Light rail tracks now snake north along I-5, more than a year and a half after Sound Transit broke ground on the Lynnwood Link Extension. Stations take shape as crews place girders for light rail’s long-awaited descent into Snohomish County.
In late May, crews installed the last of the 188 columns that line the 8.5-mile Lynnwood Link Extension. Girder spans are 75% complete, with 94 of 126 in place. Sound Transit projects daily ridership along the four-station extension could reach 55,000 just a few years after opening in 2024.
The track towers over I-5 as it rollercoasters its way from Northgate to the first of two stations in Shoreline. A provisional station at NE 130th, part of ST3, will eventually bridge that gap.
In 2014, Seattle residents voted 62% – 38% to raise taxes to prevent cuts to King County Metro Transit Seattle routes after a Countywide transit measure had failed just months before. A rebound in County revenues has allowed Seattle to instead use the money to add more transit service and ease overcrowding.
As the measure is set to expire at the end of 2020, Seattle is looking to partner with King County to pass a region-wide transit measure.
“Every time we add a new bus we get a bus and half worth of people that want to ride,” said Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien in an interview with the Seattle Transit Blog. “We don’t have to convince people to ride transit, we just have to deliver it and they want to use it.”
“When we did it the first time, a few years back, we intentionally set a relatively short-term horizon because partners throughout the County had said, ‘we know we failed in April, but please don’t foreclose Seattle joining with the rest of the County at some future date,’” O’Brien said.
And if the County does want to partner with Seattle on a future transit measure, O’Brien wants to support it.
“There are transit needs throughout the entire county, and Seattle voters are very pro-transit,” O’Brien said. “There are some very transit-dependent communities outside the city of Seattle that would really like to see more transit and they could use the help of Seattle voters to carry a county-wide initiative.”
During Claudia Balducci’s first campaign for Bellevue city council in 2003, she was cautioned against using the words “light rail,” advised instead to say “high capacity transit”. But looking back, Balducci said, city sentiment was already shifting.
“By 2008, people who were running had to be in favor of light rail to be a credible candidate,” said Balducci, who currently represents the sixth district on the King County Council and served on the Bellevue City Council from 2004 and 2015. “So even the people who were less enthusiastic about it would say on the campaign trail, ‘Yes, I support light rail,’ because it had come so far in public support.”
That support was apparent when 56% of Bellevue residents approved the 2008 ST2 package, which will bring light rail and six stations to the city by 2023. Ironically, Bellevue would soon acquire an anti-light rail reputation as a dramatic years-long battle over the downtown alignment unfolded. But even before the measure passed, councilmembers and city staff were already beginning to reimagine large swaths of the city, starting with the Bel-Red area, with light rail in mind.
“We saw light rail not just as the other mode of transportation, but really as an economic engine,” said David Berg, director of Bellevue’s Transportation Department. “It’s an economic development driver.”
This spring, construction will finally begin on four seven-story mixed-use buildings above the Capitol Hill light rail station. Though an ideal place to build transit-oriented development (TOD), the land has sat empty since the station opened in March 2016. When the buildings are completed, probably sometime in 2020 according to Capitol Hill Seattle, 428 new housing units will be added to the light rail station walkshed. Of those new units, 41% — 176 of them — will be considered affordable housing.
Sound Transit is in the final stage of updating its TOD guidelines that the agency says will make TOD an integral component of transit project planning and delivery, and could support bringing new development online when transit stations open, rather than years later.
The ST3 plan requires the agency develop and implement “a regional equitable TOD strategy” and offer at least 80% of surplus property first to projects for families making 80% or less of area median income (AMI). The agency, which has until May to update its TOD policy, released a draft at the March 22 board meeting.
The draft policy declares goals such as “encourage [the] creation of housing options near transit with priority given to affordability” and “increase the value and effectiveness of transit by increasing transit ridership.” To reach those goals, the proposal lays out a specific set of strategies.
However, affordable housing advocates, who called the draft policy a step in the right direction while addressing the board Thursday, urged the agency to include specific housing goals in the TOD policy.
“While the statute sets a target over the entirety of the ST surplus properties, it would be beneficial to outline how these targets will be met,” said Angela Compton, an outreach coordinator with Futurewise. “Being transparent about this approach would provide a clear understanding of what ST is trying to achieve through this process.”
