Today is Transit Driver Appreciation Day: Tell Your Driver a Quick Thank You

Metro photo

If you work in an office, you probably take for granted the little things. Standing up to walk to a coworker’s desk. Multiple runs to the coffee machine. Off-site meetings to stretch your legs. The ability to use headphones. Availing yourself of legal pot.

But being a transit operator affords you none of those things. Imagine sitting for 4-8 hours at a time. If you drive a bus or streetcar, your bathroom breaks depend on the whims of traffic. If you’re really late on one run, you may not get a break at all in order to keep your next run on time. Your daily work life consists of hundreds of micro interactions with strangers, asking random questions as you navigate a 40′ or 60′ machine through tight city streets. For many part-timers who work only the peak periods, think about it: you hate traffic, but traffic is what they do for a living.

The pay is decent and the benefits are top-notch, but the work is hard and often thankless. They work hard for you every day, and are far more often the object of scorn than praise, as angry people lash out at them as a captive outlet. Just about anything you’re tempted to be mad about on a bus ride isn’t their fault.

Today is Transit Driver Appreciation Day. As you board a bus today, give your driver a quick thank you for freeing you from having to drive yourself.

While Olympia Threatens ST3, Trump Threatens ST2

Sorry, Tacoma. You’ll be waiting a long time if Olympia and D.C. have their way. (Kaizer Rangwala – Flickr)

The news out of Washington Thursday morning was terrible for urbanists and transit advocates. President Trump’s 2018 budget request intends to pay for his priorities – increased defense spending, border wall construction, etc – partially on the backs of cities. Worse than percentage cuts to grant formulas, Trump’s budget goes further to propose wholesale federal disinvestment from transit projects. The proposed 13% cut to DOT’s discretionary budget represents a paltry $2.4B – or approximately 0.06% of a roughly $4T total – but it falls almost entirely upon cuts to Amtrak, and elimination of TIGER grants, Essential Air Service subsidies, and worst of all, New Starts and Small Starts grants for large transit projects:

…limits funding for the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program (New Starts) to projects with existing full funding grant agreements (FFGA) only. Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.

This is a very, very big deal for Puget Sound, and especially for Sound Transit. ST2 projects such as Lynnwood and Federal Way may seem secure, but they are both at the penultimate step to construction, just short of a signed FFGA and technically still in Project Development. After years of design, environmental work, planning, and taxes paid by all of us, Trump’s proposed budget could easily pull the rug out from both the Lynnwood and Federal Way extensions. Since ST3 extensions are obviously physically dependent on ST2 completion, pulling these grants also threatens the entirety of Snohomish and Pierce County’s ST3 Link projects.  The expected loss would be $1.17 billion for Lynnwood and $500 million for Federal Way, nearly half the funding for those projects. (East Link, funded by taxes, bonds, and a low-interest TIFIA loan, is not threatened at this time.)

Sound Transit’s taxing authority and its adopted System Plan would remain, of course, and the ST Board would follow established procedure for delaying or cutting projects. From the ST3 financial plan:

For those cases in which a subarea’s actual and projected expenditures exceed its actual and projected revenues and funding sources by five percent or greater, and/or where unforeseen circumstances occur that would result in an inability to substantially complete projects within such subarea’s plan, the Board must take one or more of the following actions:

• Correct the shortfall through use of such subarea’s uncommitted funds and/or bond capacity available to the subarea

• Scale back the subarea plan or projects within the plan to match a revised budget

• Extend the time period of completion of the subarea plan

• Seek legislative authorization and voter approval for additional resources

It is important to remember that part of the Federal Way extension (to Star Lake/272nd) was already deferred this way when the 2009 recession dried up revenues, only to be later promised it would be next in line when revenues revived. A second deferral would be a devastating blow to ST’s perception in South King County, through no fault of its own. Other projects that are threatened include the Tacoma Link extension to TCC, Rapid Ride G, the Center City Connector streetcar, Community Transit’s SWIFT II, and Spokane’s Central City Line. Cities across the country would see their capital budgets gutted, and only Los Angeles would emerge relatively unscathed.

Simultaneously, Olympia continues its assault on Sound Transit for daring to successfully ask voters to enact the taxes Olympia itself authorized. The Motor Vehicle Excise Tax has admittedly led to sticker shock among mostly high-value car owners, but it is also the most progressive of the three sources authorized for ST3. The faux populism of an urban Manhattan developer-cum-President is bad enough, but Olympia Republicans – and crucially, a handful of Democratic allies – are throwing a one-two populist punch with the drive for a directly-elected board.

So 5 months after a historic yes vote on ST3, the agency is facing a three-pronged attack. First, the gutting of federal funding would slow timelines, cancel projects, and/or increase borrowing costs for Sound Transit. Second, Olympia’s proposals to modify the MVET evaluation method would reduce revenue significantly. Third, if Olympia succeeds in creating a directly elected Sound Transit Board, we will lose subject expertise in the middle of a huge capital program and create gerrymandered districts that devalue urban votes.

The result of all this would be a disaster: more adversial transit politics, higher costs, slower timelines, and increased urban-suburban divides. It would be a functional chokehold on Seattle, far and away the region’s primary job center. It would be a double injustice to the suburban poor, pushed out of the city by our unwillingness to build enough housing and stuck in traffic through our inability to build transit. It would be economic sabotage at both the federal and state level.

