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.

Bus vs. Rail, Again

Community Transit Swift

We’ve acquired a few new commenters who seem intent on replaying the rail vs. BRT battles that were exhausted quite some time ago.  Rather than continuing with scattershot comments here’s a post:

1. Getting dedicated right-of-way for buses on the freeway is cheap: you just repaint the thing and make new signs. Maybe you build some fancy stations. It is incredibly cost-effective. The cost is so low that it isn’t mutually exclusive with rail, but it is politically difficult because of SOV interests. Unfortunately, BRT “advocates” spend all their time arguing with rail advocates telling them how to do their project better instead of doing the actual, necessary work of building a coalition to make this lane conversion happen. I’ll take the liberty of speaking for the rail community to say that if there were a measure to turn any existing GP freeway or arterial lane into bus-only, HOV-6, or whatever, you would get overwhelming support from rail advocates. We are not the faction you have to win over.

Continue reading “Bus vs. Rail, Again”

Link Light Rail in the North American Context


I developed a matrix for all North American urban rail systems, light rail and heavy rail, including info such as system length, stop spacing, average speed and City population. This post explores the implications from this matrix for Sound Transit’s Link light rail system.

Link light rail, both the initial segment and the Sound Transit 2 (ST2) expansion, has been designed for high capacity and with lots of grade separation. These characteristics have led some to classify Link as metro-light. As shown in the two charts below, its stops are widely spaced and the average speed is high compared to other systems. In fact, only San Francisco’s BART has stop spacing wider than Link with ST2. Based on the advertised travel times for ST2 expansions, Link with ST2 will be the fifth fastest system in North America. The Link system has the characteristics of a system designed to be competitive with automobiles around a large region. Will these characteristics lead to success in terms of high ridership?  More after the jump.

Continue reading “Link Light Rail in the North American Context”

Light Rail Derailment Blamed on Operator Error


[UPDATE by Sherwin: Here’s the full report (pdf) detailing the incident.]

Sound Transit’s preliminary report on last month’s Link derailment is complete.  The train derailed while leaving the O&M facility, blocking one track and thus severely impairing the evening’s service.

According to the report, the operator ran a red light (involving a whole set of violated protocols), which was immediately detected at the operations center.  He or she? She was instructed to physically check the switch and then move the train back off the mainline, but did not perform the physical check.  That derailed the train.

Full press release after the jump.

Continue reading “Light Rail Derailment Blamed on Operator Error”

Next Train Arrival Signs: Mid to Late January, Hopefully

Video by Oran (click to watch)

Wouldn’t it be nice if Link light rail stations had signs telling you that the next train was arriving in, say, five minutes? Time enough to busily inspect your smartphone and look social, to be sure.

Sound Transit has been planning to install these arrival signs for a while, but apparently they’ve hit hiccups. First, we heard rumors from Sound Transit staff that the signs would be operational within weeks of the initial segment’s opening.

Then, Sound Transit officials told folks who had contacted them that things were more complex than anyone on the outside could have known was possible. “We have been working on integrating this station into the Central Link system and it requires us to use two different train tracking approach one for the Central Link and different one for expanding to the Airport.” Due to these issues, “the train arrival message will not be activated until the end of November.” That time came and went. With the new Airport station opening tomorrow, Sound Transit representatives diligently sent us an update.

“It sounds like we’re really looking at mid to late January for it to be up and running,” said Bruce Gray of Sound Transit of the next train arrival signs. “It’s about 97% ready to go, but we expect it to need a few tweaks after the new segment is up and running.”

Hopefully the arrival signs are more accurate than the signs of the arrival of the arrival signs.

