Friday, 19 July, 2019

Uber Pushing Congestion Pricing with New Consultant Study as Durkan Weighs New Ridehailing Fee

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Buses have been wallowing in First Avenue traffic since the viaduct came down. (Credit: Doug Trumm)

Ridehailing behemoth Uber released a study Wednesday looking at the effect that decongestion pricing would have on Downtown Seattle. Turns out it would decongest it. Peak car trips would drop 7%, and automobile travel times to and from downtown at peak times would drop 30% with dynamic tolling topping out at $3.80 in afternoon rush, under the study’s projections. More importantly, pollution would drop, transit ridership would increase 4%, and the city would generate at least $130 million in annual revenue.

Uber tapped ECONorthwest to carry the study and provided it with its carefully guarded trip data to shed light on traffic patterns. ECONorthwest sought to follow the framework the City laid out in its own preliminary study issued in May–which was more focused on table-setting than the nuts and bolts of a program. The four goals laid out were:

  1. Be equitable
  2. Have positive climate and health outcomes
  3. Reduce congestion
  4. Be feasible to implement

ECONorthwest identified a decongestion pricing plan that appeared to meet all those conditions. And Uber trumpeted the findings and welcomed such a program. One element that seemed especially Uber-friendly was the daily cap of $3.80 in tolls that would mean ridehailing drivers would only pay the toll once or twice before capping out.

The toll zone studied stretches from Alaskan Way to Broadway. (ECONorthwest)

The Road to Decongestion: How We Got Here

In 2017, Councilmember Mike O’Brien secured $200,000 for studying decongestion pricing added to the City budget. O’Brien was seeking to prepare for cars diverting and spilling into Downtown streets due to SR-99 tunnel tolling, which was essential to pay for the $4 billion project and particularly its upkeep costs going forward. The Washington Department of Transportation had said that SR-99 tolling would begin in June, though it since delayed tunnel tolling until the fall.

In April 2018, Mayor Jenny Durkan made a big splash when she announced her support for studying downtown decongestion pricing–although she did that the same week as she delayed the Basic Bike Network and halted the Center City streetcar project. Mayor Durkan said she hoped to have decongestion pricing in place by end of her first term in 2021, but that seems unlikely at the speed this process is playing out.

Seattle City Council Candidates Weigh In on Vision Zero in Our Questionnaire

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Pike and 8th Avenue during One Center City Urbanist Walking Tour. (Doug Trumm(

We asked Seattle City Council candidates to submit answers to a questionnaire before meeting with us as The Urbanist Election Board decided which candidate to endorse in each race. Yesterday, we recapped candidates’ affordable housing strategy responses. Another issue The Urbanist cares deeply about is protecting people moving through our streets, especially vulnerable users. In February 2015, The City of Seattle adopted a goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by the year 2030, dubbing the campaign Vision Zero. Even with a lofty goal set, progress has largely stagnated as street redesigns have been delayed, watered down, abandoned, or even made worse.

Thus, one of the questions we asked them: Do you support Seattle’s commitment to Vision Zero, and what legislative strategies would you seek to implement the goal of reducing serious injuries and fatalities on our streets to zero within the next decade? Do you think legislative strategies are sufficient to achieve this goal?

Here’s how each of the candidates who answered our questionnaire responded. You can click on each candidate’s name to get a PDF of each candidate’s entire questionnaire. We will be highlighting some of the other big issues addressed in the questionnaire in the coming days as ballots arrive in your mailboxes. Our primary endorsements are available here.

