Intercity Transit looks to go fare-free

An Intercity Transit bus at Olympia Transit Center

Intercity Transit is looking to make the rare jump to zero-fare service beginning January 1, 2020, pending a board of directors vote next week. Last year, voters in the urbanized portion of Thurston County approved a 0.4 percent sales tax increase to fund more transit service. Riders on Intercity Transit buses currently pay $1.25 for adult fares on local routes and $3 on express services to Tacoma and Lakewood.

The zero-fare proposal, not part of the long-range plan and goals of the ballot measure, came about as part of a simple opportunity: the fareboxes for the system are in need of replacement. Intercity Transit is not part of the ORCA program and would need to spend more than $1 million to outfit its buses with farecard readers and other equipment.

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Community Transit’s near-term plans prioritize frequency and connections

Community Transit is preparing for more Swift lines in the next few years

With Lynnwood Link construction underway, Community Transit has less than five years to prepare for major changes to Snohomish County’s transit landscape. The draft of their latest six-year transit development plan is out for public comment and describes some of the upcoming challenges and priorities for the agency up to the 2024 restructure.

Last year, Community Transit buses and vanpools provided 10.6 million boardings, averaging just under 37,500 on weekdays for fixed-route buses. The agency expects this figure to grow to 14.4 million passenger trips by 2024 with the implementation of more frequent service and the opening of the next Swift line. Community Transit scheduled 412,364 total service hours in 2018, and is expected to use 566,864 by 2024 after several service expansions.

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Monorail now accepts ORCA cards

How to use an ORCA card to pay for the monorail

As of today, October 7, the Seattle Center Monorail has a new payment option: the ORCA card in your pocket, bag, or phone case. After five years of study and negotiations earlier this year from the rest of the ORCA consortium, the monorail is now better integrated into the regional transit system as a real commuter option.

Monorail riders using their ORCA cards will line up at the regular ticket booths and present their card to the cashier. After a quick tap with a handheld reader, you’ll be able to board the monorail, which runs every 10 minutes between Westlake Station and the Seattle Center. The monorail will work similar to a normal bus, with both daily and monthly passes accepted as payment alongside e-purse deductions. The two-hour transfer offered with ORCA transactions also apply to the monorail.

The monorail will continue to accept cash, credit/debit cards, and mobile tickets. Paper transfers from Metro buses will not be accepted. The monorail has accepted mobile tickets through Metro’s TransitGo app since January 2018.

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Mountlake Terrace approves plans for town center upzone

Terrace Station, a residential development at Mountlake Terrace Station

Mountlake Terrace, the small suburb of 21,000 often confused with the even smaller fiefdom of Montlake, is looking at big plans for development around its sole light rail station. On Thursday, the city council approved an update to the Town Center Subarea Plan, which was adopted in 2007 to guide development of the fledgling “downtown” of Mountlake Terrace.

The Mountlake Terrace Transit Center and light rail station will sit at the southwest corner of the town center, which spans 18 city blocks that stretch from 230th Street to 237th Street in the south and east to 55th Avenue. The updated plan calls for buildings up to 12 stories tall with a focus on pedestrian-friendly frontages and mixed uses throughout the town center. At full buildout, the town center would have 3,000 new multifamily housing units, 410,000 square feet of office space, and 215,000 square feet of retail, supporting 6,600 new residents and 1,953 new jobs.

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Community Transit boosts Swift and Sunday services

A Community Transit bus at Seaway Transit Center (photo by author)

Not to be outdone by Metro, Community Transit is also boosting Sunday frequencies for several routes in their September 22 service change. In the first major change to Sunday service since it was reintroduced in 2015, Route 201 (Smokey Point–Lynnwood) will be added to the Sunday roster with hourly service from 7:30 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. Route 201 will supplement existing Sunday service on Route 202 to provide 30-minute frequency on their shared corridor in Marysville and Everett.

Other routs will have added trips on Sundays and major holidays, including extended service until 9 p.m. for Routes 112, 113, 116, and 280. Community Transit is also upgrading Saturday frequency on the Swift Blue Line from 20 minutes to 15 minutes between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Both Swift lines will also have extended hours of service, including weekday trips that begin at 4:15 a.m. and evening service on Sundays and holidays until 9 p.m.

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Lynnwood Link officially breaks ground

Sound Transit officials and local elected leaders breaking ground at Lynnwood City Center Station (photo by author)

On Tuesday, Sound Transit and local elected officials broke ground on the first inter-county light rail project to be built in Washington state: Lynnwood Link. Although visible construction on Lynnwood Link has been underway for months, the final contracts and funding agreements were only recently approved by Sound Transit and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Lynnwood Link will extend light rail service on the Red and Blue lines by 8.5 miles along Interstate 5, passing through Shoreline and Mountlake Terrace before terminating at Lynnwood Transit Center, the main bus hub in South Snohomish County. Community Transit is planning a massive truncation of its commuter routes to feed into light rail trains, taking advantage of the more reliable travel times to reinvest service hours into expanded local routes. Several bus rapid transit routes, including the Stride network and the Swift Blue and Orange lines, will intersect with Link at stations built along the Lynnwood corridor.

