Double Decks!

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Snohomish County is adding double-decker buses to its fleet. Apparently they’re better than the articulated buses because they hold more passengers and can be used in inclement weather.

One of the knocks on rapid transit by bus is that, while the initial costs of building a system are low, the operating costs are higher, since a bus can hold up to 60 or 80 people per driver, but a train can hold several hundred people per driver. Double-decks would help make buses more cost effective to operate.

Apparently they fit easily under the freeway overpasses, which is, of course, a good thing.

Mobility Plan Passes Council

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The City Council is moving forward:

Seattle will spend $8.1 million to develop a new “mobility plan” in hopes of finding an alternative to building another elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct.

City Council members voted unanimously Monday to create the plan, which may call for more transit, changes in surface streets, trip reduction, and vehicle tolls.

The surface-street option was rejected by WSDOT early on, but many have argued that that study was flawed because it simply removed the highway and didn’t think holistically about trip reduction, increased bus service, etc. This new study would presumably take all of those factors into consideration.

I’m optimistic. This is the first sign of genuine political movement toward a third way. However, it’s important to remember the lessons of the failed monorail project: if an idea doesn’t have the backing of the political establishment, it can easily be killed. Councilman Steinbrueck has made great progress in shepherding this through, but we’re still a long way away from anything approaching a political consensus.

Getting On The Bus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One thing I’ve noticed in the past year or so is that it’s gotten much more difficult to park downtown. Through a combination of factors — more electronic meters, fewer free parking areas — the city has really changed my personal calculus: I think twice before driving downtown, even on a Saturday. And I’m much more likely to take the bus.

Some folks aren’t so happy about the changes:

Some neighborhood activists complain that the city’s goals are unrealistic, at least until there’s more convenient public transportation in Seattle.

“The city’s living in a planner’s fantasy that … if you make it hard to park people will magically walk or ride their bike,” said Matt Fox, a longtime activist in the University District, where the city has substantially reduced free parking.

“Until the transit alternatives are in place, I think this is a punitive approach that’s going to make people’s lives really miserable.”

Well, I have a hard time believing it’s going to make anyone’s life truly “miserable” (there are far worse things happening in the world), but I can see where he’s coming from. However, we’re in a bit of a Catch-22 with waiting “until the transit alternatives are in place.” Adding more bus service will be easier when there’s more demand, and there’ll be more demand when there’s more service. In the meantime, Metro’s Transit Now initiative will help.

But my instinct is that the barriers to entry are still too high for many people. The bus system is darn confusing if you don’t have a route that you know and use frequently. It’s reminiscent of the Simpsons episode where Lisa tries to take the bus to the museum and finds herself deposited out in the boonies. When she asks the bus driver why the bus didn’t stop at the museum, he replies “that’s the No. 22. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, this is the 22A.” It’s funny because it’s true.

It surprises me that a city with this many information workers can’t come up with a more intuitive way of communicating bus routes. Use colors, use shapes. Have more intuitive bus maps. Identify, say, 8 major routes and make them stand out from the pack somehow. We’re sort of getting there with the BRT component of Transit Now, but so much more could be done for what’s basically peanuts compared to the cost of, say, laying a mile of rail.

Route 509 Expansion

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

When I first heard mention of a $1B line-item in the RTID to connect SR 509 with I-5, I assumed they were talking about eliminating the stoplight where 509 meets 518 and making it an “all freeway” exchange. It struck me as an odd thing to spend a billion bucks to get rid of a single traffic light.

But I was wrong! The proposed connection, which is nearing approval would happen south of Sea-Tac. The P-I article, though, still doesn’t answer the question of what problem the expansion is designed to solve.

WSDOT’s website, though, provides an answer:

Extending SR 509 will ease congestion on I-5, improve service between industrial districts by allowing up to 9,000 trucks per day to bypass I-5, SR 99 and local streets, and provide for southern access to Sea-Tac International Airport.

It also seems like calling it a “509 expansion” is a bit misleading: in addition to the 3 miles of new 509 freeway, the project will also add a lane to I-5 for the 6 miles approaching the 509 interchange. I’m sure the 509 piece is more expensive (because it’s brand-new freeway), but still, a good chunk of this project is widening I-5.

