Thanks for 7 Great Years

This is my 485th and final post here at Seattle Transit Blog. As I move on to an exciting new opportunity, I wanted to take a minute to thank the reader community here. For the past 7 years I have been able to take for granted having substantive policy conversations every day, a rare treat in today’s media landscape. What passes as contentious or petty in our comment threads is downright graceful just about anywhere else. And your generous support has allowed me to get paid to do this for the final two years, a blessing given the bleak outlook for the economics of journalism.

This has been a consistently rewarding experience, a supplement to my professional life at Pierce Transit, Commute Seattle, as a business owner, and soon at Sound Transit. Numerous agency officials have become confidants and friends, and I hope I’ve earned their respect as much as they’ve earned mine.

This blog analyzes the tiniest needles on each policy tree, but as I reflect back on the last 7 years, I am astounded at how healthy the forest has become. Growing up in Coeur d’Alene, my experience of Seattle was limited to semi-annual trips to the Kingdome and Pacific Science Center. We’d drive over and park in “South Lake Union”, then a bleak stretch of concrete the workaday crowd drove through on the way out of town, with the remnant neighborhood of Cascade hanging on by a thread. We’d walk over to 1st Avenue to catch a free bus to Pioneer Square, and 1st Avenue’s then much seedier nature shocked my young evangelical eyes.

After 8 years of college and graduate school on the East Coast and abroad, I finally moved to Seattle in 2009. Freshly minted with a master’s degree and desperate for income, I took seasonal retail jobs at Bellevue Square and Pacific Place. My first experience of Puget Sound’s transit was the monthly trek up to Kemper Freeman’s offices to pick up my paper Puget Pass. Link opened the month I moved here.

In 2017 there is still much to criticize, of course. Our agencies still struggle to coordinate on matters of service and fare integration. The customer ‘friction’ of our overlapping, complex systems still presents a psychological barrier to the average citizen. We struggle to provide sufficient transit priority, and we waste taxpayer resources spending excessive amounts of transit funds on the resulting schedule padding. There are still too many injury and fatality collisions in our city, and bike facilities remain fragmented. Our one-way grid in Center City still prioritizes the fast movement of vehicles over people, and continues to revolve around access to/from I-5. And our transit activist community remains too white, too male, too nerdy, and on its worst days, too condescending to new entrants. A ton of work remains to build an inclusive, mobile city.

But consider the growth we’ve experienced . Thankfully I missed the days when the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel closed on nights and weekends, or the pre-Sound Transit days when just getting to Everett or Tacoma without a car was an epic adventure. When I moved here real-time information was in its infancy, a graduate student project that I used by text message on my flip phone. Now I use one app in most major cities in the world, and it works nearly flawlessly. Not so long ago the flagship 71/72/73 were all hourly in the evening, combining for 20-minute service in the University District. When RapidRide C and D launched, they planned for half-hourly evening service. For crying out loud, until 2012 you couldn’t even take a bus between Ballard and Fremont without crossing the Ship Canal twice, via Route 17. Today, Route 40 is something we’d never again try to do without.

These days, Seattle is down to just one hourly weekday service (Route 22), and frequent service has become both an expectation and (mostly) a reality citywide. The Night Owl network is about to be radically improved after a half-century of waiting. Link has shrunk the city and brought us closer to our friends, family, and partners. Trips that were difficult and frustrating just two years ago (Capitol Hill to Safeco Field, say) are now effortless and reliable. Outside my Beacon Hill bedroom window, I watch my Route 36 go by every 5 minutes, taking me to a train that comes every 6.

Voters have consistently opened their wallets to boost service, with affirmative votes on ST2, multiple Metro measures, an unprecedented city top-up of Metro service, and of course ST3. Metro’s Long Range Plan proclaims a solid vision for our future network. The next few years will be ones of painful growth and transformation, and I can’t wait to see what things look like when we emerge on the other side in 2023, take a quick breath, and then start digging to Ballard. I now have the chance to work on these things from the inside, and I can’t wait. But thank you all for your indulgence and grace. It’s been fun!

Amtrak Cascades Has a New Mudslide Hotspot

New Amtrak Cascades locomotives soon to enter service (WSDOT Photo)

The wet winter and spring have taken a toll on our railroads. Since the beginning of this year, nineteen (19) landslides have cancelled more than fifty (50) Amtrak Cascades trains. However, unlike the famous problem areas near Mukilteo that have plagued Cascades and Sounder alike, these mudslides are in a new trouble spot. Two-thirds of the total mudslides in the corridor this year have occurred in Clark County, just north of Vancouver in the Felida/Ridgefield area. Given BNSF’s mandatory 48-hour moratorium on passenger service following a mudslide, every slide can knock out as many as 20 trains. Compounding the problem, the Coast Starlight has been quietly out of service for more than two weeks now due to bridge damage in Northern California.

Mudslide mitigation in the Everett/Mukilteo area has been a great success, with millions spent on slope stabilization, homeowner education, and more. Cancellations have been sharply reduced in the northern corridor this year. But officials are scrambling to coordinate and plan a response to these new trouble spots. In an email to WSDOT, officials would only say that, “Representatives from WSDOT’s Rail, Freight and Ports Division are talking with Clark County representatives to determine how we can apply this same approach in this new area of concern.”

