A “Precedent Setting” $10 million Mercer Island Settlement

I-90 Floating Bridge and Mercer Island (Image: Joe Wolf)

The Sound Transit Board approved a $10 million settlement agreement with Mercer Island after residents lost special access to Interstate 90 due to the expansion of light rail. Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, a Sound Transit board member, cast the only dissenting vote during the board’s June 22 meeting.

“As a fiduciary of this organization I’m not going to be able to support this today,” Strickland said. “We have to look at things such as equity and fairness.”

“Some of this agreement does include the mitigations we would make, but it’s not a $2 million settlement, it’s not a $4 million settlement, it’s not a $6 million settlement, it’s a $10 million settlement,” she added. “In the world of Sound Transit maybe that’s budget dust, but we are setting a precedent. It’s not about the amount, it’s about setting a precedent, despite the fact that we, Sound Transit, keep winning in court.”

In February the Mercer Island City Council voted to sue Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) after the town lost special access to I-90’s high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to make room for light rail. Mercer Island drivers would now have to abide by the HOV-2 standards. Mercer Island argued that a 1976 agreement provided them with lasting rights to HOV lanes, while WSDOT said that single-occupant vehicle (SOV) access to HOV lanes was intended to be temporary, and allowing continued SOV use of HOV lanes would violate federal law and jeopardize funding agreements.

Bellevue Councilmember and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci defended the settlement, calling it fair, reasonable, and the board’s responsibility after conditions changed and Mercer Island was no longer able to retain the same access to I-90. Continue reading “A “Precedent Setting” $10 million Mercer Island Settlement”

SR520 Route Restructure Open House

Eastside bus riders, feeling the slow-down from traffic congestion, have already begun taking advantage of the quick ride the Link Light Rail offers, transferring to the train at the University Washington Station to head downtown.

“It’s just six minutes from UW to Westlake on the train,” said Ted Day, a transit planner for King County Metro, during an open house presentation on June 19 near the UW Station. “That’s incredible. There’s no other way you can do that, except in the air, and I don’t know many people who own helicopters.”

“People are already adapting, getting on the Link at the UW Station to come downtown,” he added.

King County Metro and Sound Transit, preparing for increased congestion on Seattle’s streets on top of the closure of the Downtown Transit Tunnel to buses, are planning a major restructuring of Eastside bus routes for 2018.

This is the first restructuring of Eastside buses to facilitate better connections to light rail, the transit agencies plan to funnel downtown-bound Eastside bus riders to the UW Station. The restructuring would then free up buses that would have been entangled in downtown traffic, allowing the agencies to expand services to new areas and increase the frequency of buses throughout the day.

Three options were presented:

  • No change to service
  • “Frequency focus”: Redirect all routes to the UW light rail station with new service to South Lake Union, Children’s Hospital and South Kirkland
  • “Connections focus”: Redirect some routes to the UW light rail station with new service to South Lake Union, Children’s Hospital and South Kirkland

The June 19 meeting was sparsely attended with most participants wandering in after seeing signs posted for the event. For many attendees of the open house, either alternative option would improve their commute due to the expanded services to SLU and north of the University. The main difference between the two plans is with option b buses would be more frequent while option c allows for better connections for new service areas.

Participants were asked to rank the options, the most popular was option b, focusing on increasing frequency of buses. Riders acknowledged that transferring to link when heading downtown will eventually be faster than traveling by bus.

Jonathan Dubman, a transit rider who has advocated for better bus-rail connections at the UW Station, wants to see the transfer experience improved.

Continue reading “SR520 Route Restructure Open House”

WPC: “Sound Transit officials may not need any tax increase to build more light rail”

Folks, if there’s any truth in this Washington Policy Center op-ed, I think we need to discuss a potential option if we do not get ST3.  Most of us here are not too keen on extending the spine to Everett with an expensive Paine Field detour of questionable value when a better bus network & a vastly improved marketing campaign would work wonders.  Almost all of us here are of the view that Ballard needs a light rail spur.

