Seattle Transit Blog is a nonprofit organization that covers transit news for the the greater Seattle area. The blog also focuses on density and the urban form, and other forms of alternative transportation like bicycling and walking.
The projected funding would add a million Metro service hours by 2030 and place the agency on a trajectory for further expansion (Image: King County)
Earlier this year, the King County Council ordered a review of funding options for Metro Connects. This Wednesday, the Regional Transit Committee receives a status update on the effort. It considers a $220 million increase in annual funding for Metro, enough to get Metro to its long-range service goals.
Metro Connects is Metro’s long range plan, designed to integrate with Sound Transit expansion through 2040 and to meet the transit needs of city and County comprehensive plans. The Metro Connects plan, adopted in 2015, envisions a 70% increase in Metro bus service hours by 2040 over 2015 levels. That would increase transit ridership to 1 million daily boardings, and enable frequent service within 1/2 mile for 73% of county residents.
Metro’s current funding isn’t enough to reach this goal. Tax and fare revenue grow naturally over time as the economy and population expand, but only by enough to cover 30% of the additional capital costs and 50% of the extra service hours identified. The under-funding of Metro Connects has already led to the deferral of several RapidRide Lines that were hoped to open by 2025. That gap would widen if the Seattle Proposition 1 is not renewed in 2020. The Seattle TBD pays for about 10% of current service hours.
The Executive and Metro leadership have been meeting with Council members and local elected leaders to explore funding options. The status report includes a long list of possible funding sources without giving away any hints as to which are finding favor politically. Some are Metro-specific, others belong to the County or the County Transportation Benefit District (KCTBD). Most would require voter approval.
Metro’s funding puzzle starts with 3.9 million service hours in 2020 paid for out of the Metro budget, and another 400,000 paid for by the Seattle TBD. With a renewed STBD, total hours would grow slowly to 4.7 million by 2030, leaving Metro far behind their 6.0 million hours goal for 2040.
A $220 million measure in 2020 would fund both capital and operational needs, allowing Metro to increase service rapidly to 5.5 million hours by 2030, and even more later as the capital investments ease Metro’s current capacity bottlenecks.
An alternative scenario sees the Seattle TBD renewed on schedule, but a County measure delayed until 2024. This postpones capital investments and diminishes Metro’s ability to expand regional service as major rail investments come online through 2024. Instead of the 5.5 million hours by 2030 that are possible with early County funding, service hours in 2030 would be just over 4.9 million.
Delaying a funding increase to 2024 leaves Metro on a permanently lower service trajectory (Image: King County)
A county measure to replace the Seattle TBD, about which there has been speculation in the past, seems less likely. All the financial scenarios are additive to a Seattle measure.
King County is also committed to working on funding needs for regional roads and bridges. In 2017, the suburban cities and some other stakeholders convened a Regional Transportation System Initiative to this end. Staff identified about $20 billion (in 2018 constant dollars) of needed roads improvements by 2040, of which $7-8 billion are unfunded. Politically, the elected leaders never seemed to come close to a consensus on revenue options and the process concluded inconclusively in early 2018.
The Metro planning effort is separate from, but coordinating with, the effort to fund the roads needs. That might put in play a combined initiative to fund both transit and roads, perhaps building a coalition for a Metro funding measure, but also increasing the price tag over a stand-alone Metro measure.
It appears Seattle may finally allow various types of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) in most of the city. These units generally provide inexpensive rental opportunities, but are frequently illegal to build.
For a summary of where we stand today, you can’t do much better than the City’s onepager. (A somewhat longer summary is here.) The changes are projected to add over 2,000 new rental units over the regulatory status quo through 2027 and reduce the number of single-family teardowns by almost a quarter.
The proposed legislation would make changes to regulations governing ADUs; the changes include: allowing two ADUs on a lot, removing the existing off-street parking and owner-occupancy requirements for ADUs, introducing a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) limit for single-family lots, increasing the maximum household size for lots that have two ADUs, and other changes to the size and location development standards regulating DADUs.
There are 11 amendments under consideration. Probably the most impactful ones are CM Herbold’s separate proposals to ban short-term rentals in ADUs authorized by the bill, for obvious reasons, and restoring a milder form of the owner-occupancy requirement. Applicants would have to lived there for a year before applying, though they would not have to remain there to rent out this space. This amendment is meant to limit “speculation.”
The two material objections to more ADUs are (1) more competition for publicly provided parking spaces, and (2) the possibility of poorer people living in the neighborhood. As neither is particularly attractive as a public policy principle, we instead hear process objections (the subject of the recently dismissed lawsuit) and concerns about neighborhood “character” and aesthetics.
Although I personally find single-family homes bigger than about 3,000 square feet aesthetically displeasing, in principle I’m not a fan of simply banning them. However, if new restrictions neutralize the “character” objection, it’s a compromise I can live with to get more units per acre. If this compromise also incentivizes making large units easily divisible into separate rental units, so much the better.
