PSRC Allocates Stimulus Funds

The Puget Sound Regional Council has released their approved project list to receive funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The only change from the initial staff recommendations is that the Metro hybrid bus purchase fund has been increased by $3m, by zeroing out funding for a Burien TOD project (I think it’s this project).  The big relief, though, is clinching the Metro vehicle maintenance subsidy, which should plug the 2009 deficit, increasing the time for someone to save Metro before armageddon in 2010.

I’ve asked Metro if the $25m for maintenance does count directly against the $29m deficit, and will follow up when I get an answer.

The full FTA list (and FHA list)  is below the jump.

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University Link Construction Begins

University Link GroundbreakingPhoto by flickr user acencini

How’s that for “shovel ready”? Sound Transit broke ground today for University Link, the extension of light rail from Downtown Seattle through Capitol Hill to the University of Washington at Husky Stadium. Initial work involves utility relocation, making way for station and tunnel excavation scheduled to begin late this year and last approximately three years.

The groundbreaking marked the beginning of the end of the 1996 Sound Move plan, and was a day many who worked on this original plan thought would never come. Today’s milestone is certainly something to celebrate.

When completed, U-Link will offer a seven minute ride between Downtown Seattle and the University, and Sound Transit estimates the U-Link line alone will add an incredible 70,000 daily boardings to the system by 2030. Martin also mentioned yesterday that bringing light rail further north offers many opportunities to improve bus service for the area.

In the shorter term, University Link will generate an estimated much-needed 2,900 direct construction jobs and 22,800 other direct and indirect jobs as result of economic activity generated by the project.

Even though I’m extremely excited for July when Central Link opens, I already can’t wait for 2016!

University Link Groundbreaking Tomorrow

For those of you who have the time or hang out near the University, Friday afternoon holds a special treat for you:

University Link Groundbreaking

March 06, 2009
2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Husky Stadium

Sound Transit
Sound Transit

The importance of starting to actually turn some earth is difficult to overestimate.  Once capital expenditures start being expended the logic of sunk costs makes it harder and harder for various public nuisances to stop the project.

The ridership on U-Link will be astronomical, and the increase in quality-of-ride over buses will be especially large.  University Link (and North Link after it) will also provide many opportunities for elimination, consolidation, truncation, or reduction in capacity of Metro bus routes, easing their long-term operating budget crisis.  This is a big moment for the region.

Canada Line Opening in August

South end of the Canada Line at Richmond-Brighouse Station
Richmond-Brighouse station, photo by indyinsane

The Vancouver area’s newest Sky Train addition, the Canada Line, will open a couple of months ahead of schedule: August instead of late November. The Canada Line was built in two parts, the first is a mostly cut-and-cover, partly deep-bored subway from Downtown Vancouver to almost the Fraser River, with seven new subway stations and one new subway platform at an existing station. The second part is a mostly elevated segment from the Fraser River toward the Vancouver Airport and Richmond, with eight more stations. The total line length is 19 km (11.8 miles).

All-in-all, it’s been pretty impressive how the line has gone from approval to near completion in just over four years, but obviously the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics have helped the project get quick approval. The $1.5 billion price tag for the line is mind-bogglingly cheap. For comparison, the University Link project has a $1.8 billion price tag.  However, the line’s construction has not been without controversy, especially because the cut-and-cover construction for the subway line has much more invasive on the surface than the deep-bored solution that Sound Transit is using for our subway tunnels.

The Canada line is also a lower-capacity system compared to both Link and to Sky Train’s Expo and Millenium Lines. Canada Line’s station platforms are only 40 m (131 ft) long, and can only accomodate one long car at a time. For comparison, Portland’s Max has platforms that are 60 m (200 ft) long, and Link’s platforms are 110 m (370 ft) long. Portland’s stations and trains feel short, I anticapate that the Canada line will run into capacity problems in the future.

Even having said all of that, it’s remarkable that Translink, Vancouver and BC have been able to build a line that’s mostly underground and elevated with 16 stations with a price tag in the $100~$150 million per mile range. Shows that they are definitely doing something different up there than we are here.

