Streetcar Over Budget?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Seattle Transit Blog flags a story in the Seattle Times about the South Lake Union Streetcar being — surprise! — over budget. Well, not over budget, per se, construction costs are peachy, but the city seems to have been a bit rosy in estimating the operating expenses:

Metro Transit, which will operate the trains, plans to bill the city $2 million a year, compared to the city’s original $1.5 million estimate. Startup costs will add $500,000, compared to the early estimate of $144,000. The current shortfall is about $1.5 million for the first two years of operations, said a City Council staff analysis issued this week.

So we’re looking at about $500K/yr in operating expenses. The streetcar was still a great deal, since the local businesses volunteered to put up half the construction costs. That said, there’s a lot riding on this project (so to speak). It represents a very different way of building a transit system, so it will be heavily scrutinized.

But it’s also the canary in the South Lake Union coal mine. I love the Whole Foods as much as the next guy, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about how South Lake Union is going to turn out. It could be a Potemkin village, if stories like this become the norm. So there’s a certain amount of “pressure” on the Streetcar.

That said, it will take time to really assess the Streetcar, since it will come online years before the neighborhood around it fully matures. And it’s benefits in connecting SLU to Westlake Station and Light Rail won’t be realized for decades, if you think about the potential connection to Eastside light rail. So when you start to see investigative reports on KOMO next year about the “empty” streetcar, keep that in mind.

Buying Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

It’s good to see WSDOT taking control of more rail lines in Eastern WA:

The purchase of the CW Branch of the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad (PCC) is part of a nearly six-year effort to preserve the PCC, which is important to Eastern Washington’s agricultural industry. The state will pay $9.0 million for all track and right of way on the CW Branch, which runs from Coulee City to Cheney and Spokane, and certain real property on the PV Hooper and P & L Branch not previously purchased. The state will also receive the operating rights on all three branches.

“Rail is a vital part of our transportation system and supports a large portion of Washington’s agricultural community,” said Paula Hammond, WSDOT Chief of Staff. “This purchase conforms to the recommendations of the recently completed statewide Rail Capacity and System Needs Study and supports Governor Gregoire’s goals for economic growth in our communities.”

This is especially interesting in light of the article in today’s New York Times about the state of the dams in WA’s Lower Snake River. The focus is on opening the dams for salmon runs, but it also notes that the dams allow for barges to float wheat down river. Get rid of the dams, and you need to find an alternative transportation network, like rail.

Of course, you can own all the track you want, it doesn’t make a difference if the train doesn’t stop, as happened with the new intermodal facility at the Port of Quincy, WA.

Revisiting the Monorail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


Seeing that poster the other day got me thinking about the aborted Seattle Monorail Project again. I know most people would rather forget it (opening day was supposed to be December 2007, just seven months from now), but there were some valuable lessons there, and certainly the alignment, Ballard – Downtown – West Seattle is going to need to be served by high-capacity transit sooner rather than later. Especially if the Viaduct goes away.

Transit Now will help in the short term, but even the snazziest buses will get caught in traffic on the West Seattle Bridge or stuck waiting for the drawbridge in Ballard. After the Monorail died, the idea was broached to put in a light rail spur connecting SODO and West Seattle. Assuming you could deal with the technical challenges of crossing the Duwamish River, that certainly seems feasible.

But on the North end, the idea of a monorail between downtown and Ballard is still appealing, for a number of reasons. First off, building another downtown tunnel through Belltown seems unfeasible, especially since it would have to somehow cross through the Battery Street Tunnel. Second, we’ve already got a monorail running down 5th Avenue, and people are at least used to it (and used to the monorail making its way through Seattle Center). Finally, a monorail bridge over the Ballard ship canal is more cost-effective than a tunnel.

My only real objection to the monorail is the cost of maintaining a separate transit system (two separate maintenance facilities, engineers, etc.). But if we’re going to maintain the Seattle Center monorail anyway ($4.5M for the latest round of repairs alone), we might as well make it go somewhere.

I’m fairly sure there’s zero political or public will for reviving this concept while the body of the last monorail project is still warm. Still, there’s something there worth saving.

One Tunnel Down, One to Go

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Monorail Map

Speaking of ST videos, here’s one of the tunnel boring machine breaking through Beacon Hill. That means one of the two tunnels through the hill is completed. now they have to go back and do the matching, southbound tunnel.

