Obama Admin. Moves to Regulate Local Rail, Buses


A week ago the Obama administration proposed to take over safety regulation over commuter rail, subway, and light rail systems nationwide.  Federal law currently blocks such regulation, but proponents claim safety oversight is lax in most jurisdictions.  It later came out that this authority would eventually expand to buses.

The reaction from the transit community has been cautious. The man on the street has been extremely funny, as usual.  Locally, Sound Transit did not return two of our requests for comment.

Although it’s good that federal money would be attached, I see this as a dangerous path.*  Safety regulation has obvious benefits, but it can also impose unreasonable restrictions on operations, especially when written at a national level and ignorant of local conditions.  (Consider the history of federal regulation of intercity rail, or the Bush FTA’s heinous decision to effectively kill special bus service to sporting events.)  Even well-intentioned rules can end up putting more people in cars and therefore get more people killed.

Moreover, as with any regulatory power, in the wrong hands it can actively be used to destroy that which it regulates.  Most Americans are entirely car-dependent, and there are going to be times over the coming decades where a transit-hostile administration is in power. Let’s not give them a very effective tool to strangle rail transit.

* To be clear, my colleagues largely disagree with me on this issue.

Other Early Returns Not Good

Downtown Bellevue (WSDOT)
Downtown Bellevue (WSDOT)

[UPDATE 10:15am: Let’s not over-interpret the Bellevue results.  This isn’t a comprehensive voter repudiation of East Link, it’s a local election with inscrutable forces, whose outcome is a Bellevue City Council that is less likely to make good decisions about Light Rail.  “Screw Bellevue” comments are totally unhelpful.]

In the other races we’ve endorsed, the early returns are not good.  Apparently the power of the STB endorsement (in bold below) does not extend much past the Seattle City limits.  Other results are here.

Transportation Benefit District No. 1 (Burien)
YES – 958 – 23.50%
NO – 3118 – 76.50%

Bellevue City Council Position 2
Vicki Orrico – 6817 – 46.55%
Conrad Lee – 7800 – 53.27%

Bellevue City Council Position 4
Kevin R. Wallace – 7012 – 50.95%
Patsy Bonincontri – 6730 – 48.90%

Bellevue City Council Position 6
Michael Marchand – 5320 – 38.72%
Don Davidson – 8385 – 61.04%

Bellevue City Council Position 8
Mike Creighton -5622 – 40.68%
Jennifer Robertson – 6493 – 46.99%
Betina Finley – 1681 – 12.16%

With Kemper Freeman’s apparent clean sweep in Bellevue, it’s clear just how much work we still need to do in the suburbs.  The likelihood of a B7 alignment — missing the population centers and blocking Eastside Commuter Rail forever — just went up.

News Roundup: Election Day

On Environmental Impact Studies

To follow up on Martin’s post I just want to make sure we are all on the same page when it comes to Environmental Impact Studies. This has yet to be done for the deep-bore tunnel, with the draft EIS to be released in February of next year and the final EIS completed in the spring of 2011.

As defined by the International Association for Impact Assessment

Environmental Impact Assessment can be defined as:

The process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made.

Emphasis mine. Furthermore from the Washington State Department of Ecology;

Q: What is SEPA?

A: SEPA is the abbreviation or acronym for the State Environmental Policy Act, Chapter 43.21C RCW. Enacted in 1971, it provides the framework for agencies to consider the environmental consequences of a proposal before taking action. It also gives agencies the ability to condition or deny a proposal due to identified likely significant adverse impacts. The Act is implemented through the SEPA Rules, Chapter 197-11 WAC.

So when is a SEPA review process needed?

Q: When is SEPA environmental review required?

A: Environmental review is required for any proposal which involves a government “action,” as defined in the SEPA Rules (WAC 197-11-704), and is not categorically exempt (WAC 197-11-800 through 890). Project actions involve an agency decision on a specific project, such as a construction project or timber harvest. Nonproject actions involve decisions on policies, plans, or programs, such as the adoption of a comprehensive plan or development regulations, or a six-year road plan.

