Editorial: “Political” Lines

A pet peeve of mine, and mine only, is the habit of attacking one alignment or another as “political.”  It’s a tool of both Sound Transit critics (North Sounder, Central Link) and those who generally agree with ST (the Wallace alignment). It also turns up in discussions of certain Metro routes.

I think the problem with this accusation is that it presupposes that there is a platonic ideal of an objectively optimal route for any given project. In fact, any routing decision is a complex tradeoff between a number of different objectives and interest groups.  Most people agree that ridership, VMT reduction, lowest cost of service, and improving the mobility of low-income people are important objectives for a transit system. Many people here would add “encouraging dense development.” On some level many people think it’s important that those who pay for the service should benefit from it.  If you’re a rail advocate, speed, reliability, and quality of service are probably important ends in themselves.

Cursory examination of these objectives shows they are to some extent in conflict. There’s a word for trading off competing interests; it’s called “politics.” There is no other way to resolve these conflicts in a democratic society than to have our representatives haggle this out.

I don’t mean to suggest that this always results in sensible outcomes. To make up an example, if there had been a politician from Bothell that was obsessed with rail, and had therefore spent a decade of his time on the ST Board advocating for his constituents, we very well might have seen an earlier emphasis on service to Bothell.  In real life, I believe the recent overwhelming emphasis of certain Bellevue activists on reducing impacts on their neighborhoods to be misplaced, and in any case not an important regional consideration.*

Tarring our opponents’ ideas as “political” doesn’t move the discussion forward because it doesn’t contain any information.  Let’s instead look at what each proposal is trying to achieve and explain why those objectives are invalid or less important than our preferred ones.

*Not important, because Link is destined to run through someone’s neighborhood, unless you (stupidly) push it away from where the people are.  It’s just a question of which one!

Tunnel Equity

The Beacon Hill tunnel (Photo by litlnemo’s husband Jason)

[UPDATE (Adam here): I did a few calculations to put the debate about whether a tunnel through Beacon Hill was necessary to rest. Beacon Hill station is very roughly ~280 ft above sea level, and SODO is ~20 ft. Using ST’s design specs of 4% this means that an elevated structure of ~6,500 ft would be needed to climb from SODO up over the hill. Another one of equal length would be needed on the other side as well. Pretty unrealistic isn’t it?]

Although I’d obviously like to see Bellevue pay for a Link tunnel under Downtown Bellevue, as someone who isn’t going to pay the very large costs I’m leery of taking a really strong position on it.  A common argument, however, is that Seattle is getting a very long tunnel from its downtown to Roosevelt on Sound Transit’s dime, so why not Bellevue?  It’s a natural question to ask, but betrays a pretty shallow understanding of the underlying concerns.  More after the jump.

Continue reading “Tunnel Equity”

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels

photo by Atomic Taco

Now that Seattle is about to have a new mayor, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the outgoing one. Not only is the City of Seattle losing one of its more successful mayors, but the region is losing a giant of the light rail movement just as it begins to pay dividends.

In his capacity as Mayor Greg Nickels has three significant arguments for greatness: first, Bridging the Gap, which is significantly improving transportation in the City; second, the beginnings of the Seattle Streetcar Network; and third, a general willingness to say no to anti-density NIMBYs and bring about the dense, walkable neighborhoods the city so desperately needs. More generally, in all these efforts he displayed an ability to propose, oversee, and complete projects not often seen in Seattle.

On the other hand, there are two items on the Mayoral Agenda in which Nickels was on the wrong side or insufficiently aggressive. First, the Waterfront Streetcar was killed as part of the Olympic Sculpture Park deal for no good reason; and second, the deep-bore tunnel, which threatens to consume the City’s transportation budget flexibility for years.

Although “Mayor of Seattle” will likely be the first line in his obituary someday, it’s actually in a regional capacity that Nickels made the biggest mark on transportation. Nickels started agitating for light rail on the King County Council in 1988. He was an original member of the Sound Transit Board of Directors, and eventually became its chairman in 2008-2009. As we’ve detailed before, during that time he was the crucial figure in getting Sound Transit 2 on the ballot in 2008. Had that not happened, the region’s transportation future would be considerably darker.

