Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sunday Video: Transit-Oriented Runner

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Local transit advocate and runner, Laura Goodfellow, talks to Streetfilms about her passion for transit-oriented running in Seattle. She also talks about the transit-oriented running community and the relationship of running to safer streets and transit mobility.

What We’re Reading: Climate Emergency, Nudge Choices, and Biking Boom

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Climate emergency: The city council in Vancouver, British Columbia has declared a ‘climate emergency’, which will free up city staff to come up proposals to address the problem.

Not welcome here: Kent passed an emergency zoning change to preempt a Sound Transit operations and maintenance facility from being located in the city’s Midway mixed-use district near future light rail stations.

Focus on safety: Research indicates that transit agencies need to focus on safety issues for women because those issues are holding them back from using transit.

Proposals on the Hill: More design details emerge about microhousing and hotel development proposals on Capitol Hill.

Free the transit: Paris will provide free transit and bikeshare to kids.

Forsaking Americans: Trump’s government shutdown is beginning to cause all manner of pain and chaos for cities across the country in providing services.

Nudge choices: CityLab explains what cities like Los Angeles may be getting wrong about transit.

King County climate action: A proposal in King County would put the breaks on any gas pipeline expansion and other major fossil fuel infrastructure.

Forsaking low-income individuals: Many low-income renters are facing eviction due to the Trump government shutdown.

PDX likes e-scooters: Portland has released a final report on e-scooters and hopes to bring them back in the spring.

Value feedback: Why do cities discount public input in expanding bikeshare systems?

Kshama running again: Councilmember Kshama Sawant is definitely running for reelection in District 3.

Not so fast: The Federal Railroad Administration will revise speed regulations for railways, but will it actually increase speeds ($)?

Danish eco gamble: Denmark wants to build eco-friendly urban islands in Copenhagen, but will that pay off from a resiliency standpoint?

Hogan’s MTA: Baltimore’s botched bus reboot is unsurprisingly having terrible ridership results.

Biking boom: With the SR-99 viaduct closed, biking has increased significantly overnight.

It’s a subsidy: Call a stadium subsidy whatever you want, but it’s still a subsidy.

Map of the Week: Portland’s TriMet has published a stylized system map that uses the same design approach as Washington, D.C.’s WMATA subway map.

Mayor Durkan Backs Streetcar, Pledges to Seek Funding Solution with Council

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The First HIll Streetcar terminates at Occidental Avenue, at least until the Connector is completed. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Yesterday Mayor Jenny Durkan released the long-awaited engineering review of the Center City Connector streetcar project and announced she was supporting the project. The Mayor pledged she’d work with the Seattle City Council to find funding to close the budget shortfall, estimated at $65 million for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) portion.

“[W]e will make historic investments in building a city of the future, like our new waterfront park, a new convention center, and a reborn Seattle Center Arena,” Mayor Durkan said in a statement. “As we reconnect downtown with our new Waterfront for All, we have the opportunity to create a downtown with fewer cars and where residents, workers, and visitors can walk, bike, and take transit. A unified streetcar route provides a unique opportunity to build on our investments for the next generation.”

While finding $65 million additional dollars and securing the $75 million in grants from a reticent Federal Transit Administration (FTA) remain major hurdles for the project, the Mayor’s endorsement represents the clearing of another hurdle–10 months of review in the making.

However, the finish line has been pushed farther out to 2025–five years later than the original 2020 target and much later than the 2021 target that still had seemed possible when Durkan announced she was halting the shovel-ready project to do an independent review. That review, conducted by KPMG, confirmed robust ridership projections, but spurred an engineering review, contracted to Parsons Brinckerhoff, and released yesterday (executive summary of vehicle/project interface and capital and operating cost update). The review showed even higher first-year ridership of 7.1 million, which works out to about 23,000 average weekday boardings.

Overrun Double Standard: Viaduct vs Streetcar

The Center City Connector budget is now being billed at $285 million, although $78 million of that is underground water and utility work that would need to happen eventually anyway. For perspective, that means the entire streetcar budget is still less than just the cost overrun of the SR-99 viaduct replacement project, tallied at $223 million as the megaproject has ballooned past $4 billion in all. Will leaders be as steadfast through streetcar project snags as they were during the saga of the SR-99 tunnel?

Murray’s Many Mistakes

Mayor Durkan criticized her predecessor for poor management of the project saying the Murray administration had relied on guesstimates and insinuating the project had been rushed. She portrayed those mistakes as setting the project on a collision course with the FTA.