Congestion Pricing Redux

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Following up on yesterday’s post on Congestion Pricing, Knute Berger has a smart piece in Crosscut today where he makes the same observation we did, namely that user fees on roads have broad support across the ideological spectrum:

The greens such as the Sightline folks like free candy — uh, congestion pricing because it gets cars off the road. The people who can’t afford to pay to use the roads at peak hours find other means to get to work. This is good for Sims because he’s betting the farm on stuff like bus rapid transit (BRT) and voter-approved improvements to Metro Transit service in King County. To make that work, he needs fewer cars getting in the way and more bus riders. Make driving more expensive by tolling the roads, and voila.

Conservatives like tolls and fees because they can claim it’s not a tax, and it’s certainly not progressive because it whacks drivers regardless of income or the price of their vehicle. The contractor in a pickup pays the same as his client in a Porsche. But it also allows the much-loved “market” to winnow out gridlock.

Still, despite support from across the political divide, Berger notes that it’s still a political nonstarter. “It’s saying something about the popularity of tolling the streets when a property tax hike looks like a great option,” he says.

Nonetheless, the more we fully integrate the costs of driving, the more informed we’ll be as customers and citizens, which is really what it’s all about.

Signs of the Past

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I walked past this poster on 5th Avenue in Belltown:

Opening day was supposed to be December 15, 2007. Seven months from now.

Sinkhole!

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Speaking of infrastructure upgrades, here’s an interesting nugget from today’s Times article:

The pipe that broke was installed in 1912, Mickelson said. The oldest pipe in the system was installed in 1898.

He said the break may have been the result of a flaw in the pipe that finally gave way. It’s going to be difficult to replace because it’s under the bridge and has a bend in it, he said.

John Hutchins, with Harbor Consulting Company, inspected the pipe today and said, “My best guess, it was an old pipe and it just washed out and broke.”

Congestion Pricing

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Danny Westneat flags Ron Sims’ latest big idea:

The idea is to turn all our freeways into payways.

There’s nothing new about tolls. But Sims is not talking about a couple of bucks for crossing a bridge. It’s a plan to toll most every mile of every major state and federal highway from Everett to south of Tacoma.

It’s just a concept, Sims says, but here’s how it could work. We’d all have computer chips in our cars to record time of day and lane miles traveled on Interstates 5, 405 and 90 (out to Issaquah), as well as parts of highways 99, 167, 509, 518 and 520. The gist is you’d pay $2 for a short rush-hour commute, with a max of $4 to $8 for longer drives, such as from Bothell to Tacoma. It’d be $1 for driving around in the middle of the night.

Westneat like the idea, but says that tolls are “political suicide.” He writes, “If there’s anything that’ll get the local blood boiling as much as that income tax, Sims has found it.”

I’m not so sure. If you assume that by “local blood” he means the conservative, anti-tax folks who by and large oppose the income tax, he’s mistaken. Pay-for-what-you-use has a lot of support among conservatives, because it involves no redistribution. It’s also insanely market friendly: when something gets more scarce (freeway capacity during rush hour), the price goes up. It’s Econ 101.

For example, here’s Stefan Sharkansky of the conservative blog Sound Politics writing two weeks ago:

Nobody should be forced to pay for infrastructure he considers to be foolishly cost-ineffective and/or environmentally immoral. Nobody should have their desired solution held hostage for the other. Roads should be paid for only by those who want and use them. Likewise with light rail.

Let all highway construction and improvements be paid for through tolls, and let all light rail be financed 100% through the farebox.

Sometimes it really is that simple.

Sounds like an endorsement to me!

Don’t Build It And…

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

…maybe they’ll just find another route:

OAKLAND, Calif., April 30 — A day after a fiery tanker crash melted and collapsed a critical highway interchange near the Bay Bridge, rush hour commuters in the Bay Area enjoyed a relatively painless morning, as drivers avoided the roads and the expected nightmare largely failed to materialize.

Free and more frequent trains were running on Bay Area Rapid Transit lines, the region’s light rail system, and additional ferries plowed the waters between San Francisco and the cities on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay. But by and large, vehicle traffic around the site of the collapse was light and fluid during the morning commute, as the combination of telecommuting, absenteeism and mass transit apparently combined to keep many workers off the roads.

