Legislators Back SR520 Option A+

The Times reports that a 12-member panel of legislators endorsed Option A+ (pdf) for the 520 bridge, which basically makes it a 6-lane road but eschews any sort of direct connection to the University.  The ‘+’ indicates some pedestrian and HOV/transit access enhancements not shown in the video.

This option is bad news for transit in two ways: it doesn’t provide a good connection from SR520 to the UW Light Rail station, and it’s underfunded by $2 billion.  (The more transit-friendly options are even more expensive.)  There’s much speculation that this shortfall is behind many Olympia shenanigans (by Seattle rep Frank Chopp, no less) to soak Sound Transit for the I-90 crossing.  Of course, no one is questioning $157m in lids through extremely wealthy neighborhoods on the Seattle side alone.

Yesterday’s meeting materials are online.  A video of the much less controversial East end of the bridge is here.

The Biggest Loser: WSDOT?

CRC, SR-99, SR-520
CRC, SR-99, SR-520

It’s probably a bit early to draw broad conclusions about this election, but please indulge me.

If McGinn holds his lead and wins, this election will be a significant setback for WSDOT’s three largest projects. Together totaling over $13 billion dollars, the deep-bore tunnel, SR-520 bridge and the I-5 Columbian River Crossing (CRC) will all face significantly altered local political landscapes. One that is not entrenched in the establishment like the former mayoral incumbents of Seattle and Vancouver, as well as one that is hostile towards key aspects of WSDOT’s projects. The establishment knew this, and that is why they lined up behind Mallahan. Not because they liked him, but because they knew he was malleable or pragmatic, depending on your point of view. Not so with McGinn.

While Seattle’s mayoral election was epic, there are other cities in Washington. In Vancouver, transportation also pushed its way to the forefront, dominating a contentious, $400,000 dollar mayoral contest.

More after the jump. Continue reading “The Biggest Loser: WSDOT?”

Fred Jarrett: Redo Metro Route Criteria

State Sen. Fred Jarrett
State Sen. Fred Jarrett

State Senator Fred Jarrett, who recently ran for King County Executive, had a very thoughtful piece in Crosscut yesterday attacking County Executive Kurt Triplett’s plan to cut all routes proportionally, as well as the current 20/40/40 service allocation policy:

King County can take one of two paths to deal with excessive costs, looming service reductions, and the outdated policy of regional equity. It can “spread the pain” and make simple broad-stroke across-the-board budget cuts and service reductions. Alternatively, it can view the situation as a strategic inflection point — that time in the life of an organization when circumstances force it to adapt to new reality — and use the crisis as an opportunity help shape the future we want. To date the Metro debate has focused on the first path. I hope that King County will step back and take a broader look at the situation.

There are a number of strategic and tactical steps Metro can take to use the crisis as an opportunity to shape the region’s future. First, the failed “20-40-40” service allocation formula must be scrapped.

He proposes, instead, primary opponent Ross Hunter’s idea to tie bus service to density and zoning:

More interesting, though, is putting buses where we want them to work. For 20 years, we’ve had a regional strategy of growing “centers” with density sufficient to be successful transit markets. Current plans identify 27 such centers in 18 cities in the county, and propose “prioritizing transit funding” to encourage investment in those centers. The state’s Growth Management Act supports this prioritizing by requiring “concurrency,” a policy prohibiting cities and counties from permitting development where necessary infrastructure investments supporting the development haven’t been funded. In principle, concurrency focuses our scarce public resources on these designated centers.

We’ve said nice things about this idea before.  Regionally, we almost all agree that more density has to go in somewhere.  However, local jurisdictions control the zoning process and are often captured by NIMBYs.  A policy like this one would give the County both a carrot and stick to help policy reflect the wider interest.  Areas that desire an urban level of transit service should accept an urban development footprint.

In the past, I’ve pushed back against the self-serving Seattle view that boardings per service hour are the only thing that should drive Metro planning decisions.  Jarrett proposes three metrics more definitive than the current mush but more broad than a strict boardings perspective:

Focus should move to peak market share, cost-per-mile and cost-per-passenger.

I think there’s enough in there to make sensible decisions without cutting off half the county’s population from bus service.  By including passenger miles as a metric, there’s a framework to support long-haul commutes that dramatically reduce VMT.