More below the jump.

Continue reading “On Environmental Impact Studies”

The Highway vs. Fixed Transit Debate

40mph, by Mike Bjork
40mph, by Mike Bjork

There is a lot of manipulation and fact distorting when it comes to the debate between highway and road benefits versus fixed rail transit.  One of the biggest claims to have been made against Link is that it’s a “boondoggle,” a “waste of money,” and that “no one” ever rides the trains.  I pulled up an old document from the American Dream Coalition (ADC), a big anti-rail group, which compiled a laundry list of “facts” against what it calls “myths” of rail transit.  It’s a long list of points, many of which we’ve already debunked, but I thought I’d highlight a few that are relevant to the comparison often being made between roads and rail.

Rebuttals below the jump.

Continue reading “The Highway vs. Fixed Transit Debate”

Hutchison: Light Rail on 520, not I-90

Sound Transit
Sound Transit

In Saturday night’s debate, County Executive candidate Susan Hutchison had this to say (at the :52 minute mark) about Kemper Freeman and friends’ lawsuit to stop light rail across I-90:

The lawsuit about light rail going across I-90 is not against light rail. It is against using roads money to build light rail. In fact, it is a violation of the 18th amendment which says roads money can’t be used for any other purpose.

As Ben has pointed out before, the legal argument is not as open-and-shut as Hutchison suggests.  I asked Hutchison to clarify her position on how (or if) the state should be compensated for crossing I-90.  She emphasized that she voted for and supports light rail, but there was also this nugget:

We should build light rail on the new 520 with a designated lane.  We should not take lanes away from I-90 for light rail.

It’s not generally understood, except by professionals and longtime readers of this blog, that for technical reasons it would be extremely difficult to send Link over SR520 without a new downtown tunnel.  And of course, the I-90 alignment has been approved by voters and is in the advanced planning stages.

Full text of Hutchison’s response after the jump. Continue reading “Hutchison: Light Rail on 520, not I-90”

Rapid Ride: F Line

View Larger Map

[UPDATE: More info on the revenue source at the bottom.]

Earlier this week, while reporting on the 2010 King County Transportation Budget proposal, Martin reported that Metro is in the early stages of planning a sixth Rapid Ride route, the F Line. Information on the five other lines can be found here. We followed up and got some basic details, discussed after the jump.

Continue reading “Rapid Ride: F Line”

Editorial: Stand Behind Your Agency

RV Boys & Girls Club (northshoresheetmetal.com)
RV Boys & Girls Club (northshoresheetmetal.com)

[UPDATE 9:10am: Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke writes to inform me that there has not been a net cut in SE Seattle Metro service.  Chart is below the jump.]

[UPDATE 2: An explanation of the numbers below is at the end of this post.]

On Tuesday the 20th I attended a very small portion of a Seattle City Council Town Hall at the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club.    Because the event was held on the second working day after a major service change that removed entire routes, the dominant emotion was anger at Metro’s “inequitable” decisions.  Fortunately for the attending politicians, an entirely valid response was to say they’d look into it and otherwise pass the buck to the King County Council.

I bring this up because the County Council is going to try the same thing, at the same place, tonight at 6pm.  This may be too much to hope for, but it’d be nice if the Council listened respectfully, but stood behind their staff and raised a few good and important points:

  • There are sins on all sides in Metro debates, but let’s not conflate the addition of a transfer, especially when one route runs every 8 minutes, with a total loss of service.
  • For every person demanding that their service not change at all, there’s a different Rainier Valley resident asking for a connection to the Link station.  In a world with finite resources you’ll have to take away some existing service to make the new connection.
  • Metro had a massive outreach program that I saw up close.  There were at least three mailers sent to every household, dozens of open houses, internet outreach, advertisements in foreign language media, and so on.  People will still miss all that, but there’s not much else Metro can do besides knock on each door individually with 7 interpreters in tow.
  • It’s true that in terms of Metro service the Rainier Valley saw a net loss. However, it makes no sense to look at Metro in isolation. Specifically, there’s a light rail train that already is the most productive route in the system and is still growing.  Before there were any service changes, something like 7,000 round trips were subjectively improved, because people chose to take the train.  More would probably like the train but were afraid to try, or couldn’t get to the station.  Those 14,000 boardings were about four times that of the 42; other routes that were cut (32, 42X, 126) had trivial ridership.  So, from a utilitarian perspective it’s clear the overall transit situation in the Valley has objectively improved.

