Sound Transit Board Expected to Approve 112th

[Update at 4:55 pm: The Board unanimously approved the motion and picked options 2 and 6 (all options here), west-side running alignments that would either feed into an at-grade downtown segment or a tunnel.  Bellevue mayor Don Davidson did not withhold his stiff criticism from ST prior to the decision.]

The Sound Transit Board is expected today to approve new preferred alignments for South Bellevue. The two options would run along the east or the west side of 112th Ave. As of 3:30, readers can stream the board meeting here — the 112th Ave decision is on the agenda (item 8B).

The Bellevue City Council earlier rejected considering any of the six 112th Ave alignments, but Sound Transit will almost certainly approve one of the alignments on that road. More backstory on the six options here.

U.S. Census: Seattle Gains 13.7k Residents

Seattle skyline. Photo by Oran.

According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the city of Seattle gained an estimated 13,707 new residents between 2008 and 2009. The new official population estimate — 617,334 — is a 2.3% gain from last year’s estimate and represents 9.4% growth from the year 2000.

A slightly hysterical article that appeared a 2006 edition of the Seattle PI question former Mayor Nickels’ suggestion that Seattle could grow to 923,000 by 2040, but in the unlikely event that Seattle continues to gain population at 2.3% per year, its population will be much higher by that year: just under 1.3 million.

Bellevue, largest suburban city in King County, had 126,626 residents in 2009, the Bureau says. Bellevue grew slightly faster than Seattle last year — 2.5% — and has seen a 12.6% growth in population since 2000.

Seattle is the 23rd largest city in the county, behind Boston (20th), Baltimore (21st), and El Paso (22nd). Bellevue is much further down the list, at 192. Seattle had muted growth in the early part of the decade, probably related to the dot-com bubble and subsequent recession. Since 2004, though, Seattle has had strong year-over-year growth and has grown faster than the next four largest cities.

Figures for 2010 population estimates will be released next year, when the 2010 census is completed.

The Damaging Effect of Cul-de-sacs on Walkability

The walkshed of a neighborhood in Woodinville, a suburb on the Eastside, is on the left. The Ballard walkshed, on the right, has much more pedestrian connectivity.

Earlier this year, the Harvard Business Review blog briefly featured a study that compared a neighborhood of suburban Woodinville to one in urban Ballard. The blue lines in the graphic above illustrate the 1 kilometer reach of a pedestrian walking from the red dot in the center. This so-called walkshed is an important measure of ability from one to get from point A to B and helps us explain why one who lives in Ballard is more likely to walk to the grocery store or the local park than one in Woodinville.

The graphic also explains to us why transit ridership in Ballard is likely to be much higher than ridership in Woodinville, and why Woodinville has more driving. The study notes that those who live in communities like the Ballard neighborhood above drover 26% fewer miles than those in cul-de-sac-based communities.

Some cul-de-sacs are better than others, of course. Some suburban communities have cut-throughs that allow pedestrians and bicyclists to reach arterial streets and other roads efficiently. Most frequently, however, the paths available to pedestrians in suburban communities are the same twisty, maze-like roads that cars navigate. When developers don’t afford pedestrians an efficient means of getting around, it’s no surprise that many suburbs turn to auto-dependency.

We’ve spoke about the benefits of the urban street grid (and its political effects) before. Other reactions on the walkshed study are available at Infrastructurist and Human Transit.

Since You May Walk, Bike, or Ride…

We’ve already mentioned this in an earlier news roundup, but it’s a slow news day:

The city of Seattle has put together a brief online poll to measure the community’s interest in expanding pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access across the city. Some of our readers may want to give their thoughts so the Mayor can argue he has a mandate for his various green transportation initiatives.

Metro Tells Seattle: No Decision on Trolleys

Trolley study timeline.

King Country Metro has a message to the residents and politicians of Seattle: the bus agency has barely begun to study electric trolley buses, so please… Well, please calm down. “We’re just at the beginning of this process,” said Linda Thielke, a Metro spokesperson. “No decision has been made. All the options are still on the table.”