Please contact your Olympia representatives and let them know you want to maintain robust funding for Sound Transit. If you’d like a form to work from, TCC and other partners have developed one here.

It would also be a good time to let your federal delegation know how much you value transit funding, including Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Suzan DelBene, Rick Larsen, Derek Kilmer, Pramila Jayapal, Dave Reichert(!), Adam Smith, and Denny Heck.

Rapid Ride G Coming Into Focus

SounderBruce (Flickr)

Slowly zooming in and dialing up the resolution, SDOT is out with its latest designs for Rapid Ride G (formerly Madison BRT), and is accepting public comment through March 22nd.

Assuming the ink dries on a finalized Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant, construction on the $120 million project should start in February 2018, with start of service targeted for mid-summer 2019. With new five-door trolleybuses coming up to every 6 minutes, the line will provide a huge boost to First Hill and improve transfers to the future Center City Connector streetcar, 3rd Avenue and Link light rail, the future ST3-funded Green Line tunnel, the First Hill Streetcar, and the eventual Rapid Ride corridor along 23rd Avenue.

This design update gives us clearer indications of SDOT’s thinking on multimodal tradeoffs – conflicts between buses, cars, parking, and people walking and biking – as well as a draft construction schedule. The project is tentatively phased as follows:

  • Early 2018: Arthur Place layover, and protected bike lane on E Union Street between 12th and 14th Avenue
  • Mid 2018: Madison Street from 1st to 6th Avenue, and Spring Street from 1st to 9th Avenue, including a left-side bike lane on Spring from 1st to 8th
  • Late 2018: Madison from Boren to 11th, including most of the center-running right-of-way
  • Late 2018-Early 2019:  Madison from 17th-25th, in a section where buses will run in mixed traffic
  • December 2018: Trolley wire work and other improvements on 1st Avenue to allow Rapid Ride G to share a stop with the streetcar
  • Early 2019: Madison from 11th-17th, and one additional block of protected bike lane on Union between 11th and 12th
  • Mid-2019: Construction will wrap up in the congested stretch of Madison between Boren and 6th.

Rather than walk you through all the changes since the 30% design level, as this wonk blog would customarily do, we’re going to stick to a descriptive treatment of the entire route so that those new to the discussion can more easily follow along. Let’s start at on 1st Avenue and head east.  Continue reading “Rapid Ride G Coming Into Focus”

The Future Alaskan Way: Wide Now, Narrow Later

WSDOT Photo of Partial Viaduct Demolition in 2011

Erica Barnett had the scoop late last night that an agreement has been reached in the dispute over the future Alaskan Way surface street. Prior conflicts included those wanting a narrow roadway (bike/ped advocates), fewer or no bus lanes (Alliance for Pioneer Square), and/or more surface parking (Historic Waterfront Association). Appeals to the Final EIS threatened to drag out approval and construction, so the new agreement clears the way for construction to begin in a couple years.

The new agreement between the Alliance for Pioneer Square, SDOT, WSDOT, and King County accepts the preferred design for a 102′ surface highway – consisting of a bike path, wide sidewalks, 2 general purpose lanes, a landscaped median, and bus lanes in the southern half of the corridor – but explicitly requires the city to narrow the roadway to 79′ upon the opening of Link light rail to West Seattle in the early 2030s. Despite our shared distaste for a new anti-urban Mercer Street on the waterfront, we argued for this same outcome late last year:

I’d suggest two ways forward: 1) work hard to expedite Link to West Seattle to shorten the window in which the waterfront will be an anti-urban mess, and 2) agitate for explicit commitments from the City of Seattle to narrow the roadway upon Link’s opening. An MOU between Metro, the City of Seattle, and WSDOT should require designs amenable to narrowing and commit all parties to shaving 20-40′ off the width south of Yesler Way. Even though urbanists lost the battle for a narrower street, we can still win the war.

As Erica notes, the agreement is nonbinding and future designs to narrow the roadway would still require the alphabet soup of agency approvals, giving lots of veto points for failure. The agreement also unfortunately caps Metro service on Alaskan Way at 195 buses per day, which is less than Rapid Ride C provides on the Alaskan Way Viaduct today, and only about a third of current Viaduct service levels. So the bus lanes we fought so hard for will be preserved but also underutilized. Accordingly, creating a new, reliable Sodo pathway for the remaining two-thirds of Viaduct buses is now the more important issue.

[Edit: as commenters have noted as as Metro has confirmed, the agreement limiting buses to 195 a day is a post-Link plan, whereas in the intervening decade buses will be capped at 650 per day, roughly the current level of Viaduct service. The remaining 195 buses could accommodate one frequent route, such as Route 21 or Rapid Ride H, or more likely a new local waterfront service,  given that there will be no transit lanes. We apologize for the error.]

It’s worth remembering that the worst of the problem will be roughly a decade long, during which the Waterfront will be a truly terrible, hostile highway for pedestrian and bike crossing. The post light rail vision is fairly decent, with a wide bike path, wide sidewalks, grade separated transit, no viaduct, and most cars hopefully out of sight in the underground tunnel. But the remaining 6 lanes south of Yesler (4 GP plus 2 ferry queue lanes) are likely permanent, as is the 79′ ultimate width. It could have been a lot worse, but the color of Alaskan Way will match the winter skies: lots of concrete gray.