Airport Link Opening Tomorrow: T Minus 17 hours

In preparation for the grand opening of Airport Link tomorrow, Sound Transit invited members of the press aboard Link for a quick preview ride to the airport and back.  With the Certificate of Occupancy signed, crews are now working on polishing up the station for Saturday’s big event.  You can read Martin’s detailed coverage last month of SeaTac Station and the opening day announcement, where Senator Murray was there to break the news, along with several other dignitaries.  Oran and Brian were on hand yesterday to take video and photos, along with Cian Hayes, who Ben mentioned was officially the first passenger to board a plane from Link.  You can visit our Flickr Pool with some new photos of the station, as well as the video of the preview ride above, shot by Oran.

Among the other firsts, Oran found the ORCA readers to be up and running and tapped in along with Brian, which we believe made them both the first revenue passengers to use Airport Link.  More of the preview ride below the jump.
Continue reading “Airport Link Opening Tomorrow: T Minus 17 hours”

Smartly Disallowing Park & Rides along Central Link

Othello TOD Rising by Oran
'Othello TOD Rising' by Oran

Back in October, on a Sound Transit 554 Express to Issaquah, I overheard a conversation between an elderly passenger and the bus driver.  The older gentleman praised our bus system (in comparison to MTA in Los Angeles) and lauded the ease of traveling between Issaquah and Seattle.  After a few minutes, the conversation shifted to Link Light Rail, where the passenger further expressed content with the region’s efforts to expand rail.  The driver had an interesting response: “You know what’s really dumb, though?  They didn’t build any park and rides along the line!  How are you gonna take the train if you can’t even get to the station?”

With the exception of Tukwila/Int’l Blvd. Station, the decision not to add park and rides along Central Link’s initial segment has touched off this fiery debate among transit proponents: should parking be added at rail stations?  This issue has been a bigger point of contention when it comes to low-density suburbs, like South Bellevue.   However, the absence of park and ride facilities in the case of the Rainier Valley segment was probably a wisely measured decision by Sound Transit.   Most importantly, we should remember that the benefits of disallowing parking at rail stations aren’t generally realized in the short-term.  Rail and real estate development, being long-term investments, yield tremendous return when done right in the present.

More below the jump.

Continue reading “Smartly Disallowing Park & Rides along Central Link”

Sound Transit to Reduce Light Rail Noise

Link train from Atomic Taco
Link train from Atomic Taco

Sound Transit has identified a handful of ways to reduce noise from Link light rail, which in sections has exceeded federal standards. To help address the problem, ST is doing or has done the following things:

  • Later this month, ST will be grinding rails along most of the alignment to “create a smoother running service.” This work will take place at night starting on Monday and run through the end of the month, according to a rider alert.While the work is active, headways at night will be reduced from 10 minutes to 15-20 minutes and sometimes you’ll have to board your train at the opposite platform than usual. Sound Transit thinks that this may be related to the high-frequency noise from the trains that some have complained about.
  • Next month (January 2010), track lubricating devices will be installed where Sound Transit has identified that wheel squeal is a problem.
  • Over the next few months, two switch crossings in the Rainer Valley will be modified to have a smoother running surface which ST expected to reduce the “ka-thunk” sounds heard now.
  • The volume of safety bells on trains and at pedestrian crossings on MLK, Jr. Way have been reduced, and train operators will no longer ring bells as long.
  • Station loudspeakers have had their volume lowered, and they are now turned off after 10pm for all stations in the Rainer Valley.

It should be noted that rail grinding will have little effect on “hunting” (the left-right oscillation sometimes noticeable in faster sections in Tukwila). Phoenix’s light rail is experiencing the same issue, and it may be a combination of vehicle maintenance and track alignment.

Kevin Wallace’s ‘Vision Line’

Painting of the proposed 'Vision Line'
Painting of the Vision Line © 2009 J. Craig Thorpe commissioned by Vision Line Coalition, LLC

The Bellevue Reporter released details this morning on Kevin Wallace’s proposed alignment of East Link— what he dubs the ‘Vision Line.’  The proposal essentially calls for the use of the BNSF corridor (B7 alternative), which would bypass the South Bellevue Park and Ride, and an alignment along 114th Ave NE through downtown before crossing I-405.  This alternative would run right along the freeway and is furthest from the downtown core than any of the other DEIS alternatives.  To address the distance factor, the plan calls for a covered walkway that leads to the Bellevue Transit Center.  Wallace has stated before that he believes a surface alignment would be too disruptive and a tunnel would be too costly.

