Maximizing Our Chances for High-Speed Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’ve had this great New York Times post-mortem by Michael Cooper of Florida’s high-speed rail project bookmarked for a few weeks now, trying to figure out how to work it into a post. Fortunately, Zach Shaner’s post “On Rail Nostalgia” over at STB gives me a great hook into it. Zach writes:

But as rail advocates we need to keep our own house in order; we need to be selective but passionate with our support, and do our best to focus upon the mobility and development outcomes of any project rather than getting sidetracked by the sexiness of steel.

But at the same time let’s put our critics’ straw man to rest. We don’t want a return to the 19th century; we are done with stumptowns, regrades, Great Fires, and a world without labor and environmental laws. What we want is entirely new and entirely progressive: yesterday’s density with today’s affluence. We don’t want yesterday’s density-by-necessity, we want today’s density-by-choice. And we won’t get there with sentimentality, with nostalgia, or by blowing our political capital spreading projects too thin. In the Northeast, California, and Chicago, we need to go big. In the Pacific Northwest, our quiet incrementalism will pay off. [emphasis added]

I think there’s some appeal to that idea, that the “quite incrementalism” is a better, more sustainable approach. Still, reading the Times account, the benefits of “go big” approach are evident as well. If Washington State had a similarly ambitious plan for HSR, would we have gotten the money instead?

The Tampa-Orlando HSR project snagged $2.4B — or about 30% — of the administration’s $8B high speed rail funds, more than any other project. According to the Times, this was because:

  • The project was well into the planning phases
  • right-of-way had mostly been acquired
  • It could be opened as soon as 2015
  • Florida is a swing state
  • The federal money would have covered almost 100% of the costs

In other words, the Florida project was about as shovel ready as they come. As a result, it was showered by federal cash, even though there were doubts about the underlying fundamentals, such as the fact that two low-density metro areas separated by just 84 miles doesn’t look like a great corridor for HSR.

Now that Florida’s governor has killed the project and sent the $2.4B back to Washington, other states will vie for the money. So here’s what I want to know: what would it take for our state to put together a proposal as ambitious as Florida’s? And how did Florida get so far ahead of us, anyway? Haven’t we been thinking about HSR at least since Ecotopia? What impact, if any, did the 2009 re-org of the WSDOT passenger rail office have in all of this?

The Amtrak Cascades corridor, running 420 miles from Vancouver, BC to Eugene, OR, is a federally-designated HSR corridor. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider a “starter line” between Seattle and Portland, roughly 175 miles. This line would be about twice as long as the Tampa-Orlando route. The combined population of the Seattle + Portland metro areas is 4.3 million, compared with 3.2 million for Tampa + Orlando.

The first place to go when thinking about the Cascades corridor is WSDOT’s long-range plan from 2006. That document sets a goal of 2.5 hour service from Seattle to Portland by 2023, which, if you do the math, is an average speed of 70mph. WSDOT estimates that getting the whole corridor (Vancouver – Seattle – Portland) upgraded would cost about $6.5B. It’s hard to break out the funding by segment, but looking at the various projects involved, I’ll ballpark the Seattle-Portland segment at $4B.

What I’m left wondering is this: is the approach of incremental upgrades to the BNSF corridor the right one? We’re about to spend $750M in Recovery Act money on upgrades to this corridor… to what end? 70mph service in 12 years, only to still be dependent on BNSF for right-of-way?

What if instead we put together a plan like Florida’s: true HSR along a new right-of-way (the I-5 median, perhaps?) between Seattle and Portland. How would it compare to the $4B in upgrades we’re currently planning? What would the end result be? Could we get the time down to 1.5 hours instead of 2.5? Could we run trains all day? If anyone has done or seen a comparison of these approaches, I’d love to see it.

Maybe these options aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe we can get something like true HSR out of the BNSF corridor. But given what other states are proposing, and given the kinds of projects that the feds seem to want to fund right now, our approach is starting to look timid, rather than just incremental. Florida had a good strategy but a flawed corridor. We have a good corridor, but do we have a flawed strategy?

The Long-Range Plan was crafted when Amtrak was in the ropes and the President and Congress were both hostile to rail in general. Incrementalism made sense. Today, things are different. The Obama administration is practically begging for a state to raise its hand and offer a bold HSR project that can be delivered in a reasonable timeline for under $5 billion. Bonus points if it’s in a swing state and has a rail-friendly governor and legislature. Why can’t that be us?

