News roundup: August highlights

LB Bryce/Flickr

One day I’ll catch up to the present…

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Fixing ST’s costs requires a legislative agenda

Washington State Capitol

Sound Transit 3’s cost explosion has forced the politicians in charge to make tough decisions that displease constituents. In the ‘realignment’ endgame, Mayor Durkan produced a “cost savings amendment” to create regular reports about costs, hire outside consultants, and tell the Board “where any delays in these pre-construction activities are likely to trigger a delay in the final delivery date of any project” (see page 7 of this).

The last bit is especially rich from a Mayor whose office ignored Sound Transit’s pleas to quickly produce a single preferred alternative from West Seattle to Ballard, instead blowing it up into dozens of combinations (still unresolved) and picking entirely new fights like a very deep station under Chinatown that raises costs and worsens transit outcomes. Indeed, the City is still pining for an added revenue options to chase its dream of a tunnel to West Seattle, that, again, raises costs and does not improve transit outcomes — unless process mismanagement has erased the cost difference.

I have no doubt that a project spending over $54 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars will have some suboptimal line items a consultant can flag. With luck, that consultant might even pay for itself. But the effort to close the budget gap by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse isn’t nearly ambitious enough. The real savings is in treating Sound Transit like a transit project instead of a vessel for a series of community objectives. A change in mindset from relevant leaders would be useful, but ultimately legislation in Olympia is necessary.

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Open things when they’re ready

Curt Milton/Flickr

[UPDATE: the John Lewis Bridge was a hypothetical example, but SDOT would like me to say that it was a minor miracle it opened as soon as it did. Point taken.]

When U-Link opened in 2016, trains operated after a 9am opening ceremony and about $858,000 in additional festivities. This of course brought out the bad-faith complaints ($) from anti-transit people pretending not to understand marketing. But they did us a favor: Sound Transit should just operate things when they’re complete.

For last weekend’s big event, die-hards showed up for the first 4:51am departure before any formal event. At a more reasonable hour, the U-District business community did a great job of providing all the lookie-loos like me something to do. And it was fine.

More than that, transit’s purpose, to give people better alternatives, was fulfilled that much faster. Certainly, someone had an easier commute or airport trip because the train didn’t wait a few hours for a ribbon cutting.

This lesson is more broadly applicable: certainly the John Lewis Bridge, if SDOT had opened it a few days early, would have improved access to the Northgate Transit Center that was already there, instead of waiting for the ribbon cutting Saturday. So why not open it?

I’ll take it even further: whenever East Link is ready, they should start operating it. Perhaps Metro will have the flexibility to implement a service change at that date instead of their usual, collectively bargained changeover, or not. But even if the supporting bus service has to follow a bit later, fast high-capacity transit to the Eastside can start helping people immediately.

Some people to thank

SounderBruce/Flickr

Saturday’s Link opening was the largest product of 2008’s Sound Transit 2 vote to date. In the 15-year package envisioned at ballot time, Northgate opened about a year late, Lynnwood and North Federal Way are scheduled to do the same, and East Link will lag by no more than two years. Given a Great Recession and Bellevue’s wrangling over the route through downtown, that’s an astonishing record unlikely to be matched by Sound Transit 3 or other large American transit projects.

As someone who got his start in transit advocacy around the time of ST2, on Saturday my thoughts turned to many of the friends and STB colleagues I met at that time. Thousands of people made Saturday happen, activists and politicians and staff and (obviously) building trades. But my thoughts also turned to the two people that, in my opinion, are most to thank for the new reality that arrived on Saturday.

The first is Joni Earl, who as CEO through 2016 got Sound Transit to a place where it could even contemplate a Sound Transit 2, and later took those projects through some of the most risk-laden stretches. The second is former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who in the aftermath of the failed 2007 vote bashed heads together to go again in 2008, and then worked hard to pass it.

I was glad to see that both were able to be at the VIP function October 1st. I can only imagine the quiet pride and satisfaction they deservedly feel.

News roundup: July highlights

AvgeekJoe/Flickr

Some things we didn’t mention over July:

This is an open trhread.

Rogoff out in mid-2022

ST announced yesterday that CEO Peter Rogoff “did not foresee remaining in his role” and will step down in the middle of next year. PubliCola reports that Executive Constantine, Councilmember Balducci, and Mayor Durkan had all expressed concerns about his performance.

Important things can happen in the remaining months. However, friends of Sound Transit will likely remember his tenure, dating to 2015, as presenting high highs and low lows. Hired from the Federal Transit Administration, he was advertised as the key to winning Federal grants. It’s hard to measure that promise against the counterfactual of someone else running things.

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Where’s real time arrival?

Updated Capitol Hill Station signage

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve had real-time arrival for Link. ST’s John Gallagher says that it’s because Northgate testing doesn’t conform to the schedule, and the software isn’t flexible enough to accommodate that.

Next train times should be back on October 2nd — and more accurate, as the end-of-the-line problems move from Capitol Hill to Roosevelt.

News roundup: June highlights

An Everett Transit Bus at Everett Station in the Night

Some highlights from June that we never mentioned here:

This is an open thread.

About that heat dome

HERE COMES THE NEW @SOUNDTRANSIT S700 - Widescreen
AvgeekJoe/Flickr

Many of us have tried to forget the historic heat of Late June. Sadly, even Link trains had to reduce speeds. Areas south of the DSTT ran as slow as 20mph and caused delays of 3-10 minutes. This surprised me: elsewhere, Light Rail often operates in temperatures well in excess of Late June’s. ST’s John Gallagher explains:

There are basically two things going on. One is that extreme heat can cause the rails to expand and change shape. The other is that the turnbuckles that keep the overheard catenary wires taut can expand, causing the wires to sag a bit. Out of caution, we operate Link at lower speeds when it’s very hot to ensure that neither of these problems interfere with service should they occur. 