“This morning was one of the easiest commutes I’ve ever had,” said Jared Hirsch, associate production manager for American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, who drives to work from Oakland. “I think people assuming that this evening’s would be one of the worst commutes ever everyone elected to either take public or stay at home.”

I’ve never lived in San Francisco, but I’ve visited enough to know that knocking out I-580 and I-880 in Oakland is a fairly big deal.

It turns out, though, that demand for roads is very elastic: if you build more roads, people will drive more. If you take away roads, people will figure out alternatives and drive less. Seattle found this out when we expanded I-90: as soon as the new lanes were added, traffic doubled.

This would seem to lend credence to Erica Barnett’s thoughtfully reasoned argument for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a surface boulevard:

The day before the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, 110,000 vehicles used the viaduct every day. After it reopened later that year, only 80,000 vehicles did. More recently, a WSDOT study found that if the state charged a $1 toll on the viaduct, 40,000 trips would disappear, indicating that “demand” is a very flexible concept; conversely, a recent UC Berkeley study found that for every 1 percent of new road capacity, traffic increased by 0.9 percent.

To be sure, it’s unclear how many Bay Area residents just stayed home today, something they certainly can’t do forever:

It seemed that many people, however, opted not to even try to come into office. Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., executive director of the Municipal Transportation Agency in San Francisco, said that anecdotal accounts were that trains, buses, and ferries were all only lightly used.

But in the long run, people look for alternatives when they’re forced to. We may grumble for a while, but eventually we adapt and incorporate it into our routines. The key, though, is that we have to force ourselves to a decision. That’s human nature.

Touring the Rainier Valley via Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


Saturday the 28th of April was a sunny Spring day, so I decided to take a bike ride through the Rainier Valley along the Light Rail route. I thought about riding the lunch bus, but decided it was better to go “unembedded.” At least I’d get some exercise.

(You can see all my photos on Flickr, or browse the Orphan Road photo map )

When friends come to visit me in Seattle, we do the usual tourist things, like the Market and the Needle (the Sculpture Park and the Library are the latest additions to the tour). But they rarely get a glimpse of South Seattle. Driving between downtown and the airport, your view of Seattle’s most diverse neighborhood is obscured by Beacon Hill. It’s incredibly easy for visitors to miss the thriving Muslim, Vietnamese, and Aftrican immigrant communitites that call Seattle home.

But that will change in 2009, as light rail snakes its way through the Rainier Valley between Sea-Tac Airport and Downtown. How will it change our visitors’ minds to ride past the Vietnamese supermarkets and community centers that dot Martin Luther King Jr Way? How will it change Seattle’s image of itself? These are the questions that consumed me as I rode my bike down the (mostly) paved MLK Way, dodging construction sites and marveling at all the new housing developments.

Of the 14 miles of track that will open for business in late 2009, the 6-mile stretch through the Rainier Valley is by far the most interesting — and most controversial. The train will slow from 55mph to 35mph as it winds its way through here. The choice of route is a double-edged sword. Had Sound Transit simply wanted a straight shot to the Airport, it could have simply followed the I-5 corridor all the way, which would have easily shaved $1B or more off the price tag and probably 10-15 minutes off the travel time between Downtown and Sea-Tac. It would also have prevented a lot of the tension between community groups who were less than excited about seeing their neighborhoods uprooted. On the other hand, it would have drastically cut the potential ridership and may have even made the transit agency ineligible for Federal grant funds, which give preference to projects that redevelop underserved communities.

McClellan Station Goes Up IMG_0407

The Rainier Valley segment begins at McClellan St. in the Mount Baker neighborhood, where the tracks emerge from the Beacon Hill tunnel. You can see the station going up across from the Franklin High School football field. From there it hops right onto MLK Way. The sheer volume of freshly poured concrete is overwhelming, its presence made more intense by its virgin white sheen and the reflection the sun. It will take several rainy Seattle winters and years of wearing in before it feels like part of the landscape.

For now, the new road spreads out in all directions like a concrete version of the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz, which is fitting for a place often referred to as the “Emerald City.” The sidewalks have also been re-done, although a few gaps remain.

