a lot relative to what we were getting.

Second, the monorail tax was levied on the city of Seattle alone, while the RTID will be levied on a three-county region, so the costs are more spread out.

Finally, and this is a minor point, the monorail was financed purely with an MVET, whereas this package will be part-MVET, part-sales-tax. The addition of the sales tax widens the tax base and lessens the perceived impact.

Transit Plan OK’d – Where We Go From Here

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Sound Transit’s board has approved the final draft plan for this November’s vote. This was simpley the formal approval of the plan that the board hammered out last month.

It will be an interesting ride, so to speak, from here to November. The legislature and others have made a gamble with this Roads and Transit joint RTID package. It’s already drawing criticism from pro-transit and pro-environmental groups who say it includes too much money for highways, and criticism from anti-tax and anti-Sound Transit groups who don’t want to see any more money spent on rail.

But, to paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, you go to the ballot box with the transit plan you have, not the plan you might want or wish to have. Compromise is part of that. Not everyone gets to design their dream infrastructure. There are some things in this package that seem misguided (like the Cross Base Highway), but this is the cost of doing business.

Barring any great changes in the cost or scope, I’ll be voting yes for the fall Roads and Transit plan, and I encourage everyone to do the same. In fact, between now and November, making the case for a “yes” vote will be our raison d’etre here at Orphan Road.

Why? Simply because every year we wait, construction and property costs increase by as much as 15%, or 5 times the rate of inflation. That means that each year, it costs more to build less. Just to put that in perspective, it means that the cost of a $17 billion package will go up by as much as $2.5 billion just by waiting a year. That alone is more than enough to widen I-405 (estimated at $1B). By approving the package this year as opposed to next, those projects are essentially free.

Of course, you might argue that adding highway lanes are never free, since they add to our reliance on automobiles. That’s valid, but it’s worth noting that widening 405 is a pretty mild step compared with building 49 miles of light rail. There’s no real radical road package to oppose here, like, for example, a new I-605 cutting through the Cascade foothills. It’s all pretty basic stuff. By voting “no” on this package, transit supporters would be cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Hybrids More Fuel Efficient After All?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I thought it was a settled case that Metro’s new hybrid buses were no more fuel-efficient than the diesels they replaced. Now comes an article in Truck Trend (I’m sure yours is in the mail…) citing a government study (PDF) that shows the opposite.

The real-world study, conducted in Seattle in 2006, shows a 27% increase in fuel economy over the old buses. It’s hard to say what accounts for the disparity, although it appears from the study that actual fuel economy for both bus types was lower, and thus the difference more dramatic. Either way, it’s good news King County.

(Incidentally, the study was provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. There’s a funny story about President Bush’s visit to NREL last year.)

Vanvouver’s POV on Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Last week Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry highlighted the fact that Vancouver tops Seattle and Portland in transit use. The Vancouver-area papers have run with the story:

Vancouver is more constrained by geography, so like it or not, there’s less space to sprawl and more likelihood residents will be close to transit.

By year-end, 36 per cent of [Greater Vancouver] residents will live within 450 metres of a “frequent transit” line—what TransLink defines as minimum 15 minute service 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

Williams-Derry also concedes higher gas taxes north of the border may have helped give transit an edge over private car use over the long term.

But ultimately, he argues, Vancouver’s success stems from better land-use decisions rather than the design of its transit system.

That second point about “frequent transit” is key. People need confidence that they can “throw away their schedules,” which was one of Ron Sims’ key selling points for Transit Now. People like certainty, which is one reason why rail appeals to us: you see the tracks here, it’s pretty clear that there’s a train going to come sooner or later. Bus stops don’t inspire the same confidence. Hopefully Metro’s RapidRide will incorporate some rail-station-like features that give us the sense that there’s a BRT bus on the way.

For example, I was spending a weekend in Northwest Portland about a year ago, and I wanted to spend the day downtown. I headed right for the streetcar stop. There was a digital readout saying that, since it was a weekend, the next car was coming in, say 20 minutes. I watched a few buses pass me, and thought I probably could have gotten on any one of them and gotten downtown. But there was an uncertainty that I, unfamiliar with Portland, wouldn’t get where I wanted to go. So I waited for the streetcar. And sure enough, it came just when the sign said it would. That’s how transit should work: we can deal with the waiting, just not the uncertainty.

