More on the Mortgage Analogy

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Stefan Sharkansky derides the mortgage analogy:

The analogy to a home mortgage is absurd. Owning a home is a voluntary proposition and you can sell the home when you choose to. With the Sound Transit boondoggle, many of the people who vote for it won’t be paying for it and vice versa. And if it doesn’t suit our needs? Then it’s a moneypit, from which there’s no escape.

Mr. Sharkansky seems to take the analogy too far. Of course financing a light rail system is not at all like owning a home. The point of the analogy is simply to put the numbers in perspective. Most all major purchases in life –from trains to cars to houses to big-screen TVs — require some form of credit. But rarely do we include the finance charges when we talk about the overall costs.

Sound Politics being a conservative blog, the conservative case for transit is worth repeating in this context.


Cocktails and Commuting

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Bus Chick is in awe by New York transit riders, who get to buy a cocktail before starting their evening commute. The MTA (New York’s transit authority) threatened to ban the practice, citing concerns about commuters drinking and then getting in their cars when they got to their station.

This is one of the great pleasures of the Long Island (and Metro North) Rail Road. There’s a transit employee working the bar right on the platform where, during the evening rush hour, you can order a drink and step into your train. It’s brilliant. Especially if you’re about to board a 2-hour train to the Hamptons on a Friday night.

I fondly remember brown-bagging a six pack on my way in to Madison Square Garden to see a show. The train conducters tolerated it, so long as you didn’t get rowdy (or put your feet on up on the seats).

If you recall, the Campbell Scott’s character in Singles was trying to build a “supertrain” in Seattle that served drinks.

“People like their cars,” the fictional mayor (Tom Skerritt) told him, dismissing the idea.

Sad, but true. Maybe if they got used to the idea of cocktails on the train, they’d change their mind. As Josh Feit noted this weekend, public transit improves ones ability to party without worrying about getting behind the wheel. That’s something we should all be able to get behind.


Financing Light Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Mike Lindblom has a piece with some pretty solid reporting on Sound Transit’s financing plan, one that puts to rest the questions we raised in April about the way in which the costs of the rail line were being reported. I highly recommend you read the whole thing.

As a bonus, either Lindblom or Sound Transit’s Ric Ilgenfritz has adopted our home mortgage analogy:

By then, Sound Transit’s spending would exceed $37 billion, counting inflation and interest charges.

Agency leaders say a more accurate number is $10.8 billion, representing the cost of construction and trains in 2006 dollars.

As with a home mortgage, it makes sense for voters to focus on the current sales price, said spokesman Ric Ilgenfritz. People who cite the long-term, inflated numbers “make the cost seem misleadingly high,” Sound Transit says.

Indeed. Citing the full costs only makes sense if you think in 2027 dollars, which most people don’t.

Update:Bradley Meacham adds, “[t]he true cost isn’t the debt to pay for the projects, which may still be less than perfect. It’s the crippling cost of — yet again — doing nothing.”


Light Rail Debt

At least the article from the times included some awesome rail photos.

Dan Savage went off on this piece, basically saying that Sound Transit is getting an easier ride on it’s long-term numbers than the monorail did. Comparing Light Rail to the monorail is something that both transit opponents and proponents do, and it’s completely inaccurate. The fact is that whether or not the monorail was a disaster, the comparison is inapt because the Monorail was a in-city rail while Sound Transit is a regional development.

People are complaining about Sound Transit’s debt because they think the fifty year time frame is too long. (Where were these people when Safeco Field was built?) If you look at the chart to the right, ST2 will cost $37.9 billion by 2057. But fifty years from now $1 will buy like 10ยข worth of goods. Look at this tool. I put $1 in from 1955 and got this back:

In 2005, $1.00 from 1955 is worth:

$7.29 using the Consumer Price Index
$6.01 using the GDP deflator
$9.90 using the value of consumer bundle
$9.92 using the unskilled wage
$16.67 using the nominal GDP per capita
$30.03 using the relative share of GDP

Inflated numbers lead to hysteria because $1 can look like $6~$30 in fifty years. A house in Wallingford cost about $3K in 1950, now it’s close to a million. That’s why its important to show the numbers in 2007 dollars, not in nominal future dollars.

Agency leaders say a more accurate number is $10.8 billion, representing the cost of construction and trains in 2006 dollars.