At a presentation before the Seattle City Council yesterday, Metro staff outlined some of the parameters of study that will be conducted over the next year and then presented to the King County Council around March, 2011. The County Council will decide by November, 2011 whether to purchase new electric trolley buses or move toward hybrid buses as part of the Metro biennial budget process.

Some blogs have accused Metro of trying to kill of the trolley buses with this study, but Thielke says it is being done “with a blank slate and open mind.” She said that recognizes that some benefits of trolleys — like quiet operation — aren’t strictly monetary savings. The study — called the “Trolley Bus System Evaluation” — is budgeted to cost $850,000.

An earlier audit of Metro estimated the county could save $8.7 million a year by buying hybrid buses instead of new trolleys when the current trolley fleet is retired in 2014. Some — including Metro staff — have accused the auditor of using optimistic numbers for hybrid costs, noting that trolleys were cheaper to operate than hybrids when deisel was expensive in the summer of 2008, according a report in the PI. Theilke says that Metro understands it can’t “go just by the price off the shelf” and must also study “oil prices over time.”

More after the jump…

Continue reading “Metro Tells Seattle: No Decision on Trolleys”

Buses Now Stop at Rail Crossings

Wondering why the 255 driver awkwardly and anxious stops the bus when he crosses the rail tracks just off SR-520? Well, in order to make sure the state will be eligible for federal funds in some cases, new regulations force buses to stop before crossing train tracks. Drivers are surely instructed to look both ways.

Link Light Rail Ridership up 11% in April

Sounders fans line up to ride Link. Photo by Oran.

Light rail ridership was up 11% in April compared to March.  The average April weekday saw 20,129 boardings, according to Sound Transit. April’s numbers are Link’s strongest performance so far.

There were 18,094 boardings on the average weekday in March and 16,741 in February. This month’s raw data is hosted locally (pdf).

Link ridership has had an upward trend is recent months, but as I noted last month even these current numbers are below ST’s earlier projections:

The 2010 Service Implementation Plan (pdf) from Sound Transit predicted that ridership would average 26,600 across the year, a figure that is unlikely to be met. Sources at Sound Transit have told us those estimates do not reflect the lower-than-planned train frequencies and the fact that fares are charged in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, and do not account for the deep recession. It’s unknown if the 2011 Service Implementation Plan will continue to use unreliable estimates.

And though these large percentage jumps are nice to see, we should keep in mind that they may not keep up with seasonal changes in demand over the rest of the year.

Court Blocks Metro Mariners Service

" Order to form a more perfect Union..."

Remember when Senator Patty Murray passed an amendment that let King County Metro provide its popular Mariners bus service? Bad news. The Seattle PI reports that her amendment was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in DC yesterday after private charter bus operators sued.

“Right now, we are not sure just how the recent federal judge’s ruling will affect the Metro to the Mariners Special Service,” Rebecca Hale of the Mariners said. “We hope to know within a few days whether the service will be canceled.  When we receive that notification, we will post it on our website and will reach out to our fans with that information.”

The opinion says that Murray’s amendment violated the First and Fifth Amendments. Wait, the First Amendment right to free speech? Says the opinion: Murray’s amendment “prevents the FTA from spending money to review, investigate, or hear complaints against [Metro],” and this “this constitutes a significant burden on [private charter bus operators’] First Amendment right to petition.”

Fifth Amendment rights were violated because Murray’s amendment protected only King County Metro and no other public transit operators in the country, the opinion says. The Fifth Amendment provides due process protections and requires equal protection under the law — equal protection that means “similarly situated” entities should be treated equally under the law. Murray’s amendment gave no remedy for private bus operators who could provide even lower-cost service than Metro, which could undermine the cost claim that she argued with in her press release, says the court:

For instance, it seems plausible that expanding the grounds for exemptions to the Charter Rule where private charter service has been shown to be inadequate or too costly would have an effect similar to, if not greater than the Murray Amendment with respect to the problems identified by defendants, without burdening plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. Moreover, the Amendment itself merely states that the FTA may not use funds to investigate possible Charter Rule violations by one publicly-subsidized entity, not that this entity is required to provide lower prices and more convenient service for the public.