Fortunately, the legislature has provided ongoing funding for landslide mitigation to the tune of $33 million through 2030, a clip of roughly $2.50 million per year. Unfortunately, however, like everything else it is subject to politics and the need for biennial renewal of its funding. And though the annual outlay is generous, the current biennium only doled out $1m total, leaving agencies strapped for mitigation funds just as they finish up nearly $800m in 2009-era rail improvement projects in the corridor. So this problem may persist for a year or two.

Sometime this autumn, Cascades will add two new roundups to Portland, shuffle schedules to permit same-day business travel, and shift trains to the Point Defiance Bypass between Tacoma and Nisqually. Another wet winter and widespread cancellations could significantly hobble the new services just when they need to attract passengers most. Let’s hope the legislature will recognize the problem and approve mitigation funds in a timely and bipartisan way.

Federal Funding Outlook Brightens

Atomic Taco (Flickr)

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking high speed rail from Dallas to Austin, rolling past Mesquite trees and into the Hill County at 200mph. I had the pleasure of doing this because Obama put $47 Billion for high speed rail in his 2013 budget.

Except that didn’t happen of course, because Presidential budgets are generally all smoke and no fire. If there is one thing you can count on from Congress in this polarized age, it’s the ability of habit and inertia to overpower the bluster of the Executive.

Trump’s recent budget was a disaster for transit and red meat to our Manhattanite President’s ironically anti-urbanist Republican base. It sought to zero out long-distance Amtrak funding, cut TIGER and New Starts grants, and even deny those projects in their last few months of project development, leaving projects with nothing after nearly a decade of work. Critically, it not only hung a cloud over ST3, but also threatened ST2 projects such as Lynnwood and Federal Way.

Yesterday, the outlook brightened a bit, with the plan for a Continuing Resolution floating around that would fund the government until September. Fearful of a government shutdown despite universal federal control, Republicans have been cutting deals and ignoring the President’s will. Amidst higher profile squabbles such as Trumpcare and the border wall, most other discretionary spending was retained in a business-as-usual sense. Funding is explicitly retained for Lynnwood Link, the Center City Connector, and SWIFT II. Lynnwood is further along in the New Starts process (Engineering) whereas Federal Way was not mentioned, as it is still technically in Project Development.

Amtrak also retains $1.5B in funding, including the long-distance network. TIGER is funded at $500m, and total transit spending sees a 5.5% boost. There’s no telling what 2018 holds, but for now we may pull back from the edge.

Survey Roundup: 520, Link Satisfaction, and More

Joe Wolf (Flickr)

With the whirlwind of news, One Center City, potential restructures, and proposals for fare policy revisions, there has been no shortage of public surveys lately. Below are five surveys from Metro and Sound Transit that you should spend a few minutes of your Saturday filling out.

Link Customer Satisfaction

A general survey of Link customer satisfaction, covering fares, access, speed, reliability, and more. (Link)

SR 520 Link Connections Survey

A survey encompassing all riders in the SR 520 corridor in the context of One Center City and possible Link truncations. (Link)

Sound Transit 545 Riders Survey

Similar to above, but a Sound Transit survey limited to riders in the 545 corridor. (Link)

King County Metro Fare Revisions

A survey asking riders to respond to Metro’s Options A and B for fare simplification. (Link)

King County Metro General Bus Satisfaction

A coordinated survey done with 14 other transit agencies for comparative purposes, this survey gauges general customer satisfaction with Metro’s services. (Link)

ST3 Kicks Off

Sound Transit ST3 Map with Timelines

It tells you something about an agency’s workload when a $130m purchase of light rail vehicles isn’t the headlining agenda item. At Thursday’s packed-agenda Sound Transit Board meeting, the Board approved the vehicle buy, discussed the recent controversies relating to MVET valuations and Mercer Island litigation, and defended its record hiring disadvantaged businesses.

But the big news was a draft release of the agency’s blueprint for ST3, the System Expansion Implementation Plan (watch beginning at 51’00” in the video below). The plan details timelines for project development, design, and construction phases of all 24 concurrent projects, including remaining ST2 projects. Given the layer cake of local, state, regional, and federal jurisdictions with veto points over various aspects of construction, the report spends most of its ink discussing process improvements needed for further expediting of projects. These include streamlined permitting, earlier and more intensive public outreach, and significant internal shuffling for efficiencies. ST will also attempt to shave a year off of the time each project takes to get to an FTA Record of Decision (the final step in the environmental process), from 5.5 years to 4.5 years.

Continue reading “ST3 Kicks Off”

Mercer Corridor Project Shows There Are No Silver Bullets

Over the past month the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been quietly testing their new Intelligent Transportation Systems program on the Mercer Street corridor. Usually shorthanded to “signal retiming”, the $13m Move Seattle project creates a dynamic corridor that adapts to traffic conditions in real time. 32 signals have been updated with the new software on Mercer, Roy, and Republican Streets from 3rd Ave W to Fairview Ave N.

The primary management imperative seems to be to shorten signal times in periods of heavy traffic, theoretically reducing the cascading gridlock that occurs as queues form during lengthy cycles and spill over into neighborhood streets. In times of heavily asymmetric traffic, such as the end of major Key Arena concert late at night, the system could keep eastbound lights green far longer, and make the lesser amount of north-south traffic wait. Anyone who has ever driven Mercer Street on a sleepy Sunday morning will attest that the current system has been rigid and static, slow to drive even when no one is on it if you miss the green-light wave.

