Saturday, June 21, 2008

Seattle Transit Blog Moving!

We're moving to I originally made this decision a long time ago. The reasons are mainly that blogger doesn't allow a lot of flexibility on the display of our posts, the ability to create and maintain edit posts in WordPress is far superior, and WordPress allows us to do a lot more in keep the site working and attractive. In short, we basically out grew it.

All the content has been migrated, so please feel free to continue the conversations there. If you notice something that hasn't been migrated, please let us know.

We won't continue to post here any more, so please update your links. Sorry if this causes any inconvenience, we're just trying to continue our commitment to being the best transit blog we can be.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tri-Met WES unveiling

Tri-Met's new Commuter Rail "WES" was unveiled by the media yesterday. This is one of the first new generation DMU's (Diesel Multiple Unit) from Colorado Railcar.

So why a post regarding Oregon in a Seattle Blog? A lot of us here have been curious to see what the new DMU would look like and most importantly, it's features. These vehicles would be one of 3 vehicles selected for service on the Eastside Rail Corridor. It's time on WES will prove that they are truly worthy of their cost with other start-up agencies looking at ways to save fuel but also haul a number of passengers. Colorado Railcar offers the Aero model that Tri-Rail has received and a Double Decker version that seats 40 more people than our own Sounder equipment. That alone is savings by using less coaches, less coaches = less fuel to get up to track speed, etc.

The bigger question is since they are still rather unproven in the United States, would other agencies besides Tri-Rail in Florida and Tri-Met in Oregon see a use for them? Portland as usual, will look hard at these and there is discussion to go as far as Salem in the future.

Some features that WES will have -
High Speed Wireless Internet
Comfortable seating
Free Parking
Space for 4 bikes per train (2 per car)
27 minute, 60mph run from Wilsonville to Beaverton - A Direct Connection to MAX
Real-Time Arrival via MyBus.

The entire line was revamped starting last year with new concrete ties, welded rail, new gated crossings and is slated to open this Fall.

  • Seats: 74 (engine car); 80 (trailer)
  • Mobility device spaces: 2
  • Bike spaces: 2
  • Average speed: 37 mph
  • Top speed: 60 mph
  • Travel time (Wilsonville-Beaverton): 27 minutes
  • Service frequency: Every 30 minutes during rush hour
  • Personnel: 1 engineer and 1 conductor

Overhead Lines: A step beyond hybrid

A little technical tidbit came up at the aforementioned Link tour which hadn't occurred to me.

We were looking over the trains, which by the way are quite handsome, and I was wondering about regenerative braking, such as is done with hybrid cars and buses and such. Specifically I asked the question, based in the context of hybrids, of "where are the batteries?"

The answer, obvious in retrospect, is that there are no batteries, no need for them. When you're tethered to the network of electrical lines, the power recovered on braking is simply fed out into the network.

This strikes me as a beautiful detail of these systems. That this power flows in and out of the movement of Link, the trolley buses, and back out into the system, to feed your alarm clock, your lights, your water heater. Meanwhile, it dispenses with the need for the complex chemicals associated with creating and disposing of batteries, and may raise the efficiency of the storage and retrieval, moving from the chemical process to the electrical.

Anyway, to dampen the moment of zen, and while we're on the subject, I have to wonder: why can't we design overhead lines for the trolley buses which reliably stay put? Any ideas? Do buses elsewhere get their ties knocked off occasionally, as here?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why Link Will Cross I-90 First

above: a representation of why I-90 is a better choice

I'd imagine a fair portion of the people who read this blog already know some or all of these reasons that Link is going over I-90 before it goes over SR-520, but I thought I'd enumerate them for easy linking and just to fill in any holes.

I-90 offers a direct connection to the downtown Seattle transit tunnel. If you looked at my earlier tour of Central Link construction, I had a google maps link to the south transit tunnel entrance - you can see there the two tracks we've built, plus the space to either side where feeder tracks join with the I-90 center roadway. This kind of a connection offers us the opportunity to interline service - both trains going to the airport (or farther) and trains going to the eastside will come into downtown from the south and run on the same tracks in the tunnel.

It so happens that demand for the northern line (Northgate) is very close to the combined demand for an eastside line and a south line, so having East Link enter the tunnel from the south means that our commute patterns will much more efficiently use our infrastructure. This is also the big reason we didn't pick buses for building from Seattle to Bellevue - they couldn't efficiently interline with North Link to increase capacity there. With rail, people can get on a train in Redmond and go all the way to Northgate, without transferring.

If we were to cross 520, we'd have two choices, both of them bad: One, we could build a surface level station to transfer at Husky Stadium, and force a transfer for commuters to already full trains coming in from Northgate - we'd create crush loaded trains. The other option would be to build a direct connection into the tunnel toward downtown - which would cost hundreds of millions on its own, potentially have large construction impacts on a residential area, and could be risky due to the depth. Such work would probably also delay University Link.

Even ignoring the capacity and technical issues in Seattle, the eastside would have a problem of its own. 520 is significantly north of downtown Bellevue, so trains would have to turn south first to serve the Bellevue downtown core, then north again to get to Redmond. When using I-90, we don't have to go out of our way to serve south Bellevue, and the time between downtowns is lower.

Issaquah poses another problem with a 520 crossing.. We're already planning to build to Redmond, but if we chose 520, later construction to Issaquah (part of the Sound Transit long range plan) would really necessitate an I-90 crossing anyway. With an initial I-90 crossing, it's much simpler to continue east in or near the interstate right of way.

A 520 crossing would also impose any delays attached to construction of the new SR-520 bridge on Sound Transit's schedule. The risk added by working with WSDOT on the project would likely also make Sound Transit less competitive for Federal Transit Administration grants.

All this, and I-90's center roadway was built with conversion to high capacity transit in mind. I think it's always been the clear choice, but hopefully this convinces more people who were worried about the decision!

Vanpools up over 10%

Metro's reporting that their supported vanpools have increased by over 100 vans in the past year, to a total of 1,058 vanpools and vanshares.

I would imagine that the total number of people moved has increased even more: as the costs of driving increase, it follows that the size of existing vanpools would increase, especially since the inconvenience of setting up your own vanpool is larger than simply joining an existing one.

Given how many employees have commutes that are very poorly served by transit, vanpools are an important part of the system, and cheap because the labor is free. I was unaware that King County's was the first such program in the nation. I'd be curious to know what burden these vanpools place on the park and ride system; it would make a lot of sense to make agreements with churches that aren't near transit lines to allow parking there, freeing up more spaces for transit riders.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dump the Pump day tomorrow, and last day for public comment

Tomorrow is national Dump the Pump day.

The day is designed to encourage people to get out of their cars and ride public transportation to raise awareness of the financial and environmental benefits of public transportation. Public transportation has the ability to save people money, conserve gasoline, and reduce the harmful greenhouse gases emitted into our environment.

On June 19, public transit agencies from coast to coast will join together to encourage their communities to dump the pump by leaving their cars at home and riding public transportation

Also tomorrow is the last day to give public comment on Sound Transit's ballot expansion plans. Make sure to go there and give your opinion if you haven't. I've told them I want light rail at least to Overlake.

Community Transit to increase fares by 75 cents

In sync with the raising fuel prices, Community Transit is increasing fares upwards of 75 cents for it's popular commuter buses.

This increase in fares may benefit Sounder now that the time and fares are equal to each other. With the new parking garage coming online early next year, the increase may be even greater. While one could argue that the parking garage would be a bad thing, however Community Transit or Everett Transit unfortunately does not have the service capacity or ability to serve the rural communities - At least from what I have seen and heard from many people I spoke with.

LINK Wraps

Andrew Austin at The Bus Stops Here spots the latest in local transit advertising:What makes this sort of difficult to accept is that I find the Sound Transit paint scheme to be quite appealing.