More personally, Nickels the man has always struck me as one of us, a genuine railfan. I’ve now had the experience of seeing many politicians at photo-ops, but Nickels riding Link always seemed different: a combination of the completion of a life’s work, and the simple joy of the City he loves getting the system it deserves.

Here at STB, we were thrilled by the platform with which Mike McGinn won the general election. We wish him well, not only in the generic sense wished for all new leaders, but specifically that his agenda is substantially enacted. However, Mr. McGinn and all Seattlites should acknowledge our debt for over 20 years of public service and a record of epochal achievements. Thank you Mayor Nickels.

Center Platforms

Photo by Oran

One of the minor disappointments as Central Link took shape was the lack of center platforms.  Of 13 stations, only Stadium, Beacon Hill, Rainier Beach, and Seatac have these center platforms.  The four DSTT stations share right-of-way with buses and so in effect must have outer platforms.

Center platforms are highly desirable at termini and at train-to-train transfer points, for obvious reasons.  As the only currently planned transfer point, I’m hopeful that Chinatown/ID Station will get a center platform between now and 2020 to facilitate transfers from South to East and vice versa.

More generally, though, it seems prudent to construct these wherever possible because you never know where a terminus or transfer might occur someday.  Rainier Beach is equipped to be a turnaround for trains because it has a switchover, so it’s fortunate it has a center platform.  To speculate a little more wildly, in the distant future Link may more or less follow the RapidRide F Line from Burien to Southcenter.  Tukwila Station would be an obvious place to switch between the lines.  Unfortunately, for no apparent reason this was built as an outer platform station.

The other bonus of center platforms is that it makes it easy to double back if you overshoot your stop.  Fortunately, Capitol Hill appears to be center-platform.  Here’s hoping Sound Transit finds more opportunities to use this approach.

Why Transit

photo by Mike Bjork

I get asked occasionally why I blog, and why I blog about transit.  I’m not going to bore you with self-analysis on whatever psychic rewards I get out of this, so instead, here’s a brief Boxing Day summary of why I think transit, and rail transit in particular, is important:

  1. Cost effectiveness: A 4-car light rail line running (800 passengers) at 7.5 minute frequencies can carry 6400 people in each direction.  At 2.5 minutes, it’s 19,200.   According to FHWA, highway lane of traffic at capacity can carry 2,200 people in single occupancy vehicles under ideal conditions.  Given that regional growth will continue, what’s a more plausible way to expand capacity in, say, the I-5 corridor?  North Link, or 16 new lanes on I-5?
  2. Positive Societal Effects: There are a bunch of societal drawbacks to driving, some well-understood and others not: air pollution, water pollution, trade deficits from oil imports, sedentary lifestyles, traffic deaths, hideous parking-lot-oriented architecture, sprawl, personal transportation costs, and congestion.  Widely available transit is a partial antidote to all of these.
  3. Quality of Life: We usually talk about the other things because they’re more quantifiable, but ultimately it comes down to quality of life.  In major cities around the world, rail is simply the best way to get around.  As Seattle enters that class of metropolis, residents shouldn’t tolerate the lack of such an important amenity any more than they would tolerate the absence of parks and libraries.

What Worries Me

I-90 Crossing (Sound Transit)

[UPDATE: See excerpt of Board selection rules at the bottom.]

In our Greg Nickels endorsement, we alluded to the possibility of some sort of Sound Transit crisis in the future, the idea being that we would have wanted Nickels in a position of power should that happen.  Now, with Nickels out and either McGinn or Mallahan receiving an automatic virtually assured seat on the Sound Transit board when they take office, it’s important to recognize why establishment support for ST is necessary.