Murray’s amendment curtailed a Bush-era policy that forbade public transit agencies from providing charter service when any private charter operator was willing to take up the task, regardless of the cost difference to sports fans. An improvement to this regulation could be to waive the requirement when a private charter is uncompetitive, and that would take new legislation. In either case, Metro’s service was fully funded by the Mariners and didn’t require taxpayer subsidies, a spokeswoman told the PI.

The suit was launched against the Federal Transit Administration, it’s unknown if the government will appeal the decision.

Rasmussen Bill Halts City’s Transit Plan Update

Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen

The Seattle City Council Transportation Committee is considering a bill today from Councilmember Rassmussen that would cut off funding for updating the city’s Transit Master Plan without further council approval.

The bill says that while the Mayor already has the authority to coordinate with the City “Council and Council Central Staff to frame for Council review and approval the vision, goals, schedule, and scope of work to update the,” the bill would disallow the executive from actually working to “implement the update” to the Master Plan “until authorized by future ordinance.”

Rasmussen has recently come under fire from some greenies for being skeptical of the Nickerson Street “road diet.” He told PubliCola that he didn’t see the Council taking action to stop that project.

Updating the Transit Master Plan is one of the planks of the “Walk. Bike. Ride.” initiative that Seattle Mayor McGinn announced last month, and McGinn has said the update will include a study for light rail expansion to Ballard and West Seattle.

Rasmussen may be trying to separate the Mayor’s light rail election promise from an update of the Transit Master Plan, which would otherwise focus on how to align bus service in the coming years. Another motive could be a turf war: in effect, letting the Mayor know that the council should have a big say in the parameters guiding the Transit Master Plan update. Note the “Council review and approval” in the bill language.

Update: PubliCola has Rasmussen on the record for why he’s proposed the bill.  Speaking of the record, the fizz got the story up before us so make sure to give their post a read.

Rossi to Challenge Sen. Murray, Transit Supporter

Dino Rossi, a Republican, has entered the federal Senate primary as a challenge to Senator Patty Murray (Democrat). He is the biggest threat to Murray’s re-election.

Sen. Murray has been a long-time champion of transit funding throughout the state, securing federal earmarks for Central Link, University Link, and many other projects. She’s also helped on the margins when important. She is chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, and her ability to direct dollars to good projects in our state has been invaluable. Without her help in the early part of the last decade, Link light rail might have crumbled.

Rossi ran for governor in both 2004 and 2008. During his 2008 campaign he had anti-transit policies such as raiding Sound Transit’s Eastside “surplus” funds to spend on highway expansion — money that was necessary to fund East Link — and to open HOV lanes to all traffic outside of “peak hours.” Of course, “peak” is subjective depending on the roadway, and buses need those HOV lanes clear to operate efficiency.

Readers will not have to wait until October to infer our endorsement.

Mercer Bids Come in 23% Under Budget

The Mercer corridor plan. Image from SDOT.

In more city street news, the city sends word that work on the project to address the so-called “Mercer Mess” has had its first major bid come in under-budget. The project will convert both Mercer and Valley in South Lake Union into a two-way boulevards.

Gary Merlino Construction Company, the apparent low bidder on the east phase of the Mercer Corridor Improvements Project, submitted a proposal that came in at about $47,850,000, well under the engineer’s estimate. Overall, there is a bid savings of approximately 23 percent on demolition and construction from earlier estimates, which the project relied on as part of its funding plan. The city is further reviewing the bids for completeness and responsiveness.

Another illustration that the major project bid environment is very favorable right now, which could affect transit projects such as University Link and the First Hill Streetcar.

Stone Way Road Diet Improved Safety, says City

Yesterday, the city sent out a press release showing that the Stone Way “road diet” has improved safety on the street. The so-called diet converted the north Seattle street from a four lane road into one that has two lanes, a center turn lane, and bicycle lanes. Publicola summarizes the press release:

• The percentage of drivers exceeding the 30 mph speed limit on Stone Way by 10 mph or more dropped about 75 percent—from about 4 percent to about 1 percent. A pedestrian struck at 20 mph, according to studies cited in SDOT’s report, has an 85 percent chance of survival, compared to only 15 percent for a pedestrian struck at [a higher speed].