Phillips: Just Grab the BNSF Corridor

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

King County Councilman Larry Phillips wants the BNSF corridor on the Eastside, he just doesn’t think that the County should give up Boeing Field (King County Airport) in exchange.

His stated problems with the Sims land swap boil down to: (a) he wants to keep the airport, and (b) he thinks it’s worth far more than the trail (perhaps five times as much). But it’s actually more complicated than that. Phillips district (PDF), which includes Seattle’s Magnolia and Queen Anne neighborhoods, happens to be right in the airport’s flight path. He’s worried that the Port of Seattle would try to start landing commercial flights there, which would be disruptive for his constituents.

However, he knows that the rail corridor is vital, and that the idea of acquiring it is popular, so he’s trying to convince all the regional municipalities, including the Port, that it’s in their interest to buy the right-of-way without giving up the airport in exchange.

Note how deftly he skirts the issue of commercial flights (and the debate over rail-vs-trail) while simultaneously putting himself in the pro-acquisition camp:

King County keeps the airport we have a proven track record operating and the Port of Seattle has little interest in acquiring; and the region moves swiftly to acquire the rail corridor from BNSF either through a funding partnership or an outright purchase by the Port of Seattle.

Future generations will thank us for our ingenuity as they ride their bikes or take the train through the booming cities on the Eastside.

Clever. Everyone thinks that we should acquire the right-of-way. The question is how do we pay for it. The Port has the money, but they want the airport in exchange. As a Queen Anne resident, I don’t really have a problem with more flights overhead, so I’m less sympathetic to Phillips’ argument on that score. But as a taxpayer, I want to get the best deal possible. So if he’s right, and the airport is actually worth 5x the trail, then obviously we need to find another way to get our hands on it.

Financing Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One of the most frustrating pieces of getting new transportation solutions online in Washington State is our regressive and limiting tax structure. We currently use sales taxes to finance Sound Transit (in addition to MVET). Our overall tax system is in dire need of reform. In the meantime, car taxes and sales taxes end up being used as the path of least resistance.

In what might be a first effort to break through that logjam, David Goldstein had a provocative post yesterday arguing that we can, in fact, tax gasoline, so long as it’s a sales tax and not an excise tax:

The other day I suggested that Washington state dramatically increase the motor fuel excise tax to pay for a massive investment in rail and other mass transit infrastructure. It was admittedly a bit of a thought experiment, as our state Constitution mandates that all motor vehicle fuel excise tax revenues be dedicated towards ‘highways,’ and of course, amending the Constitution remains exceedingly difficult.

But then I got to thinking. Article II, Section 40 specifically refers to ‘excise taxes.’ There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we can’t also levy a sales tax on motor vehicle fuel, and there’s nothing to mandate how such revenues might be spent. Thus all the hooey we’ve been fed about how we can’t spend gas tax dollars on anything but roads and ferries is exactly that… a bunch of hooey. A simple majority in both houses, and the stroke of the governor’s pen is all we need to create a dedicated fund for building mass transit. And of course, the people are free to vote yea or nay via referendum or initiative.

This isn’t just amateur legal analysis on my part. I checked with a constitutional scholar who assured me that my reading was correct, and that similar proposals have indeed been debated from time to time. And it’s not such an original or off the wall idea; nine other states already levy both sales and excise taxes on gasoline.

Read the whole thing. Even Sound Transit acknowledges that we could have the Eastside link up and running 10 years sooner if we had the financing right. That’s worth considering.

Update: Josh Feit has a lot more data supporting the idea that Washingtonians don’t pay that much in taxes after all.

Less Talking

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

There’s more in that P-I article to pick at:

Officials promise that everyone will have a chance to weigh in on the ultimate solution. Seattle expects to hire a consultant, who will talk to the various political interests and recommend ways to hear from others.

Michael Mann, deputy director of Seattle’s Office of Policy and Management, said he expects the consultant to be hired and to recommend by the end of this year a schedule for involving everyone in the search for an agreeable viaduct replacement.

We don’t need more discussions. We need to see alternatives in action. We all know how the downtown works and looks with a viaduct. Let’s see what it’s like with nothing, as Danny Westneat argued in the wake of the March vote.