SDOT’s early data shows significant improvement in travel time reliability for most drivers, significantly better eastbound flow, and slightly worsened westbound flow (see SDOT images below). Eastbound in the PM peak, when volumes are highest and delays worst, travel time has decreased by 2.7 minutes and average speed has increased by 1.4 mph. Doing a little math, for a 1-mile corridor this implies travel time improvement from 12 minutes to 9.3 minutes, and average speed improvement from 5mph to 6.4mph.

These are significant relative improvements, but put another way $13m just went to making peak car traffic go from barely faster than brisk walking to about half the pace of casual cycling. To the average observer, or to the driver whose sense of time is dilated by rage, the corridor will still feel very slow. SDOT estimates that the average peak driver will save about $4 per year in reduced fuel costs.

So signal timing can work to improve east-west vehicle flow. But when it does so, it must also impede north-south traffic, and all transit in the area is north-south. A total of about 13,500 vehicles use Mercer during the PM peak, and their prioritization can’t help but downgrade the priority of the thousands of peak commuters on Routes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 40, 62, 63, 63, 70, 309, C, and the SLU Streetcar. If aggregate flow improves sufficiently that total systemic collapse is avoided, then maybe everyone actually will be better off. But even at its best, it tinkers at the margins at great expense. The fundamental space constraints that generate traffic will remain, and those who think tech will save us from traffic will continue to be disappointed.

News Roundup: Wind Powered

Sounder Bruce (Flickr)

This is an open thread. 

Metro Proposes Doing Away with Zoned Fares

SounderBruce (Flickr)

In a public process starting today and running through May 5, Metro is asking for public feedback on two fare overhaul proposals. There is a new survey up here, and a final proposal will be taken up by the King County Council later this summer.

The overhaul comes after 4,000 survey responses and 2 meetings with a 19-member Advisory Group. Whereas currently there is a complicated 3-layered fare structure – a base fare of $2.50, a peak fare of $2.75, and a peak fare of $3.25 for trips crossing the Seattle city limits – the new proposal would significantly simplify things:

  • Option A: a flat fare of $2.75 for any Metro route, anywhere, anytime
  • Option B: a flat fare of $2.50 during off-peak periods, and a flat fare of $3.00 during peak

So no matter the outcome, Metro will do away with zoned fares, and any surcharges will be based upon time rather than distance or geography. Metro will also not consider pricing based on class of service, where peak expresses would be priced differently than the all-day network.

Metro estimates both revenue gains and modest ridership losses from either alternative. The $2.75 flat fare would reduce ridership by an estimated 400,000 annually, while the $2.50/$3.00 structure of Option B would reduce ridership by just 200,000. While this may seem like a lot, it’s worth noting that it’s less than 1 day’s worth of Metro ridership, or 0.1-0.2% of the total. Revenue gains are estimated  at between $3.5-$4m annually, again quite modest in the context of Metro’s overall budget.

How can Metro make more money from fewer riders? In Option A 33% of riders would pay $0.25 more, while 7% of riders would pay $0.50 less. In Option B, 30% of riders pay $0.25 more, while 7% of riders pay $0.25 less. The increased revenue from current Seattle or intra-suburban riders pays for the cut to current city-to-suburb fares.

Any simplification is welcome in reducing customer ‘friction’ and creating a more legible system for riders. But simplification also magnifies tradeoffs, and these proposals are no exception. Option A ($2.75 flat fare) would further increase the price for off-peak urban trips by 10%, while reducing peak suburban express trip fares by 15%. Urban riders may feel that this further incentivizes long commutes, sprawl, and Metro’s most expensive services. A rider from Black Diamond to Seattle would pay the same as someone riding from Belltown to Pike Place Market.

On the other hand, Option B would be closer to status quo for short trips, with the same price off-peak, a 9% fare increase for peak urban trips, and an 8% reduction for peak suburban trips.

Both options would still align awkwardly with Sound Transit’s fares, though the outcome would be much better than the status quo. A flat fare of $2.75 would match Sound Transit’s one-county fare, which would finally align fares between agencies for routes across Lake Washington and from Seattle to Federal Way. Retaining a peak surcharge would make Metro more competitive with Link during off-peak hours, yet make it even more uncompetitive during peak. Metro also notes that peak pricing complicates the implementation of the ORCA Next Generation project.

Please take the survey and let Metro know what you think. There will also be two public meetings on the proposal:

McGinn the Moderate?

McGinn at Northgate Link Groundbreaking in 2012 (Atomic Taco – Flickr)

No matter their ultimate veracity, the sex abuse allegations against Mayor Murray will make for a chaotic mayoral race this summer and fall, with everything suddenly seeming possible. Murray could resign before the primary, he could survive into the general as a wounded candidate, or he could emerge victorious if the field becomes crowded and dilutes the anti-Murray vote.

To everyone’s surprise, yesterday morning former Mayor Mike McGinn threw his hat into the ring once again. Long seen as a one-and-done Mayor who left few friends at City Hall, what is McGinn’s legacy? Does he stand a chance?

First things first, McGinn was nearly always right on the substance of growth and transit issues. A friend of the blog and endorsed by STB in 2009 and 2013, McGinn took the hottest of the early ‘bikelash’ heat from the mainstream press, famously earning the moniker of Mayor McSchwinn. His passion for a calmer, safer city that prioritized people rather than vehicles is undoubtedly one of his best legacies.