So when I came across these Washington Policy Center allegations, I had to share so we could discuss this:

Sound Transit officials may not need any tax increase to build more light rail.  How?  Because of the revenue that is hidden in the way Sound Transit officials calculate their future borrowing costs.

Sound Transit officials’ most recently adopted financial plan through 2023 assumes they will borrow $7.3 billion at a 5.75% interest rate, paid off over 30 years.  Their interest rate cost assumption is high, especially since they are actually issuing debt now at far-lower interest rates.

In 2012 Sound Transit officials borrowed $216 million at a rate of only 2.62%, less than half of what they assume as their future interest rate cost.  Just a few months ago, they borrowed $1.3 billion as a federal TIFIA loan at a 2.38% interest rate.  The TIFIA loan can be paid off over 40 years, and the first payment isn’t due until 2028!  Today, Sound Transit could borrow money for 30 years at fixed interest rates between 2% to 3% (or at lower variable rates), about half of its current budget assumption.

So what does this mean?

If Sound Transit officials simply changed their financial plan to assume a more-realistic 3% interest rate, they could borrow an additional $2.2 billion without raising regressive taxes and keep their debt payments the same.   That is enough public money to build light rail to downtown Redmond (approximately $800 million) and build much of the line from Ballard to U.W. (approximately $1.7 billion) without raising regressive tax rates at all.

Sound Transit’s financial report shows the agency thinks it can only borrow $7.3 billion at current tax rates, when they may actually be able to borrow closer to $9.4 billion without raising taxes.  This is not fair to the taxpayers.

We agree with using conservative estimates and careful budgeting by public agencies, but in this case, the interest rate estimates Sound Transit officials are using are extreme, and come at the expense of the taxpayers.

I am of the view we do need these projects as a state.  I am also of the view we need to force Snohomish County to come to reality about their transit situation.  I am finally unqualified to speak of transit needs between Tacoma & Seattle – I will leave that to the comment threads.  But this is something we in the STB community need to discuss and have a no-new-taxes contingency plan ready to unite behind and present to Sound Transit’s Board if necessary either if the legislature nips ST3 in the bud or the voters reject ST3.

One last thing: If you have evidence the above WPC op-ed is untrue, present it.  Otherwise…

Timing out Ballard to Issaquah via Sand Point

View post on imgur.com

A couple of days ago there was a great deal of discussion about the merits and costs of a Sand Point crossing. There are two things that a study would find out that everybody would like to know; the monetary cost of the crossing and the potential ridership over the connection. Unfortunately I can’t give any insight into those things. What I can to do is provide some tangible benefits based on travel time using Seattle Subway’s previous posts about the Crossing, Ballard Spur and Better Eastside rail.

Continue reading “Timing out Ballard to Issaquah via Sand Point”

Sound Transit Board to Vote Thursday on P&R Parking Permits

Tukwila Int'l Blvd. Station
Tukwila International Boulevard Station, by l0st2

Paid P&R parking is getting its nose under the tent at Sound Transit.

In its meeting last Thursday, the Operations and Administration Committee of the ST Board voted to recommend that the full Board approve a parking pilot program. The Board is expected to vote in favor at its Thursday meeting. The pilot is described in this draft board motion which was attached to the agenda for the committee meeting.

By far the most noteworthy component of the pilot program is paid parking permits, which would guarantee parking availability at high-demand P&R lots to permit holders, even if they arrive later in the morning. This is a first in the Puget Sound area. ST would initially reserve 20% of the spaces at the following four ST-operated P&R facilities for permit holders:

  • Tukwila International Boulevard Station
  • Issaquah Transit Center
  • Sumner Station
  • Mukilteo Station

This is fantastic news. Details below the jump.
Continue reading “Sound Transit Board to Vote Thursday on P&R Parking Permits”