As the colorful dockless bike-shares, which began operating last summer in Seattle, stray past city boundaries, some suburban cities want to come along for the ride.
Bothell was the first suburb to issue permits for bike-share companies after bikes began popping up around town, most likely propelled north by the Burke-Gilman Trail. And now Bellevue is set to launch its own dockless bike-share pilot this May.
The city is starting small, permitting only 400 bikes at the pilot’s launch (roughly one for every 350 residents), and is only allowing e-bikes, which Bellevue says will “make the service accessible to a wider variety of potential users.”
Taking lessons from Seattle, where some dockless bikes are being improperly parked and blocking sidewalks, Bellevue’s pilot establishes bike hubs, using paint and racks, to identify preferred parking areas. Operators will be required to offer incentives, to encourage riders to use the hubs, and disincentives, to keep people from parking the bikes improperly. Geofencing will be used to keep bikes from being left in the middle of parks.
The city is laying out strict guidelines for rebalancing bikes nightly which the city says will “facilitate the convenient provision of bicycles where people want them while maintaining orderly and accessible public space and minimizing impacts to private property.”
With over a quarter of blocks missing sidewalks and a backlog of street projects, the city is contemplating adopting a transportation impact fee as a way to help pay for new infrastructure needed to handle growth.
Last week during a meeting of the Seattle Sustainability and Transportation Committee, Councilmember Mike O’Brien instructed city staff to begin developing a transportation impact fee schedule for these one-time charges paid by new development.
Impact fees were authorized by the 1990 Growth Management Act, and today most urban jurisdictions have adopted some kind of impact fees for roads or parks. The City of Sammamish has adopted some of the highest transportation impact fees, charging new single-family homes close to $15,000.
Seattle has considered impact fees for years. A 2015 staff report recommended further study of park and transportation impact fees, but competing priorities delayed the work. Councilmembers sitting on the Sustainability and Transportation Committee received an update on the progress last week.
These funds must be used within ten years of collection and spent on projects that provide capacity for future growth. Impact fees cannot be used to pay for existing deficiencies, but they can be used for transit or greenway projects, according to Kendra Breiland, a consultant from the firm Fehr and Peers.
“When you start thinking through all these parameters, many cities have started moving towards recognizing they can spend these funds not just on those traditional auto capacity projects, but we can spend them on much more multimodal projects,” Breiland told the committee.
She said transit projects could include off-board fare payment, transit signal priority, rapid ride corridors, in-lane bus stops or curb bulbs.
Years before many other Sound Transit 3 projects even begin construction, bus rapid transit will be moving commuters along SR 522 between Woodinville and the future Shoreline light rail station at 145th St.
The BRT project, one of the early deliverables in ST3 and anticipated to open in 2024, might not have materialized without a push from residents and elected officials along the corridor. Not wanting to be left out of the third phase of transit expansion, a coalition from Woodinville, Bothell, Kenmore, Lake Forest Park and Shoreline attended Sound Transit meetings asking for better transit options.
“We weren’t slated to get anything out of ST3. We were not on Sound Transit’s radar at all,” said Mark Abersold, a resident of Kenmore who joined the five-city coalition. “We eventually want light rail in Kenmore, so we campaigned to get increased bus service and a light rail study.”
Abersold said it was Kenmore’s Mayor, David Baker, and city staff who recruited residents and nearby cities to join the BRT campaign.
“We knew Kenmore all by itself wouldn’t be a loud enough voice, so the city took the lead and created a coalition of five cities,” said Rob Karlinsey, Kenmore’s city manager.
Residents are thinking big, and some of the proposals Sound Transit received during the early scoping period for the West Seattle Ballard Link Extension (WSBLE) could strain the ST3 budget.
ST presented the comments during a meeting of the WSBLE Stakeholder Advisory Group Wednesday night.
West Seattle residents are pushing hard for a tunnel — rather than an elevated track — as the alignment enters the West Seattle Junction, with some residents offering to eliminate the station proposed at 35th/Avalon to pay for the underground alignment.
“Don’t forget that you are building this for not only a generation but for centuries. An eyesore now will be an eyesore forever and tunneling is a much better option,” one commenter wrote.
