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.”

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On Naming Stations

I like how Sound Transit has decided to give the stations names that describe the neighborhood instead of names of streets as has been done in some places. I guess you can only confuse one California or Western station with another if you, you know, actually have more than one line (we don’t have any yet). But if we ever do get that first line we might get a second…

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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!

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More Wi-Fi for Buses!

I am really late on this, but Metro has rolled out Wi-Fi to more buses in the Seattle Area. The 255, 644, 197 and selected trips on the 952 have Wi-Fi. Sound Transit has Wi-Fi on the selected 545 and the Everett-Seattle Sounder Commuter rail. The 545 is my route so I am really happy about the service.

Metro has teamed up with Sprint Cellular and Junxion, Inc., a Seattle-based mobile connection provider, to offer Wi-Fi service on 48 buses serving the four transit routes. (Wi-Fi service on the Route 952 will be limited to the last trip in the morning and afternoon.) The Junxion boxes have been outfitted with a cellular air card allowing passengers to use their laptop computers or Wi-Fi-enabled devices to access the Internet.

The Wi-Fi is basically like mobile phone wi-fi, so it switches towers as you travel. This works fine for surfing the web or checking email, because these protocols are stateless, meaning the data is transmitted and the connection is terminated. It doesn’t work as well for something that requires a persistant connection, such as remote desktop or ssh, but you’re on the bus what can you expect! And only geeks like me use those things anyway.

Good work Metro and Sound Transit, Wi-Fi is great and I wish you would roll it out to every bus.

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P-I advocates for Transit

Yesterday the P-I told us it was important to for the State to find a Transportation Department head from out-of-state.

Washington needs a transportation department that puts mass transit, the environment and the public interest ahead of building more car capacity…

With you on that one, PI! They also stressed the important of bringing in a Gregoire crony, a la George Bush, to run the department.

Transportation still needs the benefit of an outsider, who will continue to shake things up. Particularly with a strong governor, it would be too easy for an insider to tell her all is fine.

Today the PI tells us how much they like the idea of a mosquito fleet of passenger-only ferries, and how better to sell the fleet to tax-payers.

King County Council’s plan to take over the Vashon foot-passenger ferries and downtown water taxi … sorry, can’t resist … floats our boat…
As far as funding goes, we’re not against some funds coming from property taxes — after all, everyone in the region, even those who don’t use ferries and water taxis, will benefit from living in a place with good public transportation. We do believe, however, that relying solely on property taxes for funding the ferries and future water taxis is folly.

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More Park & Ride Parking at Northgate Starting Tomorrow

Starting Tomorrow, May 2nd, Metro will open it’s portion of the parking at Northgate’s new garage. According to metro’s website:

Metro’s spaces are located on floors 1 and 2. They are marked “Reserved for Park-and-Ride Customers Monday through Friday.” … With the new spaces in the garage, Metro will now have more than 900 parking stalls available for transit customers using the Northgate Transit Center.

That’ll be enough for now, but maybe more will be needed when the Light Rail gets finished.

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First Hill Streetcar

Today is Streetcar day here at STB. I read this article from Friday about the Streetcar up to Aloha, then browsed over to CHS where he suggested I write about it. Unfortunately, my grandmother died over the weekend and her funeral was yesterday, but I guess better late than never.

For background, the Link Rail was originally going to include a stop in First Hill, but due to technical reasons, this had to be dropped, and a streetcar from the ID to Capitol Hill through First Hill was proposed. The route (map to the left) will take advantage of the proposed Jackson street extension (map to the right) to the existing Benson Line to cross I-5, where it would go up 12th Street, the up Boren and connect to Broadway. The First/Capitol Hill Streetcar had its plan extended to Aloha street from where it was going to end at East John Street. According to the analysis by Sound Transit, this adds an extra 500 round-trips a day to the 3000 they were already expecting for the East John terminus.