“We wouldn’t have had the delay if they’d done proper planning and had used proper controls on this project, period,” Mayor Durkan said in an interview with David Gutman. “I don’t want to call it back of the envelope, but it was a heck of a lot closer to a guesstimate than responsible budgeting.”

Trump’s FTA Gumming Up the Works

Reading between the lines, the Trump’s FTA has also been throwing wrenches in the project. The Trump administration has been requiring the projects prove they have all other funding secured before dispersing federal grants. This sets a very challenging bar for cash-strapped transit agencies, while favoring highway-building state transportation departments, which tend to have much greater resources at their disposals.

Microsoft’s $500 Million Pledge Has Set the Bar for Tech Industry

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Microsoft President Brad Smith and CFO Amy Hood at Microsoft’s announcement of $500M for affordable housing in the Puget Sound Region, Bellevue, WA, January 17, 2019. (Credit: Microsoft)

Technology centers like the Bay Area, New York, and Seattle are becoming unaffordable for all but the wealthiest. What responsibility does the tech industry have to ensure that the cities it’s transforming remain livable for all?

On Wednesday, Microsoft set the bar by establishing a $500 million fund to promote housing affordability in Seattle and the Eastside. We hope Microsoft’s actions are the start of a new trend: that tech companies can listen to communities, nonprofits, and governments about what issues need addressing and work alongside them to help in the best ways they can. Some issues, like housing affordability, cannot be solved by moving fast and breaking things. By working with the community, Microsoft has set a precedent that other tech companies would do well to follow.

Housing investments go furthest when paired with good housing policy.  In concert with Microsoft’s investment, nine Eastside and South King County mayors pledged to reduce barriers to housing construction, build more affordable housing, and allow the construction of denser housing near transit.  These changes will help us address our regional housing shortage and enable more people to afford to live where they work.

Introducing ‘Stride’, Sound Transit’s New BRT Brand

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Sound Transit has unveiled the new brand name for its future bus rapid transit (BRT) services: ‘Stride’. The transit agency also released early renderings of what branded BRT stations could look like once built.

“Best practices for successful BRT systems worldwide include developing a unique brand that makes it distinct from other transit services,” said Tim Healy, Director of Sound Transit’s Marketing and Creative Services Department. “Working with project staff and regional stakeholders, we determined that we wanted Sound Transit’s BRT brand to convey a system that is modern, comfortable, and optimistic. We also developed criteria that stipulated the name of the new system be memorable, short, easy to pronounce and family well with the overall Sound Transit brand.”

Sound Transit's new brand name for BRT. (Sound Transit)
Sound Transit’s new brand name for BRT. (Sound Transit)

In describing what the new branding name is supposed to convey, Healy said, “It represents a positive, optimistic meaning: going at a quick pace, forward progress, and easy going–‘take it in stride.'”

What Is the State of US Rail Travel in 2019?

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This is the second post in a two part series about train travel in the US. If you would like learn more about riding Amtrak cross-country, please read the first post, “Going the Distance on Amtrak.”

Recent headlines surrounding the US passenger rail industry verge into extremes, with dark contentions about Amtrak’s decades long slide into obsolescence contrasted against photos of a triumphant Elon Musk unveiling SpaceX’s hyperloop track beneath Los Angeles.

More than any other transportation modality, rail is framed as both the transportation of the past and the future. Glossy images of futuristic bullet trains speeding across China may make North American transportation planners’ hearts skip a beat, yet, the amount of the financial investment required to build high-speed rail infrastructure remains firmly out of reach, especially under the Trump administration.

Is it correct to present Amtrak’s story as a tale of woe? And are private investors like Musk really poised to implement new rail technologies that will revolutionize transportation in the US?

The reality is complicated. Like the general state of the US economy and society in 2019, uncertainties prevail around rail transportation and the future remains firmly connected to the past.

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Passengers enjoy the observatory car on the Empire Builder in 1974. On my recent ride on the Empire Builder, the observatory car was much less stylish, but I also did not have to contend with people smoking onboard as seen above. Photo credit: Charles O’Rear, US National Archives.

Some Amtrak History 

Americans might be surprised to learn that the US has the most rail coverage of any country in the world. Roughly 80% of the US rail network, however, is dedicated to long distance freight.

In contrast, European countries move less freight by rail, but far more passengers. Decades ago North American (US & Canada) and European rail investments moved in different directions, with North America investing more in rail for freight and European countries investing more in passenger rail networks.