• While car traffic on Stone Way decreased 6 percent after the road was rechannelized, bike traffic increased a whopping 35 percent, with bike traffic representing around 15 percent of rush-hour trips on the road.

Traffic on neighborhood streets did not increase, as some neighborhood residents feared; instead, it actually declined substantially, with traffic volumes as much as 49 percent lower on streets parallel to Stone Way. Only two parallel street segments showed any increase—one, Woodland Park Ave. N. at N. 42nd St., climbing by 2 percent (three cars) at morning rush hour, and the other, Woodland Park Ave. N. at N. 50th St., increasing by 27 percent (12 cars) at morning rush hour.

• Collisions between cars and cars, bikes, and pedestrians declined dramatically—14 percent—after the new bike lane and sharrow were introduced. And collisions causing injuries fell even further—33 percent. Finally, car collisions with pedestrians declined even more dramatically —fully 80 percent.

Notably, while local businesses predicted endless traffic on the corridor, the city says that “volumes show the roadway still easily accommodates motor vehicle traffic.”

Ride Free Area Future in Doubt?

Last week, the Seattle PI reported that Downtown Seattle’s Ride Free Area may not last:

Seattle’s downtown Ride Free Area is again under the microscope as transit officials examine how much it contributes to a multi-million-dollar problem with fare evasion. King County Metro Transit officials also have sat down with city officials to revisit an outdated agreement under which Seattle pays to offset fares that would otherwise be collected inside the zone.

“That may lead us to determine to abandon the ride free zone, but that’s many months away from now,” Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond told the county’s Regional Transit Committee Wednesday.

The discussion stems from a recent Metro Transit study showing the agency loses about $3.2 million per year from non-paying riders, or about $62,000 per week. That accounts for an estimated 53,000 riders who don’t pay each week and 35,000 who only pay partial fares. Altogether, that’s just under 5 percent of ridership.

I wrote in January of 2009 that if we eventually moved to heavy ORCA adoption, eliminating the Ride Free Area might make sense… maybe. Budget considerations may alter that judgment slightly, but for all the confusion and possible fare avoidance the RFA may cause, it also helps to ensure that buses move through downtown smoother and have lower dwell times. But Link light rail isn’t free downtown and a peer city — Portland — recently eliminated free bus rides in its downtown.

Of course, Desmond’s comments may be a thinly-veiled call to the Seattle City Council: contribute more to Metro for the Ride Free Area. Seattle pays about $400,000 a year for the Ride Free Area, based on a “methodology in place since 1989 to estimate the difference between the value of the fares Metro would collect if a fare was charged for trips within downtown Seattle and the operating cost savings Metro experiences due to the faster travel times through the CBD,” according to Metro. The 1998 agreement between the city and Metro indexes the payment to inflation, but with “ridership increases over the past few years – combined with 2009 and 2010 fare increases – the difference between fare collections and cost savings in the RFA is increasing much faster than inflation.”

McGinn to Announce “Walk Bike Ride” Initiative

PubliCola reports that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is going to announcing something called “Walk Bike Ride” next week. According to a Facebook event:

Please join the Streets For All Seattle coalition at Mayor McGinn’s announcement of the “Walk Bike Ride” Initiative to make walking, biking and transit the easiest ways to get around in Seattle.

How exactly this all relates to the Streets For All Seattle group, if at all, is unknown. That group is looking for $30 million in annual revenue to improve pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access throughout the city. Right now, concerned citizens can feel important and sign an e-petition.

PubliCola has more details on what McGinn may roll out:

However, McGinn’s staff has briefed council members on the proposal—kind of. Council sources say McGinn’s staffers haven’t put anything on paper or narrowed down specifics of the initiative (not surprising, given the current tension between the mayor and the council over transportation), but that they have mentioned a menu of possible funding mechanisms. Those that could be passed without voter approval include an increase in the commercial parking tax, a $20 fee on vehicle licenses (the maximum possible without going to the voters), and higher parking fees or extended parking hours. Any other tax increase would require a ballot measure, which is also reportedly a possibility.