Andrew also points out the key factoid:
In the case of the CLICK ads I will say this. At least they did not cover the windows of the light rail cars, also it is good that it is local ‘company’ that is covering our little light rail that could.
He's right: covering windows is a dealbreaker, and I'm glad they didn't. How would you feel if they started wrapping Central LINK's cars like this?

BTW, there are way too many Andrews in transitland.

Streetcar Meetings

Jan Drago, transportation chair of the Seattle City Council has schedule public outreach meetings on streetcar expansion plans. The meeting times and places:

Wednesday, July 2nd - Proposed Central Line at Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Avenue, Bertha Knight Landes Room, First Floor, 4-6pm

Tuesday, July 8th - Proposed Ballard/Fremont Line at Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 NW 67 Street, 4-6pm

Wednesday, July 9th - Proposed U-District Line at University Heights Center, 5031 University Way NE, 4-6pm

Tuesday, July 15th - Proposed First Hill Line at Yesler Community Center, 917 E. Yesler Way, 4-6pm

You can see the expansion plans here. It's worth noting that the First Hill line will likely be part of a Sound Transit expansion.

Maybe I'm off base, but I'm basically for these routes with the exception of the "Central" line through downtown, I think it makes it too easy to fight a future (ST3?) light-rail route through downtown. The Ballard line could have the same effect, but it'd be lessened by the fact that line doesn't really serve the other areas in the west part of the city that need rail: Belltown, "Uptown", Queen Anne, and the part of the city north of Ballard.

Capitol Hill Art Again

The other artist whose work is going into Capitol Hill Station, local artist Ellen Forney, has her concepts up on her website. If you don't remember, Brooklyn-based Mike Ross caused some controversy with his jet-plane sculpture for above the platform. I like Forney's art, but I'd say it's possibly more risque than Mr Ross's. Images below.

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Suburban Slum Watch

A few months ago, the Atlantic picked up on it, and now it's CNN.

...once rundown downtowns are being revitalized by well-educated, young professionals who have no desire to live in a detached single family home typical of a suburbia where life is often centered around long commutes and cars.

Instead, they are looking for what Leinberger calls "walkable urbanism" -- both small communities and big cities characterized by efficient mass transit systems and high density developments enabling residents to walk virtually everywhere for everything -- from home to work to restaurants to movie theaters.

I think it's important to point out how important rail is to this kind of car-free vision. Rail encourages the high-density housing that spurs high-density retail within walking distance. Furthermore, as someone who sometimes uses the bus mid-day and weekends, I'll point out that without the large capital investment in rail (and ever-spiraling gas prices) the temptation to reduce bus service to inconveniently long intervals is just too high.

When distances are at most a couple of miles and parking is free, the only way transit can compete is with frequent and reliable service, which is much easier to do with rail. The easy platform-level boarding is also a big plus for those pushing carts and strollers (because they're going about their daily lives!).

The so-called New Urbanism movement emerged in the mid-90s and has been steadily gaining momentum, especially with rising energy costs, environmental concerns and health problems associated with what Leinberger calls "drivable suburbanism" -- a low-density built environment plan that emerged around the end of the World War II and has been the dominant design in the U.S. ever since.

Thirty-five percent of the nation's wealth, according to Leinberger, has been invested in constructing this drivable suburban landscape...
I wish they'd broken down that 35% figure a bit more, but it's a useful reminder that the current drive-everywhere status quo isn't some sort of state of nature, but a directly intended product of subsidies and that right-wing bugaboo, "social engineering."
The result is an oversupply of depreciating suburban housing and a pent-up demand for walkable urban space, which is unlikely to be met for a number of years. That's mainly, according to Leinberger, because the built environment changes very slowly; and also because governmental policies and zoning laws are largely prohibitive to the construction of complicated high-density developments.
Zoning is the ultimate affordable housing issue. Today's "luxury condos" are tomorrow's middle class flats, and the day after's run-down apartments. If our laws essentially prevent building this kind of landscape, Seattle will become an unattractive place to live, which will, uh, solve a lot of our growth management problems.

(Via FP Passport)

More Madness from Montlake Multimillionaires

Update: I am an ass. I looked at this op-ed and thought of what I have seen of the Pacific Interchange project and what was going on at the beginning of the SR-520 alternatives selection, and it came across to me as rich people against transit - something we've been seeing a lot of lately in this region. It turns out I was totally off base, and I apologize to Jonathan Dubman and Rob Wilkinson for the following piece, which I will leave up so that people can continue to lambast me in the comments.

In actuality, it seems like these guys really do want to improve transit, and at least Mr. Dubman uses it, and while I disagree with them that this would be a good use of Sound Transit money this round, I see the utility of the project eventually. I'm still concerned that this would drastically change the routing and availability of the buses that use 520 and start from I-5, and I still think it's far more useful to use North King or East King money to extend light rail, especially because we can't build Snohomish light rail until we get North King built out.

But this post was out of line, and I'm sorry about that. I wish the best to both of you authors in becoming multimillionaires, and I hope we can be allies even though I'm a jerk. Mr. Dubman, thanks for replying and setting me straight, and thank you jamesk for making me say "uh-oh" and go have a second google.
Today's Times makes me cringe with a sneaky op-ed by two Montlake Multimillionaires who have worked hard for years to undermine the SR-520 bridge replacement and HOV project, and now want to bring their delaying tactics to light rail in a sad attempt to keep a bad idea alive.

The gist of it is that these guys do not care one whit about transit, but want money for their pet project. They spearheaded the "Pacific Interchange" alternative for the SR-520 bridge replacement, with the aim of getting commuters (outsiders!) out of their once-elite neighborhood by building flyover ramps from 520 to Husky Stadium. They already lost that battle - WSDOT chose the six lane alternative (the same two general purpose we have now, with an extension of the HOV lanes all the way to I-5), and these jokers think they can get their project back with Sound Transit money.

Their myopic view ignores the region's actual commute patterns. They point out that an uncongested express bus trip takes 14 minutes from Montlake to Microsoft - but (intentionally) ignore the fact that the vast majority of commuters at Montlake are not coming from the immediate neighborhood - they're coming from Capitol Hill, the UW, Ballard, Roosevelt, and Wallingford neighborhoods, among others. They say the trip from Husky Stadium to Microsoft on Link would be 41 minutes - but ignore the fact that someone living near Roosevelt or Capitol Hill stations would still have a shorter commute boarding there than transferring to the bus at Montlake, and someone at Brooklyn might just take the train for the convenience of a one-seat ride. I would personally save time by boarding at Roosevelt than using my current bus down to Montlake.

The claims here by our Montlake Multimillionaires (who have probably never even taken a bus across the bridge) are stretched, if not simply bogus. Taking money from East Link to get commuters out of their neighborhood would be a horrible use of public funds. This is another example of fake transit support - these people claim to be really interested in "bus rapid transit", but take a layer off the onion and you see they have another agenda entirely. When they pitch this kind of thing to the Laurelhurst Community Club, they even suggest that their direct access ramps could later become "high occupancy toll" roads so the rich can avoid the Montlake interchange.

Everett Streetcar

It seems streetcars are all the rage these days. According to the Everett Herald, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson has reversed his previous position on the Everett streetcar, and has sent a proposal for a $30,000 study of a streetcar line in Everett, on top of a previous $115,000 study already approved.

Ironically, leaving an Everett streetcar line off the Sound Transit ballot may help a Sound Transit ballot measure in Snohomish, since voters outside of Everett may not want to pay for a streetcar there. Either way, it's great to see Everett taking even small steps toward better transit.

Monday, June 16, 2008

$4 gas = Light Rail Ballot in 2008

The Seattle Times is talking about $4 a gallon gas and the possibility of a ballot measure this year, this time with a twist: the northern light rail expansion, so-called North Link, to Lynnwood instead of stopping at Northgate, and South Link going as far as Federal Way. I love it. It's a compromise between the package from last year's Prop. 1, and the fast-package being considered this year. If they can guarantee rail to Overlake Transit Center, the package would prove popular. Apparently, the board has until the 12th of August to decide.