Seattle-Vancouver High Speed Rail Part 2: Everett to Bellingham

San Juan Islands from Chuckanut Drive south of Bellingham (Photo by the author)

In Part 1 of this series we looked at the Seattle-Everett segment of a potential high speed rail (HSR) service between Seattle and Vancouver B.C. We looked at the paucity of available right-of-way, the likelihood of repurposing the I-5 express lanes, and the topographical challenges involved in descending from 500′ in South Everett to a sea-level Everett Station. In Part 3 we’ll look at the approach into Vancouver, and in Part 4 we’ll look at inland routes and ideas for suburban terminals. But for today’s Part 2 let’s look at the middle third of the trip, from Everett to Bellingham.

For HSR trips between major cities, the highest speeds are usually reached in the intermediate rural areas, with slower approach speeds to the anchor cities being relatively common. So we would reasonably expect to fly through the farmlands of Snohomish and Skagit Counties. How would we do it? Continue reading “Seattle-Vancouver High Speed Rail Part 2: Everett to Bellingham”

Clallam Transit to Introduce Bainbridge-Port Angeles Service

Clallam Transit Route 14 from Port Angeles to Forks Eric C. (Flickr)

On Labor Day Weekend 2010, my partner Sarah and I traveled to Nanaimo, B.C. the cheap and lengthy way: via the Bainbridge Ferry, Kitsap Transit #90 to Poulsbo, Jefferson Transit #7 to Four Corners, Jefferson Transit #8 to Sequim, Clallam Transit #30 to Port Angeles, the Black Ball Ferry, and the former VIA Rail Malahat. We returned to Seattle via the BC Ferries and Amtrak. The experience was luckily seamless, but it really was only for the insane among us. Ever since that trip, we’ve done the sane thing and driven our car anytime we’ve gone to the Olympic Peninsula.

But there may soon be a much easier car-free way to reach it. In an email late last week, Clallam Transit Operations Manager Steve Hopkins revealed that the agency intends to start twice-daily bus service from the Bainbridge Ferry Terminal to the Port Angeles Gateway Transit Center this summer.

Clallam Transit Route 123 – branded as the Strait Shot in honor of the Strait of Juan de Fuca – will turn the 5-seat ride of old into a simple 2-seat ride, a ferry and a timed bus connection. The bus will make very limited stops, including Poulsbo and Sequim (see map).

The service will run twice daily on weekdays and Saturday, with a morning and evening service in each direction, and one evening trip in each direction on Sundays. There will be timed connections from the Bainbridge Ferry to the bus, and also an onward timed connection to Forks, turning the former 6-seat ride to Lake Crescent and Forks into a 3-seat ride with timed connections.

There is already a one-seat ride between Seattle and Port Angeles, the WSDOT-subsidized Dungeness Line from SeaTac Airport to Port Angeles via Downtown Seattle, Edmonds, and Kingston. Including the respective ferry trips, The Strait Shot will be slightly faster than the Dungeness Line from Downtown Seattle, 2 hours and 50 minutes versus 3 hours.

The proposed $10 one-way fare may seem steep, but as an out-of-boundary service, Clallam Transit intends to run it at 100% fare box recovery. As a 75-mile trip in just 2 hours, the service will be very competitive with what is usually a 1 hour and 40 minute drive. The Strait Shot will also be considerably cheaper than the Dungeness Line, even though the latter includes the ferry fare within its fare.

Clallam Transit is holding a public hearing on the proposal on March 20 in Forks, and online comments may be submitted to info@clallamtransit.com by March 15. If this comes to pass, Sequim, Port Angeles, Lake Crescent, Forks, La Push, Neah Bay, and more will be far more accessible than ever before. Quick car-free weekenders will be a convenient reality.

Action Alert: One Center City Comments Due Friday

STB has done a deep dive into the street overhauls and bus service restructures being considered by the One Center City project. If you haven’t already done so, please Participate in the online open house, and Comment at the site. The comment form is just an open-form text box, and there are no surveys to complete.

As we wrote in our Tuesday editorial, we believe in:

  • Increasing transit priority throughout Center City, but especially on 3rd Avenue
  • Delaying Convention Center construction until new Link vehicles arrive to replace lost capacity
  • Maximizing the person-carrying capacity of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel
  • Option B for Pike-Pine
  • Option D for North-South Streets
  • Building the Basic Bike Network without delay
  • Providing dedicated resources for enforcement of bus lanes and box blocking
  • Approving the proposed truncation of SR 520 Routes at UW Station
  • Improving the transfer environment at UW Station
  • Canceling or revising the proposed truncations of Routes 41 and 550
  • Approving the proposed West Seattle-First Hill restructure

We hope that you will take a few minutes to comment in favor of these principles and ideas. Comments are due by Friday. For more background, our posts on One Center City can be found here.

SDOT to Add Transit Priority for the First Hill Streetcar

@garlandmcq (Twitter)

Since its launch a year ago, the First Hill Streetcar (FHSC) has struggled operationally. It takes a wildly variable 20-35 minutes end to end, barely besting a walking pace. Being in mixed traffic, except for a short section of 14th Avenue, renders it useless during periods of gridlock. Its frequency is poor and unreliable.

The many compromises that made Broadway what it is today (retained parking, driving/streetcar lanes, a meandering fixed rail alignment, and a cycle track) mean that the right-of-way (ROW) is fundamentally unfixable without tearing out the rails and starting over. The parking lanes that flank the travel lanes are too narrow and piecemeal to be repurposed, and removing the cycle track wouldn’t help much either.