The project was approved as part of ST2 in 2008 and is the final light rail project from the program, discounting projects that were absorbed into ST3 like the extensions to Federal Way and Downtown Redmond. It was originally anticipated to begin service in 2023, but was pushed back by six months into 2024 because of design changes and cost overruns brought on by the local construction boom. The current project budget is $2.9 billion, of which 40 percent will be paid through a $1.17 billion full funding grant agreement with the FTA that was signed late last year.

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The next 10 years for Link

Tracks and catenary supports for the Blue Line on Mercer Island

In case you haven’t heard, Link celebrated its tenth birthday last week, bringing back memories of the long-past era of 2009. Since the first trains left Mount Baker Station on the morning of July 18, 2009, Link has carried over 125 million passenger trips and has become the single busiest transit corridor in the state. For all the milestones and achievements of the past ten years, Link is saving its grandest leaps forward for the upcoming decade.

When we arrive at Link’s 20th birthday in 2029, light rail ridership will have shattered several times over and reached well over 280,000 daily trips—surpassing almost every light rail system in the United States. Trains will whisk away riders from 44 stations, from Lynnwood to Federal Way and from Redmond to downtown Seattle, popping out of the Northgate tunnel every three minutes, alternating between red and blue.

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Happy 10th birthday, Link!

Just before the ribbon-cutting

Ten years ago today, some 45,000 riders boarded Link light rail for the first time and celebrated a new era in Seattle’s transit history: the long-awaited start to a real rail transit system.

STB was there to cover every angle of the opening weekend (and the first days in revenue service), which are chronicled in loving detail with posts every few hours. There was number counting, a short postmortem, and plenty of photos and comments. There were also dozens of tweets on opening day, with thoughts ranging from porta-potty cleanliness to the fact that three-car trains were there to take passengers that day.

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Snohomish County narrows down light rail station options for Mariner and Ash Way

8th Avenue W concept for Mariner Station (Makers/Snohomish County)

Link service to Everett remains 17 years away from its estimated completion date, but the narrowing of station options is already progressing at the county level. Snohomish County is soliciting another round of public comments for its light rail station subarea plans, which cover the two stations in unincorporated area between Lynnwood and Everett: Ash Way (164th Street Southwest) and Mariner (128th Street Southwest). These two stations mark the end of the “easy” section of Everett Link, with an opportunity to open early if the stars align.

The second open house, which we reported on in November, drew 3,000 online visitors and narrowed down the set of options per station from three to two. Respondents to surveys about both stations also ranked their priorities in choosing station options, placing Swift and bus connections above the likes of sidewalk/trail access, TOD opportunities, and bike access. The responses from this third open house will be used to shape the subarea plan that will be presented by the county to Sound Transit for further consideration, which will likely involve a good deal being lost to the Seattle process.

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Community Transit begins study of Link-based restructure for 2024

Local buses on 164th Street SW in northern Lynnwood

Community Transit has long discussed its plans to radically restructure its commuter and local bus networks in anticipation of Lynnwood Link, and its first concepts were presented to the Snohomish County Council this week. First noticed last month by The Urbanist, the agency briefed the County Council on its preliminary plans for its 600,000 annual service hours, including a portion saved from avoiding the long slog on Interstate 5 south of the county line.

By and large, the commuter network would be truncated to Lynnwood City Center and Mountlake Terrace stations, which will both include large bus transfer areas. At Lynnwood City Center (today’s Lynnwood TC), Community Transit anticipates that commuter and local buses will arrive and depart from one of its bays every 35 seconds during peak periods, traveling out to Interstate 5 via its direct HOV ramp or onto nearby streets. The station will have 20 layover spaces for double-decker buses that will be held to meet Link trains as they arrive at the station.

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Sound Transit shows off new Siemens light rail vehicles

Link LRV 202, the first of the Siemens S70 fleet

The long-awaited second generation of Link light rail trains has arrived at Sound Transit’s OMF in SoDo. The Siemens-built S70 car was put on display for local media on Wednesday, giving a small look into the future of our light rail system.

The display car, number 202, is the first of 152 Siemens light rail vehicles that were ordered by Sound Transit in 2016 for use on the ST2 extensions (including those that rolled over into ST3), covering Northgate Link, East Link, Lynnwood Link, and Federal Way Link. The $624.5 million contract covers all 152 vehicles, which are being manufactured and tested by Siemens in Sacramento, California. The ST3 extensions beyond 2025 will be served by a third generation that will require a new bidding process, and potentially more design changes if necessary.

Sound Transit expects to receive one to three vehicles per month through the end of the order in 2024, with many cars slated to also fill the under-construction OMF East in Bellevue. Following a few months of testing and commissioning, the first of the new Siemens cars will enter service in early 2020. Northgate Link will require 40 cars, while East Link will take up 112; both sets will be shared with the Lynnwood and Federal Way extensions.