He was unflinchingly pro-transit, albeit sometimes in ways that made him seem erratic or indiscriminate. He called for another Ship Canal bridge at 3rd Avenue West, a long overdue idea that still needs to happen. He wanted rail to Ballard, and got pre-ST3 studies funded. But he also waffled on grade separation, pitching MAX-style streetcars instead. He often seemed to favor set-piece, symbolic transit that made for attractive, European cityscapes, but he also lacked a passion for optimizing transit’s capacity and performance.

He was an untraditional candidate and mayor, in ways that both helped and hurt him. You could often see him cycling down 5th Avenue towards City Hall, looking like a quintessentially Pacific Northwest, disheveled everyman.  His reputation as a go-it-alone, process-eschewing mayor was well deserved.

In McGinn’s defense, let’s remember that in 2009 the economy was terrible, money was tight, and everyone was angry. The SR 99 debacle was approaching its Gregoire-era strongarmed finale, with a tunnel no one really wanted (but no majority wanted any of the other options either). Into this morass McGinn benefited from both anti-tunnel and anti-Nickels fever, and he then triumphed over the milquetoast weakness of Joe Mallahan. He emerged as a victorious neophyte, and it showed.

He was brash and passionate and had a steep learning curve on which backs you have to scratch to get things done. He announced his budget and dropped a seawall ballot measure without talking to Council. He burned bridges quickly, and they never really got rebuilt.

Which is really too bad, because he grew in office and became a much better Mayor by the end. His early missteps hardened public perception of him unfairly, and much of the opposition to his policies began to look like anti-McGinn obstructionism. Against this reputation, the powers that be desperately wanted a traditional candidate, and Senator Ed Murray checked all the boxes and more. This coalition propelled Murray to a 52-48 victory.

So who is McGinn 2017? His press conference yesterday left a mixed taste in urbanist mouths. He made his traditional comments supporting growth and transit, and he called for progressive taxation via a city income tax. But he also sounded worryingly NIMBY, calling for more process on housing, and an increased role for neighborhoods in planning and development. He sounded much more anti-tax than usual, criticizing property tax levies that he said threatened to turn us into San Francisco.

Perhaps McGinn knows he can’t (and shouldn’t) run to the left of Nikkita Oliver, and that Murray will likely hold much of the neoliberal center and whatever exists of a “Seattle right”. If McGinn’s olive branch to neighborhoods is a way for him to try to hold the urbanist left while peeling off the anti-Murray neighborhood vote, it may be good triangulated politics. But it’s not coherent from a policy perspective, and increased calls for process will make most of us groan.

It’ll be interesting to see who McGinn’s constituency is this time around. If Murray survives, most of us think he’s done a pretty good job on urbanist issues. The left flank is far likelier to be excited by Nikkita Oliver, who brings a ton of energy and freshness to the race, even as her comments on housing are worrying. The bike-and-greenways crowd will be split between Andres Salomon and McGinn. Who votes for McGinn 2017? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Sound Transit Boosts Railcar Order by 25%


In its Capital Committee meeting on Thursday, Sound Transit announced its intent to exercise a contract option for an additional 30 light rail vehicles (LRVs) to be purchased from Siemens. This option comes on top of the 122 vehicles Sound Transit ordered last September. The 30 new vehicles will arrive no later than 18 months after the original order has been fulfilled, and the total order will more than triple Link’s fleet to nearly 220 vehicles. Ordering now locks in a lower unit price from Siemens, with price escalation if the Board waits to order beyond May 2017.

Once Northgate is open in 2021, Link will move to all 4-car train operations. The 122 vehicles originally ordered are required to operate the Lynnwood and Overlake extensions opening in 2023, and the additional 30 are required for the Downtown Redmond and Federal Way extensions opening in 2024. The current operating plan calls for 8 minute peak headways on each line and 10 minutes off peak, with combined 4 minute peak and 5 minute off peak headways between Lynnwood and International District Station. Current riders from International District to Angle Lake will see their peak headways decline a bit, from 6 minutes to 8, but will also see capacity boosted by 25%, from 24 LRVs/peak hour to 30.

The Siemens S70 vehicles will be roomier, quieter, and have more bike storage than the current fleet. The aisles will be wider, especially in the center articulated section, improving passenger flow. Otherwise they will function much like the current Kinkisharyo vehicles, with 4-car trains and 8 cab cars running in fully interchangeable push-pull trainsets. This maximizes operational flexibility but also diminishes capacity slightly.

Sound Transit anticipates the new vehicles will begin arriving in mid-2019, with a steady but slow drip of 1-3 vehicle deliveries per month between 2019-2024. This delivery schedule means that though ST will be able to boost capacity on current operations between 2019-2021, they will also not be able to fully backfill the loss of tunnel buses within the One Center City timeframe. The vehicles take roughly 100 days for commissioning and testing, some of which can be done in revenue service, somewhat minimizing the need to do overnight testing. By purchasing off-the-shelf, the S70 LRVs are a known quantity and should be able to expedite burn-in processes. This model already successfully runs in places such as Portland, Minneapolis, San Diego, Salt Lake City, and suburban Paris.

As new vehicles arrive and are certified, the current Forest Street Operations and Maintenance Facility (OMF) will max out its capacity. Once the new East Link OMF is complete in 2020, a mix of old and new vehicles will be trucked there for storage, where ST promises to “keep the trains warm and move them around.”

