Here comes governance reform

At one of the News Tribune blogs, David Seago reports on Gov. Gregoire’s visit to the editorial board. There’s good news and bad news.

The bad news:

The governor said she was prepared to introduce her own RTG [Regional Transportation Governance] legislation for the 2008 session, but she agreed to let state Sens. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, take the lead in crafting a proposal…

RTG means no more Sound Transit, no more Regional Transportation Improvement District – bodies comprised of elected city and county officials from Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.

Daimajin has discussed at length why this is a bad idea. Briefly, I oppose it strongly because (1) new agencies tend to be paralyzed by indecision and incompetence for several years, while Sound Transit is now operating smoothly; (2) Any new entity is likely to both dilute the vote of pro-transit Seattle and lose most of its rail transit focus; and (3) an elected board is unlikely to approve the taxes necessary to build a good rail system.

By the way, Ed Murray is the one you can thank for the ST2/RTID marriage in the last election, in spite of representing one of the most liberal districts in the state.

I was led to this blog entry via David Brewster on Crosscut, who adds:

The first political showdown will be Sound Transit’s decision next February whether to go back to the ballot in 2008, this time with no roads component. House Speaker Frank Chopp opposes the 2008 submission, fearing that some of his Democratic candidates in the suburbs will be forced to take a stand on a tax increase. Olympia has threatened Sound Transit that if they go ahead with the 2008 vote, they can expect to be punished by enactment of a regional governance entity that will weaken Sound Transit’s autonomy and its dedicated taxes. Waiting to 2010 for the Sound Transit II vote may also give enough time for the regional governance entity to be enacted.

How far back has the Prop. 1 failure set us? A generation?

A wee bit of good news via Seago:

And the notion of “sub-area equity,” Gregoire said emphatically, has got to go. That gave us a little shudder, because the principle that the money raised in each county should be spent each county is pretty much Holy Writ in Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Sub-area equity prevents us from building a system that serves the most riders. If key leaders are starting to recognize that, it’s a good thing.

Still, in state races I’m pretty much a single-issue voter on transit, and the Governor has yet to give me a reason she’d be better than Dino Rossi, which is pathetic.

UPDATE: Sen. Murray has a fair response in the comments, that you should read. It is certainly true that he renounced his support for the ST2/RTID marriage quite some time ago, which is something I should have pointed out in the original post.

As for his claims about opposing RTID from the start, he sponsored this bill about RTID, and Section 8 (an amendment added by the Senate) is where the linkage is established. Judge for yourself (I’m no journalist), but to me that’s ancient history. I’m glad to see our Seattle delegation standing up for a 2008 ST2.1 vote, and that’s what matters.

Viaduct Meeting Tomorrow

It’s not a public comment meeting, but you could submit a written comment and listen to the latest thinking:

The State, King County and the City of Seattle are working together to create a solution for the central waterfront section that can be broadly supported and implemented. Our intention is to develop a recommended approach in December 2008 for consideration by the legislature in 2009.

A key part of this effort is the creation of the new Stakeholder Advisory Committee, which was formed by Governor Chris Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims, and Mayor Greg Nickels. The committee will be made up of 30 individuals representing various constituencies and community groups throughout King County. WSDOT, KCDOT and SDOT will lead the committee to engage key stakeholders, listen to ideas, and conduct a transparent public involvement process over the next year.

The first committee meeting will be held Thursday, Dec. 13, 4 to 7 p.m. at Town Hall in Seattle. The meeting is open to the public, but it will not be a forum for open comment. The public is invited to submit written comments at the meeting or through Comments can also be submitted at any time on our hotline, 1-888-AWV-LINE. For more information, please visit the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Program Web site.

Anyone who attends is encouraged to report about it in this post’s comments.

Snohomish County BRT (Swift)

I’d like to expand on Daimajin’s short comments about Snohomish BRT. First of all, you can find a lot more info than the Times article here. It’s a big improvement over King County’s plans, although of course the geographic scope is smaller.

Kudos to Snohomish County leaders for getting this done with an electorate that is generally less transit-friendly than King County. Bonus points for getting it done without a tax or fare increase, and not taking it through a laborious public vote.

The project should be done in 2009. King County’s version, RapidRide, won’t have its earliest portion done before 2010 despite being launched over a year earlier. It will mesh quite nicely with RapidRide’s Aurora Service, terminating at Aurora Village. People living along this corridor can access jobs in places like Fremont far faster than the current best option of going downtown, and then back north.

