National Transportation Planning

Megan McArdle of The Atlantic has an interesting, very wonky podcast about transportation planning in America, where she interviews her father, who happens to have been on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. I hope to digest their report sometime soon.

It’s just chock full of information, so take the hour to listen. Some interesting tidbits, including a follow-up comment thread here:

  • Injecting even a dollar of federal funds into a new project adds 4-8 years to the completion time of that project. A 1992 report kicked off high-speed rail between Washington and Charlotte, and the EIS for that project should be complete by 2010.
  • In the early 20th century, there was forceful opposition to construction of the New York City subway, particularly complaining about the disruption construction would cause. Building rail really is about sacrificing convenience now for the sake of future generations, isn’t it?
  • Part of the reason for the success of NYC’s transit is not only that it allowed high density near the lines, but that it forbid high density in other places. If true, we’re in big trouble.
  • Towards the end there’s an interesting discussion of optimal fares and how to pay for rail capital costs.
  • At about the 40:00 mark, Seattle is cited as a positive example (no, really) because transit here is not viewed as something that just poor people take.

Sub-Area Equity

Sub-area equity (SAE) is a favorite whipping boy of transit advocates. If it weren’t for that, they say, we could smuggle those Pierce County dollars up here to create a dense network of rail lines in Seattle! A lot of stuff floating around the legislature this session has sought to do away with it.

While a system focused on dense Seattle neighborhoods has a certain appeal, realistically that kind of plan is a dead duck at the ballot box, for obvious reasons. SAE does force Sound Transit to make some goofy decisions, because it has to spend like crazy in outlying areas to offset the huge capital costs in the core. However, if you look a little past the next ballot measure, SAE will end up working to Seattle’s advantage.

Making the big assumption that something like the most recent workshop proposal gets built, the buildout in Seattle is pretty much done. The Northgate line would probably eventually go out to N. 175th St along the freeway, but that’s relatively cheap, and of more interest to people in Snohomish County. Meanwhile, there are tons of outlying places ST3 can go — to Issaquah, over 520, to Renton, to Tacoma and Everett, etc.

I can picture the ST board, mulling over ST3 and unburdened by SAE, maximizing the investment in the outlying areas, where support for transit is tepid, and banking that earnest Seattle liberals (who are in any case outnumbered) will support it anyway.

SAE would force more investment in Seattle: presumably, in Ballard and West Seattle. With ST2.1 finishing as soon as 2020, we could get service in the Western half of the city by the early 2030s with a little luck.

RapidRide Buses

Metro, buried in a press release, unveiled the paint scheme for RapidRide buses. It pulls off the trick of being both ugly and insufficiently distinct from the (relatively attractive) regular Metro buses it operates with.

But there are three doors, which is a good sign. On routes where there’s something like a restricted right-of-way, like Pacific Highway, this will be good service, although I think the rebranding business is a mistake.

UPDATE 11:30AM: Frank at Orphan Road discovers the design inspiration for these buses.

More from the ST Board Meeting

I finally had a chance to watch the video from the last ST board meeting, where they discussed options for the next ballot measure. There’s a bunch more information one gets by doing so:

  • The planners emphasized at the beginning that the presentation contained “more than we can afford”, and is meant as a menu of options to choose from.
  • The “BRT” is intended to utilize HOV lanes, but also expected to involve headways of no more than 15 minutes, and may include electronic signs and off-bus payment.
  • As I didn’t state clearly enough before, peak-hour buses will go straight into Seattle, but off-peak ones may dump them off at the rail termini.
  • 4 Sounder trains on the north line is all they really ever plan to do, because of the relatively low ridership.
  • One option to resolve the park-and-ride dilemma is to build satellite parking, which apparently has been successful in Sumner and Puyallup. Pierce County Exec John Ladenburg suggested charging for parking (yay!) and public-private partnerships to build garages.
  • The diesel multiple units (DMUs) suggested for Eastside commuter rail are 1-2 car, self-propelled mini-trains. The planners sound really down about the potential ridership on this line. Ladenburg is interested in running DMUs to supplement Sounder service in Pierce County.
  • Ladenburg and Tacoma City Councilmember Julie Anderson are really nostalgic for ST2 and would like to find a way to bring it back. Can’t say I blame them.
  • The University Link Federal funding agreement is more at risk than Carless In Seattle believes due to the threat from SB 6772.

Good stuff.

Comment Etiquette (II)

It’s been a couple of months, so I’ll make this request again:

Please select a nickname and type it in under the “nickname” box on our comments page. Going through a comments thread with “Anonymous” is tedious and confusing. I can distinctly recognize at least two regular commenters using the Anonymous tab, and it’s annoying.