But SDOT has a few ideas for improving the line at the margins, and they plan on implementing some of them beginning this summer. Signal improvements on Jackson Street will be the first improvements, with lengthened east-west signals and transit signal priority.

After some additional design and feasibility work, SDOT will look at adding a Business Access and Transit (BAT) lane on southbound Broadway between Pike and Marion, the only place on the FHSC corridor with surplus ROW. In this section, there is no parking in the southbound direction and the streetcar hugs the curb. This leaves a roughly 9′ median lane that currently lies empty. In a blog post last week, SDOT said that it intends to try to convert this median space into a southbound general purpose travel lane, turning the southbound streetcar lane into a BAT lane. Functionally, this means only streetcars, buses, and right turns will be permitted.

Converting the center lane to a through lane will remove left turns from Broadway to Pike and/or Union. SDOT will install dedicated right turn cycles to clear the lane of turning vehicles, which should improve flow but will marginally delay pedestrians looking to cross Pike, Union, or Madison.

Current channelization on Broadway between Pike and Marion
Proposed channelization on Broadway between Pike and Marion

Lastly, SDOT will also tinker with one of the slowest parts of the trip, the crossing of the clashing grid of Yesler, Boren, and 12th. SDOT will ban PM peak left turns and retime the signal at 12th/Yesler.

For all its flaws, 3,000-3,500 people per day are riding the FHSC, and it does represent the best way to get between Broadway, Swedish, and the Yesler Terrace now that Route 9 is peak only and Route 60 deviates to 9th Avenue. So though design constraints will keep SDOT from radical improvements, each of these changes should noticeably help get the streetcar moving a bit better. SDOT estimates travel savings of 3-4 minutes once all improvements are in place.

Scenes from a Meltdown

Trooper Rick Johnson (Twitter)

Ok, so we’re definitely not ready for the Big One. The ‘quake’ that was felt in Seattle on Monday was due to a single tanker truck, overturned and leaking butane at the I-90/I-5 interchange. At 10:30 Monday morning, the overturned truck caused a closure of I-5 in both directions that lasted until after 7pm. Crews worked to upright the tanker but also kept the scene clear for safety reasons.

20 months after we rage-laughed at ourselves on behalf of a salmon truck bringing us to our knees, this closure was far worse. Throw in a bitterly comical coup de grâce of thundersnow, and we truly had a meltdown for the ages. I-5 traffic was dead stopped for 8.5 hours, and southbound drivers’ only respite was to exit onto downtown surface streets, leading to intractable gridlock. Buses quickly fell behind, many of them two hours behind, the First Hill streetcar gave up and stopped operating on Broadway, and at one point there were twelve RapidRide D coaches bunched between Denny and Mercer in Lower Queen Anne. The West Seattle Water Taxi was turning people away on each run, and streets like Stewart were wall to wall with idling buses and cars. Normally placid side streets on Capitol Hill such as Belmont and Boylston – where I tell people I live in ‘the eye of the storm’ – were also gridlocked.

Aside from knock-on delays from tunnel bus unpredictability, Link light rail performed swimmingly, almost as if nothing at all was happening. We received two reports from Eastside commuters who had no trouble traveling from Kirkland to Capitol Hill at 4pm via bus and Link. Twitter was abuzz with frustrated souls wishing ST3 had been finished yesterday.

What was your experience like Monday? What did you notice? Below are a selection of reader-submitted photos.

Continue reading “Scenes from a Meltdown”

Move Seattle’s Rapid Ride Corridor Planning Kicks Off

Sounder Bruce (Flickr)

Last night the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) kicked off planning for the five additional RapidRide corridors promised in 2015’s Move Seattle levy. The Draft Seattle RapidRide Expansion Program Report rolls two projects already underway – Madison Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Roosevelt High Capacity Transit (HCT) – into a single process that includes the next five corridors: Delridge (Route 120), Rainier (Route 7), Market/45th (Route 44), Fremont/Ballard/Northgate (Route 40), and 23rd Avenue (Route 48).

The seven corridors would come online in quick succession between 2019 and 2024, beginning with Madison BRT (now Rapid Ride G) in 2019 and Delridge (now Rapid Ride H) in 2020. Shortly after the opening of these seven corridors and East Link, SDOT will have met its “10/10” goal of having 72% of Seattle residents within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute or better service. The network effect of Link’s Red and Blue lines with Seattle’s twelve total BRT corridors will be nothing less than transformative. The existing C, D, and E lines will join the seven Move Seattle corridors, a Metro-led Rapid Ride corridor between Bothell-Kenmore-Lake City-UW (Route 372), and Sound Transit’s coming BRT along SR 522 and NE 145th St.

Continue reading “Move Seattle’s Rapid Ride Corridor Planning Kicks Off”

SUV Driver T-Bones Link Train. Service Disrupted in Sodo.

[Update 2: A reader sent in the scanner traffic reporting the incident. Listen below.]

[Update: Sound Transit worked through the night to fix track and signal damage, and service returned to normal Wednesday morning.]

Around 8:30pm Tuesday a person driving a white Chevy Tahoe SUV collided at high speed with Link at Holgate Street in Sodo. Reports from the scene indicate the driver drove around the crossing gates. The vehicle caused significant damage to LRV #136, collapsing doors and exposing insulation. A heavy police and fire response indicated that there were passenger injuries, but fortunately the vehicle seems to have collided with the luggage/bicycle storage area, minimizing injuries. As far as we know this is the first time a vehicle has penetrated the passenger areas of a Link train in regular service.