I'm unhappy with a bit of the reporting. From reading this passage, you'd barely know there was a massive road expansion on that ballot measure:

Last year, voters in urban Snohomish, King and Pierce counties trounced the $38 billion "Roads & Transit" proposition that included a 0.5 percent sales-tax increase to build 50 miles of rail over 20 years.

After the loss, Sound Transit began studying a scaled-back, 12-year approach, with only 18 to 23 miles of new Link light rail, and perhaps a slightly lower tax increase.

The other thing that annoys me is this quote from Mark Baerwaldt (at least he wasn't called a transit advocate):
Some Sound Transit skeptics argue that if the problem is gasoline, the answer is to increase buses and toll lanes, which can be done relatively fast.

"The relief cannot be provided by Sound Transit; it takes decades to complete their mission," said Mark Baerwaldt, a leader of last year's opposition campaign.

No challenge on the assertion that buses can be done faster? King County Metro has been waiting more than 3 years now for its last order of buses, and the coach manufacturers have more orders coming online than they did three years ago.

Transit Report Card : San Francisco

Martin usually does the transit report cards. This time I'm posting about a place where I know transit fairly intimately.

Segments ridden:


Most Muni Metro Routes

The 'F' Heritage Line
Muni Buses

Scope: C+
BART covers the Eastbay well, parts of the San Francisco well, but only goes one station past the airport toward Silicon Valley in the Pennisula. Not only that, it doesn't serve Marin County at all. In order to serve Marin, BART would need to be extended north and west across the city, and a bridge over, or a tunnel under, the Golden Gate would need to be built. So unless transit money gets a lot easier to come by, I don't expect this to happen for a long time.

The Muni Metro's six lines are something between Link and the SLU streetcar. They only cover the parts of San Francisco south and west of Downtown. The F Heritage Line does go along the Embarcadero waterfront to Fisherman's Wharf, but that route is mostly for tourists and has relatively low capacity. The planned E Hertiage Line will continue to all the way to Fort Mason. There is a future plan to put the T Third Street into a new "Central Subway" that would cross the Market Street Subway and extend to North Beach, but funding for that extension has only been partially secured. Even then, the entire northwest portion of the city is only served by bus, though a BRT route has been planned for some of that area, currently Geary and Van Ness

Service: B+

BART runs in the City and downtown Oakland with five or six minute headways, but the suburban commuter portions have much longer headways, sometimes as long as fifteen or twenty minutes. BART runs from 5am to a little after midnight. Capacity maxes at 1500 per train. Muni Metro runs on ten minute heads at peak times, and service is from 5 am to about 1am. A single-car Muni train can hold up to 250 people, and a two-car train can carry 500.

Caltrain runs 98 trains per day, most of them local trains that stop at nearly all 28 stations. Some trains, designated "baby bullets" make just four stops, and there are other levels of express trains in between. ACE runs four trains per day, and Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs 32 trains per day.

Routing: B

Much of BART in the Eastbay runs near or parallel to highways, partly because of cheaper right-of-way, but also partly because of how these communities developed. In the 1960s and 1970s, building next to highways was all the rage.

Muni covers the south and west parts of the city well, most on that area aren't farther than ten blocks from a Muni line or Bart.

The Pennisula toward the south is only served by Caltrain, which stops far from job centers in the South Bay and in the City. Caltrain runs parallel to 101, but through the historic downtowns. This routing is not perfect, but surface-rail corridors are difficult to come by. Many reverse-commute San Franciscans are taken from their Caltrain station to work by company-shuttle, and into city commuters are forced onto a transfer at Fourth and King station in San Francisco

Grade/ROW: B-
BART, like all third-rail systems, is entirely grade-separated. In San Francisco it's entirely underground, and it's also underground in Downtown Oakland, in Berkeley, and in a couple of the cities south of San Francisco, outside of that it's elevated.

The Muni Metro is underground in the Market Street Subway, which makes for nine underground stations. Some of the other portions run in there own right-of-way, the new T-Third street is almost entirely in it's own center street right-of-way, much like Link in the Rainier Valley. Ironically, the right-of-ways and subway sections of the Muni Metro are the major reason the Muni Metro still exists: in the 1940s and 1950s when streetcars were being taken out, the five lines that had their separated right-of-way couldn't be replaced by buses.

The commuter rail lines, Caltrain, Amtrak Capitol Corridor and ACE, obviously run in their own right-of-way with grade crossings.


San Francisco is the second densest city in the US, and easily the densest in the West. Many of the suburbs are also very dense: Oakland, Daly City and Berkley, among others, are in fact much more dense than Seattle is. Part of this is because of age of these areas, but there has been a lot of development around BART stations.

One of the main impetuses for the new T-Third street was the development of areas served by the line, including China Basin, Mission Bay, and Hunter's Point.

Caltrain is running in a 19th-century rail corridor, so it runs through the historic downtowns of most of the cities it serves.

Culture: A-

San Francisco is one of the few cities in America where driving is not the majority. More than 35% of commuters take transit, and another 20% bike. San Francisco is also one of the few cities where nearly everyone knows where the transit lines are. East Bay commuters have been pushed away from driving by $4 tolls across the Bay Bridge, and reliable BART commutes. However, Marin County is only served by Golden Gate Transit, which runs relatively few buses, and most commuters along the Pennisula, in and out of San Francisco, still drive.


San Francisco's rail network is far suprior to Seattle's, but the major modes are relatively analogous. Caltrain is like Sounder, BART is what Link could be with expansion, and I think the Muni Metro is a major inspiration for Seattle's Streetcar network. One thing Seattle can learn from Muni is that two-train stations are worth it; you never know when transit demand will out-pace supply by huge amounts.

BART can also be a lesson: make sure to get commitment early when building transit systems. Marin County to the North dropped out early in the BART planning process, making it virtually impossible to extend BART there now, and Santa Clara county, to the south, now wants BART, but is forced to build it through the East Bay because San Mateo county was so opposed to BART. Also, duplicating highway corridors by may be the best way to serve current population and residential centers, but does not create future transit-orient development to the same extent new corridors might.

Also, Caltrain has 98 runs per day compared to 18 for Sounder. But Caltrain gets just 37,000 riders per day compared to 11,000 for Sounder. How can you run more than five times as many trains, through a far more dense corridor and get fewer riders per run? It's simple: charge a a reasonable amount to ride (fares top at $11 for Caltrain), go to downtown job centers (Caltrain stops at few), and provide adequate parking (I know, I know: more parking is heresy). ACE and Amtrak Capitol Corridor show that suburb-to-suburb rail can work, but it needs to go through job centers, and again, parking is hugely important.

Finally, density is important. San Francisco is dense, as are a number of the older suburbs. But the South Bay, where a lot of growth has been over the last twenty years, is very low density and sprawling. Same thing goes with the areas East of the hills in the East Bay. San Francisco could have absorbed more of that sprawl, but, like Seattle, made a choice to try to "perserve" the 1960s way of life. What happened? The 1960s way of life was lost, but along the way so was affordibility and scope. Now there's a huge region that is difficult to serve easily by transit, has chronic "natural" challenges like wild fires and floods (we just get floods here), and surprising congestion. Our area still has a chance to avoid sprawl and geographic expansion on the level seen by the Bay Area, let's hope we can get everyone on board.

I contemplated whether to write about the South Bay's VTA system, but I decided that system was worth a post of it's own.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Central Link light-rail to Tukwila push run!

Sound Transit pushed the ST 105 to Tukwila Station before parking it next to I-5 near 144th Avenue for "public" viewing.