PSRC Transit Projects List

The PRSC has released the preliminary list of projects that will receive FTA grants from the stimulus bill in our area. Here’s a map of the projects, and here’s the pdf of the list. There’s a lot of money for new buses, $1 million for the monorail (!!!) and even $341,000 for preventative maintence on the SLU streetcar. There’s $4.6 million for North Link acceleration and $4.6 million for track and signals on the M street to Lakewood line that Sounder and Amtrak want to install as part of the Point Defiance Bypass.

Funding by agency and project below the fold.

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University Link Officially Awarded FTA Grant

Pine St Stub
Photo by Bejan, via the STB flickr pool

University Link has been officially awarded the $813 million “full funding grant agreement” from the FTA today. This is the largest New Start grant ever awarded – the previous largest was $750 million – and is 43% of U Link’s total $1.9 billion price tag. Construction on the extension is ready to begin this month, and a few demolition contracts have already been awarded.

We knew this was coming, but it still lightens the blow of today’s stimulus news. Here are some interesting engineering details from the DJC coverage on the today‘s news:

Next month, Sound Transit is likely to award a $19.5 million contract to Condon Johnson to cut a path under Interstate 5 for the tunnels that will run between downtown Seattle and Capitol Hill. Condon Johnson’s bid was more than 30 percent under the engineer’s estimate. To make way for the tunnel boring machine, Sound Transit’s contractor will drill holes in the cylinder pile walls buried along the freeway and fill them with lean concrete that the boring machine can drill through.
These pile walls, which have giant steel beams in the middle of each cylinder, are about 50 feet deep and they keep Capitol Hill from sliding into downtown Seattle.
Gray said to anchor the walls “we’ll have steel tiebacks going from the walls more than 100 feet into the side of the hill.”

Going under a single-digit interstate through a major city while the interstate is operating will be a significant engineering feat. I hope it makes it onto Colossal Construction.

University Link will open in 2016.

First Major U-Link Contract on the Cheap

As we discussed in early August the downturn in the economy can have a silver lining: More contractors available for major construction projects like transit, and competition means that it can be cheaper to build a system. This is turning out to be true for the U-Link light rail extension which had its first major contact be rewarded to a bidder that was 34% below ST’s estimate:

The University Link light rail extension moved closer to construction today as six bids on the first major construction contract came in below cost estimates. Condon Johnson & Associates, Inc. is the apparent low bidder with a $19.4 million bid to prepare the area where a tunnel boring machine will pass beneath Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle, with a bid 34 percent below the $29.6 million engineers’ estimate.

That’s more than a $10 million difference and hopefully bodes well for the rest of U-Link. What remains to be seen is how Obama’s upcoming infrastructure plan will affect demand of contractors capable of major projects, such as light rail expansion.

Full press release after the jump.

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FTA: $813 Million for Univesity Link

The Federal Transit Administration announced to Congress today it’s plan to fund University Link to the tune of $813 million. The notification is the second to last step to ensuring the full funding grant agreement between the FTA and Sound Transit. After today, Congress as 60 days to discuss the agreement, and if nothing unsurprising happens, the FTA will be able to execute the agreement. So by the middle of January, the FTA can start giving Sound Transit money to for University Link.

The press release, I can’t find a link, includes this quote:

University Link will provide a reliable option for drivers and transit users who are stuck on I-5, a facility that operates over capacity for up to eight hours a day, with vehicle speeds running between 15 and 35 mph. Already, buses can run up to 30 minutes behind schedule due to congestion. Compared to bus service, University Link travel times will be almost three times faster. From the University District, it will take 9 minutes instead of 25 minutes to get downtown and 3 minutes instead of 22 minutes to get to Capitol Hill.

Three minutes from the UD to Capitol Hill. Amazing.

The Seattle Times Says No, Again.

Today the Seattle Times has an editorial rejecting Proposition 1 – as we knew they would.

There’s a long and interesting story here, and I’m sure you’ll hear more of it as time goes on, but this is the gist.

The Seattle Times supported Sound Move up until one crucial point. When the University Link / North Link alignments were chosen, an alternative that would have gone up Eastlake was included. I haven’t found the original comments in the environmental impact statements yet, but the Seattle Times stopped being in favor of light rail the moment it didn’t serve their headquarters at Denny and Fairview.