Photos from the scene are harrowing, but details are sparse at this hour. We hope to have more info in the morning.

Until further notice, likely through the end of service Tuesday, service is suspended between Beacon Hill and Stadium, with a bus bridge in place.

Continue reading “SUV Driver T-Bones Link Train. Service Disrupted in Sodo.”

The ULink Restructure Was a Bold Gamble. It Has (Mostly) Paid Off.

Bruce Qu (Flickr)

After a year of process in 2015 and extensive (and often heated) public participation, Metro and Sound Transit mostly bit the bullet and forged ahead with aggressive bus restructures to feed the University Link extension. Storied routes such as the 71/72/73 were deleted or shortened, the once-highest ridership line in the city (Route 48) was split into Routes 45 and 48 at UW Station, and Capitol Hill workhorse Route 43 was mostly deleted, kept alive with a handful of vestigial peak runs.

County Council members understood the theoretical benefits of restructures, but also felt the heat from their constituents, who were apoplectic that Metro would “cut” some of the best-ridden routes in the city. Most notably, Councilmember Rod Dembowski’s demanded (and won) partial restoration of Route 71 between Wedgwood, Ravenna, The Ave, and UW Station. In return for sticking their necks out to vote Yes on the restructure, the Council also required a comprehensive report on the ridership changes caused by the restructure. Though that report will be released next month, this morning Metro released the first batch of systemwide ridership data.*

Though there is a ton of data to analyze, the system trends are unmistakable and encouraging:

  • Despite an aggressive ULink restructure, Metro ridership stayed flat, declining by just 0.2%. Despite Link’s rapid growth, Metro still represents 65% of all transit boardings regionwide (121m). Trolleybus ridership grew by 1.2% (19m), and diesel bus ridership fell by 0.4% (101m)
  • Systemwide ridership grew by 4%, from 178m annual boardings to 185m, inclusive of Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Everett Transit, Pierce Transit, and the Monorail. This overall growth occurred despite ridership falling on Pierce Transit (-6%), Everett Transit (-5%), the Monorail (-2%), Tacoma Link (-4%), and the South Lake Union Streetcar (-16%).
  • Link ridership grew by 66% in 2016 compared to 2015, and that’s with only 9 months of ULink. At 19m boardings, in 2016 Link was equal to all 13 Metro trolley routes combined. [Edit: Metro notes that the 19m trolley boardings are on trolleybuses rather than trolleyroutes, so the 19m figure excludes weekend boardings on dieselized trolley routes.]
  • Total ridership on Metro’s restructured routes fell 10.1% – from 114k average weekday boardings in 2015 to 102k average in 2016 – as can be expected from a number of route deletions. But Link more than made up the difference, with average weekday ridership on restructured routes + Link growing by 13.3%, from 149k in 2015 to 168k in 2016.

Neighborhood trends after the jump. Continue reading “The ULink Restructure Was a Bold Gamble. It Has (Mostly) Paid Off.”

The Technical Challenges of Seattle-Vancouver High Speed Rail: Part 1

Governor Inslee and Premier Clark at the Cascadia Conference in September 2016 (Microsoft Photo)

Looking to foster greater ties with our Canadian neighbor, last fall Microsoft sponsored the Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver. Many of the issues discussed were as you’d expect: the flow of skilled labor between the U.S. and Canada, easing of trade restrictions, and pre-emptive fear of the then-ridiculous prospect of a Trump presidency.

Seemingly out of nowhere, however, one of the most prominent topics was high speed rail between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. The mood was optimistic, with Governor Inslee, Premier Clark, and Executive Constantine joining regional tech leaders in a roundtable to lay out the vision. To say the least, the discussion was high-level; you couldn’t make out a single tree in their visionary forest, and the working paper Parsons Brinckerhoff prepared for the conference similarly lacked much technical substance. Many of us shrugged it off as loose boilerplate from our regional governments.

Then last month, Governor Inslee requested $1 million from the Legislature for an initial feasibility study, with the report due this December. The budget request is making its way through committee, with a lukewarm reception. When Microsoft testified their willingness to chip in for the study, Senate Transportation Chair Curtis King (R-Yakima) quipped, “We’d like your contribution to be $1 million.”

Vancouver in an hour would transform the region, but the prospect of building it faces enormous technical and political challenges. Besides the assent of Olympia, Victoria, Washington, Ottawa, and every other micro jurisdiction along the way, you’d need funding mechanisms for tens of billions of dollars that currently don’t exist and expertise that is weak on both sides of the border.

Current BNSF Alignment from Seattle to Vancouver

But the real challenges lie in designing and engineering the corridor itself. The current Amtrak Cascades service (157 miles, 4 hours, average speed 39mph) traverses BNSF’s legacy track, which hugs the shoreline wherever possible and never gets above 130′ in elevation (even Pike Place Market is higher). The result is predictable and unfixable: 14 additional miles compared to I-5, meandering curves, reduced speed, limited right of way to build parallel HSR track, and a corridor not at all future-proofed against rising seas.

So any HSR solution clearly lies inland, but that comes with its own challenges. Do you serve Seattle, Everett, Bellingham, and Vancouver? All of those lie at sea level along the coast. Do you weave back and forth? If not, which cities do you bypass and how? Even if you figure that out, do you access the central cities of Seattle and Vancouver or do you build peripheral stations and force transfers to Link or SkyTrain? Even California High Speed Rail is able to use existing right-of-way between Burbank and Anaheim, a luxury neither Seattle or Vancouver would have. As Mark Hallenbeck rightly quipped to the Globe and Mail, “The kicker in all of this is not the 100 miles in the middle; it’s the 30 miles on either end.”