As with a home mortgage, it makes sense for voters to focus on the current sales price, said spokesman Ric Ilgenfritz. People who cite the long-term, inflated numbers “make the cost seem misleadingly high,” Sound Transit says.

That’s my feeling. We all wanted a monorail but, let’s face it, the monorail failed because of public hysteria and because they didn’t play nice with local politicians. Sound Transit is definitely on the right side on the later, let’s not play games with the numbers trying to recreate the former.

A snapshot of the Monorail’s debt-service compared to ST1, ST2 and a typical home loan:


Mark Your Calendars

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

If the RTID does pass sans Cross Base Highway, it will hinge on the Pierce County Council’s moves this coming week. Pierce County Exec John Ladenburg claims he has the votes to kill it, others aren’t so sure. According to the News-Tribune, here’s where things stand:

The News Tribune contacted Pierce County Council members this week to find out where they stand on the regional roads package that does not include key funding for the cross-base highway. The council would need four votes to approve the roads package and five votes to overturn a threatened veto by County Executive John Ladenburg.

Here’s what council members said:

Shawn Bunney, R-Lake Tapps: Supports proposed package.

Roger Bush, R-Graham: Wants to see details before making up his mind.

Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma: Supports proposed package.

Barbara Gelman, D-Tacoma: Leaning against proposed package.

Calvin Goings, D-Puyallup: Opposes proposed package, saying it doesn’t spend enough on Highway 167.

Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor: Wants more information before making up his mind.

Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom: Supports proposed package.

Three “yeas,” two-ish “nays,” and two undecideds. It’s a nail-biter! They’ll have to convince both Bush and Lee if they hope to override the veto. The three county councils will meet June 8 at 10am to vote on whether or not to even send the package to the voters. It’s possible that some councils will approve it and some won’t.

The Seattle Times’ James Vesely says this is more evidence of how fragile the RTID is going into November.


The First Part’s Funny at Least:

The first few lines of this article entitled “At least the return trip will be worth the price”:

Start stockpiling those $1 bills.

State officials are now talking about a $6 round-trip toll for the proposed new Highway 520 floating bridge.

What you didn’t know was how it actually breaks down:

It’ll cost 50 cents to get into downtown Bellevue.

And $5.50 to get the hell out.

At least I think it’s funny.


Transit in Clark County

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

This is a bit outside the Puget Sound, but since it involves some of our most beloved transportation institutions, it’s worth a moment to take a look at what’s going on down in Vancouver, WA, Portland’s northern suburb:

The two Clark County projects are developing independently of each other. And while each watches what the other is doing, neither is bound to follow the decisions of the other and could conceivably wind up creating entirely different transportation systems.

Here’s what they’re up to:

– The Columbia River Crossing is evaluating both light rail and bus rapid transit as the mass-transit component for its new bridge. The draft environmental impact statement, expected by the end of the year, is looking at one route along the east side of Interstate 5 and another north along Main Street, both winding up at a park-and-ride lot north of 39th Street.

A final selection – on both a mass-transit mode and the whole bridge project itself – is expected in 2008. The search then begins for money, with perhaps $6 billion for the whole shebang: the new bridge, mass transit and related interchanges, bridges, overpasses and such on both sides of the river.

– The Regional Transportation Council, meanwhile, narrowed its choices to four modes – bus rapid transit, streetcar, light rail and commuter rail – and five corridors. The final RTC plan may select one mode in one corridor and an entirely different mode for another.

Two separate agencies, overlapping proposals, not working together. Sound familiar?

Certainly it’s no fun when transit systems overlap state boundaries. We’re actually lucky here in Puget Sound that our metro area is contained within a single state and only three counties. Compare that with New York, where the metro area (and transit system) spans three states and a dozen counties!


RTID May Bring Good Transit As Well

You know, you take away the cross-base highway, and RTID starts to look pretty good:

South Spokane Street Viaduct: Increases capacity by widening viaduct structure, adding one lane between I-5 and 1st Avenue South, building transit-only lanes and an off-ramp at 4th Avenue South. Adds shoulders and installs a permanent median barrier. Improves safety, freight mobility and traffic flow on the major east/west connection between I-5 and SR 99, Port of Seattle and West Seattle.

Sounds like good start of BRT to me. Let’s face it, with the monorail cancelled, West Seattle won’t be getting rail anytime soon and BRT is an important stop-gap in the mean time. I take what is a sort of BRT to work everyday.