From the Bellevue Reporter:

The Vision Line aims to protect residential homes and downtown businesses. But it adds another option to a growing list of alternatives for Sound Transit’s East Link light rail project.

Wallace is asking that Sound Transit consider his plan as part of the East Link environmental-review process.

Arup, the San-Francisco based consulting firm that undertook the study, has full details of its Phase A study here.  One important thing to remember is that this first phase of the plan has not taken ridership into account, an integral factor into making East Link cost-effective.  However, Wallace believes that the ridership will be comparable with the other alternatives while still bringing down the costs of the Bellevue alignment.  We’ll have a follow-up soon with these concerns and questions addressed directly by Wallace.

Breaking: Link Derailment @ O&M

[UPDATE from Brian:] I went up to check out how the clean up was progressing. The LRV is now back on the rails and clear of the SB track Damage to the pantograph and skirting is pretty bad and will most likely need to be replaced. The brandt rail truck is still blocking the SB track with several men and equipment working on the rails and/or checking out the damage to the guideway. Two BNSF trucks were also around with a heavy boom/crane truck. The wind and rain is really starting to pick up. While it has taken them a long time to get this mess cleaned up and ask a lot of questions, I have to hand it to the crew that is cleaning up the incident. I for one would not want to be in it!

[UPDATE: KING 5 reports that there may be disruptions on the Tuesday morning commute. Buses may run between Stadium and Mt. Baker whenever they decide to move the train, temporarily blocking both tracks.

Martin is planning to update here at 5:30 am tomorrow.]

A Link light rail vehicle has derailed on the wye switch on the elevated section of the Operations and Maintenance facility. The cause of this is unknown at this time but it appears that the vehicle “picked the switch”. No passengers were involved and the operator is fine. This train appeared to be going out of service when I saw it. I was curious as to why it stopped! Saw it all from my window. (pic to come later)

Expect minor delays of 10 to 20 minutes to light rail service. Trains are crossing over at the O&M and using the northbound tunnel for Beacon Hill and Mt. Baker Stations. The trains will cross back over at South Walden Street.

King 5 has aerial pictures of the incident here.

Tweaking Metro’s Homepage

Metro Online
Metro Online

Adam, in the previous post, showed an example of presenting important service alerts and said that Metro can improve the usability of its website with simple fixes. So I played the role of webmaster and took a look at Metro’s homepage. I found several issues and developed small fixes that cost very little to implement and doesn’t involve redesigning the entire website, summarized in the list below:

  • Get a timetable function not useful if you don’t know what route to look up.
  • No Quick Link to system map
  • Quick Link icon for ORCA should represent the card
  • Quick Link icon for fares should use standard symbol that Sound Transit uses
  • Some graphical banners don’t link to specific information and requires user to search for it
  • Minor trip planner usability issues
  • Shortcut menu doesn’t work without JavaScript enabled.
  • Structure of the website in relation to the shortcut menu

Specific and technical details follow after the jump.