It doesn’t require getting an account or anything. Just type in a name, like SLOG.

Example above, with the correct box indicated in red. For whatever reason, Blogger doesn’t allow you to turn off “anonymous” without doing the same for “Nickname”.


Viaduct Meeting Next Week

There’s an open house next Tuesday put together by WSDOT, the County, and City to update the community on the viaduct.

It’s in West Seattle, so I predict fireworks.

WSDOT, King County and the City of Seattle are hosting a series of open houses to share the latest information on the viaduct’s central waterfront planning and our new approach for determining a solution. At each meeting, you will have the opportunity to talk with program staff and comment on how we evaluate options – we have set aside time for public comments.
First open house scheduled in West Seattle.
5:30 – 7:30 p.m., Tues., Feb. 12, 2008 – public comment period begins at 6:30 p.m.
New Cooper Elementary School, 1901 SW Genesee St., Seattle
Visit our program public events page for driving directions
Future meetings will be held in other Seattle locations along the corridor. For meeting information, please check back regularly on the program’s public events Web page

West Seattle really makes me scratch my head. It’s not on the way to anywhere, and the ridership wouldn’t be as large as some other places, so Sound Transit’s shelved the idea of light rail there until the 2030s at the earliest. Unfortunately, they’re the only game in town for real rapid transit, so you’re left with King County and Seattle coming up with relatively lame bus and streetcar options. It’s a difficult situation.

New Route 157

Thanks to Transit Now, Metro’s looking at a new Route 157 from Kent east hill to downtown Seattle, but haven’t decided how to route it.

I don’t know anything about that neighborhood, but check out the funky routing downtown! Why no busway?

They’re interested in public comments, etc.

Reading the tea leaves

Daimajin did some excellent reporting by publishing the presentation from the Sound Transit workshop. Here are some observations from thinking about it for a few days.

First of all: this is basically ST thinking out loud, so let’s not get too worked up about the details. Still, it’s good to see which way they’re thinking.

I like the plan. It ain’t 50 miles of light rail, but given the political constraints it’s actually a bit better than I expected.

Light Rail

On the light rail front, the plan meets this blogger’s twin priorities of getting to Northgate and Bellevue, throwing in the extension to Star Lake (and maybe Overlake) too.

As for the Tacoma and Everett systems: I can’t imagine that the ridership is huge, but I’m fine with it for two reasons. First, they’re between a rock and a hard place: the criticism of Prop. 1 was that it was “too big” although it just barely got to all three counties. At the same time, they can’t leave themselves open to the accusation that they’re sending “all the money to Seattle”. Secondly, at least the tracks are generally pieces of the long range plan. I can’t think of any reason to go to Fife accept that it eases the job of eventually connecting the two systems together.


On the South line, more trains and more parking. Meh, it’s good, but pretty obvious.

On the north line, I’m liking the new stops, and Broad Street in particular. The Ballard station does something for disgruntled voters in that area, and Broad Street is critical to picking up commuters to growing job centers in Belltown and South Lake Union.


I found this part really intriguing (no, really!). I’ve been working on a post about how LINK will affect bus service, and this really started the wheels turning.

It would appear, assuming they were careful with the way the diagrams were drawn, that the general operational concept will be that express buses terminate at outer light rail stations and dictate a transfer to get downtown. The line from Lakewood and Tacoma seems to terminate at Tukwila (except during peak hours); the Snohomish and Lake City lines at Northgate; and Eastside lines at UW or Mercer Island.

In general, I support this approach. The traffic on each of these corridors is going to get worse and worse, while rail commute times remain more or less constant. Introducing a transfer, while kind of annoying, will both free up bus assets and probably save time for commuters.

[Aside: I’ve also been toying with the idea that it might make sense to route buses deeper into the city, but directed to locations not well served by light rail. For instance, the 545 from Overlake could drop downtown-bound passengers off at Husky Stadium (faster for them anyway), and then continue on to SLU/Queen Anne, or Ballard, both of which it’ll be somewhat inconvenient to get to from Link, SLUTs nonwithstanding. However, that’s nothing but pure speculation, unencumbered by facts, on my part.]

The bus service is listed here as BRT, which as we’ve discussed ad nauseum can mean a lot of things. To me, it embodies two key attributes: dedicated (or at least restricted) right-of-way, and extremely frequent service. The current ST Express makes a decent effort of the former, and pretty much gives up on the latter except on the 545, 550, and 590.

I see a ton of direct access ramps here, and that’s a big deal for the ROW issue. But is ST considering increasing the frequency on all its routes by a factor of 3 or more?

