Book Review: The Great Society Subway

Although I’m certainly biased in favor of my hometown, in my opinion the DC Metro is the finest American rail transit system of the automobile age. Fast, extensive, and fully grade-separated, Metro has utterly transformed land use throughout its region. Thirty five years after its opening, the Nation’s Capital is unthinkable without it.

Metro is also the subject of a new(ish) book by Zachary M. Schrag, The Great Society Subway. The book takes the story of Metro from its origin in freeway fights of the 1950s through the final completion of the initial plan in 1990s.

If you’re familiar with the geography of the area and the system, it’s interesting to learn the story of how the lines ended up where they are. A salient fact about Metro is that it was envisioned as an alternative to a web of inner-city highways, rather than a supplement to them. Early in the book, the alphabet soup of shifting planning agencies and parade of old white guys gets a little tedious, but once WMATA (the agency’s name to this day) is formed, things pick up a bit. Aside from the narrative quality, three things stuck out for me.

The first is the shifting valence of the neighborhood activist, fighting freeways and later fighting rail lines. It reminds me of the shared reverence for Jane Jacobs, who was after all two things: an advocate for urbanism and pedestrians over the car, but also a defender of the status quo against the force of the establishment and professional planning. In cities like Seattle where the status quo is heavily auto-oriented, both sides can find inspiration in her story. In Washington’s case, underground rail lines proved less objectionable than elevated freeways, although Schrag has some pretty appalling tales (look up “Yuma Street” in the index for a particularly egregious example.)

Second, I was especially interested in the comparative experience of various jurisdictions with land use. Arlington County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland thought early about where they wanted the lines to go and how it would shape those areas, and they ended up with fabulous mixed-use neighborhoods. Fairfax County, VA did not, and ended up with single-family neighborhoods and parking along the Orange Line, while it completely missed the rapidly growing job center of Tysons Corner.*

Finally, it’s interesting what struggles are still interesting today and which seem petty. The aforementioned battles over routing and land use reflect legitimate differences in values and still have significant impacts today. What hasn’t aged as well is concern over cost. The Metro was not built in a particularly austere environment, but decades later compromising quality for what seem like quaint sums today seems particularly shortsighted. The struggle for $65m elevators to make it wheelchair-accessible is a particular low point. But in general costs were allowed to spiral ever upwards to preserve the scope and the region is better off for it.

If the Washington Metro is special to you, you should definitely read this book. If you’re interested in how in two decades we might look back at the rail and land use battles being fought today, the last two-thirds of the book are well worth a read.

* Tysons is finally getting rail service this year with the new Silver Line.

Obama’s Three Narratives

I. Yesterday was the day that the EPA issued new vehicle emission rules that will raise mileage standards across the board in the United States. Obama announced the plan early in his administration, and it was spurred on by governors from various states, including our own Christine Gregoire. No foolin’.

II. The day before, Obama announced the government would make much of the east coast available for off-shore oil exploration and drilling. He said during his announcement: “But what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy. And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and long term.”

III. The week before that, the Obama administration said it remains firmly opposed to a gasoline tax increase to fund the next federal transportation bill, even though many point out an increase could reduce emissions and raise substantial revenues.

News Roundup: 82% of U.S. Wants More Transit

This is an open thread.

A Word That Killed, “Yeah”

[UPDATE 3/31] LaHood continues the his theme on distracted driving here and here. Man I love this guy.

On Friday Governor Gregoire  signed stronger legislation which bans text messaging as well as talking on a cell phone without a hands free device. I previously wrote about this here, here and here. From the HeraldNet;

“In the end, this is a public safety bill for me,” Gregoire said, surrounded by a small crowd of people including the chief of the Washington State Patrol.

“To those who have said to me that it’s no different than having a cup of coffee, the coffee doesn’t talk back to me. Coffee doesn’t have anything to say to me. A cell phone does,” she said.

