Transit Plan OK’d – Where We Go From Here

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Sound Transit’s board has approved the final draft plan for this November’s vote. This was simpley the formal approval of the plan that the board hammered out last month.

It will be an interesting ride, so to speak, from here to November. The legislature and others have made a gamble with this Roads and Transit joint RTID package. It’s already drawing criticism from pro-transit and pro-environmental groups who say it includes too much money for highways, and criticism from anti-tax and anti-Sound Transit groups who don’t want to see any more money spent on rail.

But, to paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, you go to the ballot box with the transit plan you have, not the plan you might want or wish to have. Compromise is part of that. Not everyone gets to design their dream infrastructure. There are some things in this package that seem misguided (like the Cross Base Highway), but this is the cost of doing business.

Barring any great changes in the cost or scope, I’ll be voting yes for the fall Roads and Transit plan, and I encourage everyone to do the same. In fact, between now and November, making the case for a “yes” vote will be our raison d’etre here at Orphan Road.

Why? Simply because every year we wait, construction and property costs increase by as much as 15%, or 5 times the rate of inflation. That means that each year, it costs more to build less. Just to put that in perspective, it means that the cost of a $17 billion package will go up by as much as $2.5 billion just by waiting a year. That alone is more than enough to widen I-405 (estimated at $1B). By approving the package this year as opposed to next, those projects are essentially free.

Of course, you might argue that adding highway lanes are never free, since they add to our reliance on automobiles. That’s valid, but it’s worth noting that widening 405 is a pretty mild step compared with building 49 miles of light rail. There’s no real radical road package to oppose here, like, for example, a new I-605 cutting through the Cascade foothills. It’s all pretty basic stuff. By voting “no” on this package, transit supporters would be cutting off their nose to spite their face.


Hybrids More Fuel Efficient After All?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I thought it was a settled case that Metro’s new hybrid buses were no more fuel-efficient than the diesels they replaced. Now comes an article in Truck Trend (I’m sure yours is in the mail…) citing a government study (PDF) that shows the opposite.

The real-world study, conducted in Seattle in 2006, shows a 27% increase in fuel economy over the old buses. It’s hard to say what accounts for the disparity, although it appears from the study that actual fuel economy for both bus types was lower, and thus the difference more dramatic. Either way, it’s good news King County.

(Incidentally, the study was provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. There’s a funny story about President Bush’s visit to NREL last year.)


Sound Transit Board Adopts ST2 Plan

Today Sound Transit’s board unanimously adopted the ST2 plan that will go to the ballot this November. From the press release:

Sound Transit 2’s light rail expansions build on the light rail in Sound Transit’s first phase, including the line between downtown Seattle and the airport that will open in 2009; the University of Washington extension that Sound Transit is working to start building as soon as 2008; and the Tacoma Link system that is operating today.

The Sound Transit 2 Plan adds service northward from the University of Washington to Northgate, Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood and the 164th Street/Ash Way area of Snohomish County. To the south the system would extend through Des Moines, Federal Way and Fife to the Tacoma Dome, connecting with the existing Tacoma Link light rail system. A long-awaited light rail extension across Lake Washington would serve Mercer Island, Bellevue and Redmond’s Overlake/Microsoft area.

Check out the finalized plan that will go on the ballot. I am definitely voting for it, even if I’m not a fan of the RTID piece. We’ll never get a sent a transit package that will make everyone happy, and the more ballots we pass, the more we show those who can do something that we want more transit.

Vanvouver’s POV on Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Last week Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry highlighted the fact that Vancouver tops Seattle and Portland in transit use. The Vancouver-area papers have run with the story:

Vancouver is more constrained by geography, so like it or not, there’s less space to sprawl and more likelihood residents will be close to transit.

By year-end, 36 per cent of [Greater Vancouver] residents will live within 450 metres of a “frequent transit” line—what TransLink defines as minimum 15 minute service 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

Williams-Derry also concedes higher gas taxes north of the border may have helped give transit an edge over private car use over the long term.

But ultimately, he argues, Vancouver’s success stems from better land-use decisions rather than the design of its transit system.