Ballard overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a movable bridge over Salmon Bay, which residents pointed out could cause delays and impact reliability of the Link system.
“The fact that a bridge of any kind is being considered is ridiculous. The fact that it’s a *drawbridge* for a *rail system* being considered leaves me dumbstruck. This is a rail system in a booming metropolitan area that needs speed and reliability in its infrastructure. Even considering such a thoughtless, half-baked idea of a drawbridge terrifies me about the management at Sound Transit, even as a fervent supporter of Sound Transit,” one comment read. “If it’s not underground, don’t bother spending the money.”
Meanwhile, residents of First Hill want to see the Midtown station located east of I-5 rather than closer to existing stations.
One commenter argued that “Midtown station will be best located near the base of First Hill. A new downtown station at 5th & Madison does not add much new service area. An underground station at 8th & Madison could serve Virginia Mason, Harborview, the Convention Center, and high-density residential neighborhoods without adding much length to the line.”
Kenmore wants to bring a new mix-used development to the shores of Lake Washington and eventually replace the cement and asphalt plants.
Credit: Lizz Giordano
Home to one of the last remaining industrial ports on Lake Washington, the city of Kenmore longs to shed its manufacturing past and cultivate a new identity. Nestled at the top of the lake, the bedroom community wants to give passers-by a reason to stop.
“Rather than just fixing potholes and writing traffic tickets, we wanted to be about building community and getting people connected to each other,” said Rob Karlinsey, Kenmore’s city manager.
To do that, the city became a developer. Several years after incorporating, Kenmore bought a dilapidated 10-acre lot and resold the land after placing certain conditions on the parcels. A couple of economic cycles later, Kenmore’s new town square is taking shape — a year-round community space, 300 units of multi-family housing, and a medical clinic replaced an abandoned park-and-ride lot and a run-down grocery store.
“The new town square area is giving Kenmore something residents never had before, which is a place for people to gather,” said Mark Abersold, a current resident who moved to the city six years ago.
“We are hoping for a ripple effect that will be a catalyst for more redevelopment,” Karlinsey said, proudly showing off the new town square to the STB.
Commuters face a collision of multiple transportation projects in a small place at one time. While delay of the Washington State Convention Center Addition project offers a slight reprieve, when buses do leave the tunnel sometime in 2019, the One Center City (OCC) plan is intended to keep buses, people and cars flowing through downtown during the “period of maximum constraint.”
After spending more than a year planning, the OCC group missed its goal of having a final mobility plan with near-term and long-term recommendations completed by December 2017. Though scheduled to meet monthly, the OCC Advisory Group hasn’t met since last September.
Nor has the city begun implementing the near-term recommendations released last September by the group. Those recommendations include installing a cycle track on 4th Avenue; shifting more buses to 5th and 6th Avenues; and converting 3rd Avenue to an all-day transit-only street.
Over a decade ago, when Bonnie Todd, executive director of operations, joined Sound Transit, the agency was focused on constructing the first phase of the light rail system. With less than two years before Link was scheduled to begin operating from downtown Seattle to SeaTac, Todd was charged with building and shaping the future operations department. In honor of International Women’s Day, the Seattle Transit Blog’s Lizz Giordano interviewed Todd about her experiences. (Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)
LG: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your 10 years at Sound Transit?
BT: Well, we opened light rail. That was huge. When I first got here, there wasn’t even really an operations department. There was this little group called ‘Transportation Services’; I’d always laugh and say that sounded like a hotel shuttle. I’ve since found out that on the West Coast it’s not an uncommon term for an operations group.
But [the operations division] was very small; the agency had been very capital-focused. When I came in, there was maybe 21 months until we were going to open light rail. There hadn’t been quite the focus on operations and it really crept up on us.
One of the things that was very enticing about the job offer was that I really had a blank canvas of sorts to work with. I had worked for the American Public Transportation Association for about four years, where I did audits of rail transit agencies all over North America. I had a real understanding of what worked well and what didn’t and what was critical to put in place for an operations department to be efficient, be safe and have the right processes in place. Continue reading “Q & A with Sound Transit’s Executive Director of Operations”
Declaring the first season of Trailhead Direct a success, King County is preparing for a second season while considering expanding the program to North Bend.
