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.

We Know What’s Best?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The P-I has a great neighborhood breakdown of the viaduct vote:

Support for the rebuild is clearly strongest on the West side of the city, where residents are likely more dependent on the viaduct for their daily commute. Support for the tunnel was heavier on the Eastern side of the city, where residents have other transportation options.

This presents an interesting political pickle, and a classic conundrum with respect to direct democracy: do you listen to those who use the thing on a daily basis? Does their vote count more? That’s certainly one way to interpret it. Another would be to impose a use tax (a.k.a. a toll) and build the more expensive tunnel.

In general, we need to start using tolls in the Seattle area. When the Tacoma Narrows Bridge re-opens, it will have a $3 toll. The more that people can come face-to-face with the true costs of using the roads, the more efficient our transportation network will be.

Surface/Transit: Setting the Agenda

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

With the viaduct vote out of the way, The Stranger‘s Erica Barnett wastes no time in beginning the campaign for the so-called “surface/transit” replacment. It’s a well-reasoned argument, top to bottom. A couple of key points:

  • We’ll have to live without the viaduct for 9 to 12 years during contsruction. “if we can live without the viaduct for 9 to 12 years, we can live without it forever.”
  • Freight mobility is not as big an issue as some have maintained: “the approximately 4,000 trucks that use the viaduct daily primarily use it when it’s least congested…during rush hour, only about 250 trucks use the viaduct daily.”
  • We’re about to get a Metro Bus Rapid Transit system, which will include “a new, 56-mile line along SR-99 from Shoreline to Federal Way and a 22-mile link across the Spokane Street Viaduct to West Seattle.”

One argument that Barnett doesn’t spend much time on is the idea that removing the viaduct means that I-5 would be the only N/S freeway through the city. That has a lot of people worried, because in the event of a major shutdown on I-5, there would be few alternatives. It’s a concern, but not a serious one: there are still many surface streets through the city, including little-used alternatives to I-5 like Airport Way.

The other piece of the puzzle that Barnett neglects is the funding piece. A surface/transit option would still cost in the ballpark of $2B, including seawall replacement. The state legislature is not inclined to spend that much on something that would reduce capacity, and thus might limit the funds. That would mean that the cheapest option could, perversely, end up costing Seattle the most.

Still, the article’s a cogent outline of what a surface/transit option might entail. it’s very much a first salvo, an attempt to shape the agenda. With the legislature about to go out of session, it’s going to be a long battle.

Transportation Bill Proposed

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The bill, which commits $7.4B over two years, would set aside some of — but not nearly all — the money needed for the 520 floating bridge replacement and the Viaduct replacement:

Lawmakers and Gov. Christine Gregoire said for the first time that Olympia must proceed with some projects, most notably the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, without knowing entirely where the money is coming from. The bridge needs at least $2 billion more.

About $78 million is set aside to cover additional overruns in the next two years and a $1 billion risk pool is created for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement and rebuilding the 520 bridge.

The plan assumes $915 million worth of initial work on replacement of the viaduct and would include $120 million in early spending on the 520 bridge.

More on the unique process from the P-I:

Gregoire and other transportation leaders said it makes sense to start building huge highway projects – many of which could take a decade or more to complete – before final designs and total cost estimates are in established.

While it’s true that there are certain non-negotiable aspects of these projects that can be started right away (like new pontoons for a new floating bridge), it seems awful risky to start pre-construction before all the financing is in place. It just kicks the problem down the road.

That said, it is an interesting way to get around the “Seattle way” of talking projects to death and never pouring any concrete. That’s because citizens generally don’t get worked up until fairly late in the process. By the time people start holding neighborhood meetings to oppose a given project, it’ll be half-built.

Gregoire Wants to Start Work Now

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

From the Seattle Times:

The work includes:

• Stabilizing viaduct footings near Washington Street.
• Building a new interchange near Qwest and Safeco fields to help trucks and commuters to move between the waterfront and south downtown.
• Relocating two electrical transmission lines and five feeder lines from the viaduct to Western and First avenues.
• Adding lighting, fire suppression, seismic upgrades and ventilation to the Battery Street tunnel.
• Strengthening steel structures from Lenora Street to the Battery Street Tunnel.
• Replacing the highway from Holgate Street to Royal Brougham Way.

Mayor Nickels, clearly chastened by the result, says he “will not be advocating any particular solution.”

Gov. Rossellini’s Viaduct Memories

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Former Governor Albert Rosellini offers his memories of the viaduct in this slide show.

The 97-year-old Rosellini jokes at the end that he hopes they’ll have decided what to do about the waterfront roadway before he passes. Ironically, the next big item on Seattle’s transportation agenda is replacing the 520 floating bridge, a.k.a. the Governor Albert D Rosellini Bridge.

WSDOT’s Responsibility for Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Ezra Basom writes:

Lets call a spade a spade, and stop pretending that WSDOT offers this state a plan for transportation. The “Washington State Department of Transportation” has a plan for building, maintaining and expanding highways, at a time when we need to be rethinking our auto-centric transportation system. We simply haven’t been asking the right questions about how to solve our transportation problems. By revising state transportation goals, we can reframe the questions and have the ability to explore more innovative solutions.

It’s certainly true that WSDOT is still very highway-centric. However, it bears noting that there are several unsexy-but-vital rail projects that the agency is working on in the state. Here’s the complete list.

Basom might still call this is a “spade” and argue that the state has shirked its rail obligations. And that would be a fair point. But if you want to encourage WSDOT to do more, I think it’s important to acknowledge what they’ve already done.

For Comparison, The Embarcadero

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

San Francisco’s embarcadero is the most often mentioned comparison to the Alaskan Way Viaduct. So while In SF last weekend, I made sure to snap a few pictures of their waterfront, which now has a lovely street boulevard with an electric streetcar in lieu of the double-decker freeway:

Embarcadero

Embarcadero

Oops

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Sea-Tac light rail staton is going to be a bit pricey:

Sound Transit will have to reevaluate its proposed light-rail station at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after the agency received just one bid to build the stop.

Mowat Construction presented the sole offer to do the job for $95.3 million, far more than the $51.8 million Sound Transit engineers and consultants had expected.

The airport extension itself seems to be progressing pretty rapidly. I hope they figure out how to get a station at the end of it.

Leaders’ Takes on the Viaduct Issue

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In advance of the March 13 viaduct referendum, the P-I has a nice roundup of various local leaders’ opinions. A couple of things stand out.

First, Council President Nick Licata, who’s pro-rebuild, focuses on the affordability of a new elevated structure. With all due respect to Mr. Licata, a half-billion dollars amortized over a century is not a lot of money. Better to do it once and do it right.

Second, Mayor Nickels frames his position as anti-rebuild and not pro-tunnel:

But again I think the most important question and the most important voice that we need to hear from Seattle is ‘no’ to an elevated structure in the 21st century

In other words, he’s setting himself up to save face if the tunnel vote fails: he can still claim victory if the rebuild also fails. The question is whether he’s subtly pivoting to the so-callled surface-transit alternative, or whether he just wants to go back to Olympia with a big fat “NO” from Seattleites. We’ll find out after the 13th.