“What if I am a young person and my boyfriend or girlfriend is breaking up with me. Am I really concentrating on what I am doing?” she continued. “While I wish we all could be able to talk on a cell phone in a car, I really do, the fact of the matter is, it’s without question a public safety issue.”

The article goes on to say,

In signing the bill, Gregoire said the law will help troopers who have found themselves driving in a marked car on a freeway and seen drivers on their cell phone “looking directly at them, flaunting it.”

When that happens, she said, “There is something wrong with the enforcement capacity of Washington State Patrol. I find that troubling.”

Secretary Ray LaHood, which has been an unassuming champion of this cause since he was appointed, has been holding up Washington State as a model of what the rest of the country needs to do. AT&T has kicked off a public education campaign and the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission which has been active on this issue will as well. As someone who has been rear-ended by someone distracted by their phone as well as a bicyclist whose safety relies on the attentiveness of drivers, this legislation is a huge step in the right direction. It certainly isn’t the end all but it will undoubtedly increase the safety of all road users in Washington State. A big thanks to Senator Eide for being such a strong champion of this safety legislation over the past few years.

News Roundup: Bike Edition

This was a very big news week for bikes. This is an open thread.

Sunday Open Thread: Moving through Metro

My hometown system…

[UPDATE: A few points I should have made yesterday:

  • It’s interesting to consider that DC decided to move forward on this system at about the same time Seattle rejected starting theirs.  The difference, I think, is an institutional setup where elected leaders make decisions, rather than one where they have to go to the ballot for (super-)majorities for nearly every budgetary decision.
  • DC has a similarly balkanized system: spanning two states and one-quasi state, WMATA runs the subway and some regional buses; then you have at least five county agencies running buses, and two different states running their own commuter trains.
  • Seattle Times editors: please count the newspapers in the video.]

Thinking About Transit

Where we are today.

Every day, when we discuss future transit options, how things are going, what we’re expecting, I see that a lot of us have very different metrics for how we determine success in our transit system. As a result, a lot of our discussions turn into debates about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ something is today. I don’t want to discourage that – we need to understand what to do next and where the problems are today – but I want to encourage a broader discussion.

Let me start with a little about how I think about transit.

Almost all the time, I try to think on a hundred year horizon. I try to consider what we’re building for the next fifteen years, the PSRC goals for the fifteen years after that, and how other cities have grown in similar situations. I’m also thinking about not just Sound Transit 3, but ST4 and ST5 – how the city might affect what’s in those packages with their own investments, what our next north-south trunk might look like, and how we can change state priorities to help us build intercity rail.

To that end, or rather lack of end, I think we can create a better model for ourselves. Continue reading “Thinking About Transit”

Regional Transit Task Force Members Appointed

Dow Constantine

We reported a few weeks ago that King County was forming a transit task force to look at Metro’s policies, in particular the weights to which it assigns various objectives such as ridership, reduction in vehicle miles traveled, congestion relief, serving transit-dependent populations, and so on.  County Executive Constantine just released his appointments for the task force’s 28 members:

The geographically balanced 28-member task force includes a mix of elected officials and representatives of business, labor, education, and human service agencies, along with riders…

The task force is being asked to develop policy options for discussion by July and to adopt final policy recommendations by September 2010.

Aside from six municipal politicians, the most recognizable names are probably Rob Johnson of the Transportation Choices Coalition, Chuck Ayers of the Cascade Bicycle Club, and the P-I’s “Bus Chick”, Carla Saulter.

People interested in repealing 40/40/20 will be interested to know that there are 18 slots identified by subarea, with 6 appointees from each.  However, Constantine claims that “I deliberately sought a group of people who are willing to put aside political divisions and think creatively about how to plan a transit system that will serve us well in the future,” which I believe is code for being willing to replace the infamous formula with something based on other metrics.

The proposed appointments will go through a Council committee (Environment & Transportation) tomorrow and should go before the full Council next Monday, March 1st.

