Sunday Open Thread: East Link in Bellevue

A recent view of the East Link alignment through Bellevue, courtesy of Bellevue Transportation Department. Heavy civil construction is expected to be substantially complete in Bellevue this Fall, except on the central Bellevue segment where it will complete early in 2021.

This is an open thread.

Metro asks to defer driver raises

Mike Lindblom and Heidi Groover report ($) that King County Executive Dow Constantine wants to reopen February’s collective bargaining agreement that grants ATU-587 raises of 3% the next two years and 4% in 2022-23.

The Union has good reason to consider it. With revenues collapsing and service cuts coming in September, layoffs appear inevitable. Lower pay would mean more service, and thus more jobs. This would incidentally be better for riders.

Both a pay freeze and layoffs are, of course, at the expense of people so recently hailed as heroes for risking themselves in the pandemic, with two fatalities and numerous drivers infected. ATU 587 argues, correctly, that if Metro exhausts its rainy day fund, CARES Act funding, and Seattle passes a TBD extension, it can kick the can down the road past the end of the CBA.

That might store up trouble for later. But stalling actually worked in the great recession, when various minor efficiencies (and a steep fare increase) more or less kept service cuts at bay until the accelerating economy made them unnecessary.

Decisions later this year on delayed projects

Projects in active construction (in green) have been prioritized while Sound Transit reprioritizes its longer term program (slide: Sound Transit)

With a comprehensive realignment of capital projects delayed until July 2021, Sound Transit turned its attention yesterday to current projects where advances through project stage gates have been on hold since March. The Board must decide in coming months how to proceed on many of these projects in 2021 pending decisions on the broader program.

Earlier this year, the Board decided to pause advancing projects not in construction. That meant planning and design could continue, but projects could not advance into project development, final design, or construction. Some of the largest ST3 projects are still too far away to be affected by a near-term pause, but the staff presentation detailed more than a dozen where some work or stage gate decisions are being delayed.

Projects affected by the pause include several in early development. These include Sounder platform extensions on the south line. Those platforms were to be extended to accommodate 10-car trains by 2028. An operations and maintenance facility for Everett Link was to have started work later this year. Environmental work on Sounder access projects has been delayed. These include parking in Edmonds and Mukilteo which are not being moved to environmental review. Contracts have been negotiated at South Tacoma and Lakewood station, but not brought to the Board. In North Sammamish, a 200-car park-and-ride is on hold. The bus on shoulder program has been screened to a short list of possible projects, but paused further development.

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HALA, zoning and racism five years later

Seattle triplex
A neighborhood-destroying triplex

Five years ago this month city released the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda recommendations, a.k.a. the HALA report, aimed at making Seattle more affordable and, well, livable.  Thanks to lots of work from the mayor(s) and council, many of the 65 recommendations have since become law, including marquee items like Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) and ADU reform. Alan Durning, a committee member, wrote an excellent summary of the whole effort back in February. 

One big change that many housing advocates still see as a missed opportunity is the recommendation to end the ban on duplexes and triplexes that currently blocks affordable housing on 2/3 of the city’s land. 

You may recall that the report included language alluding to the “racist” history of single-family zones.  Someone on the commission leaked a draft to the Times, and when the commission didn’t have their story straight, it became a controversy and then-mayor Murray jettisoned the proposal to save the rest of the HALA work. 

2015 was also the first year of district-based elections and many assumed that neighborhood groups would run the table (in fact the districts were drawn specifically to make that happen).  Best not to poke the bear, some reasoned.

Since the report was released, much has changed in terms of both the local political landscape and national trends around zoning law.

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News roundup: moving up

Save our Metro!
Oran Viriyincy/Flickr (2011)

This is an open thread.

Durkan, SDOT propose a smaller Transportation Benefit District for this fall’s ballot

Mayor Durkan and Seattle DOT today proposed a 6-year renewal for the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (TBD), which would go before the voter this fall. Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee, will bring it before the City Council for approval, ending months of speculation about the fate of city bus service.

The slimmed-down TBD, which we previewed last week, TBD would fund about 50,000 service hours in years 1-4, rising to 80,000 in years 5 and 6, presumably as the economy improves. That’s far less than the 350,000 hours the TBD currently purchases, but SDOT hopes that it’s enough to maintain the baseline 15-minute network throughout the city.

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WEAR YOUR DAMN MASK

I rode several bus routes over the weekend to check out how well riders were taking to the new state edict to wear a face covering in public.

As expected, close to half the riders did not have masks at all. A program to distribute free masks would help a lot, in that regard. Thank you, City of Renton, for taking the lead!

The more infuriating behavior, though, was the significant number of riders who had masks on, but were not wearing them over their mouth and nose. They just had them on over their chin, as if getting some fresh air in a place where they didn’t feel the need to wear them properly.