Trailhead Direct provided hikers an option to access trails in the Issaquah Alps using public transportation. The pilot program, which ran on weekends and holidays from early August to mid-October, aimed to reduce congestion at trailheads and broaden access to public lands.
Nineteen-seat vans ran every 30 minutes between 7 am and 6 pm, picking up riders at Issaquah’s two park-and-rides and stopping at three trailheads on Squak and Tiger mountains. Riders were charged an off-peak fare.
According to Lizzy Jessup, a project manager at King County Parks, about 900 hikers used the service, averaging roughly 40 riders a day. An on-board survey found over 90% of riders thought the service could reduce congestion at trailheads, and many riders wanted to see the service expand to more locations. The on-board survey also found hikers accessed the Trailhead Direct shuttles both by driving themselves to the park-and-ride lots and also by taking Metro route 271 and Sound Transit route 554 from Seattle.
Jessup said King County Parks and King County Metro Transit are still weighing possible changes to the route and timing of the shuttles for next year. She added that, due to low ridership, the stop at the Issaquah Highlands Park and Ride will probably be eliminated this year.
The two King County agencies also hope to expand the program and connect to trails in North Bend. Jessup said one consideration in North Bend is using satellite parking lots to add parking near trailheads.
On Tuesday, members of the outdoor community gathered to brainstorm ideas on alternative transportation to the outdoors and the future of the Trailhead Direct service, hosted by the Wilderness Society and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.
Thursday, Sound Transit’s Operations and Administration Committee moved forward a staff recommendation that would establish a flat fare of $3.25 for all Sound Transit Express bus routes. This change would increase fares by $.50 for 70% of ST Express riders.
The transit agency said this change would speed up boardings and make it easier for riders to understand the fare system. The full board is expected to vote on the proposal at its March 22 meeting, with implementation July 1, 2018 to coincide with Metro’s new $2.75 flat fare.
Currently, ST uses a two-zone fare structure, charging adult riders who cross county lines $3.75, and $2.75 for routes that stay within one county. Riders on two-county routes traveling only within one county can ask the bus operator for an override and instead pay the one-county fare. ST said 13 of its 28 Express bus routes cross county lines.
Sound Transit proposed two options: a $3.25 flat fare, or keeping the current system but eliminating the override for one-county riders on two-county routes. The agency said its goal was to simplify fares and have the change be as close to revenue-neutral as possible.
Large five-lane intersections dominate Bellevue. To eke out every little bit of roadway capacity, the city in 2015 finished installing adaptive signal technology at all 203 of its signalized intersections. The system adjusts the timing of the traffic signal cycle based on real-time traffic conditions. In theory, the less unused green left at the end of each light cycle, the better, resulting in more traffic moving through the intersection.
This system, known as the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS), has reduced afternoon delays at some intersections as much as 43%, but is also benefiting pedestrian and bus riders, the city says.
Traditional traffic signals work on a fixed cycle, which might allow for a couple of settings to be used over the course of the day. But the timing for a traffic signal cycle that works best for the morning commute isn’t always the most efficient for the evening rush or during non-commute hours. Instead, SCATS uses detectors embedded in the roadway to constantly monitor traffic volumes at intersections, adjusting cycle lengths based on current demand. The system tries to decrease delay by reducing the amount of unused green time during each cycle. Generally, the higher the traffic volume through an intersection, the longer the cycle length is to serve the demand.
Many of these fully automated lines are closed systems, in contrast to Sound Transit which, at times, mixes with other vehicular traffic. The agency says it will eventually study automating or semi-automating parts of the Link system, but today, ST uses a hybrid system with operators and computers working together to operate the train. Here’s how it works:
In response to a successful challenge by a Phinney Ridge neighborhood group over the lack of onsite parking proposed for a 57-unit apartment building, the city is planning changes to the land use and zoning code that would allow the project to continue.
The legislation under consideration would change how the city defines “frequent transit service” areas, allowing developers to continue to build apartments without parking in transit-rich areas. The move would also require the unbundling of parking space rentals from lease agreements in buildings with 10 units or more.