News Roundup: Unpleasant Transit Rides

Photo by Zargoman

Cities express little enthusiasm for saving Metro service

Former Executive Kurt Triplett

When we broke the story about the King County Council forming a Transportation Benefit District in unincorporated portions of the County, media outlets who noticed focused on the implications for the South Park Bridge. And rightfully so: collapsing bridges are an important story.

Unfortunately, that overshadowed the very interesting point that when former County Executive Kurt Triplett sent a letter asking Mayors to indicate interest in negotiating to form a countywide TBD that could save some Metro bus service, there were zero positive responses and many negative ones.

Gov. Gregoire vetoed an attempt to give counties to authority to impose a vehicle license fee for transit, citing the existing TBD statute that allows a similar fee. Unfortunately, said statute requires consent of at least 60% of cities representing at least 75% of the population. Triplett’s letter was an attempt to gauge support to create a Metro-oriented TBD.

I spoke with Doug Hodson, who was Triplett’s transportation manager and now does government relations for King County DOT. Hodson that was the point of contact in Triplett’s letter. His correspondents were generally city public works managers, and the response was overwhelmingly negative. Of major cities that didn’t respond negatively, Hodson only recalled Federal Way (non-committal, but positive) and Kirkland (no response). More after the jump.

Continue reading “Cities express little enthusiasm for saving Metro service”

Chuck Wolfe Weighs In On ‘Nodes’ And ‘Places’

'Inbound to Othello' by Mike Bjork

For those who have never read contributions by Chuck Wolfe at the Seattle P-I’s City Brights blog, you’re missing out.  Chuck co-authored the Barriers Report (PDF) on TOD (transit-oriented development) and is a land-use attorney who knows his stuff about transit’s role in planning the urban environment.  Last week, we had a few big stories about the City of Seattle’s initial cease-and-desist order of a private parking lot in the Rainier Valley and then McGinn’s subsequent moratorium on that policy.  Chuck has a piece out weighing in on the issue’s relevance to distinguishing between ‘nodes‘ and ‘places‘ in planning a transit-oriented community.

More below the jump.

Continue reading “Chuck Wolfe Weighs In On ‘Nodes’ And ‘Places’”

Ride Link Without Pants This Sunday

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

If you’ve got nothing better to do this Sunday, here’s another excuse to take Link.  New York-based Improv Everywhere is having its 8th annual ‘No Pants! Subway Ride’ and invites cities around the world to pantslessly jump on board.  With light rail now up and running in Seattle, Emerald City Improv is snagging the chance for locals to participate in the global event.  The ‘No Pants’ ride, which was conceived in 2002, attracted 1200 participants in New York City alone last year plus 1000 more in other cities.  Here is some information about this year’s Seattle event (RSVP on the Facebook page):

Every January, Improv Everywhere in New York stages their annual “No Pants! Subway Ride.” Cities around the globe participate. This year, Emerald City Improv in Seattle invites you to participate in our first annual “No Pants! Light Rail Ride.”

This event will occur SUNDAY, JANUARY 10th, from 12:00- 3:00

1) Willing to take pants off on light rail
2) Able to keep a straight face about it

Meet at the plaza at 4th Ave and Pine St, across from Westlake Center, at noon.

For the sake of decency, though, you’ll probably need to wear underpants.  Assuming ST police and security manage not to throw any fits, we should hope to avoid what happened in New York during their 5th annual ‘No Pants!’ ride:

The fifth annual No Pants ride was abruptly halted by a cop. All passengers, including those not participating, were forced to exit the train as it was taken out of service. 8 people were handcuffed in their underwear and taken into custody. A month later a judge dismissed all of the charges. It is not illegal to wear your underwear in public in New York City. Just ask the Naked Cowboy. The incident was reported by news agencies around the world. David Letterman made two monologue jokes, about it and staged a No Pants Cab Ride as a parody. Keith Olbermann interviewed Agent Todd about the legality of No Pants. Around 150 people participated in the ride.