Viaduct: Still No Answer

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Sadly, the powers that be did not solve the viaduct issue while our backs were turned.

The current plan, you’ll recall, calls for strengthening some of the most vulnerable sections of the current viaduct, rebuilding the viaduct south of Qwest Field, and then punting on what to do with the downtown core. But as the plan moves forward, the various factions — the rebuilders, the surface-transit folks, the retrofit crew — are scrutinizing every decision to see if it’s secretly helping advance another factions’ case. I made the argument recently that the timeline seems to be designed to prevent the viaduct from ever closing before a decision is reached, thus depriving us of the opportunity to experience a viaduct-free Seattle.

Some concerns seem valid: a new interchange that pours more traffic onto the viaduct would certainly be a step towards a new elevated freeway. But others seem to show a lack of understanding:

“It seems to me that we ought to wait and see what’s going on in between (the two ends) before we spend all that money ensuring there’ll be an elevated freeway in my neighborhood in perpetuity,” said John Pehrson, head of a Belltown Housing and Land Use Committee. “It’s just as noisy, it’s just as dirty, it’s just as isolating as it (would be) in the central waterfront.”

Even the tunnel and the surface-transit alternatives maintained the section of viaduct through Belltown. There’s simply no other way to deal with the cars coming out of the Battery Street tunnel than to route them on to a viaduct, except for perhaps leveling most of downtown Seattle.

As this process progresses, it will be interesting to watch each side try and work the refs in favor of their proposed solution.

Fremont Bridge Reopens

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


No more debating about whether it’s worthwhile to double back up the hill to pick up Aurora because the Fremont Bridge is down to one lane and it’s backed halfway up Fremont Ave.

Monorail Nostalgia

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

When I saw the headline for Knute Berger’s piece in Crosscut on the Las Vegas Monorail and what it tells us about our own fated elevated system, I was afraid he’d uncovered some serious reliability or other substantive issues with the Vegas line that would serve as a cautionary tale for would-be monorail resurrectionists like myself.

Fortunately, the article contains no such warnings. Instead, Berger focuses on the low ridership of the Vegas line and its out-of-the way location. Neither of those would have been an issue with the Seattle line, which would have been a commuter transportation system along a well-trafficked corridor, not a tourist-trap overpriced joyride like the Las Vegas line. Plus, Seattle’s pedestrian friendly, unlike the Strip, where sidewalks disappear into casinos with little or no warning or simply stop.

Berger does support the idea of extending the line all the way to the airport, which I heartily agree with. Waiting for a cab at McCarran Airport is a daunting task. The circuitous four-mile ride from the airport via taxi reeks of a powerful taxi driver lobby. As a bonus, having a monorail connection directly from the Airport to the Strip would make Vegas seem even more like a Lunar resort colony than it already does.

Density Revisited

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Richard Morrill has an article in Crosscut on density:

Studies of the costs of infrastructure and public services show only slight variation with density, with moderately higher costs at very low densities (under 1,500 people per square mile) and at very high densities (over 100,000 per square mile). Lower utilization drives up costs at the low density end, while high costs of construction and maintenance affect highly dense areas. The most effective densities are in the middle range, 5,000 to 15,000 people per square mile, which happens to be where probably more than 90 percent of urban dwellers live.

Compare this with our previous post on density, in which an urban planning firm argued that 50 residents/acre is optimal, at least with respect to per capita energy use. 50 residents/acre translates to about 32,000/sq. mile, which is double the high-end of Morrill’s numbers. Per capita energy use is not the same as “costs of infrastructure and public services,” so it’s not surprising that the numbers should be different.

The thrust of the article is about housing prices, which Morrill says may be inflated due to urban growth restrictions. His proposed alternatives are unclear, though. He wants to get rid of urban growth boundaries in favor of higher density subdivisions, but doesn’t provide any links to the studies, so I can’t really comment one way or another.

Waiting for the Express

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Cascadia Prospectus reports that there’s a new study underway to change the way real-time bus info is captured. The current system involves having the bus pas a series of mileposts, which doesn’t work too well in crowded areas or when the bus has to divert its route due to construction or snow. The new method would involve GPS and/or Wi-Fi, which “would vastly improve the tracking in the urban area.”