That second point about “frequent transit” is key. People need confidence that they can “throw away their schedules,” which was one of Ron Sims’ key selling points for Transit Now. People like certainty, which is one reason why rail appeals to us: you see the tracks here, it’s pretty clear that there’s a train going to come sooner or later. Bus stops don’t inspire the same confidence. Hopefully Metro’s RapidRide will incorporate some rail-station-like features that give us the sense that there’s a BRT bus on the way.

For example, I was spending a weekend in Northwest Portland about a year ago, and I wanted to spend the day downtown. I headed right for the streetcar stop. There was a digital readout saying that, since it was a weekend, the next car was coming in, say 20 minutes. I watched a few buses pass me, and thought I probably could have gotten on any one of them and gotten downtown. But there was an uncertainty that I, unfamiliar with Portland, wouldn’t get where I wanted to go. So I waited for the streetcar. And sure enough, it came just when the sign said it would. That’s how transit should work: we can deal with the waiting, just not the uncertainty.


Phillips: Just Grab the BNSF Corridor

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

King County Councilman Larry Phillips wants the BNSF corridor on the Eastside, he just doesn’t think that the County should give up Boeing Field (King County Airport) in exchange.

His stated problems with the Sims land swap boil down to: (a) he wants to keep the airport, and (b) he thinks it’s worth far more than the trail (perhaps five times as much). But it’s actually more complicated than that. Phillips district (PDF), which includes Seattle’s Magnolia and Queen Anne neighborhoods, happens to be right in the airport’s flight path. He’s worried that the Port of Seattle would try to start landing commercial flights there, which would be disruptive for his constituents.

However, he knows that the rail corridor is vital, and that the idea of acquiring it is popular, so he’s trying to convince all the regional municipalities, including the Port, that it’s in their interest to buy the right-of-way without giving up the airport in exchange.

Note how deftly he skirts the issue of commercial flights (and the debate over rail-vs-trail) while simultaneously putting himself in the pro-acquisition camp:

King County keeps the airport we have a proven track record operating and the Port of Seattle has little interest in acquiring; and the region moves swiftly to acquire the rail corridor from BNSF either through a funding partnership or an outright purchase by the Port of Seattle.

Future generations will thank us for our ingenuity as they ride their bikes or take the train through the booming cities on the Eastside.

Clever. Everyone thinks that we should acquire the right-of-way. The question is how do we pay for it. The Port has the money, but they want the airport in exchange. As a Queen Anne resident, I don’t really have a problem with more flights overhead, so I’m less sympathetic to Phillips’ argument on that score. But as a taxpayer, I want to get the best deal possible. So if he’s right, and the airport is actually worth 5x the trail, then obviously we need to find another way to get our hands on it.


Transit News Roundup

The PI endorsed the surface and transit option … well the study of it at least. In this op-ed piece, the paper “strong encourages” the council to “approve the $8 million study”. They also seem to support amendments to the proposal that would keep improvements that would lead to replacement from being started.

They also sort of come out against the streetcar, saying that its usefulness is suspect and that funding it will get in the way of expanding bus service in the city. I agree that the city can’t afford to lose any bus improvements, but the street car could become part of a larger network of cars that will cross the city and improve mobility dramatically. San Francisco’s Muni cars are a huge part of it’s transportation system, though I have to concede in some places they resemble Link more than the streetcars Seattle is building.

King-5 had a piece about how transit ridership is up. All the major transportation agencies in the region have seen year-over-year increases of about 8-10%.

Metro Transit

– Boardings were up 8.9 percent in April 2007 compared to April 2006, translating to about 30,000 more weekday riders.

Pierce Transit

– Boardings were up 8.7 percent in April 2007 compared to April 2006.

Sound Transit

– Bus boardings were up 10 percent overall in April 2007 compared to April 2006.

– Sounder commuter train boardings were up 27 percent in the same period.

Community Transit – … double digit increases in April 2007 compared to April 2006. That’s similar to the jump from the same time last year.

Apparently, gas prices, traffic fatigue and new employment is the cause. But as more people take transit, the demand for more transit will grow, and the political movement behind building more will grow.

