With Snow Sticking, Metro Still on Snow Routes

Update 3:40 pm: Metro just announced they’re staying on snow routes the rest of the day.

Update 2:30 pm: Some ST bus routes are delayed. It’s all tracked here.

Update 11:10 am: All Pierce Transit buses on snow routes.

It looks like Metro made the right call last night to plan on AM snow, as snow is down and sticking in many areas of Seattle. All Metro routes remain on their snow routes. Route 90 — a snow-only route — is currently operating with 3 buses an hour. Link light rail seems somewhat unaffected thus far.

So far — and we’re still early in what could be a cold, icy week — Metro is having a pretty good performance. This is a far cry from the chaos of Snowpocolypse 2008. Metro will be severely challenged, however, if the slush on roads freezes tonight as some expect.

For OneBusAway users: Metro has further taken the step of shutting down real-time data to services like OneBusAway, since the data is inaccurate when buses are on reroute.

Tell us how things are for you in the comments.

Union Gets Future Raise, More Part-Time Hours

The local transit operators union that service King County’s Metro has agreed to forgo raises next year, according to a tentative agreement posted on the ATU 587’s website. The ATU is promoting the following compromises:

  • As we reported last week, transit operators will forgo a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for the first year of the contract, effectively freezing current wage levels. This will save about $7.8 million compared to the expiring contract.
  • In years 2 and 3 — beginning at the end of October in 2011 and 2012, respectively — bus drivers will get modest raises of 0.7% in year 2 and 0.6% on top of that in year 3.
  • In addition, drivers will receive a COLA based on local inflation in those out years. The COLA has no cap and just a 0% floor — so drivers can never face a wage decrease. This represents a major concession from the union, which had secured a 3% floor in the last contract
  • Metro will gain some “efficiencies,” the union document says, by allowing part-time operators to do more overtime work that is current given to full-time operators. Metro has long desired to pay part-time wages for some services, because a full-time overtime hour is much more costly than an additional part-time hour.

Overall, the proposed agreement looks like a good deal for Metro (and, thus, for taxpayers). Particularly important is the move toward giving part-time operators to get more work, which is a no-brainer savings for Metro and also seem more equitable because part-timers are often starved for hours. The rule change would allow part-time operators to take extra work that would put them beyond 8 hours in a given day, a change that Metro has been pushing for years, according to a part-time driver we spoke with.

The agreement means “fewer employees working more hours,” local ATU President Paul Bachtel told us in an email last night, “whether it be part-time working additional [trips] or full-time working overtime.” Bachtel said Metro’s part-time driver base would shrink due to “attrition,” which “means fewer benefit packages being purchased” — more savings for the transit agency facing a long-term budget crunch.

“The negotiated agreement is reflective of the recent audit findings, saves Metro money, provides more hours for both part and full-time employees,” Bachtel said.

Bus drivers don’t come away in a bad position: while a year’s inflation even if modest will give them a small real pay cut, the modest pay raises in later years may mitigate that or have drivers come out ahead. Metro operators are paid well compared to other agencies in the region, so it makes sense for their wage to mostly grow with just inflation.

Smaller changes in the proposed contract include the maintenance efficiencies — like buying able to buy some components instead of fabricating them — and the Union throwing its hat into the scheduling ring.

The proposal must be ratified by union members before entering effect. Spokespeople for King County Executive Dow Constantine wouldn’t comment to us, saying they have an agreement with the union to not discuss the contract until it’s approved by union members.

News Roundup: Scrapping 40/40/20

Photo by caseyrs77

What we’ve missed:

  • Metro’s Regional Transit Task Force has recommended scrapping 40/40/20 — a policy that allocates new bus service disproportionately away from Seattle toward generally less efficient suburban service — reports PubliCola.
  • Seattle car tabs will cost $20 more beginning next May. The funds will be dedicated to transportation projects.
  • The Obama administration has released more funds for high-speed rail. $27 million will go to King Street and Tukwila Stations. Will future money be appropriated under a GOP Congress?
  • Have you noticed that Verizon is sponsoring some ads on our site? This weekend’s Verizon Urban Challenge is a real life puzzle/explorer game — sort of like The Amazing Race. Apparently, a few of the elements in the game acknowledge Seattle’s public transit system. A two-person team can win up to $3,000 and some new phones.
  • “Some unfortunate soul peed and pooped on the train, and it was not a little accident.”
  • The ATU (bus operators union) and county likely to end up in arbitration — a process that’ll likely favor union interests compared to a process without arbitration. The ATU is one of two county labor groups who has so far refused to give up a raise for next year.
  • Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl gave money to Patty Murray’s re-election campaign. Have you mailed in your ballot yet?
  • Buy a used Metro bus for less than $10k. (h/t cookieguru.)
  • The New York Times has an excellent photo gallery that covers the last century of New York City subways.
  • A Ferris wheel is planned for the waterfront.
  • The Market Urbanism blog is worth subscribing to.