Out with the Old... New Construction

New housing construction abounds, juxtaposed with some older buildings. The new neighborhoods are still very much ethnically mixed. The size and scope of these new developments serves as a reminder that, for all their attendant costs, rail lines generate the kind of transit-friendly urban redevelopment that bus routes can never match. Rail offers a sense of permanence that’s understandably comforting to someone about to sign off on a 30-year mortgage.

If you build it, they will come. And they may even get here before you finish building.

Tread Carefully Businesses Open

Of course, all this building comes with its share of consequences. It’s been a hellish couple of years for businesses along this corridor, despite ST’s efforts to mitigate the effects of construction with “open for business” signs and, in some cases, cash payments. Some homeowners have seen their basements flood as construction workers churn the surrounding landscape. (If you want to see some truly disruptive construction, look into the building of New York’s IRT in 1904.)

Vietnamese Businesses Grandma and Grandchild Navigate MLK Way

But the concrete marches on. And along the way we still see plenty of signs of life, from temples to taco buses. From what I’ve last read, ST is not going to put up crossing gates at the intersections along the route. This seems a bit risky, but one must assume they’ve put a lot of thought into pedestrian safety. There will be crossing gates in SODO, because, ST claims, people are used to having them there (due to the freight tracks that run through the area). Portland’s light rail and streetcar network don’t use crossing gates, so it must be standard.

Buddhist Temple Taco Bus!

The rails have only gone in south of Orcas St. Between McClellan and Orcas its still just a wide patch of dirt between the highway. Speaking of dirt, I was initially surprised — and a bit disappointed — as I wove from street to sidewalk, that there are no bike lanes on MLK, nor will there be once construction is completed. This seems like a glaring omission for a multimodal transportation system. But as I approached Henderson St., I caught a glimpse of the new Chief Sealth Trail, which follows a Seattle City Light power corridor and roughly parallels MLK way. It will be a boon to bike riders when it opens later this year:

P-Patch The New Chief Sealth Trail

South of Henderson St. (and the Community P-Patch above), MLK way becomes a mostly industrial area, as it heads for an intersection with I-5. South of I-5, the tracks run on their own dedicated right-of-way almost all the way to the Airport.

Bridge Over Boeing Road Bridge over I-5 at Boeing Road

Once I hit the Boeing Access road, I decided it was uninteresting — and probably unsafe — to try and follow the route any further. So I turned around, headed up South Ryan Way, and made my way north via Seward Park and Lake Washington Boulevard. It still amazes me how quickly the neighborhood changes on that side of the ridge.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I believe that the light rail will be, in the long run, a positive development for this part of town. Sure, there will be some amount of gentrification, but that was going to happen anyway. There’s a finite amount of land inside the city limits, and it’s all going to get gobbled up eventually. But hopefully, as tourists and locals are whisked between the Convention Center and the Airport, they’ll gain a new appreciation for this part of the city, which is all too easy to forget about as you drive south on Rainier Avenue, Lake Washington Boulevard, or Interstate 5.

When I lived in Philadelphia, taking the train into the city meant winding through the industrial wasteland of North Philly, full of burned-out and abandoned factories and warehouses. It was a perspective you couldn’t get while driving in on I-95, but it helped to put the history of the city in context. To be sure, the Rainier Valley is nothing like North Philly, but opening up a new corridor will give those of us who don’t frequent the area a new perspective on our city its people. And that will be a good thing.

MacDonald Resigns

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald is resigning, leaving some unifinished business, notably the new 520 bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct.

I found this quote ver revealing:

Duke Schaub, governmental affairs director for the Associated General Contractors, said MacDonald’s successor also will need to deal with a host of issues in state ferries, which are wrestling with financial problems.

“If there’s one area that I feel is toughest for the DOT administrator to deal with, it’s the ferry system,” he said.

Now, I don’t know who Duke Schaub is and maybe he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but assuming he’s right, it suggests a fundamental myopia at WSDOT. The ferry system is essentially a very large mass transit system, and the fact that the road-centric WSDOT sees it almost as an annoyance is troubling. Puget Sound’s copious waterways could be an asset to our transportation planners, not simply a liability.

To be sure, WSDOT does work on a host of valuable rail projects, as we’ve noted before. But those are dwarfed by the roads.

It would be nice if the next WSDOT director took a holistic approach to transportation planning — integrating roads, ferries, and rail — with a focus on moving people and freight, not cars and trucks.