They were looking at about $117.3 – $134.9 million for the East John Street terminus, and according to the email I got back from Sound Transit, extending it to East John adds about $12 million to the final price tag, and extends construction another month. Six blocks a month seems like a bad deal to me, as Portland was able to build one block every three days when they built Max, but everything seems to be slower in Seattle.

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George Benson line is a streetcar but…


…not a modern one. Sure it’s cute, and it goes under the Viaduct and they extended it to go to the International District (all the way to King Street Station), but it’s not modern, and doesn’t attract the ridership that would be useful because:

a) It doesn’t go far enough. It basically serves the waterfront and that’s it. It would have to go to at least the Seattle Center to actually be useful.

b) It is rickety and slow. It’s more of a tourist attraction than a useful transit scheme.

I think the streetcar’s usefulness is exhibited by how empty it is everytime I ride on it. For contrast, the Elliot Bay Water Taxi has been packed each time I have been on it.
c) It doesn’t serve a corridor that is populated by businesses or inhabited by people. If it actually went through Belltown, it’d be a different story, but as it is now, it’s only useful for going to the waterfront.

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Speaking of the Viaduct…


I know, I am as tired of this topic as you are, but something still needs to be done. Steinbrueck, who has staked his political career on removing the viaduct without creating a new one, has drawn up a plan for a Surface/Transit option. I like the idea of surface/transit, especially since the consensus is that fewer cars drive on SR-99 immediately north and south of the viaduct, which means that people basically use it because it is there, and might not otherwise. The problem I have is with the type of transit they are talking about: buses.

Buses suck compared to trains (I do ride the 545 everyday, so I appreciate the buses). They are noisy, smelly (if they use cardon-based fuels), have bumpy rides, and are at the mercy of traffic. Underground or Elevated trains are immune to traffic, are quiet, are sleak, and have much lower operating costs once built. Even streetcars are better than buses: smoother rides, and some ability to control traffic with special signals. The South Lake Union (can someone come up with a better name for this neighborhood already?) street car will cost only $50.5 million to build, and another $100 million to get it up to the U-District. I think the city should consider this approach, because eventually extending the car down to West Seattle or up to Queen Anne and possibly to Fremont will be relatively easy, or even just linking it with the Lake Union Car might be a real possibility.

Something to think about.

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Bay Area Commute After Collaspe: Relatively Painless


Sunday Night I mentioned the collaspe of one of the feeder-bridges onto the Bay Bridge between the East Bay and the City of San Francisco. Well it seems the commute Monday hasn’t been as bad as people had expected, though the traffic problems could continue for months. Dan Savage thinks this is enough evidence to support tearing down the viaduct, because people, er adjust or something. I actually made a case for this sort of viaduct planning vis-a-vis the Loma Prieta Quake in a letter to the PI four months ago (first one of the page).

I actually see it as a reason to support more off-grade trains. BARTs value has been clearly shown as an alternative to driving through horrible traffic. Apparently ferry service was also increased four-fold, showing just another way that public transport system can be used to ease traffic.

Here’s video of the blast that caused the crash:

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Foot Ferries?

The PI today ran a story about the possible rebirth of passenger-only ferries in the Sound and even Lake Washington. Apparently the success of the Elliot Bay Water Taxi, the coming traffic hell, and the development of Puget Sounds westside has people thinking back to the days of the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet. Also, the state would like to get out of the business of running passenger-ferries, and King County Metro or Sound Transit would take up running the ferries.

Some words of caution from me: (1) The Water Taxi works because it runs in the summer when it is most fun to take a ferry, (2) all transit projects lose money and passenger ferries would be no exception, (3) if 520 is so dangerous during a windstorm, imagine a passenger-ferry on Lake Washington.

All in all it’s a fine plan, but I think the focus should remain on off-grade trains.

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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.