This is par for the course. Most of the arguments in this piece are misleading, a couple are actually lies.

  • Sound Transit money can’t help Metro, Metro has to go to the legislature to get more funding. 
  • We don’t have an income tax, that’s why we have a higher sales tax than some. Total taxes in this state are actually pretty low.
  • The 0.9 percent Sound Transit wants to collect would carry more passenger miles than all the other bus agencies in the region combined, and then once we pay back the bonds, we’d only need 0.4 percent to operate it. Claiming buses are cheaper when the same amount of money covers capital *and* operations of light rail is obviously false.
  • The 0.4 cents Sound Transit collects today remains whether or not this fails. Their claim of ‘another’ 0.9 cents is false.
  • Bus lanes can’t go on Bellevue Way – we tried floating that, and there was overwhelming opposition. They can’t go on I-5 in downtown, either. The places where we are most congested are the same places we don’t have the room or the political will for bus lanes. The opposition in 1968, in this very paper, made the same claims. 40 years later? A couple of bus lanes here and there.
  • I-90 is not losing bus capacity. Sound Transit not only builds light rail on I-90, but also adds HOV lanes to the outside to replace the express lanes. This claim was false.
  • Buses wouldn’t be ‘kicked out’ of the downtown transit tunnel until 2020 – when the light rail that replaces them will carry more passengers. This was misleading.
  • When you don’t compare to the alternatives, you don’t get to complain something’s too expensive. HOV lanes don’t fix our problems – only new right of way will.

The only people ‘slighted’ here are certain Seattle Times editorial board members who can currently use the I-90 express lanes to get to work. They might have to carpool.

This is about now – buses and commuter trains now, and starting now on building more rail. I guess the Times would rather we build light rail even later. But that’s been their argument for 40 years. Hasn’t it been long enough? People are moving to transit in droves.

Shame on the Seattle Times for the same simplistic argument again. They say do nothing about our transportation mess. Proposition 1 offers a real plan.

Service Frequency and Capacity on Link

I want to absolutely dispel the misconceptions some seem to have about Link’s capacity. In fact, I want to challenge the assumptions that go along with it being labeled “light rail” at all. While there are no hard and fast distinctions between light rail, heavy rail, and other terms such as “metro”, they each carry with them our personal experience and prejudices. 

When I think of light rail, I tend to think of two car trains, often in street right of way. There are a lot of examples of this. Portland is limited to two car trains, and runs in the street in downtown. Salt Lake City is similar, I believe, and Phoenix looks like it has only one car platforms! Denver has been two car for a long time, and is now changing that. These systems carry a lot of people – but nowhere near as many as, say, a Paris metro line.

Different parts of Link will have different needs, but all parts of Link will be able to accomodate four car trains. Each car has 74 seats, with a comfortable capacity of double that, and a maximum capacity of 200. When we start running, we won’t be filling that up – we’ll start with two car trains, and add more as they get full.

At first, Central Link will run as often as every six minutes during peak times – so with two car trains, that’s 400 per train times ten trains an hour, or 4000 people per hour per direction (pphpd). That’s more than most bus lines do in a day – in an hour. That’s the maximum capacity of many light rail systems, in total.

This is where Link is just a little different.

When University Link opens, we’ll already need three car trains during some times of day – and we’ll likely run them more often between downtown and the UW, maybe four minutes instead of six. Three car trains every four minutes takes that 4,000 pphpd and kicks it up to 600 per train, 15 trains per hour – or 9,000 pphpd. There are very few light rail systems that can do that – but quite a few metros start there in capacity.

So how about ST2? Initially, Link will run in a few overlapping segments, for service as often as every three minutes downtown. By then we’ll be at four car trains quite a bit of the day – so 800, 20 times an hour, 16,000 pphpd. That’s not light rail territory.