Once fully operational, Link will have two nearly-maxed out OMF facilities, and additional cars will be stored on the lines overnight. Lynnwood and Redmond will be able to store two trainsets overnight, much like Angle Lake and UW can today. But in the south, Sound Transit is planning much more substantial storage. An extended tail track south of Federal Way will hold additional vehicles, and ST is also planning a pocket track between Federal Way and Star Lake that can hold 1-2 additional trainsets. Having vehicle storage at all 3 termini will allow quicker start of service each day, and minimize vehicle deadheading.

The full Board will likely approve the $132m option at its regular meeting on April 27.

News Roundup: Non-MVET Edition

SounderBruce (Flickr)

This is an open thread. 

House Committee Passes Bipartisan MVET Bill

Crowded Link Train on April 6 (Seattle Subway – Twitter)

As ST3’s Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) drama continues, yesterday the House Transportation Committee passed HB 2201 by a bipartisan 20-5 vote. The compromise bill would require Sound Transit to use the newer 2006 vehicle depreciation schedule, and to offer credits and refunds to those who had already paid under the old one. In addition, the bill requires Sound Transit to find the money to do this without impacting project delivery. The bill states that if this new valuation method threatens project delivery, the agency has trim project elements in a specified order:

If, when implementing the program, the RTA is not able to deliver the plan as approved originally, the RTA must identify savings and cost reductions first, from parking facility projects; second, from commuter rail projects; third, from transit-bus related projects; and fourth, from light rail projects.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been six weeks since Sound Transit 3’s (ST3) Motor Vehicle Excise Taxes (MVET) took effect. Car tabs have always been a political minefield. People pay them up front in a lump sum, and those who drive but don’t take transit experience them as a punitive taking. On March 1, the voter-approved MVET went up by 266%, from 0.3% to 1.1%. Endless digital ink and legislative oxygen has been spilled decrying the MSRP-derived depreciation schedule that calculates the MVET. That formula tends to inflate car values over their realistic resale price for the first decade or so of a car’s life.

The resulting sticker shock has proven a golden opportunity for disingenuous legislative grandstanding. To hear Republican legislators tell it, this controversy proves that Sound Transit is an agency in need of sweeping accountability reforms after hoodwinking voters and stealing from them.

But this framing is like a hunter blaming the bear for stepping into a trap it set. The depreciation schedule was not a Sound Transit creation, but a legislative directive clearly contained in the 2015 transportation revenue package (SB 5987). From the Final Bill Report:

Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET). An MVET is a tax paid on the value of a motor vehicle. For the purpose of determining any locally imposed MVET, the value of a vehicle other than a truck or trailer is 85 percent of the manufacturer’s base suggested retail price of the vehicle when first offered for sale as a new vehicle, excluding any optional equipment, applicable federal excise taxes, state and local sales or use taxes, transportation or shipping costs, or preparatory or delivery costs, multiplied by the applicable percentage listed in the depreciation schedules. [emphasis mine]

And from the bill itself:

Notwithstanding any other provision of this subsection or chapter 82.44 RCW, a motor vehicle excise tax imposed by a regional transit authority before or after the effective date of this section must comply with chapter 82.44 RCW as it existed on January 1, 1996, until December 31st of the year in which the regional transit authority repays bond debt to which a motor vehicle excise tax was pledged before the effective date of this section. Motor vehicle taxes collected by regional transit authorities after December 31st of the year in which a regional transit authority repays bond debt to which a motor vehicle excise tax was pledged before the effective date of this section must comply with chapter 82.44 RCW as it existed on the date the tax was approved by voters.

So the ST3 MVET was intended to have a business-as-usual formula, just at a higher rate, and this language passed the Republican-led Senate 37-7 and passed the Democratic-led House 54-44. If anything, it was the conservatism of the package’s framers that has caused the controversy, as all parties involved simply grandfathered in an existing structure rather than create a new one.

None of this is intended to say that voters haven’t experienced unpleasant surprise at their car tabs, or that certain low-income or high-income-cash-poor citizens haven’t found it burdensome. Talks to rework the formula, or to add low-income rebates, etc, are valid discussions. Whether you support a rate reformulation or not, this sort of legislative back and forth is normal and healthy.

But the political posturing about Sound Transit’s conduct throughout this process continues to be dishonest and misleading. The aspersions cast upon the agency neglect the layer cake of process and filters through which all of these proposals must pass before they see the ballot box, the tax bill, or groundbreaking. It is all a painstakingly conservative process by design, and Sound Transit has been following the rules to the letter. If legislators want to change the letter of the law, that’s their prerogative. But Sound Transit works with what they are given, and they cannot bill us a penny without our aggregate consent.

Study Shows No Significant Impact to Mercer Island

Joe Wolf (Flickr)

Last Wednesday, CH2M submitted the I-90 and Mercer Island Mobility Study prepared on behalf of Sound Transit.

If you’ve not been following the drama, a quick recap: Mercer Island has been making considerable noise since 2015 about perceived loss of mobility due to East Link construction. Whereas prior complaints were more generic and white-hot, of late the complaints have been much more focused on mitigation for the closing of the express lanes for East Link construction and the coming SOV-to-HOV conversion of the westbound ramp from Island Crest Way to I-90. Islanders maintain that they are owed mitigation for this by the 1976 agreement granting their solo vehicles special access to the I-90 express lanes, and also by a 2004 amendment to the agreement holds that:

[t]o the extent of any loss of mobility to and from Mercer Island based on the outcome of studies, additional transit facilities and services such as additional bus service, parking available for Mercer Island residents, and other measures shall be identified and satisfactorily addressed by the Commission, in consultation with the affected jurisdictions.”