Suggested Tourist Route

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Please excuse my recent gondola craze, but here’s a little daydream. 

Imagine you have a half day stopover as Seatac and are looking for something to do.  The information desk gives you a few tips, and you find this route interesting.  Start by hopping on the light rail and riding it to Westlake.  Go up the stairs and ride the streetcar.  When you get to SLU, transfer to the Galer St. Gondola.  After your scenic trip up the hill, explore upper Queen Anne for a bit, then head down the hill via Kerry Park and our historic stairs (or take a trolley bus down, if you prefer).  Head to the Seattle Center to look at the fountain and the Space Needle, then hop on the Monorail to get back.  Extra time?  Check out the Pike Place Market and maybe even the waterfront.  If not, hop back on the light rail to the airport.

Man, you think, Seattle has their transportation system figured out.

More thoughts on gondolas

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

1. Bike racks.  You probably only need one for every 5th car or so, but it should be easy to add.  Would probably get more use up hills than down.

2. Perth Australia is renovating its waterfront, and has just proposed a $30M gondola system to connect it to Kings Park (called a “cable car” in the image here). 

3.  In considering if such a system is appropriate for our city, it’s useful to look at what it can do.  Here’s a great list of aerial trams and gondolas that are the highest, shortest, etc.  Some useful numbers:  tallest support pillar is 373′ tall, and longest run is 2.8 miles and takes 15 minutes (in New Mexico).  The longest unsupported span is at Whistler at 1.9 miles.  I’m not sure of the world’s fastest – the Genting Highland claimed to be the fastest at 13.4 miles/hour, but Whistler is 15.7 miles/hour and there may be faster ones out there.

4. Capacity.  Medellin has a capacity of 3,000 passengers per hour per direction at 12 second spacing.  Assuming 100 passengers per bus, that’s 30 buses an hour capacity.  I would guess that beats our bus demand between any two points in the city.  We can start with wider spacing to save money, but design in the ability to add cars in the future.

Seattle’s Flying Tram System

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Seattle is a wonderful city for walking.  Each of the neighborhoods have interesting lively main streets, beautiful old houses, parks, pools, libraries, and many other amenities.   However, thanks to our hub-and-spoke commuter-based bus system it can be very difficult to get from neighborhood to neighborhood without a car.  Connecting our neighborhoods with grade separated high speed transit would be ideal, but the cost of such a system could take a long time and quite a bit of money to build.

Or, we could build one immediately at a cheap price.  A dozen cities in South America have embarked on urban gondolas.  And cities all over the world are following suit, and for good reason:

The technology was cheap, fast and safe and it furthermore eliminated all topographical challenges. The initial line opened in 2006 – at only 2 km in length – and now moves up to 40,000 commuters per day, equivalent to Toronto’s famed Queen Streetcar Line; one of the busiest and longest in the world… The industry learned how to implement multi-station systems, long lines, full-integration with existing transit technologies and how to accomplish extreme turns.

Urban gondolas are a perfect fit for Seattle.  They can connect any of our hills to transit stations, downtown, or to other hills.  We can fly from Magnolia to Queen Anne, or from Queen Anne down to South Lake Union then back up to Capital Hill.  We can calm West Seattle’s Viaduct fears by either connecting them to the Sodo Station or directly to the downtown ferry building.

All this can be built in a small handful of years and at pennies on the dollar of rail systems.  Trips will take only a minute or two and rather than waiting 15 minutes for the next bus you would wait seconds for the next tram.

And imagine having a ski lift during the next Snowpocalypse.

What if the Viaduct Isn’t The Problem?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Whether you support a new SR99 tunnel or a surface/transit option to replace the viaduct, one thing that both sides agree on is that the noisy, elevated double-decker freeway coursing through downtown is preventing Seattle from getting maximum enjoyment from its waterfront.

Having recently returned from a brief trip to Sydney, Australia, however, I’m suddenly haunted by the question: what if the viaduct isn’t the problem? We tear it down, JCFO works their magic, and the result is… crickets. The same old collection of tourist traps.

Now, I admit I haven’t watched JCFO’s presentation yet. No doubt they’ve considered this. In the meantime, however, consider Sydney harbor:


A double-decker viaduct separates the downtown from the waterfront, which has an array of ferry terminals, cruise ship ports and, of course, the iconic Opera House. And yet: Sydney’s harbor is bustling! You can’t quite see it in this photo, but at night there are tons of pedestrians, street musicians, commuters, and the like. The harbor is a hub of activity; if not 24/7, then close to it.