Just to put this in perspective, at 4,300 feet, the Beacon Hill tunnel is just under one mile. For the proposed North Link, we’re looking at a tunnel roughly six miles long, extending from the Convention Center, through Capitol HIll and the U District, and emerging somewhere around NE 75th St and I-5.

Beacon Hill is the easy part.

On the other hand, Northgate to downtown in 13 minutes? That’s pretty sweet. Imagine shopping downtown on a Saturday and having the nice clerk at The Gap say, “well, we’re all out of that size, but we’ve got a few left in our Northgate location.” You walk 2 blocks to the Metro tunnel downtown, and 15 minutes later, boom you’re at Northgate Mall. Pretty slick.

Personally, this solves my own issue with the lack of a real electronics store downtown. Why is that, anyway? Downtown condo-dwellers don’t buy stereos or flat-screen TVs? C’mon!

Density Doesn’t Have To Be So Dense

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Wired has a fascinating article this month on Dongtan, a “green city” of 500,000 residents (roughly the size of Seattle) being planned for an area near Shanghai. The London-based urban design team working on the project made some interesting discoveries in their efforts to build an environmentally-friendly city:

The team found research on energy consumption in cities around the world, plotted on a curve according to population density. Up to about 50 residents per acre, roughly equivalent to Stockholm or Copenhagen, per capita energy use falls fast. People walk and bike more, public transit makes economic sense, and there are ways to make heating and cooling more efficient. But then the curve flattens out. Pack in 120 people per acre, like Singapore, or 300 people, like Hong Kong, and the energy savings are negligible.

For reference*, based on numbers I grabbed from Wikipedia and some quick calculations:

Portland, OR = 6.5 residents per acre
Seattle = 11
Vancouver, BC = 21
Copenhagen = 24
Stockholm = 41
New York City = 42

Wikipedia has limited data on Stockholm, so take those numbers with a grain of salt. In either case, this stuff is important to keep him mind when we have heated conversations about density. Not all densities are created equal, and it seems clear that adding a few more residents per acre could cut Seattle’s per-capita energy use dramatically without turning us into Manhattan.

*Wikipedia separates the land within the city limits from the water. I used the land-only numbers, since you can’t build on water. I don’t know if that’s what the Dongtan guys did or not. I suspect they, too, used land-only, since NYC’s density drops to 27 res. per acre if you count all the water.

Traffic Versus Pollution

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In addition to all the wonderful freedom they provide, cars have two major negative effects on society: pollution and traffic (three if you count the health problems related to auto-centric lifestyles, but that’s still pretty new and second-order compared to the first two). We often conflate the two, but they’re really separate problems.

In fact, one could easily see solving one of them while exacerbating the other. That’s the impression I get reading this article on plug-in hybrids. The more energy efficient our cars become, the cheaper they are to drive. Common sense tells us that people will then drive more, thereby making traffic worse.

This is not to say that energy-efficient cars shouldn’t be welcomed with open arms. It’s just that a good deal of public support for mass transit comes from a combination of the two. If operating a car gets cheaper, there goes one half of the coalition. Thus, it may reduce the demand for transit, while, perversely, making congestion even worse.

“Going the Way of Seattle”

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In case you were wondering, that’s not a compliment in Canada:

The provincial government’s plan to build massive amounts of new road space in the Gateway project will significantly alter the region’s transportation and land-use patterns.

The provincial government has mainly promoted the Gateway Program as a necessary investment to reduce congestion for commuters and trucks, and it also has argued that road expansion means that emissions will be lowered because vehicles will be idling less as they wait.

. . .

And former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price, also a close watcher of the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland scene, calls it “a tragic turn in the direction of this region.”

“If [the provincial government] does what it says it’s going to do, we are going the way of Seattle.”

The article has some useful contextualizing of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver’s relative efforts to be environmentally friendly with their infrastructure development, though it singles out Seattle as the “perpetual loser” in the 3-way race, sometimes in spite of itself:

Seattle went the other way, rejecting proposals for regional mass transit twice in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ever since, Seattle has become legendary for devising one transit plan after another, only to have each one shot down by one coalition after another of opponents. Ironically, that happens in spite of the fact that the Seattle public shows signs of wanting to do the right thing environmentally. Bruce Agnew, of the Cascadia Project, notes that sales of hybrid cars are higher per capita in Seattle than anywhere else.