To date, WSDOT and Sound Transit have held that the agreement clearly and permanently committed the center lanes for transit and that Mercer Island SOV access was a temporary and conditional use. The agencies noted in a letter to Mercer Island that SOV use of HOV lanes, even temporarily, would be a violation of federal law and a trigger to repay grant funds to the federal government. In response, Mercer Island announced its intent to sue Sound Transit, threatening both the schedule and budget for East Link.

Things have softened a bit since then. Mercer Island reneged on its threat to revoke shoreline permits for Sound Transit, and the ST Board committed in March that the city and agencies meet regularly to negotiate issues around Mercer Island Station beyond traffic. The current study was an olive branch between the agencies and the city, seeking data to quantify the scale of any lost mobility, in the spirit of the 2004 amendment.

Well, the study results are out. In a memo to Sound Transit board members last week, Secretary Millar summarized that:

the Mobility Study concludes that the overall mobility for people traveling to or from Mercer Island will be similar to or slightly improved compared to existing conditions during the six-year East Link construction period, and will be improved once East Link light rail service begins in 2023.   A short summary of the study is attached. [emphasis mine]

Continue reading “Study Shows No Significant Impact to Mercer Island”

When Common Sense is Wrong, and Intuitions Fail

Bike lanes are clearly the problem. (5th Avenue, SounderBruce, Flickr)

A recent blog post by well-respected local meteorologist Cliff Mass, “Fixing Seattle’s Traffic Mess,” offered an anti-urbanist grab bag of bad ideas. Bemoaning the current state of traffic, Mass distills Seattle’s traffic woes to 9 problems:

  • Road diets that “promote congestion and substantially reduce maximum throughput”
  • Poor road conditions resulting from “Seattle Council members paying [less] attention to the traffic-producing bad roads than kayaking out to oil platforms destined for Alaska”
  • Excessive draw bridge openings
  • Sounder is too unreliable, and the trains are “less than half full”
  • Distracted driving 
  • Link serves the Rainier Valley: “It takes forever to travel that segment and sometimes the trains get into accidents with cars.”
  • Undersupplied parking at Link stations: “Folks need a place to park if they are going to use the train”
  • Bike lanes: “The only safe way to commute is to be totally separate from cars, not the side lanes of the “road diet” streets”
  • Continuing lack of bus service

Many local outlets piled on the criticism, including The Strangerbut I see no reason to single out Mr. Mass. His assertions are widely held, intuitive, and derived from common sense. They are also completely unsupported by data.

To wit, road diets haven’t greatly increased travel time or reduced throughput, drawbridges must open by Coast Guard mandate, Sounder is 95% reliable and carries 500 passengers per trip, Sounder mudslides have gone down markedly due to intensive work by WSDOT, a Duwamish Bypass for Link would cost $1B and only save 3-4 minutes, transit parking is a niche product that cannot scale, and our local and regional bus service levels are at historic highs.

Just as Mass’ diagnostic skills are lacking in his post, so too are his 3 prescriptions: passenger ferries, flexible app-based carpooling, and a Big Data approach to signal timing, etc. Perfectly reasonable sentiments, but none of them remotely sustainable. To the extent that app-based carpooling diluted transit ridership, it would make things worse. While Big Data can optimize flow at the margins, the fundamental use-of-space problem is immutable. And when it comes to passenger ferries on Lake Washington, King County’s official report showed that they would suffer from low ridership and would incur costs three times higher than Sounder.

Collisions Down, Traffic and Travel Times Flat. Road Diets Work.
From the Q4 2016 Ridership Report

But if you’re stuck behind the wheel, it’s reasonable that you’d think “two lanes would be better than one”. Link’s Rainier Valley deviation feels slow, even when it only costs a couple minutes for people like Mr. Mass who likely view it as an airport shuttle. If you would love to ditch your car but the park and ride is full,  you’ll wish there were more spots. In each of these cases, people’s lived experience contradicts what the data clearly says. Accordingly, we should cut such folks some slack, and do a better job of showing our work.

If you drive everywhere, it may well look like madness, and Seattle’s urbanist policies are a visible and convenient foil. But if bike lanes et al were to blame for traffic, you wouldn’t expect traffic problems in car-focused places such as Kennydale Hill, the Fife Curve, or Joint Base Lewis McChord. But we know that each of those places are equally choked by traffic. So if you find yourself thinking, without irony, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” it’s time to take a step back and learn to distrust your intuitions. It’s hard to get things right, especially outside one’s area of expertise. Mistakes are acceptable, but we shouldn’t assert without evidence.

As Bertha Nears the Finish Line, Could the Tunnel Serve Transit?

WSDOT Photo (Flickr)

It’s nearly done. Forget the questionable process by which it came about, the undeniable lost opportunity for transit investment instead,  or the coming tax bill for litigation and overruns. Bertha will likely break through in the next few days, and there will by a highway bypass tunnel underneath Downtown Seattle two years from now. It’s time to try to look at the bright side.