Inside, where the air recirculates, is actually where you most need to wear a mask, to protect the other people in that place from you. Being asymptomatic does not mean you don’t have the virus.

If you are on a bus, and you do not have a mask on, then you are a threat to the health and safety of everyone else on the bus. Pulling your mask down to expose your nose and mouth makes you as dangerous as all the maskless riders.

Do I need to remind y’all that hundreds of thousands of people have died from the virus?

Another infuriating behavior is when riders wait until they sit down to put their mask on, or take it off as they get ready to leave the bus. When you are standing over other riders is actually when you are the greatest threat to them, as the water droplets from your breath rain down upon the people you walk by.

So, please, oh please. Don’t risk the lives of your fellow riders. WEAR YOUR DAMN MASK. If you are waiting for the bus and see it approaching, make sure your mask is up over your nose and mouth. Expect some drivers to pass you by if you don’t have your mask on properly.

Then keep your mask on properly while you are boarding, while on board, while you are deboarding, while around other people at the bus stop, and anywhere, inside or outside, where there are one or more people around you.

Don’t be a killer. WEAR YOUR DAMN MASK.

All news is bad news

West Seattle - east side of California Ave looking north, south of The Junction 01

Last month’s Times story that rents are dropping in West Seattle ($) since the bridge closed spurs two thoughts.

There’s something honorable about journalism that always tries to find the person who is hurt in any change to the status quo, so that readers can understand the human costs. But there’s also something perverse about spending years lamenting the “crisis” in housing affordability, and then went rent falls, centering the losses of the poor, poor landlords.

“In my 30 years of owning buildings, I’ve never experienced what I’m experiencing in West Seattle,” said landlord Morris Groberman, who owns four buildings in West Seattle and several dozen other apartments across the region. “It’s absolutely bleak.”

Relatedly, the easiest way to keep rent affordable and avoid “gentrification” is to not improve the neighborhood. A place with good transportation options, good schools, good jobs, and minimal crime is going to attract newcomers in a context of overall population growth. To avoid the tragedy of displacing people already there, there will either have to be deteriorating conditions or more housing. Personally, I prefer the latter.

A smaller Seattle TBD for the November ballot

The Seattle TBD funds more frequent service on Metro 120 (image: Zach Heistand)

A reduced Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD), extending the existing 0.1% sales tax but not replacing the lost vehicle licence fee revenues, appears headed to the November ballot. If approved, it will fund youth ORCA and low income programs at existing levels. But Seattle will purchase much less bus service than in previous years, and much of that will be directed to West Seattle while the West Seattle Bridge remains out of service.

The plan to take a measure to the November ballot was announced by Council Transportation Committee Chair Alex Pedersen at a Council meeting on Monday. Existing taxes expire in December, and a November ballot measure must be filed by August 4. Further details are expected within the next few days, and may be refined further by the Council, but the broad strokes spending plan has become clearer. Either a four- or six-year renewal is possible, perhaps because some favor a revived countywide measure in 2024.

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News roundup: TV star

Life in downtown Seattle is slowed down with many businesses still closed due to Covid 19 shutdown.
PatricksMercy/Flickr

This is an open thread.

East-West Rail study: small project, small impact

Study corridor in Yellow.

A state study of passenger rail service via Stampede Pass (report, slides) reveals options that are relatively inexpensive but also not ambitious enough to provide competitive options between cities.

The most expansive option would run Spokane to Seattle with a running time of 8:35 (!). As with any indirect route, it mostly has to be about travel between the intermediate cities, not the endpoints: indeed, travel within the Yakima valley comprises much of the ridership. If this route were operating twice a day in a Covid-free 2020, it would draw 205,000 annual riders – or about a quarter of what Amtrak Cascades serves in a typical year with more trains serving bigger population centers. 97% of these riders would not go east of Pasco.

This line would cost $137m in new stations and track improvements, $253m for trainsets, and a net annual operating subsidy of $23m. Shortening the line or running once a day has the impacts you might expect. However, a Pasco terminus (running time: 6:05), while not a cheaper capital project, hits a sweet spot by lowering operating costs without much loss of riders.

These are not huge numbers as capital projects go, and surveys indicate significant local interest in trying out this service. Nevertheless, the travel times are not competitive with driving. Trains have advantages over intercity buses, but such an extreme time penalty suggests Washington either expand those buses or consider a much more ambitious rail program to achieve higher operating speeds.

Last year’s transportation appropriations bill funded the $250,000 study. Today, only the Empire Builder connects Spokane with both Seattle and Portland (7.5 hours), but only once a day and not scheduled for the convenience of Seattle-Spokane passengers. Zach and Bruce Nourish wrote up the potential of this corridor 4 years ago.