It'll be visible to all along I-5 and it's already caused quite a stir..all positive :D

Pictures can be viewed here - I only resized them.

I'll update the captions and such later on and a full story on Monday.

Thoughts on the Amtrak Funding Bill

Frank over at Orphan Road has been keeping track of the $15B Amtrak bill that just passed both the US House and Senate with a veto-proof majority. A lot of this bill is for grants, so this could mean something for Seattle.

The first thing the bill does is ensures Amtrak can operate for the next five years without fear of losing funding. Amtrak wasn't designed with a consistent funding program, so they're unable to issue bonds like Sound Transit does - they'd have no way of paying them back, because they can't levy any taxes. Basically, this means Amtrak service gets worse every year as their equipment ages and the small portion of track they actually own slowly becomes the worse for wear. This bill will buy Amtrak some new equipment, and it funds some capital upgrades so they can improve service in the Northeast Corridor, the high speed line between Washington DC, Philadelphia, NYC, and Boston.

Some background before we go further: In Washington, we have a partnership between the Washington State DOT (WSDOT) and Amtrak to provide more service than Amtrak would normally be able to fund. I've never been clear on exactly how the costs are split up (Brian might be willing to comment to that), but the state owns most of the trains themselves and pays for most of the service we have. This partnership service is a route called Amtrak Cascades.

Cascades currently runs four daily round trips from Seattle to Portland, one Seattle to Vancouver BC, and one Seattle to Bellingham - although that last one will be extended to Vancouver as well sometime in the next year. The Oregon DOT also funds two round trips from Portland to Eugene. In 2007, the Washington State routes got more than 675,000 riders, the vast majority of those riding between Seattle and Portland.

When there's bad traffic or a big border delay, this service is already often faster than driving. It takes 3h30m from Seattle to Portland, and 3h55m from Seattle to Vancouver. This really isn't consistently competitive, though - so WSDOT has a nominally 20 year plan of incremental upgrades to get Seattle-Portland down to 2h30m, and Seattle-Vancouver down to 2h45m. This comes from a lot of small projects, and a few big ones, like building some new segments of passenger-only track on which we could operate at 110mph, instead of the current 79 (and often slower).

Back to the bill: There are two types of grants this bill offers that could affect our service very positively. The first is that it offers grants to develop state passenger corridors. Guess what Amtrak Cascades is? This bill provides $2.5 billion in matching grants, where the federal share can be up to 80%, for state corridor projects. The other type of grant is for the 11 corridors in which the federal government thinks high speed rail is a good idea - these total $1.75 billion. Guess what kind of corridor Amtrak Cascades runs in? Now, we might not get a penny of this money, because the California High Speed Rail Project has a $10 billion bond issue going before voters this November, and their plan is very competitive, but there's a good chance we'll get some of this money to improve intercity service.

Friday, June 13, 2008

We Need a Light Rail Vote This Year

Coming from our discussion over the last day of where to put our next rail spine, I want to make the case for voting to extend what we have this year, in the November general election, rather than delaying for two years.

The big argument for waiting until 2010 is that we'll see light rail in operation for a year - people will have a chance to ride it. I think this would have a positive impact, but that impact would be much smaller than the huge positive turnout impact of presidential and gubernatorial elections. It seems that most of the potential riders - those who will be directly affected - are already galvanized. They're either aware of and looking forward to having the system online, or else they're shaking their fists at Sound Transit for causing construction delays and road closures. Having rail open won't change the minds of anti-transit detractors, it'll just give them two more years to think up new smears.

This year we will really benefit from strong turnout for the top of the ticket. Barack Obama is on the ballot - easily the most well spoken and charismatic Democratic presidential candidate in decades. Voter turnout was astronomical in the primaries, with some states seeing higher turnout than previous general elections. One of the reasons we failed last year was because it was an off year - there were no good candidates bringing people to the polls, only initiatives. Many of the regular off-year voters are motitvated by anger and frustration with government, and are very likely to vote against propositions and referenda. If Obama wins this year, we'll be in a prime position to compete for the first new Federal Transit Administration grants from a more transit friendly administration.

High gas prices will work for us this year as well. Yesterday we saw a $15B Amtrak reauthorization bill pass the US House with a veto-proof majority, after a similar showing in the Senate, on the heels of big increases in ridership on all of Amtrak's routes, including our own Cascades. We've seen Sounder ridership jump dramatically, with most of the Sounder South trains standing room only, and overall ridership up some 30% over the same period last year. My bus to work is packed as ever, despite new service coming online recently and some of the trips only 5 minutes apart. The cheap gas is $4.39 down the street from me - and that's up from $4.29 a few days ago. If those prices keep up, we're going to keep seeing the ridership gains we have been, which means more people aware of and interested in a better way to work. We don't know what gas prices will be like in 2010 - some of our current run-up in oil futures is due to speculation, and some of that money will return to securities as the real estate bust smooths out.

This year, constitutents are looking for solutions. Government at all levels is commonly criticized for being behind the times, being unable to respond quickly to changes. We shouldn't wait two years before submitting a plan to voters, when they are looking for something now. This is a great chance for Sound Transit to show that they have a plan and they're ready to take action. The fact that the retooled ST2 plans are accelerated works strongly to our advantage - and with University Link construction beginning next year, to the untrained eye Sound Transit will get credit for groundbreaking only months after a vote. You can't buy PR like that.

Look at all the things 2008 gives us: High gas prices make people want an alternative. Unprecedented gains in transit ridership show that we have strong and growing demand. Obama and Gregoire ensure that we'll have great progressive turnout who will support transit projects. Let's put ST2 on the ballot this November.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Expansion Pays for Itself in 15 Years

A study done by Parsons-Binckeroff for the Sound Transit board shows that a mass transit expansion will pay for itself in increased local economic growth within about 15 years of completion. After that time the benefits would continue to pile up for a century or more.

From the press release:

These are the key findings of a benefit-cost analysis prepared for Sound Transit and released to its Board today. The Board currently is considering options for Sound Transit system expansion. Benefit-cost analysis of projects costing more than $100 million is required by the Puget Sound Regional Council as it reviews conformity with the regional transportation plan, a state mandate.

“This confirms that investing in mass transit makes sense for the bottom line," said Greg Nickels, Sound Transit Board Chair and Seattle Mayor. “By expanding Sound Transit and giving people more alternatives to sitting in traffic, we'll save both time and money."

The impacts of new transit on travel patterns in the region were assessed in five categories:
· number of new transit riders,
· travel time savings for new and existing travel riders,
· savings in vehicle (highway) miles traveled due to new transit riders,
· paid parking saved for new transit riders,
· reduction in delay caused by traffic congestion.

Benefits-cost analysis is an economic tool used to measure the relative difference between the benefits and costs of projects or investments. Public investments generating benefit-cost ratios greater than one-to-one, or more than break even, are considered justifiable.

The study’s methodology is modeled upon state-of-the-art, conservative assumptions for U.S. transit investments. It compares expanding transit with taking no action. Anticipated regional population growth will cause significantly more congestion on existing highways by 2030. The study finds that expanding the rail system will yield significant mobility benefits, resulting in time savings of between 13 million and 34 million vehicle-hours from reduced vehicle delay per year, depending on the expansion option.

Let's go to the ballot in 2008!

Nickels on The Federal Government's Obligation to Cities

Nickels has an opinion piece in the Times that I think is worth reading for great quotes like this:

Federal transportation policy must reflect the obvious climate benefit of linking mass transit and regional development.

We need to encourage density, so the biggest commute decision in the morning is which pair of shoes to wear on the walk to work or transit.

Past federal housing and transportation policies transformed American cities, and not always for the better. We need to break the outdated pattern of highway and sprawl and respond to the needs of the 120 million new Americans expected to live here by 2050.

Emphasis added. Read the whole thing.

The DSTT Will Be Full.