Dow Constantine, like all Executive candidates, also said bad things about 20/40/40 in his recent “Reforming King County” release.  There’s less policy meat than in Jarrett’s piece, but he went out of his way to say nice things about the Jarrett column in yesterday’s KUOW interview.

The Hutchison campaign did not answer a request for comment.

Metro Transit »

King County Metro bus.

(King County Metro)

The coming Metro Transit cuts are a rare opportunity

Instead of following arbitrary political allocations, let’s shift to a philosophy of putting bus service where it’s already working and where we want density to go.

The King County Metro bus system is at a critical juncture. The direction county leaders choose for the regional transportation agency will have profound long-term impacts on our economy and environment.

King County can take one of two paths to deal with excessive costs, looming service reductions, and the outdated policy of regional equity. It can “spread the pain” and make simple broad-stroke across-the-board budget cuts and service reductions. Alternatively, it can view the situation as a strategic inflection point — that time in the life of an organization when circumstances force it to adapt to new reality — and use the crisis as an opportunity help shape the future we want. To date the Metro debate has focused on the first path. I hope that King County will step back and take a broader look at the situation.

There are a number of strategic and tactical steps Metro can take to use the crisis as an opportunity to shape the region’s future. First, the failed “20-40-40” service allocation formula must be scrapped.

Sound Transit Board Meeting Liveblog

One drag about having a non-transit related job is that it’s hard to attend Sound Transit Board Meetings and such.  Luckily, Andrew Austin has a transit-related job and he liveblogged today’s meeting at the TCC blog.

There’s all kinds of good stuff, more than usual.  A lot of it is PSRC 2040 related, and there’s red meat for the Sounder-to-Olympia folks.

Share whatever strikes you in the comments.

Metro’s Low-Income Programs

While interviewing Metro GM Kevin Desmond for last week’s Metro budget crisis series, I had an opportunity to ask him for details about the low-income fare assistance program that I’d always heard hints about.

For many years, Metro has sold ticketbooks to over 100 human services agencies for 20% of their face value.  Metro depends on these agencies to get them in the hands of the needy.

The other 80% is budgeted as “lost revenue” for Metro, though of course there’s no telling how many of those would have turned into fare-paying rides.  In 2008 this “subsidy” amounted to $1.3m, or $1.6m in total ticket value.  According to Desmond, this funded 79,000 ticket books containing 1.2m tickets of mixed denominations.

A full list of those receiving human services agencies is below the jump, copied directly from a Metro-provided spreadsheet.
Continue reading “Metro’s Low-Income Programs”

The Triplett Metro Plan (VI): Conclusions

Photo by Oran
Photo by Oran

This is the sixth and final installment of my series on County Executive Kurt Triplett’s plan to solve a Metro budget crisis that now amounts to $501m over four years.  The plan, when finalized in September, will serve as the basis of the budget the Council actually adopts in November, to be implemented beginning with the February 2010 service change.

The installments of the series were:

Some thoughts on this plan are below the jump.

Continue reading “The Triplett Metro Plan (VI): Conclusions”

County Exec Roundup

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

King County Executive is by far the most critical position up for election this year from a transit standpoint. The Executive is not only the ultimate authority over Metro, but he or she also appoints representatives to the Sound Transit Board.

Below is my attempt to digest some of the transportation-related positions taken by the four major Democratic King County Executive candidates (Dow Constantine, Larry Phillips, Fred Jarrett, and Ross Hunter) recently, as reported at Publicola, by the P-I’s “Strange Bedfellows“, the Seattle Times endorsement interview, and on the candidates’ own websites.The other front-runner, Susan Hutchison, has fairly vague positions that don’t really fit in the framework below, and I’ve dealt with her ideas in another post.

The first conclusion you reach after viewing all this material is that the four positions are very, very similar.  From this, it’s clear what the next Executive is going to push for with only small areas of uncertainty.

Metro Budget Crisis

Metro to Fund RapidRide with No Net Tax Increase

King Count Executive Kurt Kurt Triplett announcing Metro funding increases.
King County Executive Kurt Triplett announcing Metro funding increases. Photo from West Seattle Blog.