Capitol Hill Streetcar

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One of the hidden nuggets in the ST2 proposal is a Capitol HIll/First Hill streetcar. We knew something like this was coming to alleviate the problems caused when Sound Transit decided to skip First Hill due to various engineering issues.

But it comes as a surprise to me just how ambitious the proposed streetcar will end up being. I assumed they would head straight up Seneca or Spring from downtown, but instead it looks like it will head north on 12th Ave from the the International District. Here’s the Times article:

The board also voted to extend the proposed Seattle streetcar route an additional six blocks to Aloha Street. The line, which would run from the International District to First Hill and Capitol Hill, would have ended near Broadway and John Street under an earlier proposal.

You can see a PDF of the proposed route here. It’s all part of the city’s proposed streetcar network.

Judging by what Westlake Avenue looks like during Streetcar construction, I pity the residents and businesses on Broadway in Capitol Hill. Westlake is a pretty quiet street (you can land a small plane on it during rush hour) and it looks like a war zone right now.

Finance Costs

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

As if reading our mind, the Times’ Mike Lindblom starts using finance charges in an article about ST2:

The ballot measure, to become final in May, calls for $23 billion in transit extensions and $14 billion in highway projects through 2028 and additional bond payments for years afterward. Omitting finance costs and inflation, the transit spending totals $10 billion, the road plan $9 billion.

Lindblom has been alternately using the higher number and not using it.

Elsewhere at the Times, they never use finance charges. For example, when referring to median housing price in King County, Times reporters don’t include financing charges. They list the median housing price as $434,000, though a home that sells for that much could easily cost the buyer almost $900,000 with a traditional 30-year mortgage.

It’s a fine line, and I imagine journalists take it from both sides no matter what they do. Of course you want to give people all the information they need to make a decision, but numbers can easily be manipulated to make something sound better (or worse) than it actually is.

To reiterate, Sound Transit has a very good bond rating and therefor is able to borrow money at a very competitive rate. This contrasts with the defunct Seattle Monorail Project, which, for various reasons, would have spent $11B on a $2B project.

Sound Transit Doubles Down

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

They’re going the full monty:

Sound Transit will ask voters in November to pay for more than 49 miles of new light rail service, extending it even farther than initially thought, as well as additions to Sounder commuter rail and increased express bus service.

Agency board members Thursday approved details of the Sound Transit II plan, now estimated to cost $23 billion by the time it’s completed in 2027, given inflation.

That’s $6 billion more in construction-period costs than the agency estimated previously for the expansion; the total includes inflation over 30 years. But the agency said the higher cost, if approved by voters, wouldn’t cost individual households any more than the $125 per year originally estimated — a point that makes critics skeptical.

As well it should. But ST knows that they botched the first round of cost estimates big time. They’re not going to make the same mistake twice, are they? Are they?

Back to the plan itself, they’re no longer promising they’ll make it to downtown Redmond, saying the Eastside link will terminate at the Overlake Transit Center. BUT, we’re also looking at light rail as far north as Ash Way (nearly Everett) and as far south as… the Tacoma dome. This is way more ambitious than we thought.

Finally, the new plan also includes a chestnut that should make monorail supporters happy: they’re going to start planning for high-capacity transit to — that’s right — Ballard and West Seattle.

There’s a lot to chew on here, and chew on it we will over the coming months. In the meantime, just read the press release.

Jim MacIsaac on Weekday

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Yesterday’s Weekday on KUOW featured “longtime critic” of Sound Transit Jim MacIsaac to provide his views on the RTID, slated to go to voters in the fall.

MacIsaac’s bio notes that he’s the founder and manager of Kirkland-based The TRANSPO Group, so clearly he’s done his time in the system.

The interview provides some interesting insight, and even the most die-hard transit supporters shouldn’t be afraid of rigorous criticism, so give it a listen. MacIsaac’s not road crazy, he mostly wants to beef up bus service, especially around the Eastside, and not design a system where all routes lead to Seattle.

Now, to address what I thought were a few misconseptions.

First, MacIssac argued that Sound Transit wasn’t providing service from, for example, Auburn to Redmond, or Lynwood to Seattle.