All that said, Metro was really strong on outreach pre-decision, but now people are actually paying attention.  It might not hurt to have a few (multilingual) open houses in conjunction with Sound Transit where experts work out for people how their commutes will have to change.

UPDATE: Here’s the chart I got from Metro, below the jump: Continue reading “Editorial: Stand Behind Your Agency”

2010 City and County Transportation Budgets

Kurt Triplett
Kurt Triplett

I want to dive into these some more later, but for now, both the Seattle and King County executives have released their 2010 budget plans.  In both cases, these budgets will be overseen by a new executive.

Anyway, the City’s six-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) .pdf is most interesting for the beginnings of a tunnel funding plan.  It’s not crystal-clear from the document, but  Scott Gutierrez says $600m of the $930m City responsibility is programmed, and some of it would use the same City MVET authority that Mike McGinn hopes to dedicate to building light rail.

At the County level, Kurt Triplett released his  Transportation Budget (pdf).  There are no huge surprises for anyone who read our series on Triplett’s Metro plan.

I speculated that the audit might point out some savings that could avoid some of the originally scheduled cuts.  However, the suggested audit savings were either extremely unpalatable, or positioned a few years into the future.  Thus, there was no change to the previously proposed 310,000 hours of suspensions over the next two years.  These suspensions amount to a 5% cut from a baseline of the planned service level in 2010-11, and therefore are smaller cut from the 2009 service level.  The other 4% from the Triplett plan’s headline 9% cut come in 2012 and 2013, and may be avoided thanks to audit savings.

Two other exciting tidbits:

  • $34m for a RapidRide “F” line (Burien, Tukwila Link, Southcenter, Tukwila Sounder, S. Renton P&R,  Renton TC).  (see page 33) Design work to start in 2011.  Previously planned lines are A (Pacific Hwy S), B (NE 8th St, Bellevue/Redmond), C (West Seattle), D (Ballard), and E (Aurora).  I’ll post more when I get it.
  • $5.5m to get ORCA readers for all doors on all Metro coaches (p.25), greatly speeding loading and unloading.

The next step for both budgets is to be deliberated on by the respective councils.

Weekend News Roundup

CT DE60LFA 29700, by wings777
"CT DE60LFA 29700", by wings777
  • Dan Bertolet at HugeAssCity offers an articulate defense of embattled Seattle DOT head Grace Crunican.
  • The SunBreak interviews Metro GM Kevin Desmond about ORCA, Twitter, and unions.
  • A bunch of local newspapers worked together to create a very extensive “Navigate King County” transportation special report.  We’ll try to digest it and discuss further later.
  • SOV market share down in DT Bellevue and Factoria, slightly up at Crossroads and Bel-Red.
  • Kemper Freeman-backed Bellevue City Council Candidate Kevin Wallace has commissioned the engineering study to get Link pushed out to I-405 through Bellevue.
  • Two more Central Link vs. car collisions, the usual illegal left turn.
  • Not to be outdone, Tacoma Link takes out a BMW.  The TNT has a great photo.
  • Link noise declared a public health emergency, apparently a technical move to allow expedited procurement to solve the problem.   Stupidest quote in the Times article:  “We can’t have the light rail be more of a pollutant — with the noise, you’ve canceled out the carbon reduction.”
  • Dave Ross loves his Orca (skip to 31:30).
  • Jesse! helps out a homeowner waiting for Sound Transit to fix his yard.
  • City of Snohomish looks at a tourist train.

Metro to the Mariners Once Again?

Safeco Field (Wikimedia)

Streetsblog Capitol Hill (the one in DC) has a piece on the new transportation spending bill – or one curious part of it.