(Via Casciadia Report, who takes a middle-of-the-road stance on the Vancouver expansion project)

Reading Tea Leaves Inside the Viaduct Timeline

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Even if we don’t know what we’re going to do with the main section, work is starting on the rest of the structure. Here’s the plan, courtesy of the P-I:

Closing parts of the Battery Street Tunnel from mid-2008 to 2010 for seismic strengthening, a new ventilation system and possibly to lower its floor for greater vertical clearance. Detours may be needed. John Pehrson of the Belltown Neighborhood Association said new ventilation towers may block views of Elliott Bay.

Retrofitting a 3.5-block segment of the structure, between Lenora Street and the tunnel, which planners intend to connect to whatever replaces the 1-mile viaduct segment along the central waterfront. Todd Vogel of the Allied Arts Waterfront Committee said the retrofit could prevent burying viaduct lanes under Elliott and Western Avenues to reduce noise.

A $545 million removal of the old viaduct between Holgate and King streets, from 2009 to 2012, and building a new intersection between the sports stadiums.

Part retrofit, part rebuild, and part… wait-and-see. But here’s the interesting thing for surface-transit supporters. You’ll recall that Governor Gregoire said the day after the vote that the time frame for deciding the fate of the viaduct is “two years, before the state’s next biennium budget is approved.”

The surface-transit option’s best hope is that the Viaduct is closed for a significant portion of those two years, to prove that we can live without it before a decision is made. It should go without saying that no one wants to see the road destroyed in an earthquake or an Oakland-style disaster. But a construction closure, like the one being planned between Holgate and King, would be just the ticket to prove that we can, in fact, live without it.

But the timeline doesn’t work: the state budget will be passed in 2009, probably before the Holgate-King section gets closed. Why not start tearing it down sooner? It’s risky to close the thing down for construction without a final plan, but if we’re serious about what it’s going to

Either way, it’s going to be close: the 2008-9 budget will get approved any day now. So assuming the 2010-1 budget is similarly approved in May of 2009 — and assuming the viaduct doesn’t get hashed out in the final, frenzied days of the approval process — the fate of the viaduct will likely be decided before it closes for reconstruction. If you’re a rebuild supporter, that’s a good thing.

On the other hand, if you’re Greg Nickels, and you don’t want to see another viaduct, this is your only chance:

Early next year state crews also will begin moving Seattle City Light power lines from the 1953-vintage viaduct and burying them underground.

Gee, Mayor Nickels. . . It sure would be a shame if Seattle City Light had to close the viaduct down while it moves the power lines, wouldn’t it? I mean, if the public utility decided that, hey, in the interest of public safety, the viaduct had to close for a few months and people had to find another way to get around. That wouldn’t help your argument at all, would it? (wink, wink)

Double Decks!

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Snohomish County is adding double-decker buses to its fleet. Apparently they’re better than the articulated buses because they hold more passengers and can be used in inclement weather.

One of the knocks on rapid transit by bus is that, while the initial costs of building a system are low, the operating costs are higher, since a bus can hold up to 60 or 80 people per driver, but a train can hold several hundred people per driver. Double-decks would help make buses more cost effective to operate.

Apparently they fit easily under the freeway overpasses, which is, of course, a good thing.

Mobility Plan Passes Council

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The City Council is moving forward:

Seattle will spend $8.1 million to develop a new “mobility plan” in hopes of finding an alternative to building another elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct.

City Council members voted unanimously Monday to create the plan, which may call for more transit, changes in surface streets, trip reduction, and vehicle tolls.

The surface-street option was rejected by WSDOT early on, but many have argued that that study was flawed because it simply removed the highway and didn’t think holistically about trip reduction, increased bus service, etc. This new study would presumably take all of those factors into consideration.

I’m optimistic. This is the first sign of genuine political movement toward a third way. However, it’s important to remember the lessons of the failed monorail project: if an idea doesn’t have the backing of the political establishment, it can easily be killed. Councilman Steinbrueck has made great progress in shepherding this through, but we’re still a long way away from anything approaching a political consensus.