The Sustainability and Transportation Committee will discuss the legislation on June 18th and may vote on it then.
There are two possible futures for Cascade rail
service. Are they mutually exclusive?
It’s been a whiplash-inducing year for intercity passenger rail in the US. The “Green New Deal” suggests the possibility of sweeping high speed investments at the same time as California’s project is retrenching. Colorado, a growing Western state where the population is similarly concentrated along a single north-south interstate, is starting to think about intercity passenger rail service. And here in Washington, Governor Inslee continues to move forward a high-speed rail business plan and the legislature continues to dribble out funds to study it, while at the same time WSDOT picks up the pieces from the DuPont crash.
watchers, though, know there’s another, older plan for upgrading interstate
rail service. Released in 2007, the Long
Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades was created to guide Cascades development
through 2023. According to WSDOT’s Janet
Malkin, this plan is very much alive and we should expect an update by the end
of the year.
The Long Range Plan (LRP), which we’ve covered previously, envisions a Seattle-Portland running time of 2.5 hours, down from nearly 3.5 today, and 14 daily departures. Seattle-Vancouver would similarly be about 2.5 hours and have 4 trains/day. It proposes dozens of projects, including double and triple tracking, high-speed bypasses, and new high-speed track. Trains would still be diesel, and have a top speed of 110mph.
Future travel times from the 2007 Long Range Plan
The 2007 publication of the LRP was fortuitous. Just two years later, the world would be mired in recession and the Obama administration, in search of signature high-speed rail stimulus projects, would eventually steer $800M in federal funds to Washington State rail. Thanks to the LRP, the state had a bunch of off-the-shelf projects to submit. After governors in Florida and Wisconsin rejected the money, Washington ended up with a windfall. 20 projects were funded, including the purchase of new locomotives and a rehab of King Street Station.
With the Point
Defiance Bypass now complete,
the stimulus projects are officially over (though work continues on mudslide mitigation
and a new Ballard ship canal crossing). It’s time to think about what’s next: Should
the state choose going forward: incrementally update the existing rail
corridor, or build an entirely new one, as the Governor’s HSR plan envisions? Do we even need to choose?
Thomas White, a
consultant who spent “half a decade” on a team developing the LRP for
WSDOT, told me recently over email that he thought executing the entire 2007
plan would cost about $8.5B in today’s dollars. (Coincidentally, that’s almost
exactly what the recently proposed
carbon tax would bring in.) By
contrast, some estimates of PDX-SEA-VAN HSR run into the $20-30B range. White
thinks it will be closer to $50B when all is said and done. Given California’s
experience, that certainly seems possible.
(Read our 4-part
series on Cascadia high speed rail here)
Jon Cracolici, the Vice President of Cascadia Rail, which has chapters in all major Northwest cities, told me by phone that he sees the two plans as complementary. “We feel that a transformative investment in a high speed rail system and improving current transit infrastructure are complimentary goals. Hurting transit in one place doesn’t help transit in another place,” he told me. I-5 is approaching 50 years old and needs major maintenance. To wit, WSDOT’s Roger Millar recently told the legislature that adding a lane to I-5 through Washington could cost upwards of $110B “and still take all day to travel.” At that cost, HSR starts to look like a better deal.
White, the LRP author, still thinks the incremental approach is the way to go. “The environmental impact statement for Vancouver BC – Portland, permitting, and engineering will be at least a decade…before the first construction work can be performed. We need to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030. It doesn’t work out,” he says.
White estimates that federal stimulus funds built “less than 10%” of the long range plan. Budgets were trimmed to hit the $800M number (remember, our state was coming out of recession and didn’t have local funds to match the feds), resulting in some track that still isn’t up to 110mph standards. That leaves a substantial amount of work to complete the original LRP. While $8.5B seems like a lot, WSDOT could fully complete the plan within a decade if it dedicated 10% of its annual budget to Cascades capital improvements.
On the other hand,
political forces (Inslee’s presidential bid, local business interests), seem to
be gravitating towards something much more ambitious.
Here’s an important fact about high speed rail: large jumps in top speed add an order of magnitude to costs. A 2x jump in speed – say from 110mph to 220mph – can mean a much larger jump in dollars. Turning radii need to be substantially wider, grade crossings need to be eliminated completely, and full electrification is required. A question for politicians and WSDOT to ponder is whether that jump in costs will return much greater benefits.