The new Siemens cars will run in separate trainsets from the old Kinikisharyo cars, which will be pulled from service and trucked to Bellevue while undergoing minor software change to prepare them for East Link service, namely adding a new speed setting for the Bel-Red section’s 25 mph limit. Yes, this means that four-car train service will have to wait a bit longer, perhaps until the in-service testing for Northgate Link begins in late 2020.

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Transit Report Card: Ottawa

Gattineau and Ottawa buses crossing the Rideau Canal

I recently returned from a week-long trip to three of Canada’s great cities, of which two have already been covered by previous Transit Report Cards (Vancouver and Montreal). While I may return to write about the latter, which has since undergone some significant changes in wayfinding, today’s transit report is focused on the third and final stop on my journey: Ottawa, the national capital.

Ottawa’s transit system has some interesting quirks, namely its reliance on an extensive system of dedicated busways (named the Transitway) and its impending switch to light rail in the coming weeks. Some of its quirks are quite familiar to those of us in the Puget Sound region, as shown below, but I think there are some good lessons that can be learned from the system that OCTranspo (the city’s transit operator) has developed.

Segments ridden:

  • Trillium Line (diesel light rail) – Bayview to Greensboro
  • Various Transitway routes – Fallowfield to Downtown to Blair
  • Route 18 – Downtown to Byward Market
  • Route 44 – Downtown to Hull (Gatineau)
  • Route 101 – Hurdman to The Glebe
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Metro Needs Your Help Toppling Other Metros

(Right picture courtesy of Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons)

For the past two weeks, the American Planning Association has been running a Transit Bracket Challenge, pitting the largest transit agencies in the U.S. against each other in a popularity contest. King County Metro has so far quashed its competition, namely San Francisco’s Muni and the Maryland Transit Administration, leaving us as the sole West Coast representative.

Metro’s winning form has seemingly come teetering to a crawl and is in danger of halting entirely, thanks to its semifinal opponent: the Chicago Transit Authority.

As of writing (near midnight), Metro sits at 44.4%, while Chicago is pulling in 55.6%. Over 17,600 people have already voted in the Metro-CTA matchup, which is more than double the tally for the cross-town MTA-NJ Transit fixture in the other semifinal.

While Metro may not have the history and prestige found in each wooden tie and platform board on the ‘L’, we do punch above our weight in terms of bus ridership. Average weekday ridership on CTA buses is around 765,000, for a metro area of 9.5 million, while Metro carries 402,000 in a metro area half the size of Chicagoland.

And while they may have beat us to the punch in introducing electric battery buses, we’ve still got our reliable old trolleybus system to fall back on while we catch up in battery bus deployment. Our buses are also more frequent, more reliable, and are as busy as it gets in terms of American transit. Plus, we have a dog that regularly rides by herself.

You can vote here. The poll closes on Sunday and you can vote multiple times from multiple devices. The final round starts on Monday and will conclude on Sunday, June 9. The winning agency earns bragging rights at inter-city conferences, while voters can exercise their civic pride in time for the start of Ride Transit Month.

Interstate 5 Turns 50 and Shows Its Age

Downtown Seattle and the newly-built Interstate 5, as seen in 1966 (Seattle Municipal Archives)

On May 14, 1969, the final section of Interstate 5 opened between Everett and Marysville, forever changing life in the Puget Sound region and completing a new road link to Vancouver, British Columbia. The last of some 276 miles of concrete and asphalt that had been laid down in sections for twenty years had opened up a new frontier for sprawling communities and left U.S. Highway 99 behind to decline.

Now, at over a half-century old, I-5 is something of a necessary evil in eyes of many who live here. Its use of left-hand exits causes traffic to weave and jam, the use of reversible express lanes creates a bottleneck for reverse commuters, and it creates a visual, auditory, and olfactory barrier between the neighborhoods it slices through. But it is also the backbone of the state’s freight movements and our regional express bus system, which is among the best in the nation.

At 50 years of age, I-5 is now chronically congested, seismically vulnerable, and has maintenance issues that often require emergency repairs during the middle of rush hour. The I-5 Systems Partnership was formed by local governments to study near-term solutions and develop a master plan for the 107-mile central corridor, which stretches from Tumwater to Marysville and includes 60 percent of the state’s population (some 4.3 million people, of whom 3.3 million are licensed drivers).

Last month, the I-5 Systems Partnership published its draft call to action, highlighting several proposed solutions to patch and repair our way out of traffic and misery, rather than endlessly expanding the freeway. The report estimates that $5.1 billion would be needed by 2040 to maintain the freeway and its bridges while also upgrading seismically-vulnerable structures and fix pavement issues. With the vast majority of gas tax revenues needed to pay off debt service for other projects, other funding sources will have to be found, such as a congestion charge or per-mile fees.

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