Swift would appear to have the same features as RapidRide, except:

  • The 10-minute headways will be 20 hours a day (instead of peak-only).
  • It has on-board bike racks served by their own door(!)
  • Ticket machines are at the stations, while RapidRide envisions that passengers will still fumble for change on board.
  • Seven miles of the route will actually be bus-only instead of HOV. Anyone who’s ridden 405 Northbound in the afternoon can tell you the difference, although Swift will still have to deal with the usual idiots trying to turn right.

I really wish the people responsible for this were running the BRT shop at Metro. They seem to be doing a lot more with a lot less, at least in this narrow case.

But in spite of all the things they’ve done right, it’s still not light rail. An 80-passenger bus every 10 minutes is nothing like an 800-passenger train every six in terms of capacity, and therefore has dramatically lower potential for high-density development along the line. It also will not be truly separated from traffic. At the same time, what they’ve done here is about as much as you can do with buses before you start to approach the cost of rail.

In the long run, light rail can be run with four or two-minute headways. Buses can’t, because the timing is unreliable and they end up bunched up (See: Metro Route 48). Bigger trains, shorter headways: Light Rail moves a lot more people than BRT, even when BRT is done right.

But BRT is a good option for a corridor that won’t see rail for a long, long time.

UPDATE: Reading between the lines more carefully, I should point out one weakness in the plan: apparently, the ten miles of the line that are not bus-only lanes are general purpose lanes. Given the rather tight constraints they were under, I still think they did a really good job. It’s just not quite as much of a slam dunk over RapidRide.

Waterfront Streetcar Tracks

I know we talk about the waterfront streetcar way too much, but the process is pretty opaque, so we have to expend a lot of effort to find out what’s going on.

Anyway, I emailed WSDOT about the mysterious paving over of the streetcar tracks. Here’s what I got back:

Yes, we’re using it as a temporary detour for bikes and pedestrians while we repair several viaduct columns between Columbia Street and Yesler Way. Construction on that project should be done by the end of April, and the streetcar tracks will be restored.

So there you go. No need to panic.

Rainier Valley Segment Photos

At about the same time that the Washington Transportation Blog posted these, I went and took some photos along the Rainier Valley Light Rail segment. I also have a few comments about the line’s design.

Down around Rainier Beach station, the track seems completely done, with the station apparently complete and the overhead wires installed. As you go north, things get progressively less developed till you reach Mount Baker station and the Beacon Hill segment.

Here’s Othello Station, which as you can see is surrounded by retail development.

Immediately north of Othello, the pylons are in with the pointy tips that my friend remarked made them look like “weapons for giant fighting robots.”

Up at Columbia City station, they’re putting in little plazas at each corner of the station. They’re looking nice.

And the station itself is coming along nicely.

One thing that could be a problem is a lack of crossing gates at major intersections. Here at MLK & Alaska, I can certainly envision some idiot trying to turn left and blocking the train.

And lastly, a pedestrian crossing near the Rainier Vista development. There’s a boys and girls’ club going in near here, and I’m really concerned kids are going to run across the tracks wherever they like. It’s a matter of time until the first accident. That’s not only a tragedy in its own right, but will almost certainly result in reduced speeds afterwards, which makes LINK a less attractive option.

I would propose a tasteful, 2 or 3 foot black iron fence along the length of the right-of-way to channel people into the signalized crossing, as well as crossing gates at intersections. How much more investment could it be on a multi-billion dollar project?

By the way, you can see that drainage on the tracks already sucks.

Waterfront Streetcar, Take 2

After many comments and more digging, and a revised webpage by Metro, here’s what I think we know:

  • The streetcar cannot return until the trolley barn is rebuilt, which is probably about mid-2009.
  • Whether it opens or not at that time will depend largely on the fate of the Alaskan Way viaduct. If they’re going to have to shut the thing down anyway for construction in 2010, it makes little sense to run it for a few months.

Sorry for all the confusion.

Rest in peace, waterfront streetcar?

While I’m busy bashing King County today…

Commenter Shotsix asked about the Waterfront Streetcar today. It’s something I’ve been wondering about myself, as it was a nice way to get down to the waterfront on a partially separated right-of-way. My brother-in-law is considering switching to transit to get to work and asked me about it. So I did a little Googling:

It looks like the Streetcar is dead. UPDATE: No it’s not. See below.