RapidRide will be saved, announced interim King County Executive Kurt Triplett. Triplett announced plans today to use recent legislative authority to create a transit share of property taxes of 5.5 cents, while cutting other levies to make the plan tax neutral.

“This five-and-a-half cents for Metro Transit would provide 23,000 additional passenger trips a day on our most heavily used corridors during a time when overall bus ridership has jumped 20%,” the Executive said in a press release. This would amount to about $18m a year for Metro, compared with a structural deficit of about $100m a year.

The legislature granted property taxing authority of 7.5 cents per $1000 of assessed value for public transit. The legislature also allowed for enactment of an MVET, but the Governor vetoed that portion of the bill.

Funding would be used primarily to save the beleaguered RapidRide bus rapid transit network that Metro is planning to roll out over the coming years. Failing to deliver on RapidRide could have been politically infeasible given that the 2006 Transit Now! measure campaigned heavily on the idea of rapid, frequent, and fast RapidRide service servicing the fastest growing areas in King County. That measure that increased Metro’s sales tax authority by 0.1% to a maxed-out 0.9%.

The legislature mandated that a portion of the property taxing authority must be dedicated to SR-520 service. Metro is receiving millions in urban partnership funds to buy new buses for the 520 corridor, but no money from those grants fund bus service. Tolls are set to begin along span next year.

Since all of this funding will be used to fund RapidRide and SR-520 service, this additional revenue may not help avoid deep service cuts. Triplett said he will announce a plan next week that will outline the expected deep service cuts and perhaps fare increases. Last November, the King County Council approved a 50-cent fare hike that will finish phasing in next January. It’s hard to say how much more fare riders can stand to pay, particularly without some sort of hardship or poverty exemption.

Read on for more details after the jump…

Continue reading “Metro to Fund RapidRide with No Net Tax Increase”

Hutchison on Transportation

Susan Hutchison (Wikimedia Commons)
Susan Hutchison (Wikimedia Commons)

Andrew Villenueve, over at the Northwest Progressive Institute Blog, did us all the public service of transcribing King County Executive Candidate Susan Hutchinson’s remarks at a candidate forum in North Bend last month.  Money quote:

The Regional Transportation Commission that was set up by the governor with a bipartisan leadership – Norm Rice and John Stanton – presented a two… uh, a… a study… and, I’ve read it, it’s about a half an inch thick. And in it, after they conducted their study, they made this recommendation, that all of our transportation agencies needed to fall under one authority.

That information then went back to Olympia… and no one did a thing. Nothing has changed.

The 120-page 2006 PSRTC report is not the arch-conservative document it’s often made out to be, as it comes out pretty strongly in favor of congestion pricing and higher taxes.  However, Hutchison is referring to its prescription to form a 15-person permanent commission, 60% elected, that would control all road and transit revenue and expenditure, as well as land-use decisions, in a four-county area.  The 6 appointees would be appointed by the governor, and could not be a serving elected official.  This report, obviously, was one inspiration for the infamous 2007 roads-and-transit ballot measure that failed, largely due to that very linkage.  At any rate, this kind of reorganization is well beyond the powers of the King County Executive.

We’ve said bad things about governance reform in the past, and will do so again in the near future.

On another note, Hutchison’s website contains this under the subject of “Transportation”.

Traffic congestion robs King County residents of valuable time with their families every day. Susan will quickly implement simple changes to encourage transit ridership, such as expanded GPS-based bus tracking and a color-route system so public transportation is more accessible and user-friendly for visitors, commuters, and every day travel.

Metro, as many of you know, is already planning to institute full scale GPS tracking in 2010.  The Hutchinson campaign did not reply to an email asking for details on these two items, as well as for confirmation of the quote above.

Full text of the question and response after the jump.  And please, let’s keep the comments oriented towards transportation and land use. Continue reading “Hutchison on Transportation”

Cities on the Short End of Stimulus

One of the worst bridges in Washington
The South Park Bridge received a 6 out of 100 in the Federal Highway Administration's safety rating, but no stimulus money went to repairing it. Photo by Jim Carson

This excellent New York Times article sums up what was wrong with the portion of the transportation stimulus bill that was passed back in February:

Two-thirds of the country lives in large metropolitan areas, home to the nation’s worst traffic jams and some of its oldest roads and bridges. But cities and their surrounding regions are getting far less than two-thirds of federal transportation stimulus money.