Continue reading “Tweaking Metro’s Homepage”

Short Notice Dept.: First Hill Streetcar Brown Bag

The Great City Initiative is sponsoring a panel on First Hill Streetcar alignments, today:

Upcoming Brownbag: The First Hill Street Car Project
Thursday, November 12th
12:00 – 1:30 pm
GGLO Space at the Steps
1301 First Ave, Level A

Enter through door located about ¼ of the way down the Harbor Steps
Please join Great City this coming Thursday, November 12, for our next brownbag on the First Hill Streetcar and the different alignment proposals. The First Hill Streetcar project – a 2-mile streetcar connector serving Seattle’s Capitol Hill, First Hill and International District areas with connections to Link light rail and Sounder commuter rail — was included in the mass transit system expansion ballot that voters approved in November 2008. Since this time, different alignment proposals have been offered.
Matt Roewe, an architect at Via Architects and Streetcar Alliance member, will be moderating a discussion on the differing proposals for the First Hill Streetcar alignments. Joining Matt will be:
Ethan Melone is Rail Transit Manager for the City’s Department of Transportation. He is responsible for streetcar network development, restoration of King Street Station, and coordination with Sound Transit. He previously worked for City budget and planning offices and for a transportation engineering firm. He holds a Master of Public Policy degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Bill Zosel is a self-described “neighborhood guy”. He has been heavily involved with 12th Avenue Neighborhood Stewardship since that “urban village” was created during Seattle’s neighborhood plan effort ten+ years ago, and also with the Squire Park Community Council, the community organization for the larger neighborhood in which he’s lived for thirty years.
Josh Mahar is a member of the Capitol Hill Community Council.

Bellevue City Council Endorsements

First, I want to say why this race is important: There are two hurdles in building East Link light rail. We’ve written extensively about one of them, the I-90 issue, but the other is just as important in the long run.

The Sound Transit 2 ballot measure only provides enough money to build surface light rail in downtown Bellevue (the “C” portion of the project). The measure does include planning and engineering funding that allows more than one option to be advanced, though, so Sound Transit is also studying two tunnel options. Either of these tunnel options would require funding, from the city of Bellevue, above and beyond what Sound Transit can provide. The original C3T tunnel option could require as much as $500 million, and while the new 110th tunnel option would be cheaper, it’s unlikely to cut that number in half.

Bellevue presented a list of possible funding sources to Sound Transit at last week’s board meeting, but the final funding proposal will have to be made next year – after new Bellevue City Council members are seated.

With Kemper Freeman, Jr. assisting several of the campaigns in an attempt to get a light rail-unfriendly council elected, it’s especially important that we not ignore this race. Fortunately for us, there are several very good candidates!

Mike Creighton
Mike Creighton

The first good candidate is Mike Creighton. Mike has been involved at the local level in Bellevue for some thirty years, starting as a member of the School Board in 1980. He’s served on the Bellevue City Council before, and even served as Mayor for two years (the Bellevue City Council elects a Mayor from their members). He retired in 2003, but was appointed this year to fill Phil Noble’s seat. He’s served on the PSRC’s transportation policy board, and King County’s growth management planning council. He has a long list of good endorsements, including Mayor Degginger and former mayor Connie Marshall. We’d like to add to that list by endorsing him for Bellevue City Council position 7.

Vicki Orrico

The second is Vicki Orrico. Vicki is extremely involved in light rail planning, and as current chair of the Bellevue Planning Commission worked on the Bel-Red Corridor Plan to build TOD around East Link light rail stations. She’s even been endorsed by the Cascade Bicycle Club! Against her is Conrad Lee, a Kemperite and PRT advocate. Orrico has shown a solid understanding of planning principles and understands how to make sure East Link is effective – she earns our endorsement for position 2.

Patsy Bonincontri

Patsy Bonincontri was appointed to fill Connie Marshall’s seat. She served on the Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel for four years, previously chaired the Bellevue Planning Commision, and holds a degree in architecture. She’s running against developer Kevin Wallace, and her time so far on the Council has shown that she’s not afraid to take a stand to defend a good light rail alignment. Surrey Downs residents started talking about running someone against her right after the February vote. We endorse Bonincontri for position 4.