Finally USA today discussed the 100 million more people who will live in America by 2040 (a couple million of which will live in the Seattle region), and how transit projects are being approved all over the country.


Shilshole to Downtown Ferry?

Everybody loves the Elliot Bay Water Taxi. This Ballard News Tribune piece about transportation brings up the possibility of a Ballard to Downtown Ferry.

A new King County Ferry District ordinance, passed recently by the Metropolitan King County Council, could potentially fund a feasibility study for a passenger-only ferry route from Shilshole to downtown Seattle. The district could also support the operation of Vashon-Seattle ferries and year-round Elliott Bay Water Taxi service.

Funding to study the Shilshole Ferry idea could be included in that plan, he said.

That study would raise many questions about how the route might operate, such as dock site, customer market, operating issues and parking.

The piece also mentions the idea of a Sounder stop in Ballard, which would likely slow down the trip to and from Everett but would probably add a lot of numbers to the route. It wouldn’t be that expensive either since the line goes through Ballard already.


Financing Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One of the most frustrating pieces of getting new transportation solutions online in Washington State is our regressive and limiting tax structure. We currently use sales taxes to finance Sound Transit (in addition to MVET). Our overall tax system is in dire need of reform. In the meantime, car taxes and sales taxes end up being used as the path of least resistance.

In what might be a first effort to break through that logjam, David Goldstein had a provocative post yesterday arguing that we can, in fact, tax gasoline, so long as it’s a sales tax and not an excise tax:

The other day I suggested that Washington state dramatically increase the motor fuel excise tax to pay for a massive investment in rail and other mass transit infrastructure. It was admittedly a bit of a thought experiment, as our state Constitution mandates that all motor vehicle fuel excise tax revenues be dedicated towards ‘highways,’ and of course, amending the Constitution remains exceedingly difficult.

But then I got to thinking. Article II, Section 40 specifically refers to ‘excise taxes.’ There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we can’t also levy a sales tax on motor vehicle fuel, and there’s nothing to mandate how such revenues might be spent. Thus all the hooey we’ve been fed about how we can’t spend gas tax dollars on anything but roads and ferries is exactly that… a bunch of hooey. A simple majority in both houses, and the stroke of the governor’s pen is all we need to create a dedicated fund for building mass transit. And of course, the people are free to vote yea or nay via referendum or initiative.

This isn’t just amateur legal analysis on my part. I checked with a constitutional scholar who assured me that my reading was correct, and that similar proposals have indeed been debated from time to time. And it’s not such an original or off the wall idea; nine other states already levy both sales and excise taxes on gasoline.

Read the whole thing. Even Sound Transit acknowledges that we could have the Eastside link up and running 10 years sooner if we had the financing right. That’s worth considering.

Update: Josh Feit has a lot more data supporting the idea that Washingtonians don’t pay that much in taxes after all.


Less Talking

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

There’s more in that P-I article to pick at:

Officials promise that everyone will have a chance to weigh in on the ultimate solution. Seattle expects to hire a consultant, who will talk to the various political interests and recommend ways to hear from others.

Michael Mann, deputy director of Seattle’s Office of Policy and Management, said he expects the consultant to be hired and to recommend by the end of this year a schedule for involving everyone in the search for an agreeable viaduct replacement.

We don’t need more discussions. We need to see alternatives in action. We all know how the downtown works and looks with a viaduct. Let’s see what it’s like with nothing, as Danny Westneat argued in the wake of the March vote.


What Seattle Gets out of ST2

Over at Slog, people were upset with the “Cross-base Highway” included in the RTID plan that goes to the ballot with Sound Transit’s ST2 package. One major complaint was that RTID does almost nothing for Seattle, and that ST2 does a smaller portion for the city than ST1 one did, and Seattlites should vote against it. If you look at Sound Transit’s ST2 page, Seattle is getting a lot out of that transit package (more on that below).