To be sure, there are plenty of differences between Sydney and Seattle. One is that the lower deck of their viaduct is a commuter rail station (Circular Quay) where thousands of passengers pass through every day. With the shops built into the ground floor, it actually resembles Frank Chopp’s megaduct. The key difference, of course, being the transit component.

Second, the ferries that leave from the harbor are passenger-only. This means that there’s plenty of foot traffic going to and from the train station and the ferry terminal, and no long lines of cars queuing up to board. The result is lots of news stands, cafes and the like.

Sydney Ferry terminal

Finally, Sydney has beautiful weather nearly year-round. That certainly helps.

All of this is just to say that we can’t rely on tearing down the Viaduct to turn the Waterfront into a vibrant area. Transit is hugely important. It’s more than a little troubling that neither the city, nor the state, nor the county have significant plans to turn the waterfront into a pedestrian-centric transit hub.

Missing: Pacific Northwest Drivers

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

There’s a great set of data that deserves a link.  It turns out that a BC bridge is failing to pay for itself through tolling, and the Columbia River Crossing project might not pay for itself.  Why?  Because traffic volumes have been falling in the Pacific Northwest.  Clark Williams-Derry presents data showing that driving has gone down in Seattle, Portland, Washington, and Oregon by no small amounts and in at least one case before the financial crisis or fuel spikes hit.

And in one of the comments, a private company in Queensland filed for bankrupcy because instead of tolled traffic growing from 60,000 vehicles to 100,000 vehicles it dropped off to 20,000 even when they cut their toll in half.  This might point to an internation trend away from the car.  Or at least a lesson for us before we start building an expensive tunnel that is expected to pay for itself using tolls and future car volume growth.

Leisure Time Inactivity

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

As Seattle cuts school bus service, I thought I’d point out the upside.  Costal states – especially western costal states – seem to spend a lot less of their leisure time inactive than most of the rest of the country.  Maybe a bit of walking to school will help us keep ahead on the activity front. 

(the following map has been included for entertainment purposes only)

Mea Culpa

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Several months ago I compiled some census data regarding WA, King County, and Seattle and concluded that the Growth Management Act is broken.  Since then I’ve been pointing to this data from all over the Web.  Today, someone helped me realize that my numbers may be misleading.  They are correct, but too granular, looking only at census data (every 10 years).  Looking at year-by-year data for the last decade we get a completely different picture.

First, my original chart:

Now, let’s zoop in on those last 10 years and look at annual data:

Ok, that graph was boring.  That’s because populations don’t change very quickly.  However, let’s look at the percentage change each year:

Look at that.  Starting in 2006 WA population growth began decelerating.  But Seattle has been acelerating since 2005. 

What does that mean for growth management?  I don’t know.  The GMA has been around for 2 decades and it would be strange for it to just start working in 2005.  This probably has more to do with the economy than anything else.  I ended my piece claiming “our only hope of keeping Washington green is to make that Seattle line match the rise of the WA line.”  We’re still a ways from having that happen.  But at least we’ve started heading in the right direction.

National HSR

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

This was a big week for national high-speed rail.  First up, the almost-dead ARC tunnel project in New York re-emerged as the Gateway project.  Then, today, the Obama administration announced a $53B national high-speed rail plan.

First, let’s talk Gateway.  The tunnel would be smaller than the New Jersey Transit-sponsored ARC tunnel, but would serve largely the same purpose, expanding capacity on the Northeast Corridor between Newark and Penn Station.  This is why it was so important that Amtrak lay out its ambitious, 30-year, $117 billion vision for the Northeast Corridor last year.  Now, all of the projects like the Gateway project have a common vision to ladder up to.

Next, we have the proposal for $53B towards national HSR.  If you can do even a bit of math, you’ll quickly see that $53B is less than half what it would take to build out the NE corridor project above, meaning that getting truly national HSR is going to take far more than $53B.  Nonetheless, it’s a pretty significant proposal.

Regionally, there’s no doubt that this would have positive effects.  In addition to a respectable chunk of the initial $8B HSR pot, we managed to get a sizeable amount of the pot that Ohio and Wisconsin rejected a few months back.  Clearly, Amtrak Cascades is looked upon favorably in DC.  My guess is that DC, like most granting organizations, likes low-risk, high-reward projects.  The fact that Cascades is funded in large part by local money means that there’s a commitment here to seeing it through.  This makes the bean counters in DC happy, because it means it’s less likely that a rail-hostile Governor is going to come in and tear the thing up tomorrow.  So my guess is that we’d be in line for a nice chunk of that $53B when it comes through.