Michael Marchand
Michael Marchand

Finally, we have Michael Marchand, running against incumbent (and Kemperite) Don Davidson. Marchand has written about his opposition to the Kemper anti light rail lawsuit on his Bellevue Reporter blog, and I highly recommend the post. His attitude seems to match that of STB (and mine) very closely – he hits the nail on the head with one sentence:

With our region’s population predicted to nearly double by 2040 (for a great PSRC presentation click here), do we really think that all these people will be able to get around Bellevue using only cars and roads?

That’s his PSRC link, not ours (although we fixed it, PSRC seems to have pulled the document). This guy really gets it about what has to happen in the next couple of decades. We happily endorse him for position 6.

Our editorial board is Martin H. Duke, Ben Schiendelman, and John Jensen, with valued input from the rest of the staff. Read our Seattle City Council and King County Executive endorsements, our endorsement for Seattle Mayor and our endorsement of a ‘no’ vote on I-1033.

Kemper Freeman’s Motivation

Bellevue Transit Center, c/o Oran
Bellevue Transit Center, c/o Oran

There’s no question – Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr. is a smart cookie as far as real estate goes. The question for me has always been – why doesn’t he support light rail, when it would do so much for his properties?

For years, he’s fought East Link light rail extension. He fought it in 2007 in Roads and Transit, pushing that only the road projects be funded, even going so far as to run his own “End Gidlock Now” campaign (his spelling). He fought 2008’s Mass Transit Now. Today, he’s funding anti-light rail candidates in Bellevue City Council races, and he’s suing the state to stop light rail to Bellevue, claiming use of the I-90 center lanes is unconstitutional.  More after the jump. Continue reading “Kemper Freeman’s Motivation”

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”

Sunday Open Thread

Here’s an excellent video presentation of the Paris Tramway line T3 from concept to reality. From the computer renderings, stages of construction, before and after construction scenes, delivery of the trams, to the finished product, it ends with a time-lapse cab view test ride on the line.

Tram de paris
Uploaded by ar168.

The 7.9 km, 17 station line runs along a peripheral boulevard on the southern edge of Paris proper. The line began construction in 2003 and opened in 2006 at a cost of 311 million euros ($400 million US at 2006 rates). It took away 2 traffic lanes from the boulevard and replaced one of the busiest bus routes in Paris. It currently carries 100,000 riders every weekday at an average speed of 18 km/h (target 20 km/h) with trains running every 4 minutes during peak hours. Trains get signal priority. The RATP expects to reduce traffic on the boulevard by 25%. Parks, cycle tracks, public art, and a grassed trackway help the tram integrate well into the urban fabric.

You can also tour the line with Google Street View.

In comparison, it is a mile longer than the proposed Seattle Streetcar Central Line and the Link light rail surface segment between Mount Baker and Rainier Beach stations. It has more than 4 times the stops and half the average speed of that Link segment.

Hutchison on Light Rail: Cabs Are Faster

Susan Hutchison, candidate for King County Executive, has offered a pointed critique of the Central Link light rail line that opened earlier this summer. Publicola reports:

Pressed for specific examples of “political solutions,” Hutchison pointed to light rail, which “takes longer to get to the airport than a cab” and, in her view, should have connected the Eastside and Seattle first, not Seattle and the airport, and said traffic congestion was the biggest issue for most voters in King County.

It’s hard to take the line about cabs at face value. Publicola’s comment of the day says it best: “Does SH really think us common folk make the decision to take public transportation because its quicker than a $50 cab ride?” And while the cross-lake commute is indeed brutal, so is I-5 between Seattle and SeaTac.

Light rail to the Eastside will be built over the coming decade, but should we have built it first? If we’re going based solely on ridership, a Northgate to Downtown line via UW and Capitol Hill would have been the highest priority. If the implication is that politics designed the initial line, it should be noted that Hutchison may be attempting the pursue the relatively-conservative Eastside vote with her comment. (Hutchison has contributed to Republicans in the past but maintains that she is offering a non-partisan alternative.)