A 2017 hearing examiner’s decision halted plans for an apartment building at 6726 Greenwood Ave., agreeing with the group, Livable Phinney, that the location of the proposed housing units did not meet the city’s definition of frequent transit service and therefore was not exempt from onsite parking requirements. A West Seattle group, Neighbors Encouraging Reasonable Development, has also challenged the city’s definition of frequent transit service.
Currently, the city defines frequent transit service as “transit service headways in at least one direction of 15 minutes or less for at least 12 hours per day, 6 days per week, and transit service headways of 30 minutes or less for at least 18 hours every day.” Onsite parking is not required for new buildings within a quarter-mile of areas with frequently-served transit stops.
Seattle’s $50M yearly investment in additional bus service has helped deliver frequent transit service to a majority of households in the city. After three years, the percentage of families living near routes with transit service every 10 minutes has more than doubled, SDOT says. Now a driver shortage could limit the extra service Seattle can buy from King County Metro Transit, as the city strives to bring frequent transit service to even more households this year.
Three years later, the city estimates 64% of households are within a 10-minute walk of all-day transit service running every 10 minutes or better, up from 25% in 2015, leaving the city only 8 percentage points away from its 2025 goal of 72% of households.
“As soon as the service gets out there, it gets filled up with riders,” said Andrew Glass-Hastings, SDOT’s director of transit and mobility, while giving members of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee the annual STBD report in January. “It’s a good thing, but it also means we are continually a little bit behind meeting demand for service.”
He pointed specifically to RapidRide Lines C and D, which remain overcrowded even as Seattle pays for more than a third of the service for both routes. But a Metro labor shortage might limit the city’s ability to purchase additional bus service.
As Seattle is entering the “period of maximum constraint,” with downtown becoming even more inundated with construction projects, more workers in that area are leaving their cars at home and riding transit.
Last year, the drive-alone rate hit an all-time low of 25% of downtown commuters, even as 15,000 jobs were added to the area, according to the 2017 Center City Modesplit Survey. Nearly half of downtown workers instead chose to take the bus or train to their jobs. Adding employees traveling by foot, bike or carpool pushes non-single-occupancy vehicle commute rates above 70%.
Despite a 5% drop in the share of SOV commuting between 2016 and 2017, the share of transit ridership grew by only 1%. Instead, some former drivers were choosing to walk or participate in a carpool.
“Transit works, and we need more of it as quickly as possible. From working with employers to increase telecommuting to speeding up light rail, we can expand our transportation options that make it easier and safer for Seattle residents to get around,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in the press release accompanying the report.
Rates of drive-alone downtown commuters have steadily declined since Commute Seattle began tracking travel trends in 2010. Over the last seven years, as 60,000 jobs were added in the downtown core — an increase of 30% — transit usage among commuters has steadily grown, up by 6%, while the drive-alone rate decreased 9%.
Commute Seattle attributes the decline in driving alone to the voter-approved $50M yearly transit investment from the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, efforts from employers to discourage driving alone and new housing downtown, enabling people to walk to work.
Thursday, the Sound Transit Capital Committee approved funding for project development for two bus rapid transit routes. As part of the ST3 package, the projects will add 45 miles of BRT to the region.
One BRT route will run between Lynnwood and Burien along I-405 and State Route 518, with 11 stations in between. The other future BRT route will connect Woodinville and Shoreline along SR 522, with nine stations serving communities on the northern tip of Lake Washington.
Both are scheduled to open in 2024. ST anticipates bringing preferred alternatives for both projects to the board early next year, with final designs selected by 2020. As part of community outreach, an elected leadership group, comprised of elected officials that represent the service corridor and the Sound Transit Board, will convene for the planning process. Elected leadership groups are charged with reaching community consensus over key project decisions and recommending a preferred alternative to the Sound Transit Board.
To keep the “rapid” in bus rapid transit, ST says its planning to implement all-door bus boarding and off-board fare payment options along the two lines. Buses will be branded for easy identification — similar to the distinctive branding King County Metro Transit gave to its RapidRide lines.
To support the lines, a bus base and operation and maintenance facility will be built in Bothell, where the two lines meet. The BRT buses will run 19 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, and 17 hours on Sundays. ST is considering using electric buses for the routes.