Will it come through?  Who knows.  The new Republican head of the House Transportation Committee says its a terrible idea.  On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of project that gets cut in the House, only to be added back in by the Senate in conference committee.  So we’ll see.

Parkin’ and Ridin’

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

BREAKING NEWS: Erica Barnett reports that private property owners in Seattle will be able to rent out their land in exchange for money through at least 2015.  Think of that!

I don’t have much more to add to this conversation than what I already wrote when this issue came up a year ago, but I do think it’s worth reminding people that there’s a difference between a privately owned lot and a goverment-owned “park and ride.”  The former goes away as soon as there’s more gain to be had in developing the land.  The latter tends to last forever, because politicians are afraid to take away people’s God-given right to free parking.

Revisiting Jacobs

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

A year or so ago, I wrote that Jane Jacobs was the “original NIMBY” for opposing redevelopment in her neighborhood, and I noted the irony that new urbanists — those most likely to support her ideals — are now the ones most likely to do battle with NIMBYs of their own.

That thought was incomplete.  Jacobs wasn’t opposed to redevelopment for its sake.  She opposed redevelopment that put concrete and steel ahead of people.  Redevelopment that tried in vain to create “order” out of the chaotic urban fabric.  If Robert Moses had proposed leveling the Greenwich Village brownstones and replacing them with newer brownstones, I don’t think Jacobs would have had much of a fight.  Moses wanted to build freeways.  That was the problem.

I was thinking about this as I walked past an old, boarded up house in my neighborhood that’s set to be torn down.  I thought about whether I should be sad that another 100-year-old house was being town down.  But it’s never about the architecture.  It’s about the people who live in it.  New urbanists envy the 19th-century urban built environment — streetcars, brownstones, walk-up apartments — but we should never forget that it’s the neighborhood vitality created by that built environment that matters, not the wrap-around Victorian porches or intricate stone cornices themselves.

The Downside of Agglomeration Effects

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Agglomeration effects are generally good things for cities: people move to a city because other people live there, and so on.  Neighborhoods thrive on agglomeration effects: you open a bar in a neighborhood with other bars, because that neighborhood’s a “destination,” where people go when they want to go out carousing or what have you.

But agglomeration effects can have downsides.  Too many bars and sports stadia in Pioneer Square can make the neighborhood feel overrun to some people.  Too many hospitals on First Hill means that parts of the neighborhood can feel like a ghost town at night.  And so forth.

I think a similar dynamic is unfolding with this debate on where to put the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s new Crisis Solutions Center:

“The City of Seattle was unlikely to use the facility if it were located in Tukwila,” said Hobson, because SPD and Medic One personnel may not have the time and resources to make the trip. The Jackson Place location is ideal, he said, because it has good access to Swedish and Harborview hospitals and is centrally located between the SPD precincts and both I-5 and I-90. Of the 7-8 properties they looked at in the area, the one on Lane Street was the best fit, he said.

When it’s time to build the next DESC facility, certainly the same neighborhood will be a front-runner.  After all, it’s so close to the Crisis Solutions Center! And so on, and so on.

Now, I don’t live too far from this area, and I have seen the ways in which large institutions — Seattle U, Swedish, the Polyclinic — create long shadows that seem to overwhelm everything around them.  To be clear, I don’t personally oppose this new project, I just think the phenomenon is interesting.

How to boost employment in Seattle in 2 years

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


One of the arguments that comes up when debating Seattle’s zoning laws is that we’re in a recession, and nobody’s going to build no matter what we do right now.  I’d argue the opposite: if we upzone we can get people to build right now despite the fact that we’re in a recession.

Housing prices have dropped in Seattle recently (as with everywhere else), but they’re still well above surrounding areas and dwarf suburban prices.  Why hasn’t development in Seattle continued if there’s such a market?  Because of zoning.  There’s some profit in tearing down a one story business and building a 3-on-1 mixed use structure (to take a common example), but that’s offset by the loss in value of tearing down that one story business that the developer has just bought.  You get the new value of 3 stories of new homes, but you had to pay the construction price of 4 stories plus land.  Unless housing values are very high, a developer won’t make money on this deal.