What drives me nuts about this is the lack of priorities. The city decides to build a sculpture park, and they have to move the streetcar barn. That’s fine, but a jurisdiction that actually prioritized transit would get the replacement facility constructed first, or at least finalize the plans for that replacement.

With typical skill, our fearless leaders had no such plan. Instead, their vague notions of a replacement got mired in Seattle process, and it’s taken so long they’d now rather wait to restore service until the viaduct replacement is done in the year 2175.

Meanwhile, its replacement, bus route 99, has one-fifteenth the ridership that the streetcar had. (scroll to near the bottom on the link).

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter “Pantograph Trolleypole”, who pointed out a summer post from this very same blog (D’oh!).

That gave me some new search terms, which pointed me to this newer (Jan 2007) article, which suggests that the trolley will return in 2009. Damn you Google!

Of course, that could still be a very short run indeed. If the viaduct rebuild is chosen, the new viaduct would swallow up the streetcar line. I’m no civil engineer, but I suspect the retrofit and surface/transit options could leave the streetcar unharmed.

UPDATE 2: Commenter Brian Bundridge, piling on, gives a more precise date of Summer 2009, just in time for light rail. Mea culpa, mea culpa!

But I don’t want to lose the larger point. Sculpture parks are not high on any citizen’s priority list. Regardless, to get one, they tore down part of our transit infrastructure with no replacement and no firm plan for one in place. These are not the actions of a leadership focused on transportation issues. The fact that they haven’t even started building the barn yet is outrageous.

Priority: Everything but Transit

We’ve spent the last week or so agonizing over how to get the $1.2 billion in 2006 dollars to extend light rail to Northgate by 2018. We’ve spilled many electrons trying to figure out what taxing district is optimal, how the legal arrangements work out, etc.

Well, the King County Council just raised taxes without a public vote yesterday, and if you multiply the projected yearly income by the 10 years it would take to get to Northgate, you get no less than $1.1 billion. That’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, ignoring inflation (although tax receipts inflate too), but also ignoring the fact that we could pay it off over a longer period of time, and the likelihood that the Federal government would chip in.

Remember this when we’re told there’s no money to get to Northgate (or repair crumbling bridges).

Ron Sims’ swing from champion for transportation to head of the mass transit enemies list is truly startling. Could a Republican County Exec be any worse?

Getting Rail to the Ballot

There’s a lot of talk about getting some light rail to the ballot next year. As Daimajin points out, I’m not sure that it’s within Sound Transit’s authority to propose that some portion of the ST district be taxed to fund a particular project. Any lawyers out there that can clarify the limits of Sound Transit’s charter?

It’s evident that asking the three-county district to vote on a Northgate extension alone is dead-on-arrival. Another possibility is to revisit the bus/rail extension option that was briefly considered by the board for this year’s ballot, which would have involved only a 0.3% sales tax increase. Although that option was savaged during the comment period in favor of more aggressive rail construction, the kind of person who comments at that stage in the process is likely a wee bit more energized about transit than the rest of us.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear if that option has enough in it for Snohomish County. Snohomish representatives on the Sound Transit board were quite adamant that getting to Northgate did not adequately serve their constituents, to the point of fighting the idea of “loaning” subarea funds to complete the Northgate line. I found this to be shortsighted, but is probably reasonably reflective of the attitude of voters there.

The other alternative, of course, is to abandon going to the whole district altogether, and do a Seattle-only or King-County-only vote. Legally, I’m not sure how this would work out: would the City just deliver a lump of money to Sound Transit? Set up a separate authority to complete the work? Again, calling all the lawyers…

No doubt we can count on the Sierra Club to produce the initiative it looks like we’ll need…

Prop 1 Post-Mortem

I’m not going to pretend that Prop. 1’s failure was merely a tactical one. Clearly, in the current environment a significant number of people are unwilling to vote for anything that includes new taxes, roads, and/or rail. However, in hindsight I think there are two narratives where the YES campaign, for all its resources, was unable to frame the debate:

(1) Sound Transit’s record: In many voters’ minds, ST is still the agency that got off to a disastrous start at the end of the last decade. There is extensive evidence that ST is no longer that agency, but the perception remains. A key question: is there a way to reverse it before light rail starts running in 2009? Will that even be enough?