The other big beef against RTID is that it doesn’t fix 520, but the plan they have includes a fix with a toll. Now that the narrows has a toll, there’s a precence for tolling roads in the region. Also the addition of HOV lanes and an elevated ramp to ease the 405-520 interchange will allow for better bus transit across 520. This is dear to me because I cross 520 on my commute everyday, and on the bridge the bus is with normal traffic in the same two lanes.

And as Sam pointed out in the comments, the money for the replacement of South Park Bridge is included. I guess that makes Seattle’s annexation bid for North Highline a pretty serious one.

In all, I think RTID is as good a roads proposal as is possible for Seattle-area transit.


Water Taxi to Des Moines?

The Highline Times thinks its possible under the new Ferry District in King County. The ferry service would be model after a passenger-only ferry between San Francisco and (I think) Tiburon.

Speaking of King County, have you seen this annexation page? Basically, the county is trying to get out of the business of running services in unincorporated areas such as Skyway, North Highline and Juanita. They have encouraged cities to look at annexing the unincorporated areas near them and want all the “urban unincorporated areas” annexed or incorporated by 2012. Recently voters in Renton voted down the annexation of East Renton Highlands, and if Renton residents don’t want the affluent Highlands, what makes anyone think that they will successfully annex Skyway?

Meanwhile, Seattle and Burien are fighting it out over North Highline, also known as White Center. Seattle wants to annex it but some people in the city wonder if it offers any advantage to Seattle. Burien wants to annex part of it, but since Seattle is willing to get the whole thing, they are unable to officially take that stance. The problem for Burien is that North Highline’s 32,400 people are about as many as Burien’s 34,000 and would create a $3.5 million loss on a $15 million budget for Burien, that’s with a sales tax sharing from the state for 10 years (Cities over 400,000 people, of which Seattle is the only one, are not eligible for the sales tax sharing from the state.). For Seattle, the area would cost about $4.6 million out of a total budget of close to $2 billion.

In Burien, the vast majority of the population is against annexation, in Seattle no body really seems to care much one way or another. In North Highline, their is a mild majority tilting toward Burien. They will be the people who ultimately decide. To make the whole thing more complicated, there’s the whole issue of who will pay for the replacement of the South Park Bridge which is set to fail to pieces any day now. Neither city wants to pay for the $70 million it’ll cost to replace the bridge. It’ll be weird to see how things play out on this and the other annexations.


City 2010

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Want to see what Seattle will look like in three years, after all these condos go up? Click here for a flash animation fly-over. It’s pretty neat. It even includes the new Gates Foundation headquarters in Lower Queen Anne.


RTID nearing completion

The PI reports that RTID’s executive committee voted 6-1 to move a version of the bill forward to a planning committee. The version they are considering is without the “cross-base highway” that has a lot of greens upset. The rub is that Pierce County Executive and Sound Transit Chairman John Ladenburg has threatened to veto any version of the RTID that did not include the cross-base highway. This is important because the new Sound Transit package, ST2, will be co-billed with RTID, so we won’t get our transit package if a majority of voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties don’t approve the bill.

Meanwhile, WashPirg, which has come out against RTID/ST2 in part because of the crossbase highway may come around on the new RTID/ST2 package as Bill LaBorde, state director for WashPIRG said:

“Happy enough” is a good way to put it. Bad stuff remains on the RTID project list but, in addition, to removing Cross-Base, we feel that the new policy language in the RTID plan gives us a foothold to change the way several of the RTID projects are ultimately built out and operated in the future. I guess the best way to put it is we’re now at a point where the good of adding 50 miles of light rail has begun to outweigh the potential harm from the RTID projects.

Stay tuned for more roads and transit drama…


RTID Minus Cross Base?

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Erica Barnett reports that the RTID will go through without the Cross Base Highway, which environmentalists oppose. It’s a risky move, since Pierce County exec (and current Sound Transit chair) John Ladenburg really wants the highway and has said he’ll fight the ballot measure if the Cross Base is eliminated. It’s hard to see how having the chair of Sound Transit actively working against the organization would be a good thing for anyone. But maybe he’ll realize he’s outgunned and move on.

It would be a huge coup for environmentalists if the highway doesn’t make the final cut.


Near Collision!! (Not)

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

KPRC Houston has some footage of light rail trains nearly colliding. Well, not really. One train got switched onto the opposite tracks, meaning that it could have potentially collided with an oncoming train. The operator halted the train in time.