Mercer Island Station Open House Report

Screenshot 2013-06-07 at 6.33.04 PM

Thursday evening Sound Transit staff conducted an open house at the Mercer Island Community Center focused on the East Link light rail extension. Approximately 80 to 90 people, including staff, trickled in throughout the evening, which included the brief opening, presentation, and Q&A sessions. The presentation centered on the design of Mercer Island Station in particular, approximately 30% complete. Essentially, the alignment of the track is completely determined at this point; several Sound Transit engineers at the open house intimated that this was the crucial first step of the design.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of this, but we’re at a point where we have a good idea of what’ll work correctly,” said David Hewitt, founder of Hewitt, an urban planning and design firm handling the design of Mercer Island Station East Link.

As one resident put it: “They’ve done their homework.”

The Mercer Island Station (a working name) will squat firmly in the center roadway of I-90, with light rail running on either side. From 77th and 80th Avenues SE, riders can stroll into the western and eastern entrances of the station, respectively. Detailed images and layouts are available here.

mi_eastentrance

Each entrance will consist of a plaza with ticketing and seating areas, leading to an escalator, a stair, and an elevator, with surrounding lightweight steel and glass structures. The east entrance will also have a bicycle cage for secure storage. Once a rider descends 25 feet onto the central platform, she has roughly 380 feet of open space in which to frolic, with a central canopy serving as weather cover. Sound-dampening walls specially designed to absorb I-90’s acoustic assault will outline the tracks.

“It’s fairly symmetrical in nature,” Hewitt said. “The scale of the station is a very pleasant one we think.”

mi_overhead

More after the jump.

Continue reading “Mercer Island Station Open House Report”

Rider Alert: Link Light Rail: Scheduled Track Maintenance: July 26th-30th

Sound Transit will be performing track maintenance near the Columbia City station from 10pm – 1am on July 26th through July 30th.

Link trains will operate every 25-30 minutes during this period.

The following station platforms will be temporarily closed during the scheduled maintenance:

  • Columbia City — Southbound platform will be closed on Thursday from 10 p.m. – 1 a.m.
  • Columbia City — Northbound platform will be closed on Friday from 10 p.m. – 1 a.m.

Please board all trains at the other platform during the times indicated.

New proposal to keep North Link extension underground

Alternative North Link Portal Location. photo courtesy of Mai Ling via Maple Leaf Life

According to Mai Ling of Maple Leaf Life, Sound Transit unveiled an alternative to the North Link light rail line extension at the recent public meeting at Roosevelt High School:

University Link Deputy Project Director Ron Endlich introduced a new proposal to keep the light rail line underneath Interstate 5 farther than the current proposal, which has the trains beginning their rise to freeway level starting at Northeast 75th Street. Under the new proposal, they would rise above ground en route to the Northgate station starting at Northeast 85th Street…

“This will improve our overall construction schedule,” Endlich said. “We believe it will also have a lower net cost to taxpayers under this approach.”… According to a flier from the meeting, the proposal is expected to save $5 million to $10 million.

Rethinking Station Access (II)

Detail of the Bicycling Guide Map. Blue and Green indicate sharrows or better for bikes.

The philosophy behind the plans for Link stations in the Rainier Valley was that people would take “alternate” transportation — buses, bikes, and feet — to get to the train.  A couple of weeks ago, we looked how the bus side of that plan was working out.  Today, walking and biking:

Walking

Sound Transit invested a lot in improving sidewalks, along MLK in particular. However, MLK is a relatively undeveloped, low-density corridor by Seattle standards, and the density was further reduced by eminent-domain seizures for construction staging areas.  The walkshed, measured in people, is simply not that large.  West of the line, the steep and heavily wooded side of Beacon Hill further restricts the accessible area.

If walk-up ridership is to significantly improve, the most important thing is to upzone and aggressively encourage dense development, although sidewalk improvements are urgent in the places where they are needed.