King County Enacts Transportation Benefit District

One of the reasons that Gov. Gregoire vetoed a $20 vehicle license fee for transit last year was that counties already could create transportation benefit districts to levy a similar fee.  However, such a district requires support of 60% of municipal governments comprising at least 75% of the County’s population, although there is no public vote.

On November 3rd of last year Executive Triplett sent a letter to municipalities asking for cities to express support for such a countywide TBD by November 18th.  The legislation itself claims that no cities responded affirmatively, while several directly declined.

Given the lack of positive response, the County Council voted 8-0 (Constantine’s seat is unfilled) yesterday to go ahead with a TBD in the unincorporated areas of King County, though the bill does not yet impose the $20 fee.  The funding would go to a variety of projects (Excel file).  Many are road projects (including the structurally unsound South Park Bridge), but there are quite a few sidewalk and bike lane improvements.  However, as one might expect there isn’t much in the way of relief for Metro in this measure.

Other documents related to this measure are here.

In other news, the Council approved their legislative agenda, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

(H/T: Mickymse)

A New Seahawks Parking Option

The Port of Seattle is offering a section of the airport parking garage at half price before Seahawk games.  Between 8am and 1pm tomorrow, parking in this section will be $2 an hour.

As Tukwila’s lot always overflows, this is a good bet if you don’t want to drive into the Rainier Valley and park at one of many private lots, or simply park on the street for free.  As no media outlet but this one has spent any effort on publicizing the parking available all along the line, this will probably turn out to be a popular option.

Videos: Secretary Ray LaHood & Driven to Distraction

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Secretary Ray LaHood on The Daily Show

This is a lighthearted interview about some of the priorities that LaHood and the administration are pushing. While he has many priorities one that seams particularly close to his heart has been to improve the safety of all road users by starting to make sure that the public is aware of the significant risks posed by drivers using cell phone to talk or text message. A few months ago he held a Distracted Driving summit in DC to highlight these issues and get the ball rolling on addressing the problem. Locally the Driven to Distraction Task Force, which from what I can tell is pretty new, is starting to organize and tackle these problems as well. They created the video below.

Driven to Distraction Via Seattle Likes Bikes

News Roundup: Around the Sound

Guideway to Seatac, by Mike Bjork
"Guideway to Seatac", by Mike Bjork

House Jobs Bill: $9.2 Billion for Transit & Amtrak

Under construction. Photo by Flickr user papahazama.
Under construction. Photo by Flickr user papahazama.

The House yesterday narrowly passed a $154 billion jobs bill that included tens of billions in transportation funding. Largely breaking along the same lines as the stimulus bill earlier this year, the funding works out like so:

  • $27.5 billion for highways
  • $8.4 billion for public transit
  • $800 million for Amtrak

Unlike the Obama administration proposal to allocate $50 billion in competitive transportation grants, this bill mostly allocates along the same lines as the stimulus — mostly through distribution formulas and with most of the money going to state transportation departments that tend to favor highway projects often far from urban areas. Most transit money will be allocated through metropolitan areas also along formula guidelines. Earlier this year, the PSRC distributed over $130 million in stimulus funds.

The Senate will be drafting a bill next year that could move back toward the administration’s goal of a more competitive infrastructure grant process that would likely see better projects receiving funds on merit rather than state politics. That could mean better results for transit. But Senators have more loyalty to their states than to the federal government, so the House bill could simply reflect the political reality.

Either way, more unexpected capital investment for public transit is always good. Based on the earlier stimulus requests, Sound Transit could accelerate construction of a South 200th St stop or North Link to Northgate with some more dollars. Metro could potentially purchase more buses and improve facilities. Local agencies and cities may have new capital projects that weren’t available at the time of the stimulus.

Up to 10% of the transit dollars could be spent on operations costs, according to Streetsblog DC.