Although it’s the opinion of this blog that Sound Transit is a very well-run public agency, there are three basic things that could cause serious problems for the buildout:

  1. The Economy. Sound Transit got a AAA credit rating by being conservative about allocating its revenue streams.  That said, a weak recovery in sales tax revenue would put further pressure on the agency’s budget, and Japan-style stagnation could make it very hard to achieve all the Sound Transit 2 objectives.
  2. Tunneling. Sound Transit’s sole tunneling experience — through Beacon Hill — was not a happy one.  They were on schedule, barely, despite a huge amount of padding in the plan.  It may have been a problem with that particular contractor, but it bears watching as they begin a much larger tunneling project to Roosevelt, and possibly under Bellevue.
  3. Political Risk. We’ve covered this a lot before, but there are still powerful interests not at all pleased with having to give up the express lanes on I-90, or that seek to extract transit funding for use on state road projects.  Moreover, there are still plenty of people who self-identify as transit advocates who think that reorganizing transit agencies is a good idea.  This kind of maneuver, which has support in the legislature, would wreak havoc on ongoing projects.

There’s no reason to be overly alarmed about any of these potential problems, because they haven’t yet materialized.  And, of course, all large infrastructure projects have risk.  Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that we can doze off until 2016 without making sure that the right leadership and the right politicians are in place.

Because there’s some confusion on this in the comments, the relevant Sound Transit Board selection policies are below the jump. Continue reading “What Worries Me”

Why Governance Reform is a bad idea

County Exec candidate Susan Hutchinson (and to a lesser extent Ross Hunter) have made some approving comments about governance reform.  Governance reform refers to a whole class of proposals that involves the merger of various transportation agencies to introduce operating efficiencies.  The most well-known of these is the Rice/Stanton proposal, which would have created a transportation super-agency responsible for roads and transit in a four county area  (King, Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap).  The 15-member board would be a mixture of directly elected members and the Governor’s appointees.  This proposal, and others like it, is a terrible idea.

For clarity, I’ll focus on the Rice/Stanton proposal, but many of these arguments apply to other reorganization ideas:

Continue reading “Why Governance Reform is a bad idea”

Eastside Commuter Roundtable (Part 2 of 2)

Here’s the remainder of our conversation from last week (Part 1). I should correct one thing. In Part I, I remarked that the ST2 plan did not include funding for an I-405 light rail study, pretty much ruling it out for ST3. Since then, ST has posted an updated plan that shows an I-405 study included.

JJ: I don’t have massive opinions one way or the other, but the BSNF Eastside corridor doesn’t really seem to connect the areas that need to be connected. Perhaps part of that right-of-way can be used for a future ST plan. If some company or manicupality can find a way to use the ST2 matching funds and it works, that’d be great. But I don’t think anyone can do it, and that money will go to 405 bus service.

ST3 would be smart to address N-S travel on the Eastside, and not head out to Issaquah.

AS: Clearwire has 1000 in its campus (as of January they had 200 OPEN positions http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/venture/layoff.asp?id=821 ) Bungie has 107 (according to their website) and Monolith is now Warner Brother’s Seattle area hub (my brother-in-law is a VP there) and has about 400 employees.

According to the workspaces site MS has 221 employees in Redmond Town Center.

I don’t want to argue about this anymore, but both Houghton and downtown kirkland are a short walk away from where BNSF goes through Kirkland.

JJ: I should note that Renton <=> Bellevue is much worse than Bellevue <=> Kirkland, in my experience.

BS: Monolith hasn’t really grown that I know of. Here’s a source that they had 100 at the time I moved to Sony, and I haven’t heard that they’ve picked up any more:
(link to Seattle Times article)

Indeed, Bungie has more than 40. I guess they hired more.

Regardless, it’s pointless. Five hundred people who live along the line in Seattle or downtown Bellevue will take rail and then transfer at Overlake Hospital to get to work. Five thousand (actually, Redmond extension was more like seven thousand) will board at two downtown Redmond stops to come to MS and DT Bellevue. There are a tiny number of people who would be able to access the Kirkland line, except at the S. Kirkland park and ride, which is already full.

BS: Indeed, and that’s where the BNSF line is being severed anyway. Most of those people aren’t coming from Renton anyway, they’re coming from Auburn, Kent, Federal Way, Tacoma, etc.

AS: Absolutely, I-405 is a disaster right there. I’m going to throw up another flame-inspiring thought: none of these extensions – BNSF or Redmond – will work without more park-and-ride spots.

JJ: BNSF, absolutely, since it doesn’t hit core areas.