The Viaduct will be gone. The Waterfront will be opened up. There will be a continuous cycle path along the waterfront, and widened sidewalks to boot. The surface highway that replaces it will be far too wide, and too many concessions have been made for car ferry access, but the net reality on the ground will be undeniably better than the Brutalist monolith above Alaskan Way today.

The question for transit advocates is how much lemonade can be squeezed from the highway lemon, if any? Just a few years ago, the highway bypassed what most considered “Downtown”, but in the intervening years Downtown has growth into South Lake Union to such an extent that direct service to Republican Street now seems like a plausible transit use.

Partially because of the tunnel’s disutility for transit but mostly due to the anticipation of West Seattle light rail, Metro’s Long Range Plan includes just one SR 99 tunnel route, “Corridor 2003”. The route would combine parts of Route 21X and Rapid Ride C, serving Arbor Heights, Fauntleroy, and Alaska Junction before running express to South Lake Union.

Screenshot from Metro 2040 Plan

These sort of boomerang routes have a long history in Seattle due to the Columbia Street express ramps. Routes such as the 79 from Lake City are long gone, but many routes from the north today still serve the south end of downtown first, including Route 355 and a number of Community Transit routes. Similarly, routes such as AM Route 577 serve Seneca, 4th, and Pine Streets before turning down 2nd to serve South Downtown.

But though Metro doesn’t anticipate such a route until 2040, access issues are perhaps most acute in the next few years, when the shiny new tunnel will lie unused while the surface streets suffer all number of constraints. Maybe we should look at such routes a bit sooner?

Consider that the traditional approach from West Seattle to Pioneer Square will continue to be served by Rapid Ride C and Routes 21 and 120. There is a good case to be made for supplemental peak service that serves SLU and Belltown first. “RapidRide CX” could run from Fauntleroy to SLU, perhaps replacing Route 116. “Route 126” could run from SR 509 to SLU, providing bypass service for Burien and complementing Routes 121 and 122. These routes could terminate in SLU, or more likely could continue into the Central Business District via Dexter/7th/Bell/3rd or Westlake/Lenora/3rd.

Such route designs deserve study going into the One Center City years of “maximum constraint”. We’ll have a huge new tunnel that we’re afraid not enough people will use. Let’s put some buses in there.

Route 550 via SR 520?

Atomic Taco (Flickr)

[Note: Not an April Fools’ post.]

As part of the One Center City process, Metro and Sound Transit are currently seeking feedback and convening a Sounding Board for proposals to restructure  SR 520 service to UW Station, with survey submissions due Sunday, April 2.

The SR 520 process is farther along because it already had a trial run during the initial ULink Connections outreach process in 2015. But though the near-term pain is far more acute in the I-90 corridor, outreach there has been far less extensive. Sometime this year, South Bellevue Park and Ride will close for 5 years. Just 2 months from now, unless Mercer Island successfully delays it through litigation, the express lanes will close for East Link construction and I-90 bus service will use the general roadway (albeit in new HOV lanes) for the next 6 years.

We’ve heard that the current proposal for I-90 – proposing to truncate Route 550 at International District Station while leaving other I-90 services relatively untouched – has been unpopular. So here’s a proposal: kill the 550, or reroute it over SR 520. 

[Action Alert: regardless of what you think of the following proposal, if you want to see I-90 service considered as part of the SR 520 restructure process, get your comments in TODAY, and/or send your comments to King County Councilmember, Sound Transit Boardmember, and Bellevue Resident Claudia Balducci.]

Continue reading “Route 550 via SR 520?”

Tunnel Cell Service Is Live

In an afternoon tweet, Sound Transit announced that cell service has finally come to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) between Westlake and International District. Previously delayed by finite staffing resources, Sound Transit says that T-Mobile customers have full service starting today (March 28), Verizon customers will have service beginning Thursday (March 30), with ATT following in “early April”. All networks have 911 capability beginning today.

The staffing and resource limitations also meant that the work had to be done more sequentially than initially planned. This delayed the rollout of service to Beacon Hill, where work will now begin. Service to Beacon Hill is expected later this year, but a more specific timeline remains elusive.

So now you can listen to STB’s podcast, or check bus transfers, or scroll Twitter, or have (quiet!) phone conversations to your heart’s content.

Rapid Ride H Kicks Off, Comment by March 31

King County Metro RapidRide 2013 New Flyer DE60LFR 6089

Photo by Zack Heistand on Flickr

SDOT has kicked off design for Rapid Ride H, the planned upgrade of the Route 120-Delridge corridor. The work area stretches 4 miles from the West Seattle Bridge to the southern city limits at Roxbury Street. Route 120 is one of the top-performing routes in Metro’s network, with 6,300 boardings per day. Comments on early concept designs are due by March 31, and you can view the proposals here.

There are a few unique things about this corridor relative to other Rapid Ride corridors. First, it will be the first route improved with SDOT funds that also extends past Seattle – into White Center and Burien – meaning that improvements south of Roxbury will have a separate (and not necessarily simultaneous) Metro-run process. If White Center annexes into the city during the project timeframe, it is unclear whether this will increase SDOT’s scope of work or not.

Topography and development patterns have meant that Route 120 is already relatively fast, averaging 15mph between Roxbury and the West Seattle Bridge. There is little transfer activity along the line due to a broken grid and steep hillsides, and the corridor is primarily residential or small-scale commercial development. This means there is little to get in the way of the bus.

But aside from a short Business Access and Transit (BAT) lane approaching the bridge, there is no transit priority on the corridor today, and bike facilities are limited to two disconnected (but generally high quality) greenways flanking Delridge on both sides.