Getting On The Bus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One thing I’ve noticed in the past year or so is that it’s gotten much more difficult to park downtown. Through a combination of factors — more electronic meters, fewer free parking areas — the city has really changed my personal calculus: I think twice before driving downtown, even on a Saturday. And I’m much more likely to take the bus.

Some folks aren’t so happy about the changes:

Some neighborhood activists complain that the city’s goals are unrealistic, at least until there’s more convenient public transportation in Seattle.

“The city’s living in a planner’s fantasy that … if you make it hard to park people will magically walk or ride their bike,” said Matt Fox, a longtime activist in the University District, where the city has substantially reduced free parking.

“Until the transit alternatives are in place, I think this is a punitive approach that’s going to make people’s lives really miserable.”

Well, I have a hard time believing it’s going to make anyone’s life truly “miserable” (there are far worse things happening in the world), but I can see where he’s coming from. However, we’re in a bit of a Catch-22 with waiting “until the transit alternatives are in place.” Adding more bus service will be easier when there’s more demand, and there’ll be more demand when there’s more service. In the meantime, Metro’s Transit Now initiative will help.

But my instinct is that the barriers to entry are still too high for many people. The bus system is darn confusing if you don’t have a route that you know and use frequently. It’s reminiscent of the Simpsons episode where Lisa tries to take the bus to the museum and finds herself deposited out in the boonies. When she asks the bus driver why the bus didn’t stop at the museum, he replies “that’s the No. 22. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, this is the 22A.” It’s funny because it’s true.

It surprises me that a city with this many information workers can’t come up with a more intuitive way of communicating bus routes. Use colors, use shapes. Have more intuitive bus maps. Identify, say, 8 major routes and make them stand out from the pack somehow. We’re sort of getting there with the BRT component of Transit Now, but so much more could be done for what’s basically peanuts compared to the cost of, say, laying a mile of rail.

Route 509 Expansion

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

When I first heard mention of a $1B line-item in the RTID to connect SR 509 with I-5, I assumed they were talking about eliminating the stoplight where 509 meets 518 and making it an “all freeway” exchange. It struck me as an odd thing to spend a billion bucks to get rid of a single traffic light.

But I was wrong! The proposed connection, which is nearing approval would happen south of Sea-Tac. The P-I article, though, still doesn’t answer the question of what problem the expansion is designed to solve.

WSDOT’s website, though, provides an answer:

Extending SR 509 will ease congestion on I-5, improve service between industrial districts by allowing up to 9,000 trucks per day to bypass I-5, SR 99 and local streets, and provide for southern access to Sea-Tac International Airport.

It also seems like calling it a “509 expansion” is a bit misleading: in addition to the 3 miles of new 509 freeway, the project will also add a lane to I-5 for the 6 miles approaching the 509 interchange. I’m sure the 509 piece is more expensive (because it’s brand-new freeway), but still, a good chunk of this project is widening I-5.

Congestion Pricing Redux

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Following up on yesterday’s post on Congestion Pricing, Knute Berger has a smart piece in Crosscut today where he makes the same observation we did, namely that user fees on roads have broad support across the ideological spectrum:

The greens such as the Sightline folks like free candy — uh, congestion pricing because it gets cars off the road. The people who can’t afford to pay to use the roads at peak hours find other means to get to work. This is good for Sims because he’s betting the farm on stuff like bus rapid transit (BRT) and voter-approved improvements to Metro Transit service in King County. To make that work, he needs fewer cars getting in the way and more bus riders. Make driving more expensive by tolling the roads, and voila.

Conservatives like tolls and fees because they can claim it’s not a tax, and it’s certainly not progressive because it whacks drivers regardless of income or the price of their vehicle. The contractor in a pickup pays the same as his client in a Porsche. But it also allows the much-loved “market” to winnow out gridlock.

Still, despite support from across the political divide, Berger notes that it’s still a political nonstarter. “It’s saying something about the popularity of tolling the streets when a property tax hike looks like a great option,” he says.

Nonetheless, the more we fully integrate the costs of driving, the more informed we’ll be as customers and citizens, which is really what it’s all about.

Signs of the Past

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I walked past this poster on 5th Avenue in Belltown:

Opening day was supposed to be December 15, 2007. Seven months from now.

Sinkhole!

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Speaking of infrastructure upgrades, here’s an interesting nugget from today’s Times article:

The pipe that broke was installed in 1912, Mickelson said. The oldest pipe in the system was installed in 1898.