(2) The cost: $18 billion vs. $47 billion vs. $150 billion. They all sound like a lot of money, but few of us really know what any of these mean in terms of actual economic impact and opportunity costs. I’m a big fan of the “average household” figure, which was $125/year for the ST2 side. If our newspapers were a bit better on providing the public useful services, they might have published a table indexing household income to likely annual expenditure. I suspect that these concrete costs would have been both more relevant and would have prevented R & T from sounding like the cost of a moon shot.

Any other communications problems?

Comment Etiquette

A minor request:

If you don’t have a blogger account, I would certainly appreciate if you chose “Other” when commenting instead of “Anonymous”. By using a name (whatever it is), it makes a lot easier to track threads.


Stepping Back from the Ledge

Well, that stunk.

I sincerely hope that left-wing Roads & Transit opponents are correct, and that transit will come back soon and pass. I’m skeptical, but we’ll see.

Regardless, we will at least have light rail from Downtown to the Airport in 2009, and that can only help to build support for transit, although it means delivery of less rail, later, for more money.

In the meantime, as Seattle transit supporters, what should be our priorities over the next few years? Here’s my layman’s stab at a list:

1) Scrutinize (and probably oppose) “governance reform.” This is usually code for scrapping Sound Transit and replacing it with some other agency to oversee transit. Although in principle there are almost certainly governance structures superior to the current one, in reality it’s virtually certain that any replacement will spend its first years mired in mismanagement and incompetence (see: Sound Transit, 1996-2001; Seattle Monorail Project). That’s not what we need as the University LINK project comes close to getting seriously started.

2) Protect University LINK. The light rail line from downtown to Husky Stadium is supposedly all set to open in 2016. However, not one spade of Earth has yet been turned, nasty financial and engineering surprises are no doubt ahead, and God knows what legal and other challenges are lurking in the wake of the Prop. 1 failure.

This segment has the highest ridership projection of all, and the clearest time advantage for rail. An 8-minute travel time easily outclasses any conceivable alternative, including a streetcar. We must remain vigilant about this project. Like the airport, the University provides all-day traffic demand that justifies non-peak operation.

3) Get to Northgate. We must find the $1.2 billion (2006 dollars) to get to Northgate. This is the obvious terminus for southbound commuters to get on the line, and will increase the exposure of light rail that is critical to future expansion. Ideally, this would be part of a reduced regional package, but even if Seattle alone must fund it, it’s “only” $4,300 per household spread over many years — a lot, but not backbreaking.

4) Get to Bellevue. The two bridges are the most obvious chokepoint in the region. Getting to downtown Bellevue at least allows connection to the “RapidRide” BRT service that will continue to Overlake. Not optimal, but something we can accomplish. The high-end cost estimate is $2.2 billion, something that will probably require at least King County to fund. Paging Senator Murray…

5) “A Thousand Little Things.” There are lots of little things we can do that cost little compared to these mega-projects: streetcar extensions, bus lanes, arterial fixes, etc. These generally occur at the municipal level. A lot of these are being discussed on earlier threads. Expanding Sounder park-and-rides is another inexpensive capacity increase.

UPDATE: A point I should have made more clear is that there is zero chance a package involving these points would pass the three county district: there is literally nothing in it for Pierce and Snohomish Counties. To move forward, we probably need to restrict the taxing authority to the city of Seattle or King County.

In the case of King County, perhaps that involves a few hundred million for Sounder park-and-rides to win over the Southern part of the County. Whatever it takes.

Yes on Prop. 1, Part Two

This chart is far more eloquent than any 2,000 words about buses vs. rail.

Trips requiring a transfer are in red. Click on the picture for a larger view.

Vote Yes on Prop. 1. It’s the best we’ve got, and ST2 is a good system.

Yes on Prop. 1

Photo from Wikipedia.

There was an interesting piece on one of the P-I Blogs this afternoon about Gov. Gregoire’s “Plan B” if Prop.1 goes down. It should give serious pause to environmentalists holding out for a better deal.

I hope [the voters] will decide to invest and move forward, but if they do not, I am not going to take that as a comment on their part that we do not have to replace 520,” Gregoire said. “My conversation with the two legislative chairs was specifically to talk (about) how do we move forward with the replacement on 520.”