So is it hopeless? No, but it’s damn hard. Here are a few ways it could happen. Let’s start in Seattle and move north. #long read Continue reading “The Technical Challenges of Seattle-Vancouver High Speed Rail: Part 1”

SDOT Tweaks Metro Night Owl Proposal, Adds Service to NE Seattle

Bruce Qu (Flickr)

Last October we reported on a partnership between Metro and SDOT to overhaul the last remnants of the vestigial night owl network (defined as service between 2:15-4:30am). The plan announced then would eliminate Routes 82/83/84 while beefing up service on a number of key corridors:

If approved by the County Council, the proposal would boost total overnight service by roughly 50%. The proposal would:

  • Replace Route 82 with Night Owl trips on Routes 3 (to Seattle Pacific), Route 5, and Route 62 (to Roosevelt only).
  • Replace Route 83 with Night Owl trips on Route 70
  • Replace Route 84 with Night Owl trips on Routes 3 and 11
  • Add Night Owl trips on Route 120
  • Upgrade RapidRide C, D, and E to hourly overnight service, up from 75-90 minute frequencies currently
  • Extend Route 124 to SeaTac Airport when Link isn’t running.

In response to public feedback, and because SDOT money is funding 80% of the new service hours, SDOT and Metro have since worked together to tweak the October proposal. Some of the most prominent feedback from the first round was the omission of overnight service in NE Seattle, particularly in Lake City and Northgate. In revisions released today, the new plan adds trips on a number of additional corridors, including Routes 44, 48, 65, and 67. Doing so not only provides NE Seattle with all-night service, but also considerably beefs up service to the UDistrict and UW Station area in the hours in which Link isn’t running.

The new proposal includes one deletion, Route 62. Originally slated to do 4-5 short trips only as far as Roosevelt, SDOT and Metro are paying for NE Seattle service in part by deleting these trips. There would be no Owl service across the Fremont bridge, though Route 5 would still operate, providing access to Fremont for those willing and able to walk down the hill from 39th/Fremont. Wallingford would no longer see Owl service from Downtown or Fremont, but would see service added from Ballard and the UDistrict on Route 44.

The historic Night Owl network has been strictly radial, providing overnight service from Downtown to the pre-1954 Seattle city limits. But in this new proposed network, routes might be able to be timed to provide late-night transfers outside of Downtown, exponentially multiplying the number of trip pairs accessible overnight. New transfer points could be 15th/Market (D/44), 46th/Aurora (E/44), 15th/Campus Parkway (44/70/65/67), 23rd/Madison (11/48), 23rd/Cherry (48/3), and Mount Baker Transit Center (7/48).

Other concepts from the original proposal remain, including overnight service on Routes 3, 5, 7, 11, 49, 70, C, D, and E. Routes 120 and 124 (with an extension to SeaTac) also remain, as these are Metro-funded additions ineligible for a Prop 1 boost from SDOT.

Check out the slides below from the presentation last month at the Seattle Transit Advisory Board. The proposal will now move to the County Council, and if approved the new network would be implemented in September. King County’s media release is reprinted after the jump.

Continue reading “SDOT Tweaks Metro Night Owl Proposal, Adds Service to NE Seattle”

Mercer Island to Sue Sound Transit, WSDOT

Friscocali (Flickr)

Update: Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff released a statement on the Mercer Island City Council’s votes to pursue a lawsuit and permitting moratoria seeking to block the upcoming start of construction of East Link light rail in the center lanes of I-90 across Lake Washington.

At a packed City Council meeting Monday evening, the City of Mercer Island announced its intention to sue Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) over single-occupant vehicle (SOV) access to I-90’s HOV lanes. The lawsuit is in response to a February 1 letter from WSDOT and ST, in which the agencies correctly claim that it would violate federal law to permit SOVs to use federally-funded HOV lanes.

Though much has been of Mercer Island’s more ridiculous requests, including special bus access for their residents and Islander-only parking, the immediate issue seems to be continued SOV access from Island Crest Way (ICW) to westbound I-90. Today, there are 3 ramps to/from ICW. The two reversible ramps to the I-90 express lanes will be permanently displaced by East Link, but there is also a westbound on-ramp that Mercer Island SOVs are currently entitled to use. Once two-way HOV lanes are in place across I-90 just 4 months from now, the westbound ICW ramp will feed into the new HOV lane, prohibiting SOV use under federal law. Without access from ICW, Islanders will go from four SOV ramps to three, with the remaining westbound ramps at East Mercer Way (1.4 miles from ICW), 76th Ave SE (3,500′ from ICW), and West Mercer Way (1.4 miles).

According to Erica Barnett, who live-tweeted the meeting Monday night, the city’s motion will seek an initial 6-month moratorium on East Link permitting, seeking to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. The city also implied that further suits to delay the project are on the table, with CM Dan Grausz saying, “The public has been asking for lawsuits. You’re going to get them in spades.” To fund the additional $600,000 in expected legal fees for this first stage, Mayor Bruce Bassett told the crowd that the city would defer public projects on things like ballfields and public boat docks. Other councilmembers also solicited donations from the crowd, noting that they are tax deductible.