As for RTID, it is true that only three projects take place within the city limits. The first is the widening of Mercer street near I-5. The second are a bunch of improvements in the southern industrial area of the city, which includes a transit-only ramp off I-5 at South Industrial Way. The last is an replacement for 520 which is partially funded by RTID. The 520 replacement is as useful for the Eastside as it is for Seattle, so that only counts for half a project for the city. The industrial improvements are mostly for freight and shipping, which benefits the whole region (there’s no Port of Kirkland, for example). So Seattle is definitely getting the short end of the stick in terms of RTID spending. For $5 billion in spending, less than half-a-billion is going to Seattle-only projects, and about $1.1 billion is going to half-Seattle, half-Eastside project.

Sound Transit will benefit Seattle much more than RTID. There will be two more subway stations added to the north end of the Link Rail, where it extends past Montlake/University of Washington. The 43rd & Brooklyn Station will be especially useful. This part of ST2 alone will cost $1.126 billion to $1.239 billion. Then, there will be a Northgate elevated station and a station on 145th at the city limits. This adds another $300 million or so, though it will be as useful for Shoreline as it is for Seattle.

For the East Link, there will be an at-grade station on Rainer and about 23rd Ave. That won’t be incredibly useful since that area is mostly well-served by the “Central Link” that already goes through the South End, but it definitely will get a lot of use, possibly even just from Amazon employees coming from the Eastside. Also, the East Link in general will help Seattlites who are commuting East (like me), and Eastsiders who commute into the city. Plus it will be paid entirely out of the Eastside’s Sound Transit money. Finally, there will be the First Hill street car. This costs $150 million and will greatly expand the “network effect” of the Capitol Hill station.

In addition there is an $8 million study of a Burien-West Seattle-Downtown rail (that’s technically getting paid partially out of the South King County budget), and a $5 million study of a Downtown-Ballard-Wallingford-UW line. That’s the one which would have made my childhood growing up in Wallingford/Green Lake so much different. I think that red line in the image actually goes right through the house I grew up in. Finally, there’s a $5 million study of HCT across 520. Let’s hope these don’t take until 2050 or something.

So, RTID is not a good deal for Seattle. But Sound Transit is a great deal for Seattle, so it’s a trade-off. Since ST2 is paid for by a .5% sales tax increase and RTID is paid for by a .1% sales tax increase and a $80 per $10,000 assessed value MVET, if you don’t own a car, you won’t pay much for RTID. At least that makes its payment scheme more fair than any other highway project ever attempted in this state. My only complaint about ST2 is the time frames discussed. 2027 to Overlake TC? Will I still make that commute in 20 years?


Viaduct: Still No Answer

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Sadly, the powers that be did not solve the viaduct issue while our backs were turned.

The current plan, you’ll recall, calls for strengthening some of the most vulnerable sections of the current viaduct, rebuilding the viaduct south of Qwest Field, and then punting on what to do with the downtown core. But as the plan moves forward, the various factions — the rebuilders, the surface-transit folks, the retrofit crew — are scrutinizing every decision to see if it’s secretly helping advance another factions’ case. I made the argument recently that the timeline seems to be designed to prevent the viaduct from ever closing before a decision is reached, thus depriving us of the opportunity to experience a viaduct-free Seattle.

Some concerns seem valid: a new interchange that pours more traffic onto the viaduct would certainly be a step towards a new elevated freeway. But others seem to show a lack of understanding:

“It seems to me that we ought to wait and see what’s going on in between (the two ends) before we spend all that money ensuring there’ll be an elevated freeway in my neighborhood in perpetuity,” said John Pehrson, head of a Belltown Housing and Land Use Committee. “It’s just as noisy, it’s just as dirty, it’s just as isolating as it (would be) in the central waterfront.”

Even the tunnel and the surface-transit alternatives maintained the section of viaduct through Belltown. There’s simply no other way to deal with the cars coming out of the Battery Street tunnel than to route them on to a viaduct, except for perhaps leveling most of downtown Seattle.

As this process progresses, it will be interesting to watch each side try and work the refs in favor of their proposed solution.


Monorail Nostalgia

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

When I saw the headline for Knute Berger’s piece in Crosscut on the Las Vegas Monorail and what it tells us about our own fated elevated system, I was afraid he’d uncovered some serious reliability or other substantive issues with the Vegas line that would serve as a cautionary tale for would-be monorail resurrectionists like myself.