Well, sort of. When the Eastside link is built, you’ll be able to ride Sounder to King Street and transfer to light rail. The whole commute will probably take an hour, which is far less than the equivalent highway trip will be in 2028.

Second, Sound Transit estimates the ST2 package will cost each household $125 per year. MacIssac adds up the total amount spent, divides by the number of households, and comes up with a number that’s about 2.5 times larger.

Here we’re just confusing our means and our medians. ST’s PR guy sort of cleared this up, but he rushed past it pretty quickly. ST’s calculation of $125 is based on the median household, which is more accurate because it doesn’t get skewed by high-income RTID residents like this guy.

Third, RTID and ST claim the package will cost $16B or so, MacIsaac, taking into account the decades of finance charges and interest on the bonds, comes up with $39B.

That’s perfectly true. However, it’s also misleading, because humans don’t use interest charges in ordinary conversation. When I buy a $400,000 house, I don’t go around telling people it’s actually an $840,000 house, even though that’s how much I’m paying over the course of a 30-year mortgage. Same with my car, or any other major expense.

It’s a worthy cautionary note, though. The monorail failed because people balked at the $11B price tag, with interest, that amounted to FIVE times the $2B cost. ST’s finance charges well within reasonable limits, so it’s misleading to call it out or make an issue out of it.

Fourth, MacIsaac laments the fact that only 1% of riders use transit, so rail lines are of little use.

Well, this is really the crux of the road-vs-rail debate, so there’ll be other times to rehash it. But for now let’s just take note of what’s been happening along the light rail route through the Rainier Valley. Tons of houses and condos being built, and the line won’t open for two years. There’s no way you’d have seen that kind of development along a bus route. Point is: build it and they will come. With gas headed for $4/gallon this summer, people are starting to relocate around transit hubs. Give them the choice, and they’ll take it.

The Slow, Arduous Process of 520 Consensus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Lawmakers are united… in their desire to avoid a repeat of the Viaduct fiasco. A City Council resolution draws some broad sketches of what a new Evergreen Point Floating Bridge might look like:

The 12-page resolution, part manifesto and part wish list, reflects Seattle residents’ general acceptance that the aging span linking Seattle and the Eastside needs to be replaced.

But the measure also seized on strong public concerns about a new bridge’s potential negative effects on neighborhoods, including noise and traffic congestion, environmental problems such as water and air pollution and harm to the Washington Park Arboretum.

The council also reflected residents’ preferences for bike-path connections, and for improved mobility by discouraging single-occupancy vehicles, encouraging HOV lane use and creating better transit connections.

The main opposition here is from the Montlake and UW communities, who don’t want a bigger, nosier 520 running through the Arboretum. You can see their website here.

Councilman Richard Conlin has his preferences:

City Councilman Richard Conlin, chairman of the council’s state Route 520 committee, acknowledged that he personally favors the Pacific Street Interchange. But citing the bridge’s importance as a regional transportation corridor and its vulnerability to earthquakes and severe storms, Conlin said it was time to vote, move ahead and reduce effects through “mitigation strategies.”

You can read about the Pacific Street Interchange here. You can see all the options on the table here.

What’s most important is that a decision happens soon, and with consensus. Because once opinions start to harden, it becomes much, much harder to achieve a compromise.

Doomed

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Is it really true that the $16B transportation plan on this fall’s ballot is doomed? The Seattle Times reports:

Legislators worry the package is too expensive for voters to accept yet doesn’t fully fund a new floating bridge or complete as much work as they think is needed on some of the region’s most-congested highways, such as Highway 167.

Instead, the money is spread too thin in order to cover as many projects as possible, they say.

Here’s the problem: projects like this are what legislators call “Christmas Trees”: everyone wants to hang their own special ornament until the whole thing collapses under its own weight. That said, there’s nothing really egregious, as far as I can tell, in this package. It’s not like anyone’s proposing a 12-lane I-605 through the Cascades. Mostly it’s a series of much-needed and long-deferred projects: fixing SR-520, widening the southern section of I-405, etc. Oh yeah, and $9.8B to send light rail to the Eastside.

All of these projects seem to have fairly broad public support. What’s important now is for our legislators to stop allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. It’s time to start “moving dirt,” as Pierce County Exec. John Ladenburg says. This package is not perfect, but it’s good enough. And the longer we wait, the more expensive the construction costs will get, meaning that we’ll be getting less and less for our money, and the fights will get even nastier.