Bicycling

Sound Transit was sure to put bicycle racks at each station, and more importantly trains are well designed to accommodate bikes.  However, the failure to put any sort of bike infrastructure on MLK itself  — just rebuilt for the train — is a huge failing.  A quick glance at the latest Seattle Bicycling Guide Map (pdf) shows the pitiful bike infrastructure around most stations.

Beacon Hill is served by sharrows, and Rainier Beach has an actual bike lane (thick blue) and bike trail (green) approaching it.  For the other three Valley stations, there are oh-so-inviting “unmarked, un-signed connectors” (yellow lines) in the rough vicinity of the station.  There isn’t even a signed bicycle route (dotted black line) that takes you directly to any of the five stations in the Southeast.

Building along the relatively sparse MLK corridor, with little to no parking, was a conscious decision to trade lots of ridership now for the promise of a more development, and therefore, more ridership, in the future. While that decision is defensible, it makes it all the more imperative that the City make minor improvements in pedestrian and bike access, as well as doing whatever is necessary to bring about the development that was the purpose of the routing in the first place.

Link Ridership up 8% in March

"Almost Out of Service," photo from Flickr user Atomic Taco.

According to the bean counters at Sound Transit, Link ridership was up in March. 18,094 boardings occurred on the average weekday in March, an 8% leap from 16,741 in February. March 2010 has had Link’s highest weekday ridership so far.

The jump could reflect Metro’s February bus service changes that included ending the 194 route to the airport, and could also reflect a less gloomy economic picture.

We caution readers not to extrapolate too much from a one-month gain in ridership as the data set is too small to make strong conclusions in one direction or the other. Link wasn’t built for its first year of ridership, it was built to serve the region for decades to come. The raw data is accessible here (pdf).

The 2010 Service Implementation Plan (pdf) from Sound Transit predicted that ridership would average 26,600 across the year, a figure that is unlikely to be met. Sources at Sound Transit have told us those estimates do not reflect the lower-than-planned train frequencies and the fact that fares are charged in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, and do not account for the deep recession. It’s unknown if the 2011 Service Implementation Plan will continue to use unreliable estimates.

Rethinking Station Access (I)

"Where's Mt. Baker TC?", by Oran

An important part of Seattle’s decision to not build park-and-rides near most Link stations was the idea that people could take walk, bike, or take the bus to the train.  Indeed, one frequent criticism of Metro is that bus connections are not good enough.  Although Link is usually the better option if you’re actually at the station, close examination of transit options indicates that at the close-in stations if you’re already on the bus, the transfer generally doesn’t pay if you’re headed for the downtown core.

To reach Rainier Beach Station, riders may take the 106.  Simply remaining on the bus will get you downtown in about 38 minutes in the morning rush.  Link takes about 23 minutes for the same trip, so it will get you to work a bit faster, even when you factor in crossing a couple of streets and waiting an average of 4 minutes for a train.

At Columbia City, the 39 is your downtown-bound bus option.  Incredibly, the station is not a timepoint (!), but it’s about 26 minutes to University Street, vs. 16 minutes for Link.  However, in the peak, almost anyone on the 39 for any significant length of time can also choose the 34, which is 11 minutes faster to University Street,  beating 39+Link.  Off peak, the train is either better or a wash, but the 39’s headways are pretty awful.  The 42 is 20 minutes to the ID vs. 12 for Link. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Rethinking Station Access (I)”

Car vs. Link Collision

At Othello, blocking at least some of the track. No further details at this time.

Update: Normal service has resumed.

Update: Sound Transit has released for the following statement:

At 4:20 p.m. today a northbound Link light rail train struck a northbound vehicle that apparently ran a red light to make an illegal left hand turn at Othello Street South. The driver of the vehicle was transported to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries, and medics tended to three Link passengers who had minor injuries. Local news media covered the incident. Light rail trains had to single-track around the accident, causing delays, until the scene was cleared just after 5 p.m.