Our Senator Patty Murray happens to be chair of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, and she’s inserted language in the bill that would roll back a rule we’ve written about before – a rule preventing public transit agencies from providing (subsidized) bus service to special events when a private charter can provide it.

Amusingly, it would only roll back the language for Washington State. This makes sense – she can provide us a benefit without having to negotiate with conservative Senators from other states who might not want this rule reversed. Cross your fingers – we could get our $3 bus to the Mariners back.

News Roundup

KCM RapidRide, CT Swift DE60LFA, by wings777
"KCM RapidRide, CT Swift DE60LFA", by wings777

Things that fell through the cracks while we obsessed over the McGinn light rail speech:

This is an open thread.

EZRA: BRT in Puyallup

The Meridian Corridor (Click to Enlarge)
The Meridian Corridor (Click to Enlarge)

[Update: Sounder Ridership statistics corrected below.]

Puyallup is the only city in the region, aside from Seattle and Tacoma, that has two designated urban growth centers.  One is the downtown area near the Sounder station, and the other around South Hill Mall.  The city is in the early stages of connecting those two areas with a Bus Rapid Transit line, modeled on the Eugene’s EmX service.

It’s called EZRA (“Easy Rider Area”), named for Ezra Meeker, the 19th century founder and first mayor of Puyallup.  The only online resources I’ve identified are the City website and a blurb in the Tacoma News-Tribune.  See especially the pdf slideshow in the first link.  I briefly chatted with Puyallup City Manager Gary McLean about the project.

The line’s proposed features, and its legal and funding status, are after the jump.

Continue reading “EZRA: BRT in Puyallup”

News Roundup

Photo by Oran
Photo by Oran (Click to Enlarge)
  • The Seatac Station pedestrian bridge is now in place (see above).
  • The SLUT is having money trouble, but Mayor Nickels is seeking a loan to keep it afloat.
  • Mountlake Terrace Park and Ride is not yet packed, but it did just open.
  • John Stanton, of anti-light-rail fame, gives $700 to Joe Mallahan.  That’s the maximum.
  • Seattle Business Monthly notices TOD.   Luckily, some projects are still afloat in this economy.  (via HAC)
  • Portland’s temporary “cycle track” installation.
  • A very wonky primer proposed changes to on the Growth Management Act (GMA): Part I and Part II.
  • The MAX Green Line opens Saturday, which should bring daily boardings from 100,000 to about 125,000 by the end of the year.
  • SOV drivers annoyed our minimal attempts at BRT aren’t open to SOV drivers.

News Roundup: Stale News Edition

Clearing out my inbox of interesting tidbits:

Metro Bans Portable Electronic Devices


In news that will thrill sometime STB troll Sam, Metro is immediately banning use of all portable electronic devices while operating vehicles.  This includes all Sound Transit service operated by Metro, such as certain ST Express routes and Central Link.

All such devices must be turned off and stowed off the person of the operator while the vehicle is in motion, and when the operator reports for work.  The device can be turned on and used during breaks.

Penalties include a minimum suspension and termination.  Now if only they could do something about riders yelling into their mobile phones!

Full text of the notice to operators after the jump.

Continue reading “Metro Bans Portable Electronic Devices”

Nickels Concedes Primary; McGinn and Mallahan Advance

Wikimedia Commons
Mayor Greg Nickels (wikimedia)

Publicola reports that Seattle mayor Greg Nickels has conceded in the primary election, with a generous and humble concession speech. Great City Initiative founder Mike McGinn and T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan will advance to the general in November.

Nickels leaves behind a very strong legacy on transit, and particularly rail. He worked hard to get our light rail built. Last year, against headwinds, he secured a spot for ST2 on the ballot. Without support from his Department of Transportation, a First Hill streetcar may not have been part of those plans. He built the South Lake Union streetcar, a starter line showing that the city can build its own transit infrastructure quickly and on budget. South Lake Union itself is a neighborhood that over the coming decades will see density and strong growth, largely thanks to Nickels. We honor his service to this city.