When we talk about building West Seattle or Ballard service, there's often an assumption that this service could use the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel we have now. As far as I'm aware, it can't.

The light rail spine we're building now will eventually go through Federal Way to Tacoma, and through Lynnwood to Everett. The tunnel will be used not only for trains that run straight through from Everett to Tacoma, but also for trains that run from Everett (or at least somewhere north of downtown Seattle) to Bellevue and Redmond.

We're starting with service on Central Link every six minutes during peak times. It's probably reasonable to consider service down to headways (time between trains) of two minutes - the closest headways I've seen in any Sound Transit documentation are 2.4 minute, from their 2005 long range plan.

After University Link opens, I sincerely hope we'll be looking at lowering headways during peak times. Maybe this will be to five minutes. If we build Sound Transit 2 just to Northgate and Bellevue, we're going to add trains to the tunnel to bring headways down further. We'd have trains to the Rainier Valley every five minutes, and then trains to Bellevue every 10 minutes. The easy way to figure out combined headway is to figure out how many trains that is per hour - 6 for Bellevue, 12 for the Valley - and then divide the number of minutes (60 in an hour) by the number of trains (18). Let's round this to 3 minutes.

This is a hundred year plus system - it'll still be operating after all of us are long dead. We're certainly going to increase the frequency of the trains on this line in the future - maybe even soon. We need the flexibility to do that.

Ten years ago, the monorail project was talking about 3 minute peak headways for Ballard-West Seattle. Combine that with just the potential ST2 service, and you're talking about 1.5 minute peak headways. Those are physically possible, but that's it, then. We wouldn't have any room for ST3, no room for ST4, nothing.

New rail through downtown will need new right of way.

Light Rail Through Duwamish?

The P-I talks about re-development plans for the Duwamish valley as part of the Superfund clea-up, and I noticed light rail on the map. Obviously, there's no funding source for it, but wouldn't it be nice? Taking a train to Georgetown is probably a distance dream.

The West Seattle alignment is intersting also. I wonder if the Spokane street viaduct could hold light rail. Even if it could, I am not sure those trains could actually travel through the Downtown Transit Tunnel. I think after ST2, that corridor's capacity would be essetially maxed out.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

BRT vs Rail Again

After listening to Rob Johnson debate Mark Baerwaldt on KUOW (you can listen here, it starts about 15 minutes in), I read this article by conservative rail supporter Paul Weyrich (via Orphan Road) on the problems with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and why he supports Light Rail Transit (LRT) over BRT. Definitely worth a read.

He brings up a couple of points that I missed in my argument on LRT versus BRT:

Then there is the matter of speed. Both buses and rail cars can run at the same top speed. But the acceleration and deceleration rate of a rail car or train is much faster than that of a bus. That is why rail systems can maintain better schedules than buses. And there is the question of replacements. Buses don't last for more than 15 years, with overhauls maybe 20. Electric rail cars, on the other hand, if well maintained can operate indefinitely. The SEPTA Red Arrow Division operated streetcars and interurban cars that were some 60 to 70 years old before they finally were replaced. Ever come across a 70-year-old bus in regular service? Boston, Philadelphia, Kenosha and San Francisco operate PCC streetcars from the 1940s and 1950s seven days a week. Those are modern quiet streetcars developed by the President's Conference Committee in the 1930s to attempt to stave off competition from automobiles and buses. They will be able to operate for at least another 15 years.

At the Tour we took, Link Light Rail maintenance chief John Zastawniak said that Link cars last 20 years without overhauls.

It's The Little Things.

This morning I read the same article Daimajin did, but I noticed something that I see from our local papers all the time: Ridiculous small 'errors' making Sound Transit look bad. It should be clear that I don't think these are unintentional.

Have a look at part of today's article:

But it's a choice between cost and time. Layovers and travel times are far longer, but riders can get from town to town on a bus cheaper than by car or even private coach. The one-way, nonrefundable Greyhound fare from downtown Seattle to downtown Tacoma is $11.50 for a 45-minute trip. The same trip on a Sound Transit bus is 30 minutes longer but costs $3. By car, the trip is about 40 minutes without traffic tie-ups.

Did you notice? Larry Lange claims Sound Transit takes 30 minutes longer than Greyhound from Tacoma to Seattle? I checked the schedule to be absolutely sure - nope, Sound Transit's buses actually take 46 minutes to get to 4th and Union - and they're faster than Greyhound if you're going to get off in south Downtown. Sound Transit pads their schedules up to 58 minutes during peak times to account for congestion, but the fact that Greyhound doesn't bother doesn't mean Greyhound is faster - just more inaccurate.

ST's 590 (and similar) don't stop between Tacoma and Seattle, and they get to use the HOV lanes the whole way. For downtown to downtown trips, they are almost always faster than driving alone, especially considering you don't have to park.

But it's the 30 minute difference thing that gets me. Larry Lange knows perfectly well no such difference exists.

Exurban and Rural Transit Trips

In a seemingly continuing series on the possibilities of public transit the P-I has an interesting article about using public transit to get to far-away places, like Port Townsend to Olympia (!!!). The farthest I've ever taken local transit was from San Francisco to Big Sur (seriously, and it was awesome). Any of you gone on a really long bus ride? I know STB reader DJtroksy has taken public transit on some pretty long rides.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Monorail vs Light Rail

Mark Baerwaldt (of Monorail fame) and Rob Johnson (Policy Directory for Transportation Choices Coalition) will be debating tomorrow (Wednesday) on KUOW's Weekday at 10:15 am. Rob Johnson is a big light-rail guy, and Mark Baerwaldt is a big Sound Transit hater. It should be an interesting debate.

Sumner Park and Ride

Sound Transit Park and Rides are back in the news again this week, though this time it's Sumner in addition to Puyallup. Park and Rides are almost always full at both stations, and the over-flow commuters are taking up parking on nearby city streets. Sound Transit is considering more parking garages as well as station-access-funds.

“One of the lessons we have learned is that we have to define the scope of projects,” [Joni Earl, Sound Transit CEO] said. “The board (of Sound Transit) has changed its focus from garages to access to stations. We want to work with communities to find” solutions.

One of those solutions already is being implemented in Sumner, Earl said. Working with Pierce Transit, bus service from the Bonney Lake Park & Ride connects to the trains at the Sumner station both in the morning and in the evening. The shuttle service has meant more riders for Sound Transit with no added impact to Sumner, she said.

I wonder if Sound Transit couldn't partner with a local developer for some kind of mixed-use, park-and-ride/condo project to bring people into the downtowns of these areas and help pay for the new parking projects. But I guess that might be illegal? At least Sounder is getting a ton of riders.

Screeching to a Halt?

The Washington Post ran an editorial Sunday describing the funding gap we need to make up just to maintain public transit in the US:

Washington's inattention to public transportation is bipartisan and longstanding. Congress and the Bush administration have done little to fix it. In the omnibus transportation bill signed in 2005 (covering the period from 2003 to 2008), annual funding for mass transit is targeted at around $10 billion, of which about $7 billion goes to capital infrastructure projects. Add that to state and local funding, and the nation's total capital spending on transit amounts to roughly $13 billion annually. But even by the administration's conservative estimates, the minimum need is closer to $20 billion. And the American Public Transportation Association reckons $45 billion to $60 billion annually would be optimal to replace and modernize aging buses, facilities, subways and rail systems. That's quite a gap.

It's worth reading the whole thing.

Advice for New Transit Riders

The P-I has a primer for bus riders, in response to higher gas prices, including tips to making your bus commute more enjoyable, and figuring out whether transit will be cheaper than driving (it nearly always is cheaper than driving alone). They do run a story about a woman puking on the bus, for what reason, I don't know. In all my years riding public transit, I've never seen anyone puking.