We have requested comment from Sound Transit, and we will update/clarify this post tomorrow, when more information is expected to be released by the city. Erica’s tweets are after the jump.

Continue reading “Mercer Island to Sue Sound Transit, WSDOT”

How Cars Still Dominate Downtown’s Right of Way

Last week Commute Seattle came out with its biennial Modesplit Survey, showing more incremental progress towards a culture of walking, biking, and taking transit to work. In follow up discussions both internally and in comment threads, we’ve wondered about the balance between this cultural shift and the way we allocate our right-of-way. As One Center City prepares both short-term mitigation measures and long-term structural changes to our Downtown streets, it’s important that our right-of-way allocation align with the same progress we’re celebrating.

Getting a sense of which modes get proportional allocations isn’t terribly easy. Bus and bike lanes are discontinuous, bus lanes are often peak-only, and street widths vary with curb cuts, etc. (For a citywide perspective, Brock Howell had a great guest post in the Urbanist last year). In an attempt at getting our heads around Downtown, I counted 536 blocks in Center City (bounded in my definition by 1st Avenue, Mercer, I-5, and Jackson St). I then counted the total number of lanes on each of these 536 blocks to come up with the total number of ‘lane segments’ in Center City: 2,296. For simplicity, I counted parking lanes as full lanes, no matter their width, because they are still scarce space continually occupied by cars.

Graphic by the Author

On these 2,296 lane segments, there are 150 lane segments of bike lanes (6.9%) and 160 lane segments of bus lanes (6.5%).  The remaining 1,986 lane segments (86.4%) are taken up by general purpose lanes, on-street parking, and delivery/loading zones.  Off-peak, only 40 lane segments of bus priority remain (1.7%), mostly on Battery, Wall, and Westlake Avenue.

A few caveats are in order. I counted all streets, even those on which you’d never expect transit service (Clay, Eagle, Terry, etc.). I did not count the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) in the ROW allocation, only looking at the surface. And I treated ‘blocks’ as a consistent entity, even though their length varies, especially on the shorter blocks of south Downtown.  But the intent is just to depict visually how much raw space to which cars are entitled, and how much we’ve set aside for bikes and transit. I hope it’s helpful as One Center City discussions move forward.

Amidst Unprecedented Growth, Transit is Saving Downtown

SounderBruce (Flickr)

More people are driving into Downtown Seattle than ever, and car commuting is at its lowest rate in the modern era. Both of these statements are true. This morning Commute Seattle released its 4th biennial “Modesplit Survey” capturing commute trends in Seattle’s Center City  – see our coverage of the 2012 and 2014 surveys – and the results show the paradoxes of our growing city.

First, the bad news anyone stuck in traffic knows in their gut: there are nearly 2,300 more car commutes each weekday peak period than there were two years ago. In a system already strained for capacity, these tiny increases reduce the system’s resilience and tip it into gridlock far more often. In 2014, Downtown had 228,000 commuters and 31% of them drove alone, for 71,100 daily car commutes. This year the rate edged down (to 30%) while the volume went up (73,350), because Downtown grew to 275,000 commuters over the same period.

Looked at another way, our Center City added 45,000 jobs but only 2,300 more cars, meaning transit, walking, and biking absorbed a truly stunning 95% of new job growth. If new workers chose to drive Downtown in the same proportion as everyone else (30%), we would have seen 14,000 more cars instead. The result? Probably total chaos.

Continue reading “Amidst Unprecedented Growth, Transit is Saving Downtown”

UW Bus-Rail Integration is More Important than Ever

SounderBruce (Flickr)

As the One Center City project proposes removing SR 520 buses from Downtown Seattle, minor design flaws at UW Station will become all the more prominent, and the success of truncating buses at UW depends on fixing them. There is enormous promise for the concept. Route 545, for example, spends half its running time between International District and Montlake, which is only 25% of the route by distance. Turning Route 545 buses back at UW (or turning them all into 542s) could potentially nearly double frequency in the corridor and permanently spare riders the pain of slogging along 4th, 5th, Stewart, Olive, and Howell.

But the drawbacks to UW Station transfers are numerous:

  • WSDOT will not grant priority to buses on the 2-lane Montlake offramp, fearful (possibly correctly) that the backup would start earlier, blocking access to a bus lane and canceling out any gains. And in any case, construction will mess it all up again in 2018.
  • UW refuses to let buses use any of its E-19 parking lot for bus bays, removing the simplest and most direct option for accessing UW Station. Without it, all buses serving UW Station from Montlake must wait for a signalized left turn onto Pacific, after which riders are forced to re-cross Montlake on foot or walk up and around via the pedestrian bridge.
  • Unable to turn around at UW Station, buses from Montlake must travel at least as far west at 15th/Campus Parkway, wasting service hours.

To get a feel for the transfer, yesterday I took a test trip from International District Station to Evergreen Point and back at 3pm. On the way out, I took Sound Transit 545, and on the return trip I took Sound Transit 542 and transferred to Link. The bus trip was a best-case scenario, free-flowing and on time, clocking in at 22 minutes. The return trip via 542 + Link was seven minutes slower overall, at 29 minutes.

Look at the graphic above. Under a best-case bus scenario, Link with the transfer was 7 minutes slower overall, but 1 minute faster in travel time. Under any sort of surface congestion, Bus + Link can beat bus alone. Bus + Link was only slower due to design factors that make the transfer unnecessarily difficult.