It might! It’s hard
to know what things will look like in 2050. If greater Cascadia is a teeming
megaregion of 25 million climate refugees, no one will look back and say
“boy I wish we hadn’t spent that money on this amazing train.” The
ability to get to Tacoma in 15 minutes or Portland in an hour will be
transformative in ways we can’t even imagine, and the projected 5,000 daily
riders will seem laughably low. As Cracolici told me, “If traveling
by high speed rail takes you right to your job, meeting, or
dinner, with great connections to the other transit systems, we feel that
ridership will be very high.” A
more detailed business case is due later this month from WSDOT that could shed
some more light on ridership, he added.
On the other hand,
while it might not be the stuff to stir men’s souls, in Daniel Bunham’s famous
phrase, 110mph service is a serious improvement from today’s service, and well
within our state budget capacity. “Frequency
is freedom,” and 14 daily departures with 2.5 hour travel times to
Portland or Vancouver would provide lots of near-term benefits and set the
stage for more investments down the road.
WSDOT, for its part, is keeping both options open, which could be both beneficial and possibly distracting. The legislature, meanwhile, has been reluctant to hand out more than a trickle of funds — and that’s just for HSR studies.
Hopefully all this attention — from local corporations, grassroots activists, and governors with aspirations of higher office — means that shovels could be in the ground again soon.
Seattle District 2 City Council Candidate Forum on Transportation and Sustainbility - YouTube
The Moving All Seattle Sustainably Coalition held its forum for Seattle District 2 city council candidates on May 28, 2019. Rooted in Rights made the video. Go to their website if the above video doesn’t work on your platform. Rooted in Rights also provided a transcript for the forum.
Candidates attending included, from left to right:
Advocates in King County say they have raised concerns about Access for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the county began planning for an audit of the service, said Deputy King County Auditor Ben Thompson.
Among them: limited payment options; lack of outreach to low-income populations, communities of color and people with limited English proficiency; inadequate oversight over contractors and ineffective punishments for poor service; excessively long trips and frequently late or early arrivals.
Paratransit service is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Like many federal mandates, it comes without much funding, making it susceptible to budget cuts when downturns hit. Furthermore, King County ordinances mandate that the service go above and beyond the ADA minimum.
My understanding is that, at the low point, there were just a half-dozen Metro employees overseeing what was one of the largest contracts in King County, down from more than triple that before the financial crisis.
This new contract will take some of the customer service aspects back in-house, meaning Metro should be more responsive to problems.
The original genius (or sin, if you prefer) of the legislation that created Sound Transit was that it yoked together the region’s high capacity transit needs. The suburbs and the cities had to work together to get what they wanted, or no one would get anything, like a municipal prisoner’s dilemma.
The West Seattle – Ballard link extension (“WSBLE” in Sound Transit’s lingo) is pushing that 25-year-old decision to its limits. Pierce and Snohomish County reps want WSBLE to be fast and cheap, lest it jeopardize the extensions to Tacoma and Everett (to some of them, WSBLE it isn’t part of the “spine,” so the whole thing is a kind of agency scope creep anyway). Seattle reps, meanwhile, are hearing an earful from their voters and maritime interests about elevated alignments at the termini. These reps also know that without the votes from Seattle’s west side neighborhoods, there might not have been enough support to get ST3 over the finish line to begin with, and certainly not enough money to support Snohomish’s speculative and expensive detour to Paine Field.
Like I said, yoked.
Further complicating matters, the Board made a decision to try out a new “expedited” process where they do up-front outreach and analysis, to send fewer options into the costly Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process. Traditionally, the EIS would include many alternatives, and then there might be a Supplemental EIS afterward because the EIS process revealed some open questions. (Bellevue, for example, came out of Draft EIS with many, many alternatives) This new process seeks to save time by reducing the number of options up front (Remember when Sound Transit magically shaved three years off the WSBLE timeline just before it went on the ballot?). The flip side is ambiguity: making decisions with less information.
And that’s where the wheels meet the steel, as it were. Last month’s relatively contentious board meeting was the deadline for coming up with the “preferred” option to send to the DEIS from among the final alternatives. But what to cut when only 3-5% of the design work (give or take) is complete?
The major sticking points are still the same: tunnels under the Duwamish River and Ship Canal, and an expensive station in Chinatown. ST staff have been clear that these additions would bust the budget, but the board’s Seattle contingent wants to keep them on the table. Seattle is “committed” to finding the funding, Mayor Durkan said at the meeting.
In an effort to move things along, the motion before the board attempted to remind everyone of their promises to play nice (emphasis added):
The System Expansion Implementation Plan (SEIP) includes the objective to “Identify (the) Preferrred Alternative Early” and notes that “staff will ask the Board to identify the preferred alternative at the end of the alternative development process and prior to starting preparation of draft environmental documents, having considered recommendations on this topic from the Leadership and Stakeholder groups. Early identification of the preferred alternative and key project goals will jump-start the public debate about station and alignment decisions, revealing areas of broad agreement as well as areas where project leadership needs to focus problem-solving efforts.” The SEIP further notes that “At the initiation of each major capital project, Sound Transit will propose a Partnering Agreement to be executed with project partners” and that “By providing project milestones and establishing partnering agreements, Sound Transit and its partners will have a common understanding of roles, responsibilities and schedule and budget imperatives to ensure timely delivery of capital projects.”