Now consider an upzone.  If we raise the legal height for that parcel to 6 stories, then you have the value of 5 stories of new homes for the construction cost of 6 stories plus land value.  That’s two extra stories worth of profit and will push many projects from being losers to being winners.

Another benefit of upzoning in a weak market is that change happens more slowly.  The clear winning projects will be done right away, and the less profitable projects will become more profitable as the market recovers.  This will tend to make neighborhoods change slowly, which is more comfortable for neighbors.

There are a whole lot of unemployed architects, engineers, and contractors out there right now.  Upzoning can make a large dent in those numbers almost immediately.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Neat site, which uses a map of the NYC subway to turn “the New York subway system into an interactive string instrument. Using the MTA’s actual subway schedule, the piece begins in realtime by spawning trains which departed in the last minute, then continues accelerating through a 24 hour loop. The visuals are based on Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 diagram.”

(via Subtraction)

The Decline of Carpools

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Fascinating article in the NYT on the decline of carpooling, as Americans get wealthier and more spread out.  I hadn’t heard this statistic before:

Car ownership has outstripped even population growth, as the number of cars parked in American driveways has risen by nearly 60 percent since 1980, while the number of Americans has grown by a third.

It makes sense.  We’re getting wealthier as a country, and more spread out, so more people are going to own cars.   Plus, the cost of a 30-mile commute has gone down by half since 1980.  And cars themselves seem to have gotten less expensive.

But what I find remarkable is how much pain people are willing to put up with in order to drive themselves to work:

“Books on tape, music, it doesn’t help,” she said about the daily trip (most of the commuters interviewed here asked that their names not be used). “All I’m thinking is, ‘Oh, God, this is going to hurt.’ ”

The grind of the drive provokes such frustration that commuters do odd things to stay calm. One commuter waiting for a ride at a meeting point here said that one driver had become notorious among the regulars — “the puppet guy,” who apparently used hand puppets to act out arguments to manage his anger over being stuck in traffic.

Puppets. I’ve seen some crazy things on Metro buses.  I’ve seen plenty of people talking to themselves.  But never have I seen someone so angry as to use puppets as an anger management tool.

Charge more for express buses.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Today there was a discussion on Seattle Transit Blog about the benefits and drawbacks of cutting off bus service from the south to downtown Seattle and instead shuffling everyone onto LINK trains.  The core of the argument is cost savings vs. speed, and considering KC Metro is going through major cuts it’s time for unpleasant conversations about where and how we’re going to degrade service.  The huge savings involved is what makes this particular cut attractive.

That discussion is interesting, but isn’t what caught my eye.  One compromise solution was to use some of the money saved and keep or add express buses to downtown.  But if the express bus was faster, what would get people to take the non-express to a slow transfer to the train?  The way we do things now we’d use capacity to limit supply – once more people can’t cram on the express bus, they’ll wait for th local.  But that’s not the logical market approach – we’re leaving money on the table.  We could be limiting supply using fares.  Bump up express service a few dollars, and we not only increase revenue but we also sort out the issue of limited capacity on express buses. 

Commuters that need to get to work quickly will pay the extra money.  More cost sensitive riders will take a bit more time to get around.  And let’s not just do this for south-end routes, but for routes throughout the region.  This will free up capacity on express routes, and we can use the added revenue to keep more service overall.

Even East Coast Mayors Have Snow Troubles

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Well, look at that.  Turns out that other mayors besides Seattle’s also have trouble snapping their fingers and making snow disappear:

As New York City struggled with huge snowdrifts left by a crippling blizzard the day before, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg acknowledged on Tuesday that the cleanup had been slower than expected and the impact worse than had been apparent when the snow stopped falling.

Keep that in mind next time you hear an ex-New Yorker (like, say, me!) complain that in a real city traffic never gets snarled by snow.

Selling Ads

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Via Brendan Kiley, I see that the state ferry system is going to start selling web ads.

I can’t say that I have a problem with this in theory.  Governments sell ad space on visually prominent physical and virtual spaces all the time.

However, I’m pretty skeptical that this is the answer to any serious budget problems.  WSDOT points to the visitor information site, ExperienceWA, as another government site that sells ads.  But a quick glance over there shows the only ads being run are for another visitor information website, Seattle Southside.  Making real money from web ads is incredibly difficult.

Who knows? Some state government web pages are, indeed, heavily trafficked, including the WSDOT ferry page and the highway traffic map.  With any luck, they’ll be able to raise enough money to pay for the hosting costs.

Now, let’s talk about advertising on bus shelters