SDOT is proposing two broad concepts for the corridor. Option 1 is the more aggressive for transit priority, with BAT lanes from Andover to Alaska and from Graham to Holden Street. Parking would be removed to make way for these BAT lanes, but between Alaska and Graham Street parking would be retained and buses would run in general traffic. Throughout Option 1, the center turn lane would be replaced with a landscaped median wherever roadway width permits.

Option 2 would only provide BAT lanes between the West Seattle Bridge and Alaska St. More parking would be retained, and a continuous southbound Protected Bike Lane (PBL) would be built from the uphill stretch from Andover to Holden. A northbound PBL would be built for a short 3-block stretch between Webster and Orchard. Where the corridor narrows south of Holden Street, both options would retain the current look of street parking and general purpose traffic, but with center turn lane/median improvements.

Beyond the channelizations, both options would invest heavily in resurfacing the street, removing a handful of stops to bring the stop spacing up from 1/4 to 1/3 of a mile, adding shelters and off-board payment, and improving east-west connections from Delridge to the adjacent neighborhood greenways. The primary tradeoffs, once again, seem to be between bicycle and transit facilities, but these improvements would enable a big boost to frequency and reliability, and an 8-12% improvement in speed.

Time for a Fare Overhaul? Metro Seeking Comment This Spring

Photo by Oran

We’ve come a long way since the 38 fare zones of 1973, but our current fare systems are generally an overlapping mess. In the context of Sound Transit 2 and 3, potential bus restructures for One Center City, as well as its own Long Range Plan, Metro is looking at a potential overhaul of its fare structures, and through the end of March they are conducting a survey of riders’ fare priorities. This is a sort of meta survey; it doesn’t ask you to respond to any proposals, but instead will inform what they will propose in April. After that, another round of feedback begins. This project has a relatively short timeline, with Executive Constantine hoping to submit a proposal to the King County Council in June.

The background materials presented to the Advisory Committee convened for this project show that Metro is primarily focused on two goals: in the short term, potential elimination of zone and peak surcharges, and in the longer term, moving gingerly toward cashlessness and/or universal off-board payment. Please take the survey, and we’ll keep you updated with additional feedback opportunities as the project progresses. You may also email comments to Metro’s DeAnna Martin.

Continue reading “Time for a Fare Overhaul? Metro Seeking Comment This Spring”

In Defense of Motor Vehicle Excise Taxes

Traffic on 5th Avenue (Sounder Bruce – Flickr)

A perceived tax burden is often less about the amount owed than it is about matching one’s prior expectations. In the recent Sound Transit Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) controversy, relatively little has been made about the quantitative burden – people generally aren’t parsing dollars – but much has been made about rate fairness. Sound Transit’s use of a traditional depreciation schedule based on the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) sufficiently differs from one’s everyday experience of their vehicle’s value that it feels like a punitive taking. But if ST3 had proposed raising the same amount of funds via a steeper depreciation schedule and a higher authorized rate, I am confident that the number of changed votes would have been negligible. People generally vote on the perceived merits of the projects in question, period.

Motor Vehicle Excise Taxes (MVET) have two strikes against them. First, their annual lump sum payments feel more viscerally punitive than property or sales taxes. Biannual property taxes are often embedded in rent or mortgage payments, and sales tax is a drip drip of a few dollars here and there. Second, using vehicles as a tax source intuitively feeds the War on Cars narrative, but it is little different than using gas taxes to pay for HOV/bus lanes. An excess of motor vehicles is a major reason for transit capital projects in the first place, and most of us who ride transit also own those cars. It is eminently fair to use one to help us transition to the other, and moving away from cars and toward transit is a spatial imperative if we are to continue to grow as a city.

My own car’s MVET cost $150 this year, and it admittedly was an unpleasant experience to pay it. But rationally I know that the total amount is fair, I voted yes with the majority, and that that’s the way democracy works. I also know that if I spend more than $8,500 this year on taxable goods, I will have contributed more in sales taxes this year than I did in MVET.

Sound Transit’s MVET is also surprisingly progressive. If through ‘defeasance’ we reverted to a 2006-era depreciation schedule, owners of cars less than 11 years old would see a tax cut and owners of cars greater than 11 years old would see a tax increase. So any populist uprising is a lot of smoke and mirrors. The dynamics nicely emulate the current healthcare debates in the other Washington.  It may play well for legislators to stoke the fire, but reversion would be an effective tax cut for the rich, done in the name of the little guy. 

Discussions floating around about a low-income MVET rebate are valid and promising, and Seattle provides the precedent with its $20 car tab rebate. The hit to ST’s revenue would not be severe, and those hardest hit by ST3’s taxes would get a welcome reprieve. But those of us who can pay should pay. Expensive vehicles are luxury goods that reflect our income status, and in a regressive state that already disproportionately taxes the poor, MVET is one of the most progressive sources available. It is progressive and fair for the Lexuses of Laurelhurst to pay more than the Toyotas of Tacoma.

UPDATE: Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D – Seattle) introduced SB 5906 Tuesday night, which would allow a low-income rebate from Sound Transit’s portion of the MVET and property tax. It is the companion to HB 2148, by Rep. Kristine Reeves (D – Federal Way) that was introduced a couple weeks ago. Senators have the rest of today to sign onto SB 5906.