Just FYI, you can expect these sorts of quasi-hysterical reports once Link Light Rail opens in Seattle: “passengers scared,” “investigation ordered,” “transit official to resign,” etc., etc. Of course, tens of thousands of people actually die in car crashes every year, so keep it in perspective.

Train collisions are dramatic, and one can blame them on some mythical, distant bureaucracy, whereas car crashes are just deadly and are usually the fault of regular citizens.


Spare the Air Days

In the Bay Area they have something called “Spare the Air Days“. Basically, on days when the air quality is poor (when the “Air Quality Index” goes above 100) most rides on transit in the Bay Area are free. These days are meant to encourage transit and have a pretty strong lingering effect; when I used to take Caltrain, the train was more full all summer starting on the first Spare the Air Day and ending sometime around the end of summer (October or November in San Francisco). Actually, Caltrain seemed to be constantly increasing its ridership as gasoline became more expensive.

Anyway, I think this idea would work in Seattle, make transit free on a few weekdays in the summer, and you’ll find people will want to take transit all day long. I wonder how much it would cost Sound Transit and Metro to implement this kind of system. I’ll make sure to ask in my next meeting.


Anti-Transit Piece in the P-I

Here it is. I was going to write something about how bad the calculations are, but I came in this morning and Carless in Seattle had this fabulous take-down. Excerpt:

OK, so to keep traffic as bad as it is now, we’ll need to add 687 miles of new lanes at a cost of $361.69 per family. That’s a big tax increase being proposed by an organization with otherwise impeccable conservative credentials.

Needless to say, read the whole thing.


More Capitol Hill Station

In the post I mentioned before, Frank at Ophran Road wrote “I guess I didn’t realize that the station is going to take over the lots on both sides of Denny Way”. Not just Denny Way, but on both sides of Broadway. Yeah it’s going to be huge underground. If you look at the image above, the blue part is the platform and the red parts are entrances. Yellow is what is being destroyed for the creation of the tunnel. The red section on the left side is the old Chang’s Mongolian Grill and the red section on the top is about where the print shop and Twice Sold Tales are. The bottom right red spot is where the Godfather’s Pizza was back in the day but nothing is there at the moment. Now, if we could just get rid of that blasted Jack in the Box, we’d have something going.
How about a six-story building with a the food court on the ground floor, Karaoke Box/izakaya thing on the second floor, a pool hall on the third floor, an independent multiplex cinema on top three floors and underground parking. Anyone want to invest with me? Better ideas for what to put there?

Take It To The Bridge

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

(with apologies to James Brown)

More TransitNow changes are coming this weekend, including more service in South King County. We’re also getting the Fremont Bridge back: bus service there will also resume on Saturday.


The Environmental Impact of Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Yes, Virginia, even rail has environmental impacts, especially rail tracks that were built a hundred years ago along pristine Puget Sound shoreline:

Many environmentalists call the BNSF Railway, built on 26 miles of beachfront between Seattle and Everett, one of the worst environmental problems for Snohomish County’s shoreline.

The railroad creates what amounts to a wall between the land and the shore. It hampers beach access, disrupts salmon creeks and prevents sediment from eroding down to the beach, starving beaches of sand and gravel, they say.

Now, efforts are under way to restore pockets of shoreline along the railroad line. Some planners and environmentalists have hailed the restoration projects — including opening up creek mouths, nourishing beaches with sand, and restoring tidal marshes — as pilots for a future approach to a healthier shoreline.

Of course, as the article notes, the tracks aren’t going anywhere. in fact, Sound Transit is widening the right-of-way in some places to allow for more Sounder trains. But they’re also opening up creeks and doing lots of other environmental mitigation to try and revitalize the corridor to the extent that they can.

Having the BNSF line where it is is a net positive. Otherwise you’d have to run it along the I-5 corridor, which would be ridiculously expensive, if it was even possible. BNSF’s presence also takes a lot of trucks off the roads.

Sounder, on the other hand, has its limits. It’s a relatively cheap way to build transit — the tracks are already there, you just have to operate the trains. But it’s limited to a few runs a day since it shares right-of-way with Amtrak and BNSF. Once Light Rail goes all the way from Everett to Tacoma, it will be interesting to see how successful Sounder is. Certainly for folks in Edmonds, Kent, and Auburn, Sounder will continue to be important, but Link Light Rail, running every 10 minutes or so, will be increasingly appealing even for medium distance (i.e. Everett-Seattle) travel.