Fortunately, the article contains no such warnings. Instead, Berger focuses on the low ridership of the Vegas line and its out-of-the way location. Neither of those would have been an issue with the Seattle line, which would have been a commuter transportation system along a well-trafficked corridor, not a tourist-trap overpriced joyride like the Las Vegas line. Plus, Seattle’s pedestrian friendly, unlike the Strip, where sidewalks disappear into casinos with little or no warning or simply stop.

Berger does support the idea of extending the line all the way to the airport, which I heartily agree with. Waiting for a cab at McCarran Airport is a daunting task. The circuitous four-mile ride from the airport via taxi reeks of a powerful taxi driver lobby. As a bonus, having a monorail connection directly from the Airport to the Strip would make Vegas seem even more like a Lunar resort colony than it already does.


Link Rail Assembly

Here’s a nice article about the assembly of the Link Rail Cars in Everett in one of Boeing’s huge barns. At the end of the article is a nice list of facts about the rail cars, including the fact that if ST2 passes 188 more cars will be added to the 35 in the original order and the 27 for the University Link. That’s about 250 cars!

Thanks to Andrew for the tip and the second photo below:


Sound Transit Lunch Bus

I went on the Sound Transit Lunch Bus, where we took a tour of the light rail project through SoDo and the South End. It was really fun and the people from Sound Transit were really nice.

Some cool things I learned on the bus tour:

  • The “Rail” Sign on the maintenance facility has the old ‘R’ from the Rainer Beer factory, now the Tully’s headquarters, which is across the street from the facility. The ‘R’ was donated by MOHAI.
  • Beacon Hill is mostly glacial till and sand, so building the tunnel was not as bad as it could have been. Actually, since the machine can only bore 50 feet a day, and they need one tunnel for each direction, it takes almost two years to built one mile of tunnel. That’s one reason the connection to the University will take until 2016. The other is that a mile of tunnel costs about $280 million.
  • One disappointment was the lack of bike parking at the stations. Mount Baker will have about 6 bike lockers, but the other street-loading stations won’t have any.
  • There will be no parking at any of the South End stations, and they are all surrounded by dense-ish development. A lot of the development is pretty attractive! I haven’t been to the South End in years (I’ve been living in San Francisco), and I was happy to see it hasn’t all completely gentrified like the Central District seems to have. When I was in high school in the CD, it was at least half or a quarter black. Now it’s a white neighborhood.
  • I tried to get photos of the actual tunnel and the actual station at Mount Baker, but I was chased out by the contractors. I didn’t realize they worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week!

A couple more things. I was a little bit surprised to see the rail has been laid on MLK instead of Rainier Ave., because “Columbia City” is on Rainier Ave, about half a mile east of where the station has been put. Also, the Mount Baker intersection is about a mile east of that neighborhood’s traditional definition. So that was little bit of a surpise. The bus they took us on had “special” written on the top. I broke my foot in a soccer accident (don’t ask) so I was limping pretty heavily when I got off the bus, and after me a grandma in a walker got off the bus. A teen-aged boy across the street saw us and said to his friend, “Oh, the special bus.” I broke up laughing.


Density Revisited

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Richard Morrill has an article in Crosscut on density:

Studies of the costs of infrastructure and public services show only slight variation with density, with moderately higher costs at very low densities (under 1,500 people per square mile) and at very high densities (over 100,000 per square mile). Lower utilization drives up costs at the low density end, while high costs of construction and maintenance affect highly dense areas. The most effective densities are in the middle range, 5,000 to 15,000 people per square mile, which happens to be where probably more than 90 percent of urban dwellers live.

Compare this with our previous post on density, in which an urban planning firm argued that 50 residents/acre is optimal, at least with respect to per capita energy use. 50 residents/acre translates to about 32,000/sq. mile, which is double the high-end of Morrill’s numbers. Per capita energy use is not the same as “costs of infrastructure and public services,” so it’s not surprising that the numbers should be different.

The thrust of the article is about housing prices, which Morrill says may be inflated due to urban growth restrictions. His proposed alternatives are unclear, though. He wants to get rid of urban growth boundaries in favor of higher density subdivisions, but doesn’t provide any links to the studies, so I can’t really comment one way or another.