Another part of the study would involve counting passengers. Perhaps the algorithm somehow uses the number of boardings to determine how many stops the bus will have to make, and uses that to calculate the arrival time.

This makes it clear just how tricky real-time bus information actually is to implement. With a train, it’s relatively straightforward: trains don’t get stuck in traffic and make regular, predictable stops. But even the most sophisticated GPS bus system can only tell where the bus is right now and then make a guess about how long it will take to close the distance between the bus’s current location and yours.

In most urban areas, though, that’s probably enough if you’re a regular commuter. If the system can tell me that the bus is still a half-mile away, I can make a reasonable guess about when it will get to my stop. Also, if I have the option of taking the local or waiting for the express, all I need to know is how far behind the express is relative to the local. Exact times don’t really matter.

CP also points to this 2003 P-I article on the Mybus pilot program in North Seattle, which goes deeper into the local v. express dilemma.

Trouble on the Bus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Times is reporting that assaults, both passenger-on-passenger, and passenger-on-driver, all out of proportion to the increase in ridership, which is also at an all-time high. The article offers a smorgasbord of possible answers, from increased incident reporting to more crowding.

Speaking from personal experience, though I’ve never, ever come close to assaulting anyone, I myself get a lot more edgy on a bus than I do on a train. The bus tends to be a more stressful experience. On the bus, I’m still stuck in traffic. Plus, the lurching as it starts and stops is more likely to make me sick.

But also there’s something more intimate in a bus, and not in a good way. Subways and trains are more anonymous. On a bus you can see the driver. You can second-guess his decision to wait to pick up a passenger, etc. Everything in a train is calmer and more regular. There are rarely unexpected stops, the conductor is anonymous and distant. Everything seems out of your control, so it’s harder to get angry about it.

Sounder to Boeing Field?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Discussing a potential Boeing Field site for the Sonics arena, David Brewster notes:

Sound Transit’s new line passes right by, and there is a transit station planned (though currently deferred) just south of the Boeing Access Road, right by I-5, including a 350-car park-and-ride lot. The Sounder commuter rail line also passes right by, and the Sound Transit station plan is to enable transfers between light rail and commuter rail on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. Throw in the proximity of Highway 99 just to the west and you have about as ideal a situation for getting people to and from the site as you could imagine.

The light rail stop we know about, but this is the first I’ve heard mention of the Sounder making a stop there. No Boeing Field-area stops are proposed in ST2. Still, I’m sure Brewster has better sources than I do, so chalk this up as an interesting new development.

The Hidden Costs of Highways

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Daimajin does a good job of dispensing with the Op-Ed in yesterday’s Seattle Times by George Kargianis and Phil Talmadge on the “hidden costs” of light rail, so I won’t duplicate efforts.

However, the reason the piece was truly infuriating — to me, anyway — is that it claims that there are hidden costs of light rail (which are speculative at best), while ignoring the hidden costs of highways, which are well-documented but little-understood.

Talmadge and Kargianis repeat the oft-told canard that transit funding is is disproportionate to the number of riders:

Transit ridership in Central Puget Sound amounts to less than 3 percent of the total daily travel. Yet, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan for 2030 allocates half of total transportation expenditures to transit and hopes that transit’s market share will increase to 4.5 percent of daily travel. Meanwhile, our roadway system, with the other half of funding, would serve the other 95 percent of travel. The disparity between ridership being served and proposed dollars should be apparent.

But this fails to take into account two things. First, transit takes millions of cars off the highways, which frees up the road for people who do drive. This saves gas and increases productivity for the millions of people who’ve never seen the inside of a Metro bus.

Second, and more importantly, we’re not comparing apples to apples here. Sound Transit is providing the whole enchilada: the rails, the trains, the buses, the drivers, the repair guys, the fuel. Everything. All you need to do is buy a (very cheap) ticket. The road money just gives us concrete and asphalt. What we don’t see in the RTID are things like:

  • the cost of buying a car
  • hiring a mechanic to maintain it
  • car insurance
  • fuel
  • parking

And that’s just off the top of my head. But these are real costs of highways, borne by all of us, but rarely recognized. Sometime soon I’ll try, to the best of my ability, to calculate this. But when it’s all said an done, I’m quite sure that we’ll find that transit is quite a bit more cost competitive than Talmadge and Kargianis claim.