He said the break may have been the result of a flaw in the pipe that finally gave way. It’s going to be difficult to replace because it’s under the bridge and has a bend in it, he said.

John Hutchins, with Harbor Consulting Company, inspected the pipe today and said, “My best guess, it was an old pipe and it just washed out and broke.”

Congestion Pricing

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Danny Westneat flags Ron Sims’ latest big idea:

The idea is to turn all our freeways into payways.

There’s nothing new about tolls. But Sims is not talking about a couple of bucks for crossing a bridge. It’s a plan to toll most every mile of every major state and federal highway from Everett to south of Tacoma.

It’s just a concept, Sims says, but here’s how it could work. We’d all have computer chips in our cars to record time of day and lane miles traveled on Interstates 5, 405 and 90 (out to Issaquah), as well as parts of highways 99, 167, 509, 518 and 520. The gist is you’d pay $2 for a short rush-hour commute, with a max of $4 to $8 for longer drives, such as from Bothell to Tacoma. It’d be $1 for driving around in the middle of the night.

Westneat like the idea, but says that tolls are “political suicide.” He writes, “If there’s anything that’ll get the local blood boiling as much as that income tax, Sims has found it.”

I’m not so sure. If you assume that by “local blood” he means the conservative, anti-tax folks who by and large oppose the income tax, he’s mistaken. Pay-for-what-you-use has a lot of support among conservatives, because it involves no redistribution. It’s also insanely market friendly: when something gets more scarce (freeway capacity during rush hour), the price goes up. It’s Econ 101.

For example, here’s Stefan Sharkansky of the conservative blog Sound Politics writing two weeks ago:

Nobody should be forced to pay for infrastructure he considers to be foolishly cost-ineffective and/or environmentally immoral. Nobody should have their desired solution held hostage for the other. Roads should be paid for only by those who want and use them. Likewise with light rail.

Let all highway construction and improvements be paid for through tolls, and let all light rail be financed 100% through the farebox.

Sometimes it really is that simple.

Sounds like an endorsement to me!

Don’t Build It And…

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

…maybe they’ll just find another route:

OAKLAND, Calif., April 30 — A day after a fiery tanker crash melted and collapsed a critical highway interchange near the Bay Bridge, rush hour commuters in the Bay Area enjoyed a relatively painless morning, as drivers avoided the roads and the expected nightmare largely failed to materialize.

Free and more frequent trains were running on Bay Area Rapid Transit lines, the region’s light rail system, and additional ferries plowed the waters between San Francisco and the cities on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay. But by and large, vehicle traffic around the site of the collapse was light and fluid during the morning commute, as the combination of telecommuting, absenteeism and mass transit apparently combined to keep many workers off the roads.

“This morning was one of the easiest commutes I’ve ever had,” said Jared Hirsch, associate production manager for American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, who drives to work from Oakland. “I think people assuming that this evening’s would be one of the worst commutes ever everyone elected to either take public or stay at home.”

I’ve never lived in San Francisco, but I’ve visited enough to know that knocking out I-580 and I-880 in Oakland is a fairly big deal.

It turns out, though, that demand for roads is very elastic: if you build more roads, people will drive more. If you take away roads, people will figure out alternatives and drive less. Seattle found this out when we expanded I-90: as soon as the new lanes were added, traffic doubled.

This would seem to lend credence to Erica Barnett’s thoughtfully reasoned argument for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a surface boulevard:

The day before the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, 110,000 vehicles used the viaduct every day. After it reopened later that year, only 80,000 vehicles did. More recently, a WSDOT study found that if the state charged a $1 toll on the viaduct, 40,000 trips would disappear, indicating that “demand” is a very flexible concept; conversely, a recent UC Berkeley study found that for every 1 percent of new road capacity, traffic increased by 0.9 percent.

To be sure, it’s unclear how many Bay Area residents just stayed home today, something they certainly can’t do forever:

It seemed that many people, however, opted not to even try to come into office. Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., executive director of the Municipal Transportation Agency in San Francisco, said that anecdotal accounts were that trains, buses, and ferries were all only lightly used.

But in the long run, people look for alternatives when they’re forced to. We may grumble for a while, but eventually we adapt and incorporate it into our routines. The key, though, is that we have to force ourselves to a decision. That’s human nature.