Translation: you’ll get your roads anyway. Thanks for playing.

“People have to understand that it is about both (highway construction and expanded transit). To do one without the other simply will lead to a food fight and will not be healthy for the people,” Gregoire said. “(RTID) polling says that they are better off showing the people of the community it’s a comprehensive approach.”

For those not happy with linked roads and transit measures, we bring you… linked roads and transit measures! Except more expensive and slower. What a deal!

“…Is it a different governance structure? all of which I think is ripe for discussion.”

For “different governance structure,” read “gut Sound Transit and replace it with some other agency that will spend 5 years learning its left foot from its right.”

Via Sound Politics.

ST2 Travel Times

Some commenters have asked for an estimate of light rail travel times with Sound Transit 2, compared to other possibilities. It’s all in Appendix C of the plan, along with tons of other information about ridership, capacity, and such.

For easy reference, here’s the key table:
Sorry for the fine print, but Blogger is giving me problems. Click the link and go to Page C-7.

More BRT

We’ve already been over the unnecessary duplication of effort between Sound Transit 2 and the “RapidRide” Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) portion of last year’s “Transit Now” package. To be clear, I blame Metro for this more than Sound Transit; Ron Sims knew ST was going to propose something along the SR 99 corridor in South King County, and proposed this anyway.

I would much prefer that this corridor go somewhere else, perhaps along the West Valley Highway to take pressure of SR 167. It would have made a ton of sense for Metro to release the information about one of the other RapidRide lines now, and wait for the outcome of Prop. 1 before committing to a redundant system.

My disappointment with Metro is because of the clear inferiority of this brand of transit with Light Rail. Let’s break down the features of RapidRide, because this is the alternative that Ron Sims and Kemper Freeman have in store for you if you reject expansion of light rail next month.

From the Metro website:

After RapidRide service begins, Metro’s plan is for buses to arrive every 10 minutes during the busiest morning and evening travel hours. At other times between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., buses will come every 15 minutes. Between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., service will be similar to what it is today.

Great, this is long overdue, and a real improvement over existing service. However, light rail promises 6 minute intervals during rush hour, and each 4-car train carries up to 800 passengers! That’s 8,000 people per hour, the equivalent of almost four freeway lanes. It’s clear that the capacity of this line is much smaller, which makes it much harder to spur dense development.

Also, cutting off service at 10pm makes RapidRide useless for people who might want to use it to attend a Mariners game, or go out on a Friday night. One advantage of the huge capital investment of light rail is that it encourages authorities to run it a lot, thus amortizing that cost.

RapidRide buses will have low floors and three doors, so people can get on and off quickly. A new, trial fare payment system will allow riders with passes to pay as they enter any door. The inside of the buses will be designed to make it easier for passengers to move to seats and exits.

Emphasis mine. Riders with passes aren’t the problem. The problem is idiots fumbling for change and arguing with the driver over the fare. This is dramatically inferior to the LINK or Sounder approach of buying a ticket from the machine while you’re waiting at the station.

Buses will use the new HOV lanes on Pacific Highway S/International Boulevard. As buses approach intersections, they will send signals to traffic lights, requesting that green lights stay green longer or red lights switch to green faster.

The magic words I was hoping to see here are “bus lane”. Anyone who’s ever taken the 545 from Overlake or the 532 towards Lynnwood knows that HOV lanes are a poor substitute for a dedicated right-of-way.

Still, I’m ecstatic to see they won’t be running in SOV traffic, and will get signal priority. Hopefully, these innovations are to be repeated along Aurora, 15th, NE 8th, and to West Seattle.

The shelters and signs will look different from those you see at regular Metro stops—they will have a special RapidRide style and color scheme. Waiting areas will be well-lit, increasing security. Electronic real-time signs will tell people the actual number of minutes before the next bus will arrive.

I’m not sure if the branding will overcome the “rail bias”, or if it’ll just confuse people already struggling to grasp three or four overlapping transit systems. Either way, the electronic signs are a big deal.

BRT is cheaper than rail, undoubtedly, and it’s a heck of a lot better than vanilla bus service. But it’s also probably not the ultra-reliable, high-capacity, dedicated-right-of-way transit that will drive lure tons of new riders and drive development.

I eagerly await Daimajin’s report from Los Angeles on the BRT there, and how it’s doing in terms of ridership and spurring transit-oriented development.