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Sound Transit expanding expansion plans

It looks like sound transit will expand its plans for light rail further than expected. The expanded light rail plan will start south of the Tacoma Dome, near where the existing Tacoma link line is now, and stretch all the way out to Mill Creek in Snohomish County. The previous plan was only to Fife and Lynnwood, and they were thinking more about Everett than Ash Way. They’d also include a line out to Bellevue and Overlake, which would likely improve my commute a bit.

They are also looking into a rail corridor on the current Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway on the Eastside. BNSF wants to sell the strip, and King County wants obtain it by having the Port of Seattle buy it, and then trading them Boeing Field. The county would wants to turn the land into a bike trail now, and later possibly investigate rail there. Boeing field would probably turn into more of a passenger airport (which Southwest has wanted for sometime, Beacon Hill residents be damned) since now it is used mostly for cargo, charter flights and private jets. Apparently if that deal falls through, Sound Transit wants to look into buying that land and making it a rail corridor from Renton to Woodinville. Hopefully they’d be smart enough to have connect with the current “Central Line” either somewhere in the city, maybe Columbia City, or at least in Tukwila.

Critics, having lived through the monorail disaster, are concerned that Sound Transit is not being realistic about the cost. I agree that Sound Transit hasn’t actually finished much of anything yet, but they have had success keeping their schedules so far, and those lines look ready to go at or around the dates they have mentioned. My big issue is the timeframe they are talking about. Why would the expansion to Ash Way in Snohomish take to 2027? That is twenty years from now! BART in the Bay Area was built in way less time than that, included a trans-bay tube, those distances are way farther, and technolody is much better now than then.

Well whatever, better late than never. More later. Vote yes on that initiative!

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Touring the Rainier Valley via Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


Saturday the 28th of April was a sunny Spring day, so I decided to take a bike ride through the Rainier Valley along the Light Rail route. I thought about riding the lunch bus, but decided it was better to go “unembedded.” At least I’d get some exercise.

(You can see all my photos on Flickr, or browse the Orphan Road photo map )

When friends come to visit me in Seattle, we do the usual tourist things, like the Market and the Needle (the Sculpture Park and the Library are the latest additions to the tour). But they rarely get a glimpse of South Seattle. Driving between downtown and the airport, your view of Seattle’s most diverse neighborhood is obscured by Beacon Hill. It’s incredibly easy for visitors to miss the thriving Muslim, Vietnamese, and Aftrican immigrant communitites that call Seattle home.

But that will change in 2009, as light rail snakes its way through the Rainier Valley between Sea-Tac Airport and Downtown. How will it change our visitors’ minds to ride past the Vietnamese supermarkets and community centers that dot Martin Luther King Jr Way? How will it change Seattle’s image of itself? These are the questions that consumed me as I rode my bike down the (mostly) paved MLK Way, dodging construction sites and marveling at all the new housing developments.

Of the 14 miles of track that will open for business in late 2009, the 6-mile stretch through the Rainier Valley is by far the most interesting — and most controversial. The train will slow from 55mph to 35mph as it winds its way through here. The choice of route is a double-edged sword. Had Sound Transit simply wanted a straight shot to the Airport, it could have simply followed the I-5 corridor all the way, which would have easily shaved $1B or more off the price tag and probably 10-15 minutes off the travel time between Downtown and Sea-Tac. It would also have prevented a lot of the tension between community groups who were less than excited about seeing their neighborhoods uprooted. On the other hand, it would have drastically cut the potential ridership and may have even made the transit agency ineligible for Federal grant funds, which give preference to projects that redevelop underserved communities.

McClellan Station Goes Up IMG_0407

The Rainier Valley segment begins at McClellan St. in the Mount Baker neighborhood, where the tracks emerge from the Beacon Hill tunnel. You can see the station going up across from the Franklin High School football field. From there it hops right onto MLK Way. The sheer volume of freshly poured concrete is overwhelming, its presence made more intense by its virgin white sheen and the reflection the sun. It will take several rainy Seattle winters and years of wearing in before it feels like part of the landscape.

For now, the new road spreads out in all directions like a concrete version of the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz, which is fitting for a place often referred to as the “Emerald City.” The sidewalks have also been re-done, although a few gaps remain.