Mallahan has not offered great encouragement regarding his views on transit. His answers, so far, have been vague and not meaningful. We need to hear why he’s good on transit and land use. Without specificity, we can only assume the worst.

Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn. Photo by flickr user justsmartdesign.
Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn. Photo by flickr user justsmartdesign.

McGinn is an environmentalist through and through. We have no doubt in his commitment to bike improvements, pedestrian investments, and bus amenities. He opposes the SR-99 tunnel, saying we don’t need it. But he’s soft on additional rail expansion until Metro fixes its problems and the state offers new funding. Neither will happen soon, while a near-term investment in rail is a catalyst for the dense land use he recognizes is necessary.

We need to hear from McGinn that he won’t oppose the First Hill streetcar funded by Sound Transit, and that he will support the acceleration of construction proposed by Seattle’s Department of Transportation. We want a re-evaluation — or change of heart — and the 1st Ave streetcar. Streetcars are not for every location, and one can argue that the SLUT wasn’t an appropriate first line, but these two lines are smart investments. The city can’t wait for Metro to fix its house and we certainly cannot wait for the state to move away from highway funding before investing in more-efficient, higher-capacity, and greener rail transit. We are impressed by McGinn’s commitment to buses, bikes, and feet, but we want to see something on rail.

We should make one thing clear: this isn’t about a mode fetish or being rail fans just to be rail fans. There are real, demonstrable reasons to favor an investment in rail over other new transit spending. We haven’t been in campaign mode for rail recently — hey, we won ST2 and we had a mayor who supported a series of streetcar lines, so why bother?  But things have changed, and we’re going to have to prove to our readers and the incoming establishment that streetcars and light rail are a smart use of taxpayer dollars. We’re going to spend some time in the coming months reaching out to both mayoral candidates as well as the city council candidates, and hopefully we’ll give their supporters and all other voters the facts necessary to get commitments on rail.

Council Reacts to Triplett Bus Plan

Photo by Oran
Photo by Oran

There were two press releases from the County Council about Executive Triplett’s Metro budget proposal:

  • First, Julia Patterson, who was one backer of the “Council Plan” last week, criticized the Triplett plan for not doing enough to cut waste and therefore triggering more bus service cuts than necessary, as well as cutting too deeply into Metro’s operating reserve.
  • Second, Councilmember and Executive Candidate Dow Constantine also criticized the plan for cutting too deeply, while otherwise stressing his common ground with Triplett.

The rhetoric about cutting waste is premature prior to the report on the September 1 audit.  However, there are very real differences between the Triplett and Council plans, listed below the fold:

Continue reading “Council Reacts to Triplett Bus Plan”

Bike Share Expo Today, Tomorrow

BIXI by ChristineTran
BIXI by ChristineTran

Bike sharing is slowly coming to North America, and King County is kicking off the conversation in Seattle with a Expo today at the SLU Discovery Center (10am to 6pm) and tomorrow at Redmond Town Center (noon to 8pm). DC had the first bike sharing system in North America, but it failed to deliver due to a small and dispersed bike station network. This summer Montreal unveiled the first real bike share system in North America. Called Bixi, the system has 3,000 bikes and 300 stations. Bixi is similar to Paris’ Velib and other bike share systems in many ways. Hallmarks of the most successful systems are:

  • Electronic, subscription based systems that make riders accountable for bicycles while they are checked out (see Copenhagen’s city bike program for why)
  • Fare structures that encourage short rentals and thus high turnover (rentals shorter than 30 minutes are typically free)
  • A large, dense network of biking sharing stations (Paris’ stations are spaced at internals of 1000 ft)
  • Privately operated by advertising companies that are given adverting monopolies in the city (two big companies are Clear Channel and JCDecaux)
  • Unique, well maintained and theft determent bikes (Bixi won several design competitions for their bikes)
  • Real time management of the number of bikes at each station (from personal experience I know Barcelona does this very poorly while Paris does much better)
  • Implementation accompanied by significant investment in bicycle network infrastructure

Metro has already sent out a Request For Information so hopefully this event won’t just be a tease and something will come of it. Stop by today or tomorrow and check it out.