The article is really basic. How to buy tickets (the P-I notes you cannot use credit cards), how to signal your stop (pull the cord) and how to find your route. Rides are free downtown (anyone who has been downtown must know that by now, right?).

Ok, if I had to give advice to new transit riders, I would say the following:

  • Have your cash ready when you board, or get off. Better yet, buy a pass or tickets before riding. You'll be happier, and your fellow riders will appreciate (or at least hate you less).
  • Don't be shy to ask questions, just don't hold up the bus doing so. Does the bus go to Pioneer Square/Pike Place Market? If you're in the ride free zone, pretty much yes.
  • Don't talk to the crazies unless you are prepared to talk until you get off. This is an easy mistake that I see a lot of noobies make. You can't tell who is crazy easily, so you may not want to talk to anyone until you've riden a dozen times or so.
  • Please be respectful of others when using your phone.

What am I missing? What advice would you give transit noobs?

Monday, June 9, 2008

Gentrification and Old Buildings on MLK

When discussing transit, one of the issues that comes up the most is that of gentrification - the idea that those currently living near new transit will be forced out by high rents and developers, forced to move someplace far away, replaced with childless yuppie couples who drink bad lattes and wear clothes from REI and Patagonia, their key-laden carabiners jingling, Keens squeaking on the sidewalk as they walk by local bookshops, bahn mi and bakeries in favor of Starbucks, Barnes and Noble and Urban Outfitters.

MLK's one story strip malls, populated by a rainbow of independent groceries, restaurants, nail and hair salons, do not stand a chance against such an onslaught of money. Not even Seattle's pervasive fear of the "south end" (read: people with various shades of skin colors who are clearly all Out To Get You) will stop the growth of poorly designed, vinyl-skinned faux mixed use, sporting spacious high end first floor coffee shops with brand new factory-aged furniture topped with shoddy apartments and condos at astronomical prices.

That's the bad news.

Now for the good.

The buildings on MLK are fairly old. While some have been rebuilt more recently, many are easily 40 or 50 years old, and on top of that, they are generally very cheap, single story construction. When they were first built, they did not house small, independent businesses. They represented a new, low density construction boom during and after WWII, lots of subsidized temporary housing and the businesses to support them. As the construction loans were paid off, the carrying costs for these buildings became very low, so the small businesses we see today trickled into the aging structures.

This happens everywhere. The market doesn't build new buildings with the intention of housing small businesses - they can't pay the rent of new construction. New buildings house high-margin, often cookie cutter businesses, with the exception of those helped along through local government (artist lofts, subsidized housing) or rare business partnerships (Vivace). It is only when those buildings age that the space in them gets cheaper; the business diversity that makes cities great appears only where small and unique becomes affordable.

Here's the kicker: It is cheaper per square foot for a business to build a new one story building than to tear down an existing one story building to build a two or four story building. One story buildings are cheap. When people are using transit to get around, though, one story buildings don't offer enough density. The rewards for building a little higher and closer together are greater because so many of your users are pedestrians. Highways are the only reason that business economics don't overwhelm the low construction cost of short buildings - if everyone's driving, they can go further, so the original one story buildings survive.

Before the highways, you saw higher density. In Columbia City, you see two story (and higher) brick buildings, packed close together, without parking lots. As the city grew, these would have been replaced with four or six or eight stories, like we see in Pioneer Square. But this growth was stunted by the highways' massive reduction in the marginal cost of traveling farther.

This is how MLK (then Empire Way) grew. Small one story buildings filled in along the boulevard, commercial closer to the city, industrial farther away. As the highways were built, instead of being replaced, these buildings simply aged. Now wait a minute. Why is this bad? We need old buildings, right? Here's the problem: Given some demand, it's profitable to replace a one story building with a six story building. When there's enough demand, your one story buildings really don't stand a chance.

However, six story buildings do. Look at Pioneer Square again, Belltown, and the International District. Most of those aren't chain stores, and many of those buildings are old. It's unprofitable to replace a six story building with anything short of 20 or 30 stories - and local resistance to high-rises outside the downtown core make that kind of zoning very unlikely on MLK.

The key here is this: Anything we build on MLK today will not only be there just as long as the buildings there now have lasted, it will also be more resistant to further development. The first wave of construction will be opportunistic and perhaps not of the best quality, but the second wave, after light rail opens and as demand increases, will be better, just as second wave construction in Pioneer Square, Belltown and the ID were stone and brick and easily protected by today's community groups. Those buildings will last lifetimes.


Metro still hasn't released anything about Ballard or Aurora RapidRide, but tidbits continue to drip out in the P-I:

If adopted, the proposals would bring wider sidewalks and an end to the center turn lane to a 35-block-long stretch of Aurora Avenue from North 110th Street to the Shoreline border, said Rick Sheridan, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation. Three lanes would carry traffic in each direction, including one lane reserved for bus and business traffic...

A bus rapid transit line would be included in the redesign. The proposed line would shuttle people into the city's core with minimal stops and buses coming at 10-minute intervals.

Sheridan said the designs are preliminary and that construction wouldn't start until 2011 at the earliest.

So it seems that there will be a bus lane for at least part of the Aurora line, much like Ballard. Good.

That makes four of the five RapidRide lines (Ballard, Aurora, W. Seattle, Pacific Highway) that will have at least some portion of the route with a semi-dedicated right-of-way. It's just the Eastside that gets nothing in this department.

But hey, maybe we can overcome Ron Sims' objections to East LINK, so that they can get something too.

Search for "RapidRide" in the bar at the top of the page for our other coverage of this topic.

UPDATE 8:46 AM: Business Access and Transit (BAT) lanes are explained here.

Image from

New York Without Subways?

Martin's Transit Report card for New York got me thinking about how much rail can effect a city. Here's an old link to a NY Times article about what New York would be like without subways.

The first note is how much more development there is now compared to when the lines were put in:

The subway forever altered the city it was designed to serve. In 1910 most of Brooklyn was undeveloped, and much of it was still farmland. But the BMT changed all that. By 1940 Brooklyn had more residents than Manhattan, and neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay, Canarsie and Bay Ridge were no longer remote. Similarly, the Bronx counted only 200,000 residents in 1900. By 1940, the population was seven times that, and the Grand Concourse, Loews Paradise and Krum's ice cream parlor were already legendary.

Transit causes development, no question.

Without the subway, it's hard to imagine that New York would have remained a great city, indeed the ultimate city. Urban greatness, in the 21st century no less than the 20th, requires an efficient, safe and effective rail transit system. Without the subway, New York might very well have turned out to be Bridgeport.

What would Seattle be like if we had built a subway? I don't know. But we are building rail transit now, and if we continue to build it we can see whether Seattle can achieve "urban greatness".

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sound Transit tour video

Thanks to all the people that showed up on Friday for our Light Rail tour. Eric from "Ride the Link" took video, which you can see here. See if you can pick out the four STB contributors with speaking roles.

And thanks to the good people at Sound Transit for making it possible.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ben on KOMO

If any of you were listening to KOMO radio Monday around lunchtime, you know that our very own Ben Schiendelman was on for about 30 seconds talking about bus etiquette. I can only applaud KOMO's exquisite taste in guests.

Here's the audio. Thanks to Frank from Orphan Road for hosting the file, since Blogger doesn't seem to think that's worth its while.

Friday, June 6, 2008

New CT Maps!

I've been meaning to blog about this for a while, but whoa, look at the new Community Transit Route Maps! They're attractive, clear, and have tons of information. It's such a substantial improvement over their old maps, which were both hideous and uninformative.

In particular I appreciate the ability to understand how the routes fit into the context of the other routes in the area.

I'd wouldn't want to have the sparse service that CT provides, but I'm continually impressed with the creativity and resourcefulness they display with limited funding.

Transit Report Card: New York City

Third in an occasional series where I wildly generalize about a transit system based on limited experience.