  • 1 minute waiting for the bus to turn left on Pacific Street away from the station
  • 2.5 minutes to walk to the station elevator across Montlake Boulevard
  • 3.5 minutes to wait for a crushloaded elevator (because half the escalators were down)
  • 2 minutes of Downtown Tunnel congestion (due to shared bus-rail operations)

Fixing these design or reliability issues could have shaved 9 minutes off of my trip, allowing me to catch the prior train. The 20 minute trip time would have faster than the best-case bus scenario, and nearly twice as fast as a bus in heavy traffic.

At STB, we’ve long been in favor of smart bus-rail integration, and we have a bias towards creating a convenient grid of high frequency routes and painless transfers. This is especially the case at high capacity rail stations with frequent, fast, and reliable service. At their best, bus truncations to serve rail stations free up a dividend of service that can boost frequency throughout the system, improving the experience for everyone. At their worst, truncations add needless complexity to a network and introduce additional points of possible failure for any given trip.

Micro design decisions can carry enormous weight in deciding if restructuring is a time-saving or time-wasting endeavor for riders. Fix them and One Center City can be seen not as shared sacrifice for a pending disaster, but an opportunity to make the system better for everyone.

For our previous thoughts on Bus-Rail integration at UW, we’ve reprinted our (still relevant) 2015 post after the jump… Continue reading “UW Bus-Rail Integration is More Important than Ever”

A Low-Tech Fix for Snow Day Communication

Snow days are hard on agencies. Imagine chaining hundreds of buses and fundamentally altering your network on short notice. Doing so protects rider safety and is very necessary in a hilly town, but it causes a lot of pain too: it breaks transfers, hoses real-time information, leaves large network gaps (cough, First Hill or Wedgwood), and creates an environment of general chaos. Our periodic complaints are still valid, but agencies deserve praise for the sheer amount of hard work that goes into keeping the network functioning at some level.

But no matter how many tweets are sent or how many pleas are issued to sign up for text alerts, thousands of riders are going to do one thing: walk to their stop like they normally do, unaware anything has changed, and stand there for up to an hour or more. Absent real-time info and/or alerts at every stop, this sort of information vacuum will always be with us. But standing for an hour in the cold seething that your bus hasn’t arrived clearly isn’t acceptable either. So what to do?

In a word: stickers. As we’ve written recently, the basic dynamics of snow routes are relatively fixed. After all, the Counterbalance isn’t getting flatter, and the artic-killing hills aren’t going anywhere. So the structure of snow routes endure, and a stop that isn’t served today is unlikely to be served a decade from now.

Our neighbor to the north, Community Transit, simply places a crossed-out snowflake icon on its bus stops, letting riders know that the stop is not served in a heavy snow event. Our route signs have ample real-estate for such a decal, and we already do this for the NO LIFT stops that cannot serve wheelchairs. A simple sticker can communicate to everyone at a particular stop without any ongoing agency labor, and it doesn’t require that everyone check their phone or happen to be in the know. Metro should place these on their signs. It won’t fix everything, but it couldn’t hurt.

For Once, a Real Snowstorm

SounderBruce (Flickr)

After multiple warm winters and a few false starts during this cold one, the Seattle metro area finally got a substantial amount of snow Sunday night. Nearly a foot has fallen in places like Bonney Lake, with 2-3 inches here in Seattle. Metro is reporting numerous cancellations and serious delays throughout the system this morning, and buses are running with chains and on snow routes. Thought there is method behind the appearance of madness, riders are often left bewildered by the snow-related changes, so we thought it would be a good time to repost our Snow Route Refresher from December. Here’s the relevant section:

It’s a good time to refresh your knowledge of transit snow operations in Seattle. The first thing you should do is sign up for alerts. MetroSound TransitCommunity TransitPierce Transit, and WSDOT all provide thorough information on road closures and reroutes. Being a Twitter user often gives you a leg up too; follow @seattledot@kcmetrobus@SoundTransit@MyCommTrans@PierceTransit, and @wsdot_traffic.

Route 62 Snow Route

Route 62 Snow Route

In major Seattle snow events, there are a few basic reroute principles:

  • First Hill: no service west of Broadway. Trolley routes such as #2/3/4/12 detour all the way down to the International District.
  • Queen Anne: No routes travel up the Counterbalance, with routes 2/13 getting a tour of Kinnear/10th Ave W along the way instead.
  • Capitol Hill/Central District: Route 8 is basically an entirely different route, using 8th, 9th, Pine, and Union between South Lake Union and the Central District. Route 11 skips the steepest part of Madison east of 23rd. Routes 10, 48, and 49 operate normally.
  • SE Seattle: Link usually hums along normally, and Route 7 runs normally except skipping the Prentice Loop. Routes 106 and 107 skip Skyway, staying along Lake Washington between Renton and Rainier Beach.
  • NE Seattle: No service on NE 65th street east of 35th Ave NE. There is a convoluted shuttle system for Wedgwood and Ravenna, and new routes such as Route 62 detour all the way to UW Station.
  • West Seattle: All routes skip the Viaduct and the high bridge, using 1st/4th and the Spokane Street Bridge instead.
  • NW Seattle: The least disrupted area in Seattle, most routes operate normally. Exceptions include Route 5 (no Fremont Ave) and Route 26 (no NE 40th St).

In 2010’s Snowmageddon, Link was the only mode that didn’t fail, With the ULink extension, Capitol Hill and UW riders can now join the ranks of the snow-immunized.