According to an analysis by The New York Times of 5,274 transportation projects approved so far — the most complete look yet at how states plan to spend their stimulus money — the 100 largest metropolitan areas are getting less than half the money from the biggest pot of transportation stimulus money. In many cases, they have lost a tug of war with state lawmakers that urban advocates say could hurt the nation’s economic engine

The graphic, below the fold, specifically points out how Seattle got the short end from Olympia:

Continue reading “Cities on the Short End of Stimulus”

Metro Financial Policies

Committee Chair Dow Constantine (kuow.org)
Committee Chair Dow Constantine (kuow.org)

The last agenda item in the June 17 Regional Transit Commitee meeting was a review of Metro’s financial policies.  The report itself (.doc) was even more boring than it sounds, but there were some interesting comments and ideas from the committee afterwards.

The much-publicized $105m Revenue Fleet Replacement Sub-fund surplus could fund Metro’s deficit through the end of 2010.  Committee members seemed to latch on to that as meaning they could avoid any pain, but of course it merely postpones the day of reckoning.  Metro service volume will not recover to 2008 levels for the better part of a decade barring a permanent new source of revenue, as Chair Dow Constantine pointed out:

It is remarkable how much you can throw in, in terms of money transferred from fleet replacement, in terms of new revenues, and still not make a huge dent in the number of service hours we’re faced with potentially having to cut.

Continue reading “Metro Financial Policies”

State Stimulus Spending Stiffed Transit


We’re very fortunate that Congress funneled some of the ARRA (stimulus) funds directly to the PSRC, because Olympia was (and is) a black hole for transit.

We knew that state funding of transit is well below par in Washington, but a new report from Smart Growth America about the flexible portion of each state’s transportation stimulus funding laid out just how reactionary the legislature’s position is.  No surprise here, but our state put exactly zero into public transportation,and 4% into bicycle and pedestrian projects.  As Erica C. Barnett points out, 16 states beat us in the former category and 21 in the latter.

As the Transportation Choices press release observes, the road money wasn’t even spent well: 29% went to new highway construction, rather than clearing the sizable maintenance backlog on the state’s roads.  This kind of project does little for driver safety and simply encourages sprawl, as well as being less job-intensive than regular maintenance.

The Perfect Storm: 520 Tolling

SR-520 Tolling Options
SR-520 Tolling Options

On 10/10/10, WSDOT will be the first state DOT in the country to toll a existing facility that is currently untolled. A few months ago the state legislature passed ESHB 2211, authorizing the tolling of SR-520. The writing has been on the wall for a while, but still the fact that it passed is no less amazing. For comparison’s sake, not even NYC has stepped up to toll previously untolled bridges or tunnels into Manhattan. Toll on SR-520 has significant, and I believe overlooked implications for tolling in our region.


WSDOT in partnership with KC Metro and PSCR won USDOT funding, and due to the Legislature’s actions will receive a $154 million dollar Urban Partnership grant. The Urban Partnership program aims to reduce congestion through the four T’s:

  • Transit ($41 million for buses and P&R expansion, $27 million or ferries)
  • Tolling ($63 million for installation and construction of tolling system)
  • Technology ($23 million for ATMS)
  • Telecommuting ($0, build off of existing TDM program)

During the 2008 legislative session, the state tasked the partner agencies to go out to the public, propose tolling options, and report back. The work, documented here, surprisingly showed that 60% of those questioned (statistically significant phone interview) support tolling SR-520 to pay for a new bridge. This support went up when respondents were told that tolls would be collected electronically and that it would reduce congestion on the bridge. A majority of users also supported tolling I-90, however I-90 users strongly disapproved. Stated differently, a majority of users support tolling existing cross-lake travel on multiple facilities to pay for a new bridge with zero new general purpose capacity. Almost feels like the outer limits right?


I can’t overstate how significant I think this will be for tolling in the central Puget Sounds. SR-520 is at the focal point of forces that until now have not come together. In my opinion this will set a precedent, serving as a perfect example of the benefits of tolls while hinting at how system wide tolling might become a reality. Continue reading “The Perfect Storm: 520 Tolling”

Thoughts on Transit Funding

With Transit Now and Sound Transit 2, both Metro and Sound Transit have capped out what sales tax they’re allowed to ask for – when we extend light rail again, we’re going to need a new source of income to pay for it. There are lots of options: A new MVET, tolls, part of the gas tax, a carbon tax, even a property tax. None of these are available unless authorized by the state legislature.