In ST3, with extensions to Everett, Tacoma, and Redmond, the main line will cap out at service every two minutes – but there are other changes that can be made to increase capacity even a little farther. With just the trains we have, that’s 800 people on 30 trains an hour, or 24,000 pphpd. We can also later use cars with cabs at one end instead of both*, so we don’t have a bunch of cabs in the middle of the train taking up space. That could get that 800 up to 850 or 900, and if we went a bit further and used a single vehicle the full 120m length of the platforms, it could look more like 1000 or even 1200. You can do other things, too, like taking out some seats for more standing room as they do in Japan, although I can’t imagine we ever will on this line.

These are not light rail numbers. They’re not full metro numbers – our platforms are only half as long as many New York City subway platforms – but we’re also not going to be the Big Apple anytime soon. 24,000pphpd could serve this city for a hundred years – and it’s well over light rail volumes – so I like to call Link a light metro.

By the way, just to compare – a lane of highway typically carries about 2000-2200 vehicles per hour, each with some average a bit over 1 person. 1.2 is a typical estimate during commute times. Building this system is the equivalent of getting a long term benefit of twenty more lanes of highway from Northgate to downtown (ten each way), and a bit less than that in the outskirts (just because we won’t run trains at these frequencies all the way to Redmond and Lynnwood – there isn’t demand).

The next time I hear “we should have built a subway”, I am going to link that person to this post. We’re pretty much getting one – it’s more than enough to meet our needs for a century in the corridors where we’re building it.

*These are little ASCII trains to show what I mentioned above. The dashes each represent roughly 50 people, and the angled brackets are cabs. The square brackets are cabless ends. The first one is what we can do with the trains we have. The second is how Portland is getting a bit more space, third is what we could do with trains like Dallas (DART), and fourth is what’s possible with the line we’re building, if we need more capacity in 70 or 80 years.

More Bus Service Nobody Was Expecting?

Several bus routes in Seattle are seeing more service, funded by the city! I had no idea this was coming, except that Eric seems to have his finger on the pulse of city projects, and sent an email about it. I have no idea where he found it.

The Bridging the Gap measure passed in 2006 funds projects all over town – and apparently, adds 20,000 hours of bus service this year, starting last weekend, improving the 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 14, 26, 28 and 44. This will increase next year, with 25,000 more service hours. It sounds like that would be a continuation of the 20,000 with an additional 25,000 on top of that, but I’m not entirely sure. All this service will continue until the end of 2015 – and as we get University Link shortly thereafter, Metro will have more Seattle funding to dole out by then.

Just more kudos for Greg Nickels, paying attention to transportation on all fronts. You can read the press release here.


I wanted to expand a bit on Andrew’s post and the P-I article that inspired it, “Sound Transit’s light rail plan may cut traffic 30%, says study“.

It may be that this article just sort of disperses into the ether, but if not, it’s likely we’ll see a war of projections.  What’s important to remember is the extent to which these projections are dependent on a lot of outside assumptions.

At one extreme, the city and county could decide to let light rail wither on the vine, by not investing in bus, bike, or car access to the stations.  By leaving zoning restrictions steady, they could minimize the number of people that can easily walk to stations.  At the same time, if Sound Transit 2 goes down and legal shenanigans somehow bring down University Link, you’d deny LINK the network effects that will exponentially increase ridership.  Externally, a large fall in gas prices and local economic downturn would also depress ridership.

On the other hand, local jurisdictions could reorient bus service to feed light rail, build streetcars, expand light rail liberally, build adequate parking at P&Rs, and upzone massively around stations to allow population and job growth there.  If drivers experience tolls, congestion, and/or high gas prices, a lot of them will be looking for an alternative.

As it happens, due to Federal Transit Administration rules, the official LINK ridership projections are quite conservative because they don’t allow for upzoning.  That’s one reason I was gratified to see this article in the P-I about the city’s attempt to revise 20-year old neighborhood development plans to accommodate light rail.

Sound Move and Proposition 1

Reader Brant asked us to respond to the No Campaign’s argument that Sound Transit has come up short on the promises made for Sound Move in 1996.

To a large extent, it’s fair to chastize Sound Transit as an organization for the failures it has experienced over its lifetime.  Voters were promised one thing, and thanks to several years of epic mismanagement, they’re getting the completion of that package quite a bit later than originally planned.