Lisa Herbold (District 1)

I support Vision Zero, and reducing traffic fatalities. A key role for the Council is through the budget, and oversight where funds are spent. An example of a legislative strategy outside of the budget the Council’s vote to reduce the default speed limit in Seattle. This reduced the speed limit on residential streets from 25 to 20, and on arterials from 30 to 25 in Center City neighborhoods. A pedestrian hit at 20 miles per hour will survive 9 out of 10 times, but one hit at 30 miles per hour will survive only 5 out of 10 times. People hit at 25 miles per hour are twice as likely to survive as 30 miles per hour, so even small differences in speed limits matter. Continuing to evaluate safety and speeds on individual arterials is a good step. Given that most pedestrian accidents occur in or near urban villages, prioritizing safety improvements there makes sense. Measures to reduce crossing distance help, especially with older people, who are most likely to die in accidents. Longer crosswalk times can help where appropriate (I worked with SDOT to increase the crosswalk time across California Ave SW @ SW Oregon Street, adjacent to the Senior Center of West Seattle). Funding Safe Routes to School are important for young people and we need to find ways to increase investments to improve safety and walkability on those necessary walking routes.

Tammy Morales (District 2)

The cheapest and fastest thing we can do is lower speed limits on arterials to 25mph city-wide. It’s unclear why SDOT has repaved projects but for many they’ve left the speed limits higher than 25mph. While we know that physical roadway changes are needed to truly ensure that drivers travel at safe speeds, changing speed limits is a good first step.

In addition, simple paint-only changes such as narrowing wide lanes and 4-to-3 lane reconfigurations have an outsized impact on motorist behavior. These solutions don’t require increased funding, only the political will to do what is right. We also need to update our Complete Streets policy to ensure that any time we’re modifying a street or sidewalk (including basic repaving), we’re prioritizing the safety of vulnerable users, folks like our wheelchair users and pedestrians. Too often we repave a dangerous street and leave it without functional sidewalks, and in a configuration that’s dangerous to cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists. These are wasted opportunities to drastically improve the lives of people who use Seattle streets.

The city is currently asking the state legislature for permission to install cameras for automated enforcement of bus-only lanes and “box blockers”. I’ve been conflicted about this since communities of color often experience over-policing and surveillance, but after conversations with the folks at Rooted in Rights and the ACLU, I’ve become more supportive.

Councilmember Mosqueda Proposes New Tenant Protections for Buildings Up for Sale

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Washington CAN organized tenants in support of a slate of protections including eviction reform this state legislative session. Mayor Durkan is bringing City law in line with the rights these activists help secure. (Credit: Washington CAN)

The Seattle City Council’s housing committee will take up further discussion and possibly vote on a new tenant protection measure sponsored by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda today. Her proposal would expand the notice of intent to sell an affordable housing rental building. The current law only applies to multifamily buildings with five or more units when at least one dwelling unit rents at or below 80% of the area median income. In such a circumstance, the property owner is obliged to provide notice to the Seattle Office of Housing (OH) and Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) 60 days before listing the property for sale.

Councilmember Mosqueda’s bill would increase the noticing period to 90 days and expand the requirement to all multifamily buildings (that is, two or more dwelling units). Property owners would need to conspicuously post in the building a notice of intent to sell so that tenants are aware. The notice would need to include information provided by OH on how tenants might be able to obtain funding to aid in purchasing the building. It would also need to provide a link to OH’s website, which contains information on other programs that might assist tenants if the building is sold.

Seattle City Council Candidates Lay Out Their Housing Strategies in Our Questionnaire

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High Point social housing. (City of Seattle)

We asked Seattle City Council candidates to submit answers to a questionnaire before meeting with us as we decided which candidate to endorse in each race.

One of the questions we asked them: What do you think is the most important strategy or set of strategies Seattle can pursue to make the city affordable to live in? What assumptions about affordability do those strategies rely on?

Here’s how each of the candidates who answered our questionnaire responded. You can click on each candidate’s name to get a PDF of each candidate’s entire questionnaire. We will be highlighting some of the other big issues addressed in the questionnaire in the coming days as ballots arrive in your mailboxes. Our primary endorsements are available here.

Lisa Herbold (District 1)

A number of strategies are needed, with a focus on housing and on employment. I believe supply-side strategies, whether for housing or jobs, is not enough. We need better laws from renters and workers and we need regulations on employers and builders that create new revenue so that we can reduce reliance on regressive taxation.