McGinn will also reportedly announce next week that, as part of “Walk, Bike, Ride,” he will hold four community meetings in different parts of the city, do “instant polling” of citizens, and a request for proposals for teams to come up with a Transit Master Plan for the city.

This could be some exciting stuff for Seattle residents. We’ll report what the Mayor announces when the word drops next Tuesday.

Seattle City Council Approves First Hill Streetcar

SDOT's Recommended Alignment: Two-Way Broadway
The First Hill Streetcar alignment.

The Seattle City Council today unanimously voted to approve the First Hill Streetcar.

The decision follows months of public outreach, which included strong lobbying from various coalitions seeking to put the alignment on 12th Ave or closer to the hospitals south of Union St. In the end, a two-way Broadway alignment was picked by Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT). The mayor forwarded SDOT’s recommendation to the council.

The resolution is the same as the one passed last week by the council’s transportation committee. In it, the First Hill Streetcar will begin construction next year and start operations in late 2013. That is three years ahead of the original schedule in the Sound Transit 2 plan.

The Sound Transit Board must approve the plan before funding is released, but that is expected to be a formality. A more controversial board vote will center around an extension the city wants sooner than later.

The resolution calls an option contained in the inter-local agreement between Sound Transit and the city, which allows the city to propose an extension north of the Capitol Hill light rail station. The resolution direct SDOT to seek funding sources for an extension north to Aloha, which would serve more of the vibrant Broadway shopping and restaurant district. If preliminary engineering were completed on the extension — which SDOT has told us would cost around $20 million to fully construct — then Seattle could receive regional, state, or federal grants to fund the extension. Preliminary engineering would cost less than $1 million, and SDOT is expected to ask Sound Transit for the ability to fund that engineering from the streetcar fund.

Sound Transit staff — on background — do not support that move, even though the First Hill Streetcar is currently $6 million under budget including the contingency. Sound Transit is worried about its ability to fund its capital projects given the dire revenue situation for the Sound Transit 2 plan that went before voters in 2008. That plan is the funding source for the First Hill Streetcar.

3rd Ave Getting Bus Bulbs, Bigger Sidewalks

Pedestrians on Third Ave. Photo by Oran.

If you’re wondering why Third Avenue has been under construction recently, we asked SDOT about the work and they told us that the corridor is receiving some great bus and pedestrian improvements.

The Third Avenue/Belltown Transit Priority Corridor Improvements Project is located on Third Avenue between Cedar Street and Virginia Street.  The project will create more attractive sidewalks and dedicated passenger waiting areas, while improving bus travel times in the corridor.

Specific Improvements to the Third Avenue/Belltown Corridor Include:

• Building concrete bus bulb/curb and sidewalk extensions to eliminate buses having to pull in and out of traffic at passenger loading zones.
• Making improvements to street lighting
• Building new curb ramps
• Installing new bike racks

We asked Bill Bryant, the Transit Program Lead at SDOT for more information on bus bulbs and he sent a detailed reply.

“‘In-lane’ bus stops prevent bus delays caused by the need for buses to swerve into and out of the parking lane to service bus stops. In-lane bus stops exist in many places in Seattle, primarily where no parking lane exists,” Bryant told us. “Where a parking lane exists, a bus bulb is often the best answer.”

Bus bulbs seem to be popping up all over the city recently, with more to come. “Locations exist on University Way, Alaskan Way, N. 45th St, Market St, Pine St, and others.  SDOT is currently constructing new bulbs at the six Third Ave stops in Belltown, and will soon begin construction of a number of bulbs along Route 7 on Jackson St and Rainier Ave. Additional bus bulbs are in design as part of SDOT’s Market/45th (Route 44) transit corridor project.”

More on bus bulbs after the jump…

Continue reading “3rd Ave Getting Bus Bulbs, Bigger Sidewalks”