Buses vs. Rail

In response to an endless comment thread that was devolving into buses-vs-rail, a brief recap of STB’s position, which we probably ought to put in a FAQ:

1) Transit does not “solve” congestion in the sense of causing highways to flow freely, but does give people an alternative to staring at the brakelights in front of them.

2) Any train route can, of course, just as easily be served by a bus. However,

  • The train is on a dedicated right-of-way and therefore is essentially unaffected by traffic congestion. In many cases this makes it faster than driving.
  • Trains have higher capacity. You can put 800 passengers on a 4-car light rail train. When you put buses too close together, they tend to bunch up (see: Route 48). You can space trains a couple of minutes apart and have them stay evenly spaced.
  • More people are willing to ride a train than a bus, so you get higher ridership, which has positive externalities for society.
  • The permanence of a train line encourages dense, transit oriented development.
  • Trains don’t clog up the roads for everyone else.

That is all.

West Seattle RapidRide

I concentrated my fire on Eastside RapidRide last month, largely because I don’t know anything about West Seattle. However, at least one STB commenter attended the West Seattle open house and came away unimpressed.

Look, I don’t want to give people the impression that I’m opposed to bus service. I take the bus every day and usually have a pretty pleasant experience. I was broadly supportive of Snohomish County’s Swift plan because it seems to improve service while being creative with funding sources, rather than sucking the oxygen out of light rail.

However, the key to good rapid transit is dedicated right-of-way. Failing that, restricted right-of-way (like an HOV lane) is a reasonable alternative. When a ballot measure promises BRT, and includes a large chunk of funding that could have been used to rapid transit like rail, I expect at least one of the above. In many cases, RapidRide provides neither.

New Bus Schedules

One period in the bus rider’s life that is pregnant with anticipation is the days before the new schedule comes out. As someone who has two non-ideal transfers to get to work, I’m always hopeful that the schedule will be tweaked in such a way so as to make my life a lot easier.

As someone who also works in a very poorly-served area, I’m also eternally hopeful that the service will get better. The comment period in 2005 about major Eastside service revisions got my hopes up, but as usual Metro planning is opaque when they’re not specifically asking for your opinion.

I’m usually disappointed.

Today the new schedules came out. Check here to see what lines are affected beginning Feb. 9. Sound Transit’s new schedule booklet is available here.


  • Tacoma LINK runs later on weekdays, and with more frequency (and fewer hours) on Sundays.
  • Rte 248 replaces the part of Rte 540 east of Kirkland, and extends to Avondale Rd.
  • Rte 221 is a new Route from Eastgate to Education Hill (Redmond) via 148th Ave.
  • Routes 8 and 70 have more frequent service to SLU, thanks to some of the employers in the area.

A mini-RTID?

According to the Everett Herald, Snohomish County is mulling over a local transportation improvement district using the authority they have under the bill that created RTID.

It’s unclear how the various bills that would revoke RTID’s authority come into play here.

Good thing we voted down light rail to get rid of RTID! At least it’s early, so no reason to panic.

via Sound Politics.


This has already been linked in the comments, but I highly recommend this UW website about some pros and cons involving ORCA.

As this is likely to affect a large number of us, and there some privacy issues, it’s worth paying attention to.

I’m one of those people who are willing to trade a little bit of privacy for a few bucks and a lot of convenience, so I’m not unduly alarmed. However, it is nice to know exactly what I’m giving up.

The Park-and-Ride Dilemma

At the meet-up, we had a short discussion of suburban park-and-rides that got me thinking. Giant parking garages are really a double-edged sword.

First, I’d like to dismiss the utopian-environmental argument that potential train riders will take the bus to the park-and-ride if there is inadequate parking. This is nuts. The whole idea of using transit for strictly local travel doesn’t really take off until non-car-ownership is a reasonably convenient option, which it most definitely is not in the suburbs. People spurned at the garage will drive to work. So you’re losing ridership, short term.

On the other hand, as Ben pointed out to me this weekend, put too many parking spaces around a station, and you suppress transit-oriented development (TOD). I grew up not far from the Shady Grove terminus of the DC Metro, which has 5,467 parking spaces (!) that totally surround the station Dodger Stadium-style. Now, the rules are a bit different for the end of the line, because you want to capture all those people driving from points north, but it’s been over 20 years now and I can’t help but notice the lack of TOD around that station.

So there’s a definite short-term vs. long-term tension there: put in too little parking, and no one rides your system; put it too much, and you end up suppressing the TOD that’s one of the big benefits of rail in the first place.

There are a couple of courses of action this points to:

(1) Build vertically. If you must have lots of parking, build that garage high so as to not take away vital real estate from long term development options.