Segments ridden:
More or less all of the Manhattan Routes
D train to Coney Island & Downtown Brooklyn
7 train to Shea Stadium
Various approaches to Yankee Stadium
Bergen County NJ Transit Line (Waldwick - NY Penn Station)
PATH: Pavonia to 14th St
Staten Island Ferry

Scope: A+
If you're reading this blog you probably know that the subway more or less blankets the city. But what you might not know is the extent of the commuter rail system, which covers all of Long Island, half of New Jersey and deep into Connecticut and upstate New York. Look for yourself; it's truly massive.

And don't forget the PATH subway system into New Jersey and run by the Port Authority, as well as the Newark and Hudson Shore Light Rail systems run by New Jersey Transit.

Service: A+
24-hour service on the subway, unparalleled anywhere in the world. As for commuter rail, I rode into the city on a Sunday and found myself with 36 trains a day in each direction to choose from.

Routing: A
Not an A+ because there's very little in the way of routing that bypasses Manhattan. The city could use some ring lines like they have in Tokyo, London, and Paris.

Grade/ROW: A+
As with all third-rail systems, no pedestrian or auto is ever going to get anywhere near the track.

New York has extreme density where there's rail transit, not so much where there isn't. On the other hand, the not-so-dense places would give the average resident of, say, Greenwood some sort of aneurysm.

Culture: A+
Undoubtedly, the city in America where it's most foolish to own a car, unless you go into the outer suburbs a lot. If not here an A+, then where?


If you have even a little bit of transit tourist in you, get thee to New York City before airfares go up again. Driving is a nightmare, parking can cost over $20 for a half hour (plus tax), and the subway system approaches perfection (unless you require wheelchair accessibility, as I discovered when trying to cart around a baby stroller on this trip).

If you're a total cheapskate, get a hotel out in the suburbs and take the commuter rail in.

What's a little frightening is that with all the transit options available, there used to be more. There are tons of transit tunnels and stations abandoned at the peak of the automobile age. The city tore down dozens of miles of elevated track in the last century as well. And yet the system still carries more daily riders that all the nation's other systems combined.

Smart NYC travelers fly into Newark and take one of the various New Jersey transit options into the city, rather than suffering through a 2-hour AirTrain and Subway slog into Manhattan from JFK.

Multimodalism is at its best here. At Penn Station, for instance, you have Amtrak, PATH trains, commuter rail, 6 subway lines, and God knows how many buses all coming together in one gigantic terminal. The Newark airport has an AirTrain system that connects all the terminals with not only the car rental complex, but also a train station that supports both commuter rail and Amtrak.

This kind of integration makes it plausible to nearly eliminate "puddle-jumper" aircraft, since outlying residents can simply take the train to take advantage of the many destinations available out of the New York airports. I think this kind of thing is very useful as gas prices skyrocket and scarce landing slots have to be devoted to bigger aircraft.

I'm told there are a few traditional tourist attractions in the city as well.

Reminder : Meet-up tomorrow

6:30 pm, Collins Pub (Yesler & Second). Hope you can make it!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Re: Rising Gas Prices and Transit Agencies

Daimajin posed the question about how Metro should compensate for higher fuel costs. Systematically, this is how I see it:

Raising taxes

  • No negative impacts on ridership
  • Introduces tax fatigue, poisoning the well for capital projects like light rail.
  • Is likely to be regressive
Raising fares
  • The usual suspects (Kemper Freeman, et al) don't object.
  • $2.00 is easier to pay than $1.75.
  • Corporate pass purchasers (eg, Microsoft) are relatively price-insensitive
  • Highly regressive to poor, occasional transit users.
Capital Investment for less diesel dependence
  • Sustainable, both environmentally and economically
  • Makes the funding squeeze worse in the short term
  • Takes a long time
Although cheaper passes and higher spot fares would benefit me personally, I don't think it's a good idea. First of all, as noted above many pass purchasers are corporate and therefore price-insensitive. Secondly, a lot of cash payers are poor, either because they use transit irregularly, or they can't scrape together the money to buy a pass up front.

I would hate to see a 0.1% tax increase go to maintaining current service hours instead of getting light rail out to Microsoft, etc.

So what do I propose? How about going to $2.00/$2.50 across the board (aligning with ST express two-zone), and a tax increase for capital improvements like trolley bus lines, streetcars, and light rail?

Source Request

If you're an employee at Metro working on the reorganization of routes in the Rainier Valley after LINK starts running, and I haven't contacted you already, I'd love to hear from you for a piece I'm working on. Please email the address at right (

I'd be happy to talk on or off the record.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Rising Gas Prices and Transit Agencies

The Times has a chart of how the rise in gas prices are going to hurt the transit agencies in our region. It's surprising that for an agency like Metro with a budget of more than $500 million, even with higher prices fuel is less than ten percent of costs. The $13 million shortfall Metro has, may require cuts in new Transit Now projects just to keep current service levels.

The increase in ridership is great, but it's worth keeping in mind that adding more service could take a long time, and we should begin taking those steps now.

If Metro has to choose between raising fares, cutting service or raising taxes, which would you prefer? Since my employer pays for my pass, I would personally benefit if they raised fares rather than taxes, but I know that most people buy their own passes, and depending on the tax, that might be they way to go. Cutting service seems like a terrible ideal to me.

Seattle's Funding Gap in the DJC

Claire Enlow has a guest editorial (behind paywall) in the DJC.

We’ve got lots of plans, and many transportation needs. But when it comes to funding, Seattle has the biggest gap of any city in the nation. It amounts to more than $700 per year, per person, according to a report called Infrastructure 2008 commissioned by the Urban Land Institute. That’s how fast we are falling behind. The runner-up—Dallas—has only half that gap. New York City is tenth on the list.
Why are we first in this race to nowhere? Former Seattle mayor Charles Royer, who appeared on a panel at the event releasing the ULI report, offered his assessment: “We are very good at making plans, and really bad at pulling the trigger.”


The room where Royer spoke was full of people accustomed to making plans and carrying them out—developers and their professional milieu. We could safely say that this group has a strong bias toward predictability and rationality over chaos.
And they are worried. Votes for transportation funding around here have been very hard to win. Deciding just what to do, even in the face of failing infrastructure like Seattle’s viaduct, is more difficult than ever.

To be fair, underlying the gap is a high expectation: 1.7 million more people in the central Puget Sound region in 2040 than there were in 2000, a figure the Puget Sound Regional Council uses in transportation planning. If they all commute in single-occupancy cars, that kind of increase could cause chaos.

At the same time that the Federal Highway Trust Fund is going bankrupt, the report tells us, a congressional commission has recommended that the country spend $225 billion annually over the next 50 years on its transportation systems.

There’s an estimated gap of $170 billion per year between national needs and funds, according to keynote speaker William Hudnut, four-term mayor of Indianapolis. Previously unthinkable disasters like the collapse of levies in New Orleans and a bridge in Minneapolis remind us that this gap is tragically real.

In the ULI report, comparisons to Europe and Asia make things look particularly stalled. While the European Union is banding together for infrastructure funding, the U.S. has yet to build its first high-speed train or even make plans to build a system.


Capacity on our roads and highways is already passing its limits. Relief can only be found in patterns of development that are self-contained and served by transit. And that’s going to take long-term investments in a number of areas, including rapid transit and transit-oriented development.

It won’t be cheap and Proposition 1 failed to impress the voters. The Regional Transportation Investment Authority asked for approval of a confusing, something-for-everyone list of roads and transit projects.


If regional voters are ever going to “pull the trigger” on big infrastructure investments or long term funding mechanisms, they need a convincing narrative of the post-oil future. Ongoing climate change and stratospheric gas prices should point the way to smarter development and more transportation choices. With a little more national and regional leadership, political will and voters just might be close behind.