I also believe that we should use our bonding authority to rightsize our annual NOFA’s for each of the final four years of the levy, just like I led the City to do in 2018–despite the opposition of the Mayor, the City Budget Director, and the Council Budget Chair. I am, today, working on implementation of SHB 1406, adopted by the state legislature, which allows for dedicating some existing state sales tax revenue to finance municipal bonds for affordable housing. Seattle needs to double its spending to build affordable housing, as does King County, and individual King County jurisdictions.

I have taken a number of actions as a Councilmember:

● Supported an increase in the size of the housing levy
● Sponsored a $29 million bond sale to directly fund affordable housing
● Supported Mandatory Housing Affordability
● HALA Strategy P1: I was the prime sponsor of increased funding for preservation in the Housing Levy.
● HALA Strategy T1 I led efforts to “combat displacement by increasing funding rental and operating subsidies for extremely low-income households,” with significant added funds for Rapid Rehousing Program and Permanent Supportive Housing when I was acting budget chair.
● HALA Strategy T1 – I championed and was prime sponsor for “legislation supporting fair access to rental housing for people with past criminal records.”
● I sponsored “first in time” legislation for rental applications, to combat discrimination in rental housing, and ensure fairness and equal access to housing
● Last year, I also advocated for using the portion of King County’s hotel-motel tax authority to be dedicated toward affordable housing, and worked successfully with King County Councilmembers, who adopted $184 million in additional funding.

Cascadia High-Speed Rail: Climate Implications Makes Business Case Even Stronger

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V150 train, modified TGV, was a conventional world speed record holder at 574.8 km/h or 357.2 mph. (Photo credit: Babskwal)

On Monday, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) released a Ultra-High Speed Ground Transportation Business Case Analysis that shows considerable upside for connecting Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia with trains potentially reaching speeds of 250 miles per hour.

Among the benefits is the potential to forestall future Sea-Tac Airport expansions by shifting a portion of regional trips, which make up 20% of all Sea-Tac air traffic, to rail. Avoiding the need to add another runway could save $10 billion, the study estimates.

The study didn’t reassess the capital costs of connecting Portland to Vancouver corridor with high speed rail; a previous study pegged construction costs at $24 billion to $42 billion. While that is certainly expensive, the Ultra-High Speed Ground Transportation (UHSGT) business case study argues the cost is reasonable in light of the also colossal cost of expanding airport and freeway infrastructure. Adding another I-5 lane in each direction throughout Washington would cost $108 billion, WSDOT estimated last year. Meanwhile, the passenger capacity of rail is considerably larger. “A 2-track UHSGT spine could carry as many as 32,000 people in the peak hour, which would be greater than the existing capacity of the I-5/Highway 99 corridor between Vancouver, BC and Portland, OR,” the study states.

Even with conservative assumptions, WSDOT’s consultant, WSP, found high-speed rail would attract as many as three million annual trips and bring in up to $250 million in annual revenue by 2040 and operating at a profit by 2055. Ridership coming in 10% higher or operating costs 10% lower would mean operating at a profit by 2040. An analysis of wider economic benefit estimated building high-speed rail would support 160,000 additional permanent jobs.

Hemmed in as it is, the region faces a considerable transportation pinch.

“The need for continued additional transportation infrastructure investment in the Cascadia megaregion is clear—crowded roads, congested airports and limited intercity rail service constrain the mobility of residents, businesses, and tourists,” the UHSGT business case states. “Vancouver, BC; Seattle, WA; and Portland, OR, have the fourth, sixth, and tenth-most congested roads in North America, respectively. Airport delays are making air travel increasingly unreliable, and the travel time and frequency of intercity rail service are not competitive for most trips.”

Another area of emphasis was high-speed rail’s ability to alleviate housing affordability issues by putting more neighborhoods within an easy commute of Cascadia’s major job centers. The study advises strategically planning station areas to be dense housing nodes by enacting land use changes to spur transit-oriented development. High-speed rail could well be the impetus for denser land use.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who has been a vocal backer of high-speed rail, cheered the findings as yet more momentum for linking the region with world-class rail service.