Sound Transit realignment process will extend another year

Although the overall realignment is punted until July 2021, several projects face decision points this year (image: Sound Transit)

The Sound Transit Board has given up on earlier plans to decide a capital program realignment this year, and will extend the process into the middle of next year. The new “path forward” is a comprehensive realignment plan and schedule for future project delivery by July 2021.

In the meantime, a more limited set of actions will be considered this year on projects that require urgent decisions. Projects already in construction will continue. The Board will continue to schedule design and environmental activities on other projects to maintain shovel-readiness. For baselining and construction decision points, the 2021 plan will proceed on a “placeholder assumption” that all future projects are delayed by about five years. Affected projects may encompass the Eastside BRT projects, some Sounder South improvements, the Link OMF South, Everett Link, and funding agreements for “early win” projects with local partners.

Sound Transit embarked on an effort to “realign” the capital program in April after the COVID pandemic and recession cratered revenue expectations. At the time, CEO Peter Rogoff pushed for prompt Board direction on resetting priorities: “Back in 2010, the board took some 18 months to arrive at what realignment decisions had to be made. We may not have the luxury of being able to wait 18 months to come to finality on these decisions given the sudden cliff that the economy may have jumped off.

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Everett Transit looks at future options, including merger

Everett Transit could merge with Community Transit under one option

Months before the economic outlook turned gloomy amid the global COVID pandemic, Everett Transit was looking at financial trouble. Last year, the city-run system revealed that it forecast a $1.6 million budget shortfall that would continue due to Everett’s declining retail sales. While the agency has great plans to improve its network in coming years, they will have to be re-evaluated to preserve current service levels.

Everett Transit has launched its “Rethink Transit” survey, which runs online until July 13, with three options for the public to consider. Everett Transit is also re-introducing regular fares on all routes and services on July 1.

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Center City Connector on hold again amid fresh funding gaps

Seattle Streetcar (image: Joe Kunzler)

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has paused work on the Center City Connector (CCC) and several other projects as the city wrangles a steep revenue deficit. The pause appears likely to further delay the start of service. But the recession also threatens the longer term future of the streetcar. Needed revenues from the rideshare tax are less likely to materialize, and there is sharpened competition for scarce general fund resources.

All told, the paused projects are expect to reduce SDOT spending this year by $58 million, or 8% of the $739 million budget. That roughly fills this year’s budget gap for SDOT. SDOT’s revenues are expected to fall short of plan by more than $50 million, including an expected loss of $13 million in general fund support, a $20 million shortfall on parking tax revenues; and at least $7 million less in street use fees. SDOT’s near term options are constrained as they are continuing projects already in construction. At the same time, the West Seattle Bridge is unexpectedly failing, setting SDOT up for a costly repair bill, or even more costly replacement.

The Center City Connector would connect the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars through downtown Seattle. The project was funded in the budget passed in 2017, but then placed on hold in April 2018. After identifying a series of design flaws and cost underestimates in the plan, an independent review added $88 million to the estimate in the budget, and potentially more if assumed FTA grant funding were to fall through. But the city nevertheless determined to get the project back on track, taking two steps to move the project ahead.

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News roundup: already

Rainier Square Tower, May 2020 from 4th Avenue and Union Street

This is an open thread.

The bikes are back

Monica Nickelsburg reports that the Jump bikes, now acquired by Lime but, confusingly, still painted red and using the Jump Uber app, are back on the streets this week.

Credit: Jump

The Lime brand has largely pivoted to scooters worldwide, but here in Seattle they’re still waiting for the City to figure out how scooter permits will work. “Hopefully we will see scooters in the next couple of months”, said Jonathan Hopkins, Director of Strategic Development at Lime.

The initial deployment of 500 bikes, all electric, will cost $1 plus 36 cents per minute to rent. This is quite a bit more than Lime’s rate last summer of 25 cents per mile minute. But then again, transit alternatives have deteriorated a bit, in both frequency and perceived safety. For comparison, a typical UberX fare might be $2.20 plus $1.60 per mile, which may be a wash depending on how fast you ride, and how much you mind being in a car with a stranger.

I don’t know how this will play out. I thought that the killer app for these bikes was the last mile to and from transit services, but that’s less compelling now for several reasons. Are there enough people moving around our denser areas in situations where a personal bike, car, or taxi service aren’t more economical, convenient, and hygenic?

Time to open more streets

The city’s Stay Healthy Streets are an innovative, low-cost way to increase people space by bootstrapping on the existing greenways network. Kudos to the Mayor and SDOT for a creative solution. But as businesses start to re-open, we’ll need a much more aggressive approach, one that goes beyond the low-density residential areas and into commercial districts: sidewalk cafes, pedestrian-only zones and more.  

Summer starts next week, so the time is now. As the mayor herself said in the aforelinked post, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We have a long summer and fall ahead.

From Boston to Bothell, other cities are taking initiative:

Meanwhile, across the country traffic is starting to creep back up.  

Continue reading “Time to open more streets”