I actually disagree that we need to convince the voters of a "post-oil future", they can already sort of see it with gas prices going higher. I think now is the time to put a transit expansion on the ballot, and without the expensive and controversial roads portion.

Rapid Ride

The West Seattle Blog knows a lot about Rapid Ride after a brief to the Council made yesterday. Some details from the longer WSB piece:

  • Rapid Ride Routes will be given letters instead of numbers. For example, the West Seattle route will be the "C" route.
  • The buses will have space for three bikes on the racks.
  • Wi-Fi will be available on all coaches.
  • There will be ticket machines in "stations" that will enable off-coach payment. This, I think, will be the biggest improvement over regular bus service.

The troubling paragraph from the WSB is this:

The briefing also brought pointed questions from city councilmembers including Transportation Committee chair Jan Drago, who is concerned that the RapidRide bus won’t be so rapid — with a variety of stops planned in addition to the “stations” that will be about a half-mile apart. Metro acknowledged that in fact, while certain parts of the route might save commuters time, in some cases RapidRide will NOT be the most “rapid” way to get downtown — express buses will still beat it.

Not so rapid, huh.

I get this sinking feeling about Rapid Ride sometimes. I asked Sims how many new service hours Rapid Ride would have and he wouldn't say, I worry there's very little. And when I read things like this about Metro's operation budget evaporating as fuel prices sky rocket:
Service increases scheduled for September are not at risk, said Kevin Desmond, Metro's general manager. But the extent of future service improvements funded by the Transit Now sales tax could be in question. The plan, approved by voters in 2006, calls for bus rapid-transit service every 10 minutes at peak hours to five corridors: Pacific Highway South, West Seattle, Ballard, Aurora and Overlake, to begin in the 2010s.

If only we had electric rail transit. It wouldn't have these spikes in operating cost...

Seattle's Transit Use Rising Faster Than Normal

Sorry to keep posting stories like this but here's a nice video about the recent transit ridership increases.
It's interesting to think that transit use is rising nationwide, but even more so in our area. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Seattle area had the third highest net-increase in transit ridership in the first three months 2008 of the twenty largest metro areas. That's huge.

My 545 this morning was standing-room-only, even in the pouring rain.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Seattle Transit Meet-Up

We're doing our monthly meet-up for June this Friday, June 6th, starting around 6:30 at Collins Pub on the border of the Financial District and Pioneer Square. We'll be sitting in the back.

Hope to see you there!

World's Most Impressive Subways

WIRED has a photo essay of some nice subway systems around the world. Check it out.

Via Yglesias.

Riders Swamp Transit

As gas goes up so do the transit riders:

This month, researchers from International Business Machines Corp. surveyed 4,091 drivers in 10 U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York. With national gasoline prices averaging $3.67 per gallon at the time of the survey, 9% of drivers said they already were seriously considering other commuting options. At $4.50 a gallon, the figure jumps to 46%.

At $5 a gallon it goes to 66%. This actually a problem for transit agencies who are having a hard time finding money because of lower economic activity due to the recession and are fighting higher diesel prices at the same time. From the WSJ:
After decades trying to gin up enthusiasm for their services, public transit agencies are now having trouble meeting rising demand as more commuters dodge high gasoline prices by hopping on a train or bus.

Under normal circumstances, the surge in ridership would be a boon to the agencies, which have long argued that public transit is one of the best ways to combat social ills such as traffic congestion and global warming.

But at the very moment they should be investing to expand their services, the same driver that is ballooning ridership is crippling transit budgets: steep fuel bills. As record numbers of people board buses and trains, higher costs are forcing public transit agencies to scale back on services, further straining capacity. Local transit agencies fret that the capacity problems may squander the opportunity to convert more Americans to public transportation.

The P-I editorial board hopes that Metro won't have to cut service, I do too. I think the opportunity that could be squandered is the good will of the voters that will enable Sound Transit to win a the ballot. Electric light rail doesn't get more expensive when diesel prices rise. It'll be interesting to see what happens, but if service does get cut, how will we cope with our commutes?

Monday, June 2, 2008

You learn something new every day

For the first time in a while, I used a Metro peak-hour transfer to get on a Sound Transit bus this morning. The driver insisted that my transfer, which had cost me $1.75, was only good for $1.50. I paid the extra quarter to avoid a scene, but didn't think it was right.

Lo and behold, he knew what he was talking about:
Valid transfers from Community Transit, King County Metro Transit (Metro) and Pierce Transit are accepted on ST Express as a one-zone ST Express fare (Adult $1.50, Youth $1.00, Senior/Disabled* $0.50).
In retrospect, this actually simplifies things, since the different transit agencies have different fares. Nevertheless, this highlights the tradeoffs in having at least four different fare systems (and soon a fifth, RapidRide) in the three-county region. If the fare system is intricate enough to confuse someone like me, it's too complicated; on the other hand, I woudn't want tax-averse out-of-county voters forcing lower service levels on us in a combined Puget Sound super-agency.

On a different note, the driver also was enforcing "Pay as you enter" at the Rainier/I-90 stop outbound from Seattle. I suppose this is correct, but certainly isn't SOP for most drivers on the 554. All in all, not a good day for me in terms of bus etiquette: today, I was the idiot without his fare ready.

Bus Lanes to Ballard

I'm not sure how this escaped our notice up to now, but the giant repaving project going on on Elliott and 15th Avenues NW involves installing peak-only bus lanes. This is a crucial improvement if RapidRide BRT in this corridor is to be worth anything.

We still haven't seen any other details about what Ballard RapidRide will entail.

Of course, the project is mentioned in the context of a driver whining about losing road capacity, but the P-I at least makes an effort to acknowledge the number of people this will help.

It's good to know there will be a decent option for densely packed Ballard residents before light rail gets there 2030-ish. Hopefully, the existence of this capacity won't be used as an argument against eventually getting there with LINK.

"Sustainable" Parking Garage

No seriously. The Port of Seattle has sent me a mail touting the "sustainable project" that is the $413 million parking garage near Sea-Tac:

Consolidated Rental Car Facility

In mid-May, the Port of Seattle Commission gave final approval for the construction of a consolidated Rental Car Facility (RCF) adjacent to Sea-Tac Airport.
10,000 to 14,000 Vehicles Processed Each Day
Don’t think of the RCF as a parking garage. Instead, think of it as a processing facility with 10,000 to 14,000 vehicles entering and leaving each day.

A Sustainable Project
The RCF is the very first sustainable demonstration project and sustainable asset management pilot project for the Airport, meaning it is designed to be built and operated in as economically and environmentally advanced manner as possible. Key attributes include:
  • Reducing/’right-sizing’ its dimension’s to decrease areas that need cooling, heating and ventilation;
  • Requiring all interior construction to use low volatile organic compound paints, sealants, adhesives and carpeting;

  • Implementing an on-site recycling program throughout the facility and,

  • Fully treating both construction and RCF stormwater to prevent sediment and pollutants from reaching local creeks.

We are proud that construction of the Consolidated Rental Car Facility will begin in the coming weeks. The amount of detailed planning that has gone into the RCF is nothing short of extraordinary and I am confident the state-of-the art facility will be embraced by both the rental car industry and its customers. I also believe that the RCF will become a source of pride for the region, a signature landmark for the City of SeaTac and set the bar for what truly represents a sustainable rental car facility.

For the record, I dislike this project because it costs $413 million. I don't care about the parking garage itself; if it were free I wouldn't think twice. And I don't mean to belittle the seemingly earnest attempt to make the project as environmentally friendly as possible, but nonsense about sustainable parking garages comes off as kind of hilarious.

For an agency that gets $40 million each year in public money, and essentially runs a monopoly on our region's air transportation, I don't think this a good way to spend its money. For comparison, the portion of link from Tukwila International Boulevard to the Airport (including the station) cost $145 million.