Bel-Red Open House Tomorrow

There’s been a lot of argument about East Link Segments B and C, but since the “Bel-Red” alignment* was chosen, there hasn’t been very much chatter about Segment D.  That may change with Sound Transit’s open house about this segment tomorrow:

East Link Light Rail Preliminary Engineering Open House

Bel-Red/Overlake Corridor
Thursday, April 1, 2010
5 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Highland Community Center
14224 NE Bel-Red Road, Bellevue

* Not actually on Bel-Red Rd. at any point.

Gregoire Vetoes 520 Light Rail Planning

Update 3/31 @ 11:20am: The governor’s office tells us that this veto just affects the “legislative intent” section of the bill, not the underlying contents which still directs a work group to study high-capacity transit over the bridge. However, the underlying legislation — with the “intent” section vetoed — does not direct “any final design of the state route number 520 bridge replacement and HOV program accommodate effective connections for transit, including high capacity transit, including, but not limited to, effective connections for transit to the university link light rail line” as the intent section did. I don’t know if other legislation has this provision.

And while the legislation does direct a King County work group to study high-capacity transit over the bridge, it does not require the bridge accommodate any plans from that group. However, we now understand what the governor’s office meant when it defined a section as “vague;” unfortunately, that section had a stronger requirement for high-capacity transit than the rest of the bill, on my reading.

The Seattle PI report we link to below has not been changed as of this writing.

Original report: The Seattle PI reports on another of today’s vetoes, this time not so transit-friendly.

The governor also vetoed a section of the bill [authorizing the 520 bridge replacement] that directed planners to come up with a final design that could handle both carpool lanes and light rail. However Shelton said the governor still supported ultimately seeing whether the replacement span that connects Seattle with its Eastside suburbs could ultimately accommodate high-capacity transit. She felt the language in the bill first section was “vague.”

“We still have work groups addressing those issues,” [a Gregoire spokesman] said. “The work is still going to get done.”

Light rail across SR-520 is a long time away from being seriously considered. Even in the long haul, though, it would be an up-hill lift to build light rail across the bridge if it meant removing capacity — even if that capacity were just HOV lanes. I think if we were to add light rail to the bridge, it should be done in addition to the HOV lanes on the bridge. So that section of the legislation made sense to me; what’s possibly vague about it?

Mercer Island Link Workshop

If you’re interested in the Mercer Island Link station layout, be sure to attend Sound Transit’s community workshop on the subject this Tuesday, March 9th, from 5-7:30pm with the presentation starting at 6.  It’ll be at the Mercer View Community Center (8236 SE 24th St.)

  • Learn about the East Link light rail system and view in-progress preliminary engineering drawings
  • Share your thoughts about the Mercer Island station layout
  • Tell us more about your community and how East Link can best serve you and Mercer Island.

To beat a dead horse for a moment, Mercer Island residents might let ST know whether or not they want direct Link service to the Downtown Bellevue core, as well as a line that serves the South Bellevue P&R, thus preventing I-90 commuters from having to use the Mercer Island Park & Ride to access Link by car.

First Ad on Link Spotted

Apartments ad
Looking to Rent? Light Rail Stops Here!

Presenting the first advertisement on Link light rail. It is an ad for III Marks Apartments next to Tukwila International Boulevard Station. I like the station symbol included, as it gets people thinking about locations relative to Link stations (and transit lines, in general).

Last November, Clear Channel Outdoor was awarded a contract from Sound Transit to manage all revenue-generating advertising for the agency. This likely explains the absence of ads in the first few months of service of Link. Even after November, there’s a dearth of advertising on Link. The economy obviously affects ad sales but there must be some other reasons why we haven’t seen more ads. I’ve joked that we should have some ads for the blog on the train. Is it a policy to only allow businesses along the line to advertise on Link? Neither Sound Transit nor Clear Channel Outdoor have responded to a request for more information.

Update on Link Noise

This week’s Sound Transit CEO newsletter contains an update on the work that Sound Transit is doing to mitigate Link noise.