Put another way: construction costs are rising by about 10% a year. That’s $1.6B on a 16B package. Meaning that if we wait a year, we add $1.6B to the cost of construction. Widening I-405 is going to cost just over $1B. In other words, it makes absolutely no sense to oppose this initiative if you’re, say, trying to kill the 405 project, since by voting for it now instead of next year, we’re basically getting 405 for free.

Viaduct Update

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

So we had this big election, there was all this last-minute posturing on both sides and then… what? Relative silence from our elected officials. It turns out that a few have been working furiously behind the scenes to move the ball forward.

David Brewster offers us a look at the new Sims-Nickels alliance and it’s efforts to break the deadlock:

From conversations with Sims’ and Nickels’ staffers comes the outline of a joint county-city-Metro Transit approach that combines the boulevard with a broad attack on various choke points for downtown traffic and freight and a good dash of faster bus service.

The basic pact between Sims and Nickels is that Sims gets BRT routes (which means the city giving up some traffic lanes on streets) and Nickels gets his small boulevard along the central waterfront.

Sims knows that for his BRT Plan, RapidRide (.pdf), to truly be effective, he’ll need some major road improvements. So it’s time to make nice with Nickels.

Of course, the Sims-Nickels surfact-transit plan still has to win the approval of Gov. Gregoire, whom Brewster singles out for her “Olympia” mindset on transportation:

The Gregoire maneuver cost her among many Seattle interests, and it indicated how much she remains caught in an Olympia mindset, which sees transportation as a highway issue, while Seattle is increasingly seeing urban transportation as weaning-from-highways.

Nonetheless, there might be a compromise in the works:

Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, a master dealmaker, has predicted the shape of the ultimate compromise: a depressed roadway along the waterfront, probably six lanes wide, with pedestrian bridges across it to waterfront parks. Munro compares it to the Interstate 5 ditch through downtown. That’s not very pretty, but it avoids the cost of a tunnel lid, puts the traffic a little out of sight through use of berms, and isn’t a new viaduct. Ceis dismisses this idea out of hand, saying that if you are going to build a trench you might as well put a lid over it.

Indeed. But that might give the city leaders a backdoor route to the tunnel they’ve always wanted: agree to the trench deal and then drop a lid on it a few years later, when no one’s looking.

Either way, one thing’s clear: this thing’s far from settled.

A Station or a Hub?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The P-I reports that the planned UW light rail station will not have (1) direct connections to buses, or (2) a park-and-ride lot.

It’s worth unpacking what’s going on here a little bit, as these kinds of decisions will undoubtedly come up over and over again as Seattle builds this brand-new infrastructure.

The question is whether to try and turn the Montlake/520 area into an intermodal hub, where people can go to connect from one form of transportation to another, be it car, bus, bike, or rail. Now, obviously Montlake will never be a full-blown transit center, along the lines of Eastgate, Northgate, and Overlake. There’s just no space, as UW spokesman Dan Arkin succinctly puts it:

“You can’t look at the University of Washington as an intermodal exchange or station area. It doesn’t work,” Arkans said. “You can’t have people driving here to get on a (light rail) train, because there’s no park and ride — and there’s zero chance of putting one here. There’s no space.”

However, since Montalke is where 520, I-5, and Light Rail meet up, it’s tempting to want to make the area an transfer point. But once you really think about it, there’s really no reason why so many people should want to transfer at UW from bus to rail.

Certainly there’s room to make some improvements in the bus-to-bus transfers. The connection from the 520 buses to the 48 is, as Bus Chick has well documented, terrible.

But the overwhelming majority of people who board light rail at UW will be either going to or coming from… UW. If you’re coming from the East side, and you want to get on the light rail, there are better places to do it, like downtown.

Finally, I don’t see why everyone’s so hot for light rail across the 520 bridge. I see little use for it. The far end of the 520 corridor (Overlake, Redmond) is going to be served by the planned East link. Better to do what San Francisco does and have one route across the water that forks when it reaches the ‘burbs. Like a Kirkland spur that runs through Belleveue and connects with the main Eastside line across I-90, for example.