Out with the Old... New Construction

New housing construction abounds, juxtaposed with some older buildings. The new neighborhoods are still very much ethnically mixed. The size and scope of these new developments serves as a reminder that, for all their attendant costs, rail lines generate the kind of transit-friendly urban redevelopment that bus routes can never match. Rail offers a sense of permanence that’s understandably comforting to someone about to sign off on a 30-year mortgage.

If you build it, they will come. And they may even get here before you finish building.

Tread Carefully Businesses Open

Of course, all this building comes with its share of consequences. It’s been a hellish couple of years for businesses along this corridor, despite ST’s efforts to mitigate the effects of construction with “open for business” signs and, in some cases, cash payments. Some homeowners have seen their basements flood as construction workers churn the surrounding landscape. (If you want to see some truly disruptive construction, look into the building of New York’s IRT in 1904.)

Vietnamese Businesses Grandma and Grandchild Navigate MLK Way

But the concrete marches on. And along the way we still see plenty of signs of life, from temples to taco buses. From what I’ve last read, ST is not going to put up crossing gates at the intersections along the route. This seems a bit risky, but one must assume they’ve put a lot of thought into pedestrian safety. There will be crossing gates in SODO, because, ST claims, people are used to having them there (due to the freight tracks that run through the area). Portland’s light rail and streetcar network don’t use crossing gates, so it must be standard.

Buddhist Temple Taco Bus!

The rails have only gone in south of Orcas St. Between McClellan and Orcas its still just a wide patch of dirt between the highway. Speaking of dirt, I was initially surprised — and a bit disappointed — as I wove from street to sidewalk, that there are no bike lanes on MLK, nor will there be once construction is completed. This seems like a glaring omission for a multimodal transportation system. But as I approached Henderson St., I caught a glimpse of the new Chief Sealth Trail, which follows a Seattle City Light power corridor and roughly parallels MLK way. It will be a boon to bike riders when it opens later this year:

P-Patch The New Chief Sealth Trail

South of Henderson St. (and the Community P-Patch above), MLK way becomes a mostly industrial area, as it heads for an intersection with I-5. South of I-5, the tracks run on their own dedicated right-of-way almost all the way to the Airport.

Bridge Over Boeing Road Bridge over I-5 at Boeing Road

Once I hit the Boeing Access road, I decided it was uninteresting — and probably unsafe — to try and follow the route any further. So I turned around, headed up South Ryan Way, and made my way north via Seward Park and Lake Washington Boulevard. It still amazes me how quickly the neighborhood changes on that side of the ridge.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I believe that the light rail will be, in the long run, a positive development for this part of town. Sure, there will be some amount of gentrification, but that was going to happen anyway. There’s a finite amount of land inside the city limits, and it’s all going to get gobbled up eventually. But hopefully, as tourists and locals are whisked between the Convention Center and the Airport, they’ll gain a new appreciation for this part of the city, which is all too easy to forget about as you drive south on Rainier Avenue, Lake Washington Boulevard, or Interstate 5.

When I lived in Philadelphia, taking the train into the city meant winding through the industrial wasteland of North Philly, full of burned-out and abandoned factories and warehouses. It was a perspective you couldn’t get while driving in on I-95, but it helped to put the history of the city in context. To be sure, the Rainier Valley is nothing like North Philly, but opening up a new corridor will give those of us who don’t frequent the area a new perspective on our city its people. And that will be a good thing.

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MacDonald Resigns

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald is resigning, leaving some unifinished business, notably the new 520 bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct.

I found this quote ver revealing:

Duke Schaub, governmental affairs director for the Associated General Contractors, said MacDonald’s successor also will need to deal with a host of issues in state ferries, which are wrestling with financial problems.

“If there’s one area that I feel is toughest for the DOT administrator to deal with, it’s the ferry system,” he said.