A few months ago I told you about our plans to cut down the noise from Link light rail trains. (STB: see our previous coverage.)

Those plans included actually grinding the tracks to reduce train noise. I thought you’d be interested to know that the grinding was completed in the Rainier Valley in mid-December, and elsewhere on the line just before New Years Day. Although the grinding has reduced the high-frequency noise in many areas, there are some locations where it’s still present. We’ll measure noise levels again in early spring, after the grinding marks on the rails have worn smooth.

Another problem we’re working on is “wheel squeal” noise on curves, such as where trains enter and leave Mount Baker Station. In those areas we’re installing solar-powered machines that periodically dispense a dab of lubricant on the tracks. The track lubricators have been purchased and work is expected to begin in mid-to-late March. Work will take place overnight starting at 10 p.m. to minimize inconvenience to riders.

Finally, another noise problem in the Rainier Valley is the “ka-thunk” sounds created when a train goes through the crossover switches near S. Walden and S. Willow streets. A Sound Transit contractor will modify the two switch crossings so train wheels have a smoother running surface. Work will be scheduled between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. over eight weekends beginning in March. The project should take about two months.

We reported the first round of work late last year.

Metro’s February Service Change Now Online

Details on the changes in Metro bus service, effective February 6th, are available online. New red timetables and a special rider alert brochure will soon be available. The changes are now live on the Trip Planner and timetables will be posted online on February 5. This is a major service change, with over 80 bus routes affected. Highlights are:

  • New Route 156 to replace part of Route 140 service in McMicken Heights and will serve Southcenter, SeaTac/Airport Link, and Tukwila Sounder stations.
  • Route 194 replaced by Link light rail and expanded service on ST Express routes 574, 577, and 578.
  • Route 140 now serves Tukwila International Blvd station via Southcenter Blvd. It no longer serves McMicken Heights (use Route 156), the airport (use Link), and Air Cargo Rd (use Route 180).
  • ST 560 and 574 will be the only routes serving the Sea-Tac Airport terminal stops. All other routes will serve SeaTac/Airport Station (including ST 574)
  • Routes 76, 77, 216, 218, and 316 move to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel
  • Long-term construction reroutes for 73, 77, and 316 373 in the Northgate area.
  • More frequent service on routes 8, 9, 36 and 60 to improve connections to Link
  • More trips on routes between West Seattle, SODO, and downtown Seattle as mitigation for Viaduct construction.
  • Trip reductions on approximately 40 Metro routes

Previously covered: Sound Transit service changes, also on Feb 6.

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’”

Senator Swecker vs. East Link

Sen. Dan Swecker

This morning, state Senator Dan Swecker (R-20, Lewis County) dropped a very short bill that probably won’t go anywhere, but I want to bring up to point out just how out of touch some of our legislators are with regional priorities and, well, the future in general. Despite the passage of Proposition 1 and ongoing negotiations to get East Link light rail built, Swecker seems to feel it’s a good idea to waste time and public money in a tightly scheduled session to tilt at windmills. The meat of the bill is simple:

A light rail system or any other rail fixed guideway system may not be constructed or operated on the Interstate 90 floating bridge.

We’ve written about this in the past, and I’ve read a lot more of the history in the meantime.

Given that most of the I-90 bridge was paid for by the feds under an agreement that the express lanes were for transit, and as that agreement was updated in 2004 to specify light rail, I have this question for the Senator:

If you’d like to break this agreement, how, exactly, do you plan to pay back the feds for the contribution they made? Inflation-adjusted, it would some $900 million. I suspect the cities involved, who only allowed the I-90 bridge to be built under this agreement, might have some mitigation requests as well.

A call into Senator Swecker’s office was not returned.

Update: It looks like Senator Val Stevens (R-39, North Cascades National Park) has also signed on. But why?

Update 2: Stevens’ office returned my call – saying the Senator declines to comment on why she signed on, and that I should talk to Swecker – who still hasn’t returned my call.