Consistent with the SEIP, a partnering agreement specific to this project between Sound Transit and the City of Seattle was finalized and adopted by the Seattle City Council and the Sound Transit Board at the beginning of the project development process in December 2017. Per the agreement, “This project partnering agreement reflects that commitment to a new way of doing business so that together we can deliver the quality transit improvements approved by the voters in ST3 on schedule and within budget”.
The question on the table at the board meeting was a bit philosophical: what does it mean to be a “preferred” alternative? Maybe it means it’s what the community wants, regardless of budget. Or maybe it’s what we can afford. Or maybe it’s just a word that makes the community feel like they were heard but has no legal standing.
Pierce and Snohomish officials, who are wary of Seattle’s expensive tunnels delaying their projects, pushed hard to get to say that “preferred” = affordable, which is to say elevated.
“It doesn’t surprise me they want these tunnels. If I lived on those communities I’d want the tunnels as well. But we have an obligation to look more broadly,” said Bruce Dammeier, Pierce County Executive.
Seattle’s delegation, meanwhile, was keen to keep more options open as they hunt for additional funds. “We need to make sure we do it right, not just faster,” said Joe McDermott, who represents West Seattle on the King County Council.
The Eastside contingent, who don’t directly have a dog in the fight, stepped in to act as brokers. Claudia Balducci, along with John Marchione, crafted the compromise language the board ended up approving: there would be a “preferred alternative” and a “preferred alternative with third party funding.”
“It was very important to a lot of people involved in the ELG process that we honor their work,” Balducci said in the meeting. But if it’s just window dressing, why include it at all? “Whether it’s labeled preferred or not, we have the basket of alternatives we want to evaluate,” Marchione added.
It’s worth saying that both sides have legitimate arguments. Pierce/Snoho officials, along with advocates like Seattle Subway, are pushing for the elevated options because we can afford it and it’s what we voted on.
On the other hand, West Seattle and Ballard residents aren’t crazy to ask for tunnels. For one, the East-West elevated junction station on the ballot would have spared the residential neighborhood just to the north. The North-South version that came out of the analysis, while it eases southward expansion, would require demolishing several multifamily buildings. And while it’s true that the language on the ballot said “elevated,” plenty of Seattle pols were asking people to hold their noses and vote for it in the hopes that tunnel funds could be found later (and continue to promise that funds will materialize).
For example, here’s Seattle CM Bagshaw in 2018 talking about crossing the Ballard ship canal (skip to 49:08)
When we talked about this at the time of the vote, nobody thought about having a movable bridge as being a serious option. And a fixed bridge, it’s gonna take so much real estate on both [sides of the canal]… I wouldn’t spend any serious time engineering [a bridge.]
Or here’s then-board chair Dow Constantine choosing his words very carefully as he tries to rally support for the ballot measure back in 2016, which explicitly called for an elevated alignment:
“There’s still the environmental study, the consideration of various alternatives, the conversation with the community about the exact way in which the line’s going to be built in Ballard,” said Constantine, who is also King County executive. “In fact, if over time we’re able to reduce the cost of tunneling, that could be an alternative to be considered, along with the elevated line.”
The Boring Company notwithstanding, no magic tunneling technology has appeared in the last three years to make a tunnel competitive with an elevated alignment.
At the same time, Constantine’s broader point, which is that the board should look holistically at the delta between the two options, remained in the language adopted by the board. The motion recommends taking both options through the DEIS and look at the true delta in costs at the end. We’re so early in the process, it argues, why not take both options through study? It’s still a relatively focused DEIS, and if it turns out that, say, property acquisitions mean the cost of elevated goes up significantly, suddenly a tunnel or two would be less of a stretch.
On the other hand, the point of having elected officials sit on the ST board is that they are the ones who can best have honest conversations with their constituents regarding a system that maximizes benefits to future generations. Sound Transit will not be able to begin right-of-way acquisition or other major pre-construction activities until the board makes a final decision. The idea that the West Seattle line will open on time in 2030 is looking more tenuous by the day.
Sadly, it’s not clear that the alternatives under consideration are significantly better than the original representative alignment, from a rider perspective. I’d argue that if Seattle does magically find a billion bucks under the couch cushions, the most rider-friendly addition would be a First Hill station, which would be dramatically transformative not just for Seattle but for the hospital workers commuting in from outlying suburbs. And yet those workers’ suburban representatives showed little interest in that effort at the time.
Regionalism is hard.
Expect less drama over the next 18 months as WSBLE enters the DEIS phase through the end of 2020. More decisions to come in early 2021.