There are two basic points here, though: (1) those failures are not the whole picture; and (2) they’re essentially irrelevant to our current situation.

It’s telling that their litany of light rail shortcuts totally ignores the other giant operations that Sound Transit is involved in.  The agency has operated an extensive bus system and two commuter rail lines for years, in addition to a short light rail line in Tacoma.  They carry 61,000 passengers per day and free up scarce local transit agency resources for local service.

Furthermore, your Sound Move tax dollars have poured into infrastructure projects all over the region. Freeway HOV ramps and parking garages aren’t as dramatic as light rail, but they’re important contributions that commuters use every day.

The No Campaign has a strong point that some elements of LINK light rail will be delayed up to 10 years, but as usual, they over-reach and make patently misleading claims.  First of all, it’s simply bizarre to use a 2020 ridership figure that doesn’t include the University LINK segment, which will open in 2016.  I don’t have 2020 figures handy, but in 2030 that should boost daily ridership to at least 124,000 per day, in line with the promised 127,600.  It’s clearly a lot more than the 45,000 the No Campaign came up with.  It’s also important to note that these are conservative ridership estimates, because the Federal Transit Administration doesn’t allow you to assume that any upzoning occurs around the stations.  Since that has already happened, and gas is three times as expensive now as when these numbers were calculated, it’s safe to say we’ll beat them.

The number of cars per train is limited to four.  Sound Move promised four; LINK will open with two-car trains for no other reason but that it’s what’s sufficient for initial demand.  There’s no technical reason they can’t go to four car trains if ridership exceeds projections.

Why are the agency’s early failures irrelevant to the future?  There was a thorough house-cleaning in 2001, where the agency got new leadership and set a new schedule, one to which it has remained on-time and under-budget in spite of various difficulties with contractors and skyrocketing commodity costs.  It’s this new, revamped agency that we’re entrusting with the next phase of development, one that has passed numerous recent audits with flying colors.

This record is even more impressive when you consider the alternative.  If not Sound Transit, then who?  There’s no one else with the charter to build a regional system.  There’s no reason to believe that a new agency will somehow avoid the colossal early mistakes of the Seattle Monorail Project and Sound Transit itself.  Our choice is between an agency that has made its mistakes and learned from them, and a new entity that gets a chance to make them all over again.

Another Month, Another Ridership Record

STB has obtained the monthly ridership report for Sound Transit. It won’t surprise anyone that ridership has skyrocketed.

Sound Transit continues a record-setting level of growth and carried 57,893 people each weekday in June. Total system ridership is up 18 percent on weekdays, 13 percent on Saturdays and 9 percent Sundays over the same time last year. You may have seen the recent press release about the staggering Sounder ridership increases in June and the second quarter, as citizens across the region saw gas surge above $4.00 a gallon in early June, and flocked to Sounder in increasing numbers. In the month of June, Sounder South Line showed an increase of 37 percent over 2007. With the opening of Mukilteo Station on May 31st, the North Line grew an incredible 44 percent over June 2007, and even increased 22% over the previous month because of the new boardings in Mukilteo. Tacoma Link continued to show minor drops of ridership compared to 2007, however the recent decrease on Sundays has turned around and is closer to previous totals.

Of those 58,000 weekday boardings, fully 44,416 of them were bus boardings. After all, as BRT fans like the Seattle Times point out, buses have the advantage of allowing a “spider web” of routes, so that it can serve more citizens.

Interestingly, the Sound Transit 2 documents indicate that the 2030 ST Express bus ridership (if the measure doesn’t pass) will still be about 52,000 per weekday — inspite of a much higher population, and a Link line that doesn’t overlap very much with ST Express routes. Meanwhile, in that year Central and University Link — claimed to serve a tiny percentage of the population — has an estimated daily ridership of 124,000, although that figure assumes no upzones and development at the stations.

If Sound Transit 2 does pass, bus ridership slides to 48,000, but LINK ridership balloons to 286,000 per weekday. It’s true that light rail won’t reach every nook and cranny of the district, but it’s the only alternative for a truly high-capacity system, one that will pass on lower operating costs to future generations and provide a platform for an even more comprehensive network later on.