This is an open thread.

WSDOT Sweetens Deep Bore Tunnel Contract

Lindblom at the Seattle Times reports that the state has made the Highway 99 tunnel contract a bit sweeter:

As a bid deadline nears and pressure mounts, Washington state has sweetened its Highway 99 tunnel contract by offering a pair of bid teams $230 million in concessions.

The changes reflect a view by construction executives that the real costs are higher on this world-record project than the state projected several months ago.

The money can be shifted out of a large pool of risk and contingency funds, so the overall tunnel budget remains $1.96 billion, said Ron Paananen, state program administrator.

Why make these changes?

They’re designed to reduce the companies’ risk, so bids are more likely to meet the target price of $1.1 billion, published many months ago.

“Both teams, and maybe the two teams that dropped out, expressed concern the [state’s cost target] is too low. They couldn’t figure out how to bid the project at that amount or lower,” [one of the bidders] said.

WSDOT’s expert panel and the Seattle city council’s risk consultant say that reducing the amount of contingency funds is fine, and perhaps some of that contingency money exists for exactly the type of bid inflation we’re witnessing. But it’s slightly concerning that the engineer’s estimates are already unrealistic in a period where construction bids routinely come in under budget. Imagine what happens in 2014 or so, when construction is beginning in earnest and the change orders come pouring in.

A Bad Tuesday

Video by Oran.

PubliCola’s recap of yesterday’s Link light rail rider alerts shows that we either have a train system that is unreliable at providing service or reliable at providing riders messages. Or, more likely, somewhere in-between.

Two of yesterday’s four delays were delayed to buses in the downtown transit tunnel. The joint operations there will likely be a headache for the years to come, but of course Metro would probably like to remind you that there are more bus riders who use the tunnel than Link’s system ridership.

First Hill Streetcar Update: Preliminary Platform Design

Preliminary concept of a typical streetcar platform.

The transit nerds at CHS Capitol Hill Seattle have an update on the latest information on the First Hill Streetcar. At a presentation (embedded after the jump) to the city council’s transportation committee yesterday, the Seattle Department of Transportation gave an early look at preliminary station designs.

The First Hill Streetcar will connect Capitol Hill’s light rail station to the International District, through First Hill. The project was funded funded through the Sound Transit 2 vote (2008) and will open in late 2013, three years ahead of the original schedule.

During the presentation, the department also announced its intent to move the Capitol Hill station terminus just south of Denny, to preserve the ability for Denny between Broadway and 10th to serve as a permanent location for a farmer’s market. And it looks more and more like SDOT is leaning toward a Broadway cycle track. SDOT says that bike path would pay for itself, reports Seattle Bike Blog.

CHS reports that Councilmember Rasmussen indicated that a northern extension to Aloha, which would allow the streetcar to serve the busy Broadway shopping district, is a top priority. The council has asked the Sound Transit Broadway to fund early preliminary design on that section, but officials at Sound Transit tell us that the extension wasn’t part of the Sound Transit 2 plan and the agency has tight budget constraints. The city, for its part, is estimated to deliver streetcar project millions under budget, even if early engineering for the extension is funded.

SDOT’s presentation is below the jump.

Continue reading “First Hill Streetcar Update: Preliminary Platform Design”

Earl: Recession Means ST Can’t Deliver in 15 Years

Revenue is expected to be 25% lower than planned because of the recession.

A 25% percent drop in expected tax revenue will force Sound Transit to re-develop some of its 15 year plan that voters approved in 2008, agency CEO Joni Earl told the board today. She said that procedures that voters also approved meant the agency must identify contingency plans if revenue is 5% or more less than expected.

“All elements of ST2 program no longer affordable within the original 15-year timeframe,” read a slideshow given to the board. The detailed budget proposal is available online.

Northgate Slips to 2021

University Link is on schedule and isn’t affected by the recent news, but the CEO’s budget pushes back the start of Northgate service a year, to 2021, “due to design and construction challenges.”

Additionally Earl told the board that the extension from Northgate to Lynnwood has been identified as risky. It may need to be changed if the recession is even worse than the July forecast, and much of the project’s details are unknown since little  has been done on the extension so far.

North King County (mostly Seattle) had the most mild drop in revenue forecasts. It is “only” facing a 16% shortfall, with the rest of the system facing a 28% shortfall.