It was in the 1960’s that the US passenger rail industry began to lose millions of dollars. In 1950, approximately 9,000 passenger trains were in service, and these trains carried almost 50% of all intercity traffic. By 1970, however, there were only about 450 trains left in operation, and the share of passenger traffic dropped to 7%.

Fearful that America could lose its passenger rail system entirely, Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970. After it was signed into law by President Nixon, it allowed railroad companies sell their intercity passenger lines to the government, which resulted in the creation of Amtrak in 1971.

City Council Reviews MHA Rezone Proposals for Districts 1, 2, 3, and 5

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This article is the second in a two-part series. See the first part for Districts 4, 6, and 7.

On Wednesday, the Seattle City Council held the second of two meetings this week to discuss site- and area-specific rezones tied to the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program. While the rezones will primarily target existing commercial and multifamily areas, single-family zones in urban villages would also be rezoned to increase development capacity and require affordable housing contributions from new development. Some urban villages would also receive boundary expansions and rezone other single-family areas.

How to interpret the maps and tables

Each of the tables below correspond to the district map directly above them. Highlighted in the tables are current zoning, proposed zoning under the MHA legislation, and requested amendments to proposed zoning. At the far right of the table is a notation of whether or not the requested zoning change is consistent with the studied zoning changes under the MHA Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Not included, however, are studied rezones under Alternatives 2 and 3 of the EIS. Changes outside of the scope of analysis contained in the EIS would require further environmental review to be eligible for adoption by the city council.

Two years ago, we provided an overview of how the MHA rezones would work, including background on M, M1, and M2 rezones which indicate higher levels of affordable housing requirements and increased development capacity (e.g., height, floor area, and density). For those unfamiliar, Seattle uses shorthand codes to indicate zoning types:

  • “SF 5000” means “Single Family 5000”, a reference to the typical minimum lot size and limitation on use;
  • “RSL” means “Residential Small Lot”, which is a step between the lower density multifamily zones and SF 5000 zoning;
  • “LR” means “Lowrise”, which comes in three flavors (i.e., LR1, LR2, and LR3) for low density multifamily;
  • “MR” means “Midrise”, which is a medium density multifamily zone;
  • “C” means “Commercial” and comes in two flavors (i.e., C1 and C2) for a mix of commercial and multifamily uses; and
  • “NC” means “Neighborhood Commercial” that has three variations (i.e., NC1, NC2, and NC3), which increasingly provide for higher densities of mixed-use development.

Affixed to some zoning types are two and three digit numbers that indicate maximum building height. In rare instances, “P” for the “Pedestrian” designation and “RC” for “Residential Commercial” are also affixed to zoning designations.

Cascadia Interstate High-Speed Rail Authority Chugging Toward Legislative Approval

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On Tuesday, Democrats in the Washington State Legislature introduced Governor Jay Inslee’s (D-Washington) legislation for new transportation funding that would support creation of an interstate high-speed rail authority. The legislation would provide up to $3.25 million in biennial appropriations through 2021 to establish the authority in partnership with the State of Oregon and Province of British Columbia. The move takes Seattle a step closer to one-hour train trips to Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia.

“Feasibility studies show that our region has the critical mass of a growing population, the muscle mass of a great economy and the traffic problems to justify a system like this,” the Governor’s Office said. “The development of a new ultra high-speed corridor authority will take this project to the next level.”

What the legislation would do

The legislation specifies that the interstate high-speed rail authority would be charged with developing an organizational structure that operates harmoniously across two states, a province, and an international boundary. The structure would need to address issues like governance, operations, contracting requirements, jurisdictional laws and regulations, and the powers of the authority.

Cascadia Rail’s vision map. (Oran Viriyincy)

The authority would also engage with communities along the corridor to refine the alignment and make recommendations on funding levels and responsibilities to carry out advanced project development. A key aspect would be environmental review, which means at minimum preparing an Environmental Impact Statement under the purview of the Federal Railroad Administration. A companion process for the Canadian governments would also be necessary.

Recommendations from the authority would need to be submitted to the governor and state legislature no later than June 30, 2020 on any laws, regulations, or agreements necessary to achieve corridor development. As a basic framework to deliver a regional high-speed corridor, the authority would need to build upon results from a business case study, which is currently in development, and ensure that whatever high-speed rail technology is ultimately chosen will be capable of reaching at least 250 miles per hour at top speed.