Federal Transportation Bill Moves Forward

The House and Senate have agreed on a conference report for the federal transportation budget. (You can read the summary online.) The bill needs to pass Senate and will probably be signed by the end of the year. The high-level overview, which contains plenty of transit and rail funding:

  • $10.7 billion for public transit, including $2 billion for new construction.
  • $2.5 billion for high-speed rail, well above the administration’s $1 billion request. This number will complement the $8 billion in high-speed rail dollars that are part of Obama’s stimulus and hints that Congress will likely have an on-going role in funding rail.
  • $1.6 billion for Amtrak, above the administration’s request.
  • Highways are still the big winner, with $41.8 billion in funding.

Also included $600 million in merit-based transportation grants modeled after the TIGER. Putting more money into competitive grants decided at the federal, and not the state, level is good news for urban areas. These grants can be spent on bike lanes and transit as well as roads based simply on which projects are the best.

In other federal news, the Obama administration is pursuing a staggering $50 billion in new TIGER money for a forthcoming jobs bill, and it would be good move if Congress honors this request instead of choosing to appropriate this transportation spending to the states after the unfortunate experience for transit with the stimulus. A large pile of money could allow for some interesting outcomes. With just $30 million in grant money, for example, Sound Transit could complete the South 200th street light rail station years ahead of schedule.

One thing the transportation appropriations bill didn’t include and isn’t on the immediate horizon: A national infrastructure bank that the Obama administration has requested. This bank would be able to give low-interest loans to municipalities looking to build infrastructure projects without resorting to often costlier privately-held bonds. The proposal is a good one, but may need to be defined outside of the appropriations process and within a new transportation authorization bill that may be authored next year.

News Roundup: Keep Grace Crunican

Dan Corson's Oscillating Field. Photo by The Stranger.
Dan Corson's Oscillating Field. Photo by The Stranger.
  • Grace Crunican, the director Seattle’s transportation department, is looking for a job in Oregon since she might be forced out by the McGinn over last winter’s snowstorm. Many smart people argue the Mayor-elect should keep her on. We agree: McGinn should consider keeping her.
  • The First Hill Streetcar will break ground in 2011 and open by 2013. The City has three public meetings this month about it to discuss the possible alignments. And a minimalist web page.
  • The feds announce some more funding for streetcars and trolley buses.
  • SDOT begins work this week on Aurora bus platforms. RapidRide buses will eventually run along the corridor.
  • Seattle Metro area transit usage up 13.4% between 2006 and 2008, well behind several sun belt cities — and Detroit. Traffic congestion down, mostly due to the economy.
  • King County Council backs SR520 A+ option.  That pits them against Richard Conlin, Frank Chopp, and others, but with the legislative working group.
  • The Stranger art critic looks at the public art piece — above — temporarily occupying the future home of Link’s Capitol Hill stop.

More after the jump…

Continue reading “News Roundup: Keep Grace Crunican”

“Vehicle Miles Traveled” Tax Dead

Sen. Haugen (Senate Democrats)
Sen. Haugen (Senate Democrats)

Gas tax revenues, an important part of how we fund highways, have been declining along with fuel consumption.  Officials wondering how to plug the gap have floated the idea of “vehicle miles traveled” tax, which would basically charge you for each mile of road you use.

Andrew Austin reports that Senate Transportation Chair Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) has declared that idea dead for now.   And that’s good news.

The point of a VMT tax is that it raises revenue while discouraging driving.  But consider:

  • A gas tax also discourages driving.
  • A gas tax encourages use of fuel-efficient vehicles
  • A gas tax requires no new bureaucracy to implement.
  • A gas tax does not require the government to track your movements with a transponder.  I’m not really into tinfoil hats but this seems unnecessarily intrusive.

It may be that the revenue isn’t adequate, but there’s a simple solution: raise the gas tax.  It may be that in the far future most vehicles won’t burn gasoline.  But I’m not holding my breath, and we can address that problem if and when it occurs.

On a related note, USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood agrees with me.  More on the meeting that spurred this comment after the jump. Continue reading ““Vehicle Miles Traveled” Tax Dead”