South Link to Federal Way Reconsidered

South King County will be particularly hard hit, she said, because of a near 31% revenue shortfall. Link light rail’s extension from S. 200th St to S. 272nd in North Federal Way cannot be completed on schedule because of the drain, according to agency officials.

The agency will not recommend any options for that corridor to the board but instead will recommend a $2.5 million study to evaluate the various options to provide high-capacity transit to South King along the corridor.

All options are on the table, officials said. It seems likely that South Link will be terminated further north than expected, similar to Central Link terminating at SeaTac Airport instead of the originally planned S. 200th St station. The line could also be phased later than planned, like the University Link project currently under construction and expected to open 10 years behind the 1996 schedule. Under any option, South Link will undergo significant changes from what voters approved in 2008.

More after the jump…

Continue reading “Earl: Recession Means ST Can’t Deliver in 15 Years”

Seattle Chooses Highline Designer for Waterfront

The city has chosen james corner field operations (sic) to design Seattle’s new waterfront, reports PubliCola.

New York City-based field operations was widely seen as the flashier of the two leading contenders for the contract to overhaul more than 20 acres of waterfront space when the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down […]

During his public presentation last week, Corner—a native of Manchester—said he wanted to integrate the waterfront’s “gritty” industrial feel into his waterfront design. “We found the work James Corner did to be compelling and relevant to the waterfront,” said SDOT central waterfront project manager Steve Pearce.

JCFO is probably best known for designing New York City’s Highline, and has a history of delivering beautiful and innovative urban park projects. We hope they do something great with the waterfront once the Viaduct is torn down.

We continue to question how an unactivated section of town is going to be activated by just a park. Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote in the early sixties that urban parks that aren’t surrounded by diverse uses will inevitably have problems; they are “volatile places.” A park along the waterfront may face these problems if the only commercial activity along its edges are daytime tourist traps — every Cal Anderson needs its Capitol Hill, after all. PubliCola asked about commercial development, and the response isn’t great:

Asked whether the city’s current waterfront “guiding principles”—which say that city-owned land that will be opened up on the waterfront must remain public—will inhibit development (and effectively force the design team to propose a linear park), DPD director Diane Sugimura said, “That’s one of the challenges: How do you make this a real urban area for all the people of the city … and something that’s not just a big park.” However, Sugimura said, “At this point we’re not looking at private development per se,” although the waterfront design could include things like pavilions with restaurants inside.

Perhaps a pavilion for all the quality restaurants that want to sit on city-owned property? Right.

Unless the city, and JCFO, recognizes that people must live, work, and play on the waterfront for it to really click, the waterfront will no doubt be visually impressive but still fall short.

Transit Union President: Cut Bus Service for Driver Pay

"Dispatch: Where drivers get their assignments." Photo by Oran.

From the excellent Lindblom piece in last week’s Times about the Union’s contract negotiations with King County Metro:

[Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 president Paul] Bachtel said Metro isn’t like United Airlines, which needed wage concessions to stay in business. “They [drivers] don’t expect to give up wages, benefits, working conditions, when the transit agency could cut some of its services, and not take away pay.”

It should be noted that the issue really up for discussion isn’t outright wage cuts, but rather keeping minimum “cost-of-living” raises of 3% even when there is nearly no inflation, nor meaningful movement of the consumer price index, due to the recession. In other words, it’s expected that the cost-of-living will not increase much in coming years but the union president wants so-called “cost-of-living” increases — automatic pay raises — while tax revenues remain flat. It’s the union’s right to ask, but certainly the county has an obligation to get a good deal for the public. That’s balance is reflected in the spirit of the quote above: the ATU is asking for pay increases at the high cost of reduced bus service.

It’s about here in the discussion where we would usually choose our loyalties based on the question “Are bus drivers overpaid?” Or, are they paid too little? I don’t like to answer such leading questions, but a first answer has to be, “compared to what?” Do we look at peer agencies? Do we ask ourselves what a living wage is? And does a “living wage” include a house and a stay-at-home spouse? Or is renting an apartment still “living?” Those are complicated questions that no one, including me, is suited to answer for any other. I’m unprepared to make a value judgment about who “deserves” what pay. Most of us know, of course, that pay is earned; its first-order approximation is probably opportunity cost [1].

Continued after the jump…

Continue reading “Transit Union President: Cut Bus Service for Driver Pay”

Updated Comments System

A small technical note: we’ve switched our comments systems to WordPress’ default threaded comments system, after a long time of using a plug-in.

We’re experimenting with the exact look of the comments, as well as the depth of threading we want to support. The goals are to make comments easier to follow and read.

Any suggestions in the comments are welcome.