“My vision for the megaregion—stretching from Washington, north to British Columbia, and south to Oregon—includes a transportation system that is fast, frequent, reliable, and environmentally responsible,” Governor Inslee said in the report’s preface. “Such a system would unite us in our common goals related to economic development, shared resources, affordable housing, new jobs, tourism, multimodal connections, and increased collaboration.”

Critics ignore climate implications

Of course a project this massive also attracts detractors. One of them is Seattle Transit Blog‘s Dan Ryan, a longtime high-speed rail critic who got his hands on an advance copy of the UHSGT Business Case report and panned it. Ryan’s central point is the ridership is just too low to warrant the investment and wouldn’t be enough to affect calculations around widening I-5 or expanding airports.

One thing his critique never mentioned is climate. Therein lies the rub. The problem for studies seeking to justify green infrastructure is they have to use conservative assumptions to be taken seriously, but those same assumptions for how many people drive and fly could well spell climate catastrophe by mid-century. We have to change our habits and that takes government action if we want to get ourselves out of our climate death spiral. The study assumed no additional real costs for air travel or auto travel, meaning Washington state would lurch through the 2040’s and 2050’s with no carbon tax, car or flight quotas, or cap-and-trade scheme in place. Do we think a region that sees itself as a climate leader would carry on this way as a climate catastrophe closes in around it?

Sound Transit Closing In on Tacoma Dome, Ballard, and West Seattle Options to Make EIS Cut

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Both the Tacoma Dome Link Extension (TDLE) and Ballard/West Seattle Link Extension projects are moving forward with preferred alternatives for environmental review. The Tacoma Dome extension is the latest with the Sound Transit Board of Directors poised to recommend approval of the selected preferred corridor alternatives by the Elected Leadership Group and System Expansion Committee Board.

Officials hope that limiting the options for environmental study will keep light rail expansion plans on schedule–if not ahead of it–since studying a plethora of options is more time-consuming. Link service to West Seattle and Tacoma Dome is slated to start in 2030, while Ballard Link is tabbed for 2035.

Chosen Tacoma Dome Link Extension Alternatives

TDLE involves four segments stretching from Federal Way Transit Center to Tacoma Dome Station. During the early scoping process, various alternatives had been developed for each of the segments: nine for South Federal Way, five for Fife, six for East Tacoma, and five for Tacoma Dome. Policymakers further whittled down to no more than four alternatives by segment for additional evaluation, all of which would be grade-separated.

For South Federal Way, policymakers have identified the SF 2 West option as the preferred alternative. The South Federal Way station would be centrally located along the commercial node of Enchanted Pkwy S. The general alignment of the segment would otherwise run along I-5. The SF 2 East and SF 8/9 options will also be studied.

The Urbanist’s August Primary Endorsements 2019

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The ballots hitting Seattle mailboxes this week mark the first decision point in an election that will likely reverberate throughout the next decade of civic life in the Puget Sound region. The second round of district-based city council elections is being claimed by all sides as a moment when the tectonic plates of Seattle’s politics may shift in their favor. Nearly half of the council will be starting their first day of work next January.

So far the primary has been dominated by district-centric issues like the Magnolia Bridge replacement or the West Seattle light rail tunnel, but every single councilmember will become a possible swing vote on all of the issues facing Seattle during an unprecedented homelessness crisis, while the city stagnates on climate issues and slowly inches forward on transportation.

The eight members of The Urbanist elections committee asked candidates to submit questionnaires and meet for a short interview. We will be publishing the questionnaires in the coming days. We also reviewed all materials for the ballot measures voters will have to consider. The endorsements below are the result of our deliberations, considering every candidate or measure through the lens of our mission statement, to examine urban policy to improve cities and the quality of life in our region.

The Urbanist’s elections committee membership and endorsement process can be found here.

Sunday Video: Are Cities Like Organisms?

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Dave Amos looks into the metaphor that says cities are just like an organism.

Bike Works

Bike Works