This won’t just be a matter of asking nicely. The Governor vetoed the option of a local vehicle license fee for transit. Chair and Vice-Chair of Senate Transportation, Senators Mary Margaret Haugen and Chris Marr, respectively, sent this letter (link removed due to a technical issue, email us if you want it) to the Governor requesting the veto. Essentially, the chairs would like local option taxes to be on the table for other “transportation modes” – like, say, highways.

The state has had little will to increase gas tax past the 2005 9.5c package, and with driving down, they’re left with a huge backlog of underfunded highway projects. They’re looking increasingly to local government to fill some of those gaps – local government that lost access to the MVET a decade ago.

This is a multi-decade trend. Transportation project funding has been shifting from primarily federal to primarily state, and now local – I can only speculate as to why, but the recent RTID package was another manifestation of the larger government failing to build the political will to fund projects, and passing the buck down to the local level. I think this letter, and the Governor’s action, is another sign that we’ll be asked to fund highways locally once again.

The problem, of course, is that at the local level and the state level, we seem to have different aims. Voters in the city want to build mass transit and increasingly a streetcar network, and want relief for overcrowded buses. Sidewalks are getting wider, excess parking is frowned upon, density in the city is slowly going up.

The state hasn’t caught up to this thinking. There is still a belief in Olympia that a wider highway will decrease congestion – there’s still a belief that congestion is something you can decrease! So several billion goes into infrastructure for cars, and virtually nothing goes into infrastructure for people.

So what do we want the next state budget to look like? What funding options do we want to build our next rail line in the city? And how do we get there? If enough of us start talking to our legislators, we can make it clear that our next transportation budget needs to look very different, but what is it that we want to say?

Guest Post Series: In 1996, A Second Chance for Light Rail

by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board
rta01Following the defeat of the March 14, 1995 RTA proposition, things looked bleak for mass transit in Metro Seattle. Despite a relatively close outcome, the votes were not evenly distributed – Seattle, Lake Forest Park and Mercer Island were the only jurisdictions that passed the measure – the rest of King County and both Pierce and Snohomish Counties voted no. In Everett, Light Rail was slightly less popular than Prohibition! There was no requirement that the plan pass in each separate county (just the overall district), but politically it was necessary to show broad support, not just from a Seattle dominated electorate.

Given the math, how could a majority of the RTA Board be convinced to put the measure on the ballot? To make matters worse, the RTA, which had been given revenue from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax for planning, no longer had any income and no legislative support for additional dollars in Olympia. Could the agency even survive until the measure was resubmitted?

Critics often bemoan the absence of leadership in our civic affairs, but I would argue that our regional leaders responded to the defeat of the first RTA plan with creativity and courage. I was approached after the election by two respected political professionals: John Engber and Don McDonough. They quickly convinced me (and ultimately the rest of the Board) that the key to success was to place a revised plan on the Presidential ballot in 1996. The reason? Younger voters would be a much larger proportion of the electorate. Younger voters believe they will be around for a while and therefore are much more likely to vote for a transit plan that may take years to complete (the defeated RTA plan took twenty years to build out).

The problem with November of 1996 was the twenty-month wait. How could an agency with no assets and no revenue survive? And what would it do in the interim?

rta02It began with a listening tour, asking voters why they had rejected the plan. Was it opposition to the entire concept or to certain aspects of the specific plan they rejected? The Board laid off most of the staff, keeping just 22 folks to reduce expenses to a bare minimum. Operating funds were borrowed from King County. The original Executive Director, Tom Matoff, resigned to give the Board a clean slate moving forward (Tom was a light rail guy with little interest in express bus or HOV access). Planning director Bob White (one of the original Metro staff) replaced Matoff.

Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel took over as the Board Chair despite the terrible showing the proposition had in his county. Work soon focused on some basic concepts – a smaller initial phase (somewhat ironic given that this was the big reason for Everett’s opposition) with a shorter timeframe and more investments in express bus service and HOV access projects. This was an attempt to respond to concerns raised in our listening tour. Among the issues we heard were accountability for such a huge program from an agency with no track record and that there was nothing in the plan for many parts of the RTA district for many years (if ever).

In the end the phase one plan the Board put on the ballot, now called Sound Move, was reduced from $6.7 billion to $3.9 billion (1996 dollars) and Light Rail scaled back to a line from the UW to Sea-Tac (with a door open for Northgate if additional funds were secured). Added were park and ride lots, access ramps to HOV lanes and a concept called “sub-area equity”, the concept that funds should return to the county or sub-region in rough proportion to what they had paid. The time frame for completing phase one was pegged at 10 years. The election was set for November 5, 1996.

The campaign again was hard fought, but this time the proponents were less defensive. We focused more on grass roots support and less from “opinion leaders”. It worked, voters in all three counties approved the plan, 58.8% in King County, 54.4% in Snohomish and even Pierce voters gave a 50.1% nod to the yes side.

At last it looked like smooth sailing for a Metro Seattle mass transit system!

Creative Ideas for Metro Funding

Broadway & Montgomery
Ad in a SF Muni bus stop, photo by dantc

King County Councilman Larry Phillips wants to tap into the “entrepreneurial energy” of King County to find creative ways to help with Metro’s massive funding gap. We’ve cover the funding gap a lot, for backround, here’s a story on the gap, here’s a story on one way to cover a portion of it, here’s a story about how scary it is for bus riders, here’s a story about Olympia’s help with closing part of it, and here’s a story about the Govenor’s veto of part of that help. Here’s Phillips:

“We must harness King County’s entrepreneurial spirit to find ways Metro can reduce costs and generate some cash to keep buses on the streets despite the decline in tax revenue,” said Phillips. “Metro has already tapped into some entrepreneurial efforts such as advertising in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel and service partnerships with cities and businesses, but it’s time to dig deeper and expand those opportunities. For example, can we help pay for implementing RapidRide by allowing companies to buy sponsorships at new RapidRide stations?”

I like the RapidRide station sponsorship idea. We’ve been advocating more advertising in Metro stops for long, long time as a way to bring in revenue. Ads in covered Metro bus stops are practically a no-brainer. How about ads on transfers? I also think you could make a lot of money by opening kiosks for newsvendor/coffee cart folks inside the downtown Transit Tunnel.

Got any great ideas for Metro to make money? Leave them in the comments.

Sub-Regionalism Run Amok

Oakland Airport
Oakland Airport, photo by Invisible Hour

Something underlying the entire downtown Bellevue light rail tunnel conversation is the attitude present in many that since Seattle is getting a tunnel under Beacon Hill, and another from the ID up to almost Northgate, Bellevue deserves one as well. I could never argue against that: obviously, the fewer automobile intersections Link has to make the better, and a tunnel through downtown Bellevue is a way for Link to avoid several long-wait intersections that it would have to cross but would not have signal priority in. However, the more people throw around “multi-core” and “regionalism” when discussing Link, the more I fear events like the following quote, below the fold.

Continue reading “Sub-Regionalism Run Amok”

Governor Plans Partial Veto of SB 5433

This bill, which we’ve mentioned a few times in the past, would allow two things very important to funding transit: The first, not under fire here, is the provision to allow King County Council to increase the ferry district property tax to help fund Metro.

I’ve just gotten word, however, that the governor plans to veto the provision allowing new local car tab fees (up to $20) to help fund transit. This could be used to help any transit agency in the state, and as it requires a public vote to approve I don’t really see how this is anything but Olympia dictating to local governments, yet again.

Can’t we get any progressives around here?

Transit Cuts Coast-to-Coast

Via Streetsblog, here’s a CNN news clip on transit cuts being faced in St. Louis.

Okay, that’s admittedly a bit melodramatic, but it does illustrate some of the real-world effects of cutting transit service. St. Louis’s METRO is looking at about a 15% service cut. King Country Metro was looking at some larger, somewhere around 20%. Thankfully, the property tax authority that Olympia gave the county for transit should plug about a third of the hole, but still 13% cuts in service are not going to be pretty. At least Olympia helped, Missouri’s state government refused to move at all on transit funds.