Edit: Commenter may have to refresh the comments page a few times to see the appropriate styling.

ST: Car Collides with Link, Accident Cleared

A car made an illegal left hand turn and collided with a light rail train this morning, Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray said.

The accident occured at the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd and Othello St at around 11 am. The scene was cleared and normal service resumed  by 11:35, Gray said.

No major injuries have been reported.

Downtown Parking & Driver Costs

Matt over at Orphan Road poses some questions about Seattle’s plans to show the available number of parking spots outside of downtown parking garages:

  1. Would knowing the number of stalls available in a parking lot get you off the street any faster?
  2. If E-Park does work, would you expect the number of cars in Seattle to increase due to experiencing less congestion (i.e. induced demand)?
  3. If the answer to #2 is “yes”, is encouraging driving ok in this circumstance? Why?

I’ll attempt some non-authoritative guesses to advance a conversation.

Continued beyond the jump…

Continue reading “Downtown Parking & Driver Costs”

Intercity Transit Likely Saved by Voters

Service cuts will be prevented thanks to Thurston County voters.

The voters of urban Thurston County rallied last night behind a measure on the ballot to save Intercity Transit’s bus service, according to Thurston County’s early election returns.

Yes – 18,242 – 64%
No – 10,442 – 36%

The measure, which seems likely to easily pass even once all votes are counted, raises Intercity Transit’s sales tax rake from 0.6% to 0.8%. Without this revenue increase, service would have been cut, we wrote last month:

The revenue predicament of Intercity Transit should by now be familiar. Tax revenues are down about 13% from 2007 levels. The agency has already cut some nonessential programs and raised fares, and is now facing a 9% cut in February 2011 and a further 14% in 2012.

The state’s limit on sales tax authority for transit agencies is 0.9%, providing room for an additional increase if even more service is desired by future voters. King County Metro, facing its own shortfall in coming years, is already at that limit.

Report: Seattle Council Skeptical of Local Rail Measure

Council President Richard Conlin. Photo from WSDOT.

The relationship between the Seattle City Council and Mayor McGinn doesn’t seem to be improving, and that could mean bad news for light rail supporters. McGinn promised to put a light rail measure on the ballot within two years of being elected — the most logical choice now being November 2011.

The revenue options available to McGinn have only shrunk in recent months as the SR-99 deep-bore tunnel, the crumbling waterfront seawall, and the SDOT funding shortfall have moved a variety of sources near their limits — or will in the near future. The city council is planning to soon create a Transportation Benefit District, according to PubliCola, to help fill SDOT’s shortfall.

A TBD would allow the council to raise serious revenue, with voter approval, through a high vehicle license fee, a property tax increase, a sales-tax increase, or even (unlikely) tolls on local arterials. But the Times notes that the city council — who would have to move any light rail measure to the ballot — is skeptical:

There doesn’t seem to be much fervor on the City Council to seek a near-term vote on light rail, in a time when basic services are threatened by recession and budget cuts, according to Councilman Nick Licata. “I think it’s been pushed back, and I don’t see the public necessarily supporting it, once they know what the costs are,” he said.

Councilman Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the transportation committee, is equally sour on trying a light rail tax anytime soon, even though he lives in West Seattle.

“We don’t even have light rail to the U District yet, and to Roosevelt,” he said, referring to Sound Transit lines due in the early 2020s. King County Metro’s RapidRide bus service, due in 2012 for Ballard and West Seattle, is more productive for those neighborhoods in the near term, he said. He suspects that a westside rail study would sit on the shelf for years.

Rasmussen and four other councilmembers are up for re-election next year.

In another political setback, the council’s transportation committee voted to approve initial funding for an updated transit master plan only after stipulating that the city must study high-capacity transit corridors in a mode neutral way, not picking light rail from the beginning. Though this decision is prudent, the council also added another delay mechanism: the second phase of funding for the master plan will only come after the council signs off on the first phase in January of next year.

The transit master plan must be delivered within a year, according to SDOT spokesman Richard Sheridan, if the council doesn’t delay it again. By the end of March, 2011, SDOT expects to be “heavily into modal analysis” which would include identified corridors, recommended modes, preliminary cost estimates, and a “menu of revenue options,” according to Tony Mazzella, who is the project lead for the master plan. It’s important to note that the transit master plan will not specifically favor one mode or one corridor, and may recommend bus rapid transit or rapid streetcar, or another mode, instead of light rail. My intuition is that light rail is the only mode with the capacity though the biggest corridors in the city.