(2) Manage demand. As I’ve mentioned previously, a nominal parking fee may allow to utilize resources more effectively. For a buck or two, someone who actually would consider taking a bus, bicycle, or walking, might choose the alternate mode instead of going for the most convenient option. A dollar or two also won’t discourage too many people from riding.

As a fringe benefit, this kind of demand management could fund electronic signs to let drivers know when the lot is full, reducing commuter frustration. As commenters from a previous post suggested, this is a major bummer when you have a train to catch.

SB 6772 Comments (II)

The bill has picked up two more sponsors: Sen. Marr (D-Spokane Outskirts) and Sen. Pridemore (D-Vancouver). Sen. Marr is the Assistant Majority Floor Leader.

So far, Rodney Tom is the only sponsor that actually represents part of the Sound Transit district.


I’ve gone through the 80 pages of legalese. Here’s the bill so that you can read for yourself, as I’m not any kind of lawyer. There are good and bad things about this bill, plus some things that could go either way.

The good things:
– The RTA would be authorized to collect sales taxes, vehicle excise taxes, and employee taxes solely for the purposes of high-capacity transit. (Section 516-518) I believe this expands their taxing authority. Of course, ST is currently limited by voter approval, not state legislation.

– The employee tax would be waived for any employee that has at least half the cost of a transit pass subsidized, or if the company has implemented an appropriate commuter-reduction plan (Section 307).

– Local municipalities can add their own stuff to the plan, effectively allowing for uneven levels of taxation if the benefits will be distributed unevenly. (Section 204)

– The Sound Transit staff essentially lives on in the new RTA (Section 210). I’m not sure Josh Feit’s fears about losing the $750 million FFGA for University Link is well-founded. Also, we’re not flushing over 10 years of hard-earned experience.

The bad things:
– The agency loses its focus on transit to also build roads.

– It’s also probably destined for a period of administrative chaos as they absorb road planners from RTID, which could have very negative impacts on Central Link startup and University Link groundbreaking.

– I think it’s unlikely you’d see a transit-only package go before the voters under this construct. That means that the Sierra Club et al. will be de facto opponents of rail for the foreseeable future.

– It’s certainly not explicitly in the bill, but I believe Daimajin is right when he suggests that this is an attempt by the rest of the state to stop funding their obligations on state highways in the region. It gives people clamoring for road projects somewhere to go besides the state legislature

The uncertain things:
– There are 10 voting commissioners: 3 appointed by the county executives, one elected at-large, and 6 elected from equally sized districts (Section 201). I’m skeptical this will work out in favor of the pro-transit forces, but I’m naturally pessimistic about such things. By my count, these districts work out to about one each for Snohomish, East King, and South King, and one-and-a-half for Seattle and Pierce County. If the most promising Link segments are to Northgate and Bellevue, you’re talking maybe 2 1/2 districts in favor. With the King Co. appointee and the at-large (?), you get 4 1/2 out of 10. The district lines will be important.

– Sub-area equity is gone. This is good in terms of producing an objectively better plan, but not necessarily good in producing one acceptable to the voters. It’ll be much easier to characterize it as “sending all our money to Seattle,” even if that’s not the case.

– Section 503 goes on and on about monorails. (!) Huh?

– If I read Section 313 correctly, only 10% of the employee tax and MVET can go to HOV projects. The rest has to go to commuter rail. The text is clear as mud, so I’m particularly unsure of this conclusion, as it seems to conflict with Sections 516-518.

I can imagine both good and bad outcomes from this bill, but I think the downside is a lot bigger than the upside.

The good outcome is that the pro-transit forces gain a narrow majority on the board, the staff handles the ST transition with grace, and ST 2.1 takes advantage of the uneven taxing options to make a rail-heavy and yet politically palatable plan, perhaps with a little more track laid than we’ve dared hope. The state continues its historical level of funding of highway projects, calling on the RTA to only fund the gold-plated aspects of projects like SR 520.

The bad outcome is that the reorganization causes ST to take its eye off the ball and jeopardize University Link. Ron Sims nominates some anti-rail, pro-BRT guy, the highway lobby bankrolls an anti-rail majority on the board, and we see pavement, pavement, pavement. Anytime the Puget Sound region asks for state money for roads, the legislature tells us to go see the RTA — while continuing to send our gas tax dollars anywhere else in the state that wants them.

Quite frankly, I’m pleased with ST’s performance over the last few years and pessimistic about the mood of the electorate. I’m reluctant to jeopardize that performance, and doubtful that this bill will produce something better.

So it’s not the end of the world, but puts a lot of hard-won gains at risk. It could actually make us better off, but it’s far more likely to do the reverse.

Or perhaps I don’t speak lawyer and I don’t know what I’m talking about.