In terms of Link, Downtown Redmond near the Redmond TC is not the type of area where you build a massive park and ride structure like brad is fawning for. Those streets aren’t designed to handle a lot of traffic — many one-ways, all are small. Extend the line to the Whole Foods area, and now we’re talking. Even some of the plans from ST2 that went closer to Marymoor would be more compatible with parking (currently light industrial areas).

The thing about Downtown Redmond, Kirkland, and Bellevue is that these are undoubtedly auto-dependent suburb downtowns (less so with Bellevue), but they are not typical suburb sprawl that would be totally compatible with large park & rides that belong more toward the fringes of the system.

BS: I’d recommend terminating at Bear Creek, yes, near Whole Foods. One DT Redmond stop, then a terminator with a park and ride to be a catch-all for Union Hill Road and East Lake Sammamish. My original point about DT Redmond is that it will grow in response to a light rail station -it’s upzoned, something DT Kirkland likely won’t be.

Both DT Kirkland and DT Redmond are similar, yes. But BNSF doesn’t go to DT Kirkland – it goes to a suburb of a suburb, and you have to transfer to get there.

MD: I think Ben makes a good point about commuters from Kent, Auburn, Puyallup, etc. Luckily, we have a commuter rail line to serve them that intersects with Eastside rail at Tukwila.

It’s certainly true that it’ll be expensive to replace the crossings on the southern half of the line. The question is, though, expensive compared to what? Building light rail on that corridor, using whatever optimal right-of-way you come up with, is going to be considerably more expensive.

I don’t see buses as a good long term solution. First, the HOV lanes are probably going to fill up soon. Secondly, 405 is unique in not really having a parallel arterial when there’s an accident and the highway goes to pot. Third, buses have the same old capacity, reliability, and quality-of-ride issues you have everywhere else. It’s not a good technology for regional backbones, as we’ve argued before.

BS: Martin, the city of Renton has made it crystal clear that they will not be reactivating the track through their downtown. Yes, there’s all this need. There isn’t all this money. That’s why it waits for ST3 to start saving money, and ST4 for construction.

Remember, it’s not the buses or the trains, it’s the right of way. I know you guys want there to be some kind of easy eastside solution, but there isn’t. You get through Renton, and then you have to deal with all the crossings kids use near the water, and the Wilburton Tunnel replacement, and the fact that people don’t want to ride a train across the trestle (yes, that’s an issue), and then you’re east of downtown bellevue, so your transfers don’t look good.

The problem with this line is less that it’s impossible, and more that its tiny ridership would deal a devastating blow to the image of transit. That is why these generally anti-transit people support it!

BB: Ben,

Just FYI, the Boeing Turn still goes through Downtown Renton. BNSF rebuilt all of the bridges on the route and also laid new 132lb rail between the BNSF mainline and to Renton Boeing.

The City of Renton’s has changed it’s position recently after public outcry for not being a part of the transportation solution of having some sort of rail system, especially since it runs right through Downtown Renton.

At this point, I would have to say while DMU’s would be excellent, light-rail should be the preferred options. If you want to kick it up a notch, Siemens has a Diesel LRV… Yes, Diesel Light-Rail.

The total build out (with the way I did it with a few BNSF engineers) came out to just alittle over $650 million dollars for a complete and nearly full double track corridor, some grade crossing seperations, new quad gates with wayside horn so trains don’t blow through the crossings and 132lb rail. If it was to be a light-rail corridor, 115lb rail could be used and that money saved from the rail could provide a connection closer into Downtown Bellevue. It doesn’t need to physically go INTO Bellevue but following along 112th Avenue SE would be the best solution. The only way this would work is at the Wilburton Tunnel and have it bank left (as your heading Northbound) to 112th Ave SE. It would be best to cut it back over of the same routing of Link with a “ramp” down to the BNSF mainline.

This COULD realistically be a prevision for Eastside Link if sometime like this was to happen.

Ok, enough day dreaming.

MD: I should correct my point at the beginning of this thread: the latest update to the Sound Transit 2 map has an I-405 HCT line as one to be studied, so there is a chance it might show up in ST3, instead of 4 as I suggested earlier.