For a 2011 measure to get on the ballot, there clearly needs to be more political momentum to get through a skeptical council. But if the council remains disinterested and local revenue sources continue to dry up, a local ballot measure might never come up to vote. Sound Transit doesn’t have revenue authority to build new light rail lines — beyond what was approved in ST2 — until the 2030’s. Even if the state legislature changes that, a local spur would certainly break ground much sooner.

Follow-Up: Bellevue Overwhelmingly Supported East Link

Earlier today, Sherwin pointed out that a noted letter-to-the-editor author who fumes about East Link has blatantly lied in his letters. Among other claims, Mr. Hirt said that the “majority of” Bellevue residents “voted against” funding East Link. Sherwin pointed out that the districts that encompass Bellevue overwhelmingly supported light rail, and showed a graphic depicting the wide majority of precincts in Bellevue supporting Sound Transit 2.

Still, some commenters wanted exact numbers for Bellevue’s support. We’re here to serve: according to the 2008 precinct numbers provided by King County, 56% (28,901) of those who voted on ST2 in Bellevue moved to approve the package that included East Link, while just 44% (22,887) voted to reject it. 5,205 voters in Bellevue were happy with others making the choice for them, and chose not to vote one way or the other on ST2.

And there’s your data-driven fact check that the Seattle Times and the Bellevue Reporter were unwilling to do before publishing Mr. Hirt’s letters.

TCC Fundraiser Thursday Night

A quick reminder that the Transportation Choices Coalition fundraiser we mentioned earlier this week is happening tomorrow. What’s TCC?

For those of you who don’t know, TCC is a nonprofit that shares this blog’s values. Unlike STB, they do the things that really require full-time employees: lobbying Olympia and providing a pro-rail, pro-transit, pro-density voice on various government commissions and task forces.

I’ll be there, along with a few other bloggers.

Update: We just got word that Congressman Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine will be in attendance. Inslee is rumored to run for governor in 2012, so it’ll be interesting to hear his thoughts on public transit.

Feds May be Warming to Tolling

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has hinted the Obama administration may be warming to tolling highways as a way to raise revenue for the federal highway trust fund. That trust fund also pays for transit projects.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said a combination of current-level gas tax receipts, road and bridge tolling and President Obama’s proposed infrastructure fund could offer a way to fund a long-term federal infrastructure program without new taxes.

Appearing before a heavily attended conference in Washington, D.C., of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, LaHood vowed “raising the gas tax is not an option” to increase money available for federal transport spending.

Unfortunately, LaHood still reflects the Obama administration’s view that a gas tax increase is off-the-table. When even the hard-hitting editorialists at USA TODAY, one might wonder how far out-of-touch the administration is on gas taxes.

However, a stronger federal stance on tolling as a source of revenue would be welcome. Tolling represents one of the few ways to actually reduce congestion and ration access to roadways, and would encourage government to invest in transit alternatives.

Hat tip to the excellent Federal Transportation Issues blog that WSDOT runs.

ORCA Sometimes Feels Half-Engineered

Four ORCA cards. Photo by Oran.
Four ORCA cards. Photo by Oran.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend lost my ORCA card that had about $20 in fare on it. No big deal, I thought, and ordered a replacement online. Going to the website and reporting my card as lost was easy. In a few easy steps, I paid a $5 replacement fee, my card was deactivated, and my new card was in the mail.

When my new card arrived, I was reminded of some of ORCA’s successes. The printed materials and the card itself are very well designed. Everything in the envelope is internally consistent and it’s clear there was some work put into the brand of ORCA and ensuring its ease of use. In other words, the physical aspects of ORCA feel thoughtful.

Few would call ORCA website thoughtful, though. On the technical side, the site suffers from rendering problems in modern browsers like Chrome, Safari, and Firefox as well as their mobile cousins that run on many smartphones. On the design side, doing something like setting up the auto-load functionality for your card isn’t accomplished by clicking a button and filling out details, but rather clicking a button and then finding a link in a long-winded paragraph of text.

The expectation that people are unoccupied enough to read paragraphs of dry transit-speak is poor design and is a poor compliment to the good printed materials in the ORCA universe. Good design is knowing that people don’t read anything. This kludge may be an explanation as to why adoption of the useful auto-load technology represents less than 1% of registered cards, according to data from the ORCA Quarterly Program Management Report.

Like any other person, I wasn’t unoccupied enough to read the wall of text when reporting my card lost, so I expected my replacement card to pay for my bus the next morning. Oops: “please allow 8 to 10 days processing time for your funds to be transferred from your lost card to your new card.” I don’t know how it is possible to do something that’s so technically easy so slowly.

While the card is pretty and the system works pretty well, sometimes I can’t help but feel the ORCA project was half-designed and half-engineered.