Thursday Vote; Friday Meetup

As you all likely know, Sound Transit’s board votes Thursday for a November ballot measure.

With that vote will come the beginning of a campaign we must win. The stakes are higher this year: A loss could well be the end of Sound Transit, the board replaced with new elected officials who would almost definitely shift transit money to roads. University Link could be cannibalized to replace 520. The team that’s been put together – today chomping at the bit to build when we say go, desks covered in designs and plans – would be lost to other cities. We would have to start over.

A win will offer a real alternative to highway expansion, giving us the tool we need to prevent sprawl. A win will keep Sound Transit delivering projects, and put the agency in a safe position from which to strike out with acceleration or expansion in a few years. A win will show the younger generation there is a better way.

Opposition will be fierce this year. The Seattle Times will attack every week. The Van Dyks and Kemper Freemans will say highways and vanpools are all we need. We know better, we know how to make our arguments, and this is the time to start going on the offensive.

Friday, let’s meet. The Columbia City Ale House, 7 pm. We’ll bring maps and talking points, everyone bring your brain and your ideas. We’ll make sure to have someone from the campaign, there may be volunteer opportunities, and I’m sure we can organize some action of our own.

No, Really, the Seattle Times Hates Sound Transit

This morning the Times has an editorial saying Sound Transit shouldn’t put light rail on the ballot. Their reasons are suspect, and their logic is twisted.

They continue to push the “don’t-take-my-express-lanes-away” agenda – the purely self-interested stance. Early in the hit piece they say:

Perhaps, though they might say yes for a mix of transit less-biased toward rail.

This package is a mix of transit less biased toward rail. Last year’s package was some 95% light rail. This year’s package is more like 70% – with big increases for ST Express. I don’t think even the Times can argue against more Sounder.

They go on to talk about boardings between buses and rail. First they talk about 477,000 boardings per day by our other transit agencies. Then they talk about ONLY the conservative ridership estimates (which should be boosted by the TOD we’ve built just since those numbers were calculated) for Central Link. They ignore University Link, ST Express, and Sounder. But wait, those apparently don’t exist!

For actual bus service, Metro charges an 0.9 percent sales tax. For promised light-rail service, Sound Transit has been charging 0.4 percent. You can move many, many more people for the money on buses than on rail.

Okay, so… Metro currently has daily boardings of about 370,000 for their .9%. Sound Transit already has 45,000 weekday boardings on ST Express, 10,000 weekday boardings on Sounder service – with 50% more service yet to add – and will have not only 45,000 daily boardings on Central Link, but later another 70,000 boardings on University Link (still part of that .4%). Also remember that the 370,000 daily boardings on Metro will drop on some of their core routes as people ride rail instead – the 7, 36, 42, 194, and others will see drops in ridership even next year.

So, .4%? In 2030, without ST2, that would be 200,000 riders a day. More than half the ridership of Metro for less than half the money. There’s another interesting component here. ST Express and Sounder trips are far longer, on average, than Metro trips. Sound Transit takes their passengers today 17 miles on average, but Metro takes their passengers under 5 miles. That’s more than three times the miles traveled for those boardings!

In 2030, with ST2, just Sound Transit’s rail services will carry more passenger miles than all our local bus agencies combined – with about the same tax rate. Link and Sounder combined will carry .9 billion passenger miles per year. All the buses – ST, ET, PT, CT, MT – will carry .6 billion. As we pay off those bonds, it will cost a third as much to operate. The Times’ own argument works against them.

They’re stuck in the fifties, when we hadn’t yet learned from our mistakes and we didn’t yet understand development:

Think of all the places buses go — in all three counties — and look at the map of where light rail will go, twenty years from now. Light rail is two strands, in the shape of a T. Bus service is a spider web.

Development follows transportation infrastructure. In Seattle, a hundred years ago, development was along strands of rail. You can see this today – wherever there are clusters of old brick buildings in our neighborhoods, they surrounded a rail line. Buses can only map the sprawl that occurred after we got rid of that rail – they can’t affect it. The fact that this strand of light rail will carry as much of our traffic as Metro’s huge web should make it painfully clear that ST2 is where we need our next transportation investments.