Mr. Gallagher says that ST has already added air conditioning to substations to make them more resilient. New track extensions include a spring system on the overhead wires to replace the balance weights on the original track, which should improve heat resistance. He adds that ST will conduct a review to see if there are other changes necessary for a warming world.

Without overreacting to a single instance of record heat, all trends suggest that there are more and more extreme heat events coming, and ST should look to mimic systems like Phoenix that already deal with those conditions.

Sound Transit seeks to understand cost failures

Light rail tracks running toward Northgate Transit Center (Lizz Giordano)

Sound Transit 3 is not going to match the stellar project delivery record of Sound Transit 2 barring a bailout from another government or the economy. In attempt to understand the cost estimation failures that got us to this point, on June 24th ST accepted the report of consultants asked to investigate why (report, slides, video).

The report points out parts of ST’s own cost estimation methodology that it did not follow during initial project estimation in 2015 and 2016. In particular, ST did not seek a second opinion on costs and did not sufficiently invovle its own Real Estate division in determining acquisition costs.

It’s a long report and hard to summarize. It identified eight key drivers of the increases between “phase 1” and “phase 2” estimates, and was able to assign a subjective importance to five of them:

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Realignment grinds towards a conclusion

On June 24th, ST Board Chair Kent Keel presented a proposed “realignment” plan that pushes back projects to account for dramatically inflated cost estimates (video, materials). This is a “starting point”, in his words, but we are past the point of staff-driven alternatives and indecisive argument about principles and priorities.

Virtually all projects have suffered roughly 2 years of Covid-related planning delay. Tier 1 projects are full-speed ahead except for that. Tier 2 projects will execute planning and right-of-way acquisition on schedule, getting them to “shovel-ready” as quickly as possible in case more money comes in. But the plan assumes up to 4 years of delay waiting for money to accumulate (for a total of 6). Tier 3 doesn’t pause until after purchase of “strategic ROW”, with up to 9 total years of delay. ST would pause Tier 4 immediately, leading to at least 10 years of total delay. The end of ST3 moves from 2041 to 2046 — a 30 year program.

If realignment skeptics like Dow Constantine are right, and revenue increases more than models currently say, we could expect all of the light rail and Stride to see no more than the current 2-year delay.

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Few issues separate candidates in forum

Last night’s Seattle Subway/STB mayoral forum was narrowly focused on transit and land use issues. The moderator, Publicola‘s Erica C. Barnett, did a tremendous job keeping things on time and on track. As with most forums of this nature, the fundamental tension was between questions trying to elicit an interesting response and candidates trying not to say anything too interesting.

Watching the one-hour video is probably worth your time. If not, here are some impressions.

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Watch the Seattle Subway/STB mayoral forum tonight

We’re proud to co-sponsor a mayoral forum with a focus on transit and land use issues with Seattle Subway, tonight at 7pm. The seven candidates are Andrew Grant Houston, Jessyn Farrell, Lorena González, Lance Randall, Colleen Echohawk, Casey Sixkiller, and Bruce Harrell.

It will stream online on Facebook (Seattle Subway page), Twitter (@SeattleSubway), and here at the blog. You can also register in order to view it on Zoom and potentially get a question in.

You can join as early as 6pm.

Many thanks to Erica Barnett of Publicola for moderating.

News roundup: coming back

1173 (118X) and 3713 (119X) onboard the MV Cathlamet

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First youth ORCA now free

4 ORCA cards

Starting June 1st, the first youth ORCA a child gets is free with proof of age. Subsequent cards (to replace ones lost or stolen) still cost $5. This now matches the policy for the Regional Reduced Fare Permit.

Youth cards are available at customer service offices, or more conveniently via mail.

This continues the gradual ratchet of reducing and eliminating fares without threatening the core of revenue provided by employer passes. Through low income fares, ultra-low-income fares, free passes for Seattle Public Schools students, and periodic ORCA giveaways, there are many ways to chip away at what for most is already a modest fare bill.

Charter Amendment contains good surprises

Homelessness is a complicated problem for which STB, with its narrow transit-and-land-use focus, would not claim to propose a full solution. [1] The proposal in Seattle Charter Amendment 29 (“Compassion Seattle“), which may be on the ballot later this year, attracts the usual complaints from those who insist on zero tolerance or zero coercion. Money for housing is good, though unfunded spending mandates aren’t so good.

But, like any worthwhile op-ed, this anti-amendment argument ($) by three former Councilmembers gives us enough information to learn there is at least one piece that I feel qualified to say is very good:

· CA 29 waives the land use code to site housing projects. Zoning, height limits, setbacks, greenbelt designations, notice and “due process” will not apply. This means new housing units or multifamily projects could be added in all zones, including single family.

and indeed, right there in the fifth bullet of Section 1:

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The future is condos

Seattle - big new Eastlake view condo building

Heidi Groover takes a break from the scary ” home” price beat to point out that it isn’t all that hard to buy a condo in Seattle ($).

There is a lot of media directed at people shopping for single family homes, but the number of possible houses within a certain distance of Seattle is finite. It’s natural for a growing metropolitan area to have a center city where single family homes become rarer, and the only way out is to allow denser forms of housing. Despite shortcomings,, Groover’s reporting suggests policy is basically working to provide ownership opportunities.

More reporting like this, please. Single-family homes will be a less important part of the market, and statistics that reflect that will be critical to understanding how our policy mix is working.

News roundup: do better

Metro South Base

This is an open thread.

News roundup: part 2 of 2

A @SoundTransit Link Train  Stretching Under Intl District Station Skylight

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