Now, I don’t know who Duke Schaub is and maybe he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but assuming he’s right, it suggests a fundamental myopia at WSDOT. The ferry system is essentially a very large mass transit system, and the fact that the road-centric WSDOT sees it almost as an annoyance is troubling. Puget Sound’s copious waterways could be an asset to our transportation planners, not simply a liability.

To be sure, WSDOT does work on a host of valuable rail projects, as we’ve noted before. But those are dwarfed by the roads.

It would be nice if the next WSDOT director took a holistic approach to transportation planning — integrating roads, ferries, and rail — with a focus on moving people and freight, not cars and trucks.

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Capitol Hill Streetcar

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One of the hidden nuggets in the ST2 proposal is a Capitol HIll/First Hill streetcar. We knew something like this was coming to alleviate the problems caused when Sound Transit decided to skip First Hill due to various engineering issues.

But it comes as a surprise to me just how ambitious the proposed streetcar will end up being. I assumed they would head straight up Seneca or Spring from downtown, but instead it looks like it will head north on 12th Ave from the the International District. Here’s the Times article:

The board also voted to extend the proposed Seattle streetcar route an additional six blocks to Aloha Street. The line, which would run from the International District to First Hill and Capitol Hill, would have ended near Broadway and John Street under an earlier proposal.

You can see a PDF of the proposed route here. It’s all part of the city’s proposed streetcar network.

Judging by what Westlake Avenue looks like during Streetcar construction, I pity the residents and businesses on Broadway in Capitol Hill. Westlake is a pretty quiet street (you can land a small plane on it during rush hour) and it looks like a war zone right now.

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Finance Costs

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

As if reading our mind, the Times’ Mike Lindblom starts using finance charges in an article about ST2:

The ballot measure, to become final in May, calls for $23 billion in transit extensions and $14 billion in highway projects through 2028 and additional bond payments for years afterward. Omitting finance costs and inflation, the transit spending totals $10 billion, the road plan $9 billion.

Lindblom has been alternately using the higher number and not using it.

Elsewhere at the Times, they never use finance charges. For example, when referring to median housing price in King County, Times reporters don’t include financing charges. They list the median housing price as $434,000, though a home that sells for that much could easily cost the buyer almost $900,000 with a traditional 30-year mortgage.

It’s a fine line, and I imagine journalists take it from both sides no matter what they do. Of course you want to give people all the information they need to make a decision, but numbers can easily be manipulated to make something sound better (or worse) than it actually is.

To reiterate, Sound Transit has a very good bond rating and therefor is able to borrow money at a very competitive rate. This contrasts with the defunct Seattle Monorail Project, which, for various reasons, would have spent $11B on a $2B project.

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Sound Transit Doubles Down

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

They’re going the full monty:

Sound Transit will ask voters in November to pay for more than 49 miles of new light rail service, extending it even farther than initially thought, as well as additions to Sounder commuter rail and increased express bus service.

Agency board members Thursday approved details of the Sound Transit II plan, now estimated to cost $23 billion by the time it’s completed in 2027, given inflation.

That’s $6 billion more in construction-period costs than the agency estimated previously for the expansion; the total includes inflation over 30 years. But the agency said the higher cost, if approved by voters, wouldn’t cost individual households any more than the $125 per year originally estimated — a point that makes critics skeptical.

As well it should. But ST knows that they botched the first round of cost estimates big time. They’re not going to make the same mistake twice, are they? Are they?

Back to the plan itself, they’re no longer promising they’ll make it to downtown Redmond, saying the Eastside link will terminate at the Overlake Transit Center. BUT, we’re also looking at light rail as far north as Ash Way (nearly Everett) and as far south as… the Tacoma dome. This is way more ambitious than we thought.

Finally, the new plan also includes a chestnut that should make monorail supporters happy: they’re going to start planning for high-capacity transit to — that’s right — Ballard and West Seattle.

There’s a lot to chew on here, and chew on it we will over the coming months. In the meantime, just read the press release.

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