Regardless of motive, Hutchison’s comments are troubling: Leaders shouldn’t treat our light rail as a punching bag, but as a point of pride, a sign of progress, and a system that should grow. It’s true that light rail needs to reach more places, but Hutchison didn’t offer a solution but a backward-looking jab made literally decades after the decisions in question were finalized.

Her opponent, Dow Constantine, has long supported light rail.

Switch Heaters for Link

Link Switch at Night (by the author)

Last year’s Snowpocalypse introduced a problem that the Seattle area hasn’t had to deal with in a long time – frozen switches.

As temperature decreases, even rail can be affected. While trains themselves aren’t typically blocked by as little snow as we had, the switches that allow trains to change tracks can eventually freeze – keeping trains from switching direction or coming into and out of service at a maintenance facility.

The best way to avoid this is with switch heaters that melt snow and ice, keeping switches operational. They can come in a few different configurations – where there’s space, you can pull up a trailer to blow hot air on a switch, but in the city, or on an elevated trackway like Link, heaters need to be permanently installed. Link was built without switch heaters – they’re normally not required for our climate, but last winter indicates they may be necessary in the future, so Sound Transit intends to install them sooner rather than later.

The first delivery of University Link light rail vehicles is expected to be in October of 2010, and before that, the Operations and Maintenance Facility yard must be expanded to support the new trains. This expansion is planned already in a contract with Railworks (PDF). Our sources tell us that this contract may be amended to add switch heater installation in the key places Link would need it to continue operation during a major snowstorm – in the base, mainly, and at Airport Station. The switch in the stub tunnel north of Westlake is protected from the elements.

Keep in mind that last year’s snowstorm was a 20-year event. This winter is expected to be mild in comparison – and these switch heaters would be installed before October 2010.

Link’s Finishing Touches

Next train sign at Tukwila station. Photo by Oran.
Next train sign at Tukwila station. Photo by Oran.

Yesterday marked the end of Link light rail’s first month in service. Congrats to Sound Transit for a relatively smooth roll-out. One of the more interesting parts of this first month is seeing the finish touches still being put on the line.

  • To the right is one of two “Next Train” signs installed at the Tukwila station after opening. One of the signs illuminates depending on which platform the northbound train will be arriving at. This crossover weirdness at the Tukwila stop will no longer be necessary when the Airport station opens later this year.
  • The buses connecting the Tukwila station to SeaTac Airport have finally been branded with Sound Transit logos and have “Link Light Rail – Airport Connector” signs painted on the sides. Hopefully this will make for clearer transfers to and from the airport. Thanks to Gordon Werner for the note.
  • The lights change color depending on elevator availability. Picture from litlnemo.
    The lights change color depending on elevator availability. Picture from litlnemo.

    The Beacon Hill Station continues to get even cooler. New colorful lights were installed on August 10 (see right). The lights change color depending on the availability of each elevator below.

  • We’ve heard of various ticket-vending machine improvements: Stability fixes in the software, shade guards so the machines don’t overheat, and the removal of a redundant confirmation screen.
  • Of course, not everything is peachy. We’ve heard of some tracks getting wobbly, though it’s unclear if the fault lies in the tracks, the vehicles themselves, or something else entirely.

What goodies will the second month of Link service bring us?

Sunday Open Thread

"KBFI US NAVY Blue Angels", by wings777

I rode Link to Othello yesterday for a quick look at people riding to and from Seafair. My train was well used with lots of people and bikes. Then I went to Alki for some fish-and-chips. I had to go back downtown and catch a bus. It made me wish there were better east-west connections.

In a totally unrelated note, South Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, the same guys who brought us our official theme song “Joe Metro”, have a short video featuring Link light rail. The video has their DJ Sabzi riding Link on opening weekend (sorry, I’m having trouble embedding it). At the end of the video he announces a new partnership with Duck Down Records and Caffe Vita for their upcoming projects. I hope to see another video or song featuring Seattle’s newest form of transit in the future.

This is an open thread.