Monday, 30 March, 2020

King County Council Shelves Transit Ballot Measure Plans Amid Coronavirus Worries

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A RapidRide bus at Third Avenue transit mall. (Doug Trumm)

King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci announced yesterday that the County would not be advancing plans to run a transit package ballot measure in August. Since the measure was to be funded by a 0.2% sales tax, there was a fear it would exacerbate economic hardship from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Leaders also worried the countywide measure wouldn’t pass. Due to the ratcheting up of social distancing measures, transit ridership was down 45% at King County Metro’s last tally, and many residents are out of work as bars, theaters, restaurants, and other businesses have closed or are operating at reduced capacity.

“Unfortunately, the extraordinary events related to the spread of COVID-19 makes a countywide August ballot measure unrealistic at this time,” Chair Balducci said in a statement. “As our community mobilizes to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and the early signs of the economic impact of the epidemic are starting to be seen, we must shift our attention to supporting our current transit system and building momentum to re-regionalizing transit for a future ballot measure.”

That leaves the ball in Seattle’s court to run a measure in August–or in November during the General Election. Mayor Jenny Durkan had already indicated the City would move ahead and go it alone if the County didn’t get its act together and finalize legislation this week. However, the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic slowdown may have changed the calculus for Mayor Durkan as well.

Seattle already has a Transportation Benefit District, which expires at the end of 2020 and augments King County Metro bus service by roughly 10% and funds the free transit program for high school students at Seattle Public Schools. The loss of that additional service would be a major blow to Seattle’s transportation system–it has been credited as a key ingredient in Seattle’s national leading transit ridership growth rate over the past decade. It’s ensured 70% of Seattleites live within a 10-minute walk of frequent transit service. It’s unlikely either of those bragging points could continue without renewing funding.

Not having a countywide measure delays hopes of lowering fares for low-income riders, speeding up electrification of the bus fleet, and progressing Metro’s long-term plans for a comprehensive frequent bus network across King County, filling out the alphabet from RapidRide A to Z and perhaps beyond.

The existing Seattle Transportation Benefit District (TBD) is funded in part by $60 car tab fees and a 0.1% sale tax. Local officials seem to be shying away from car tabs as a funding source given their uncertainty following passage of Initiative 976’s $30 car tab limit and the legal challenge that followed that may or may not overturn the limit.

New 60% Designs Inch Seattle’s Waterfront Park Closer to Reality

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The Overlook Walk's forking staircase creates a unique shelter underneath. (City of Seattle)
The Overlook Walk's forking staircase creates a unique shelter underneath. (City of Seattle)

Seattle is getting a Waterfront Park with an Overlook Walk connecting Pike Place Market to the Aquarium. This is made possible by the fact there won’t be a gigantic highway viaduct between them.

After the new $4 billion SR-99 tunnel opened, the Alaskan Way Viaduct came down in 2019. A new surface-level boulevard (with a plethora of lanes) will replace it, but still won’t be ready for a few more years (it’s expected to open in late 2021). With years of construction and disruptions, the Waterfront Park is the light at the end of the tunnel. The Overlook Walk is scheduled to open in 2023, with construction beginning in 2021.

Patrick took us on a walk through the 30% designs back in 2018, but the 60% designs show in even more detail the marquee park and promenade we were promised. What comes through in the images is that Seattle will truly have a world class downtown park. I expect it to be heavily used and an instant attraction when it opens.

That said, there are certainly areas for improvement. The overlook walk narrows to a couple 16-foot-wide egresses which could become chokepoints when traffic is heavy. That sets the pedestrian bridge to be a victim of its own success, particularly since it could be far and away the preferred way to reach the waterfront from Pike Place Market–particularly since the new Alaskan Way itself is being designed in a carcentric way making at grade routes less enticing.

While the waterfront side of the aquarium looks promising, the Western Avenue side is pretty unremarkable and closed off to the street. Western Avenue is an afterthought in general, leaving it a car sewer rather than an activated urban street it has the potential to be. Such a large-scale and expensive project totally has the ability to deliver such a transformation. We’re just not seizing the opportunity.

Below are a selection of the renderings so you can judge for yourself. You can also see a full design packet here (PDF).

Sunday Video: How San Francisco Erased A Neighborhood

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Vox shares a story of colonization, racism, and gentrification that created and then erased a Filipino neighborhood in San Francisco. This story was repeated throughout American cities where migrant Filipinos—and other communities of color—settled for work, were restricted in where they could live, and then became displaced in the name of modern redevelopment.

What We’re Reading: The Emergency, Cancelled, and Eviction Moratorium

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Hotel on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Cherry Street in Seattle.
Hotel on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Cherry Street in Seattle.

The Emergency: A national emergency has been declared over the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the Washington State Legislature has passed $200 million in emergency funding to deal with it.

Cancelled: With the novel coronavirus spreading, it is causing a wave of closures and cancellations, including elective surgery, the cruise season, large gatherings and schools, libraries, and other community programs.

Eviction moratorium: A moratorium on residential evictions will be imposed in Seattle.

Struggling: Many industries begin to feel the pain of closures due to the novel coronavirus with layoffs in the food industry and even The Stranger.

Slow-walking progress: The Washington State Legislature failed to adopt a clean fuel standard even though it is not controversial and has the backing of many local officials. But a common-sense bill requiring an increase the sale of electric vehicles as a share of car sales has been passed, though advocates want to go much further.

Bigger Charm City: How much bigger could Baltimore have been?

A new path: A new bike path under SR-520 in Montlake has now opened.

Don’t be Philly: Why are parades and pandemics a really bad mix?

Families first: A major bill to provide sick time, testing, unemployment benefits, and food has passed the nation’s House of Representatives to deal with the novel coronavirus.

Go by bike: Bike commuting is on the rise in New York City ($) as the novel coronavirus takes hold.

San Francisco: What happened to San Francisco’s Market Street after it went car free?

Mega-city: The creation of a very large city of urban unincorporated areas ($) of Pierce County will be studied.

Lucrative slots: In the midst of falling demand, why are airlines running empty or near empty “ghost planes”?

Upheld: Portland’s comprehensive plan through 2035 has made it through a big legal hurdle.

A new hope: Progressive Sherae Lascelles is taking on long-time Representative Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) for the 43rd Legislative District.

Trees are good: London’s trees are delivering immense economic, environmental, and social benefits.

Decline and impacts: Transit ridership is cratering across the globe and could have a lasting impact on funding due to the novel coronavirus.

The bike bridge: Construction of the world’s longest bike bridge has begun in The Netherlands.

Freeways are revolting: There could be a new age of freeway revolts in places like Texas and Portland.

Legislature Authorizes $10 Billion in Highway Spending

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Rendering of I-395 interchange with pond. (WSDOT)
Rendering of I-395 in Spokane. (WSDOT)

Yesterday was the last day of session for the Washington State Legislature and in one of their final acts legislators funded a bevy of transportation projects–primarily highway focused–to the tune of $10.4 billion. Governor Jay Inslee had put many projects on hold in November following the wake of passage of Initiative 976.

By capping state car tabs and licensing fees at $30, I-976 decimated the budgets of local transportation agencies and the state department alike. That said, an appeal brought by a number of those agencies did win an injunction delaying those cuts until the constitutionality question is answered–and it may end up being the Washington Supreme Court that gets the last word. The Governor has ordered state car tabs be held in escrow until the courts decide in case the funds must to be paid out in refunds to taxpayers.

In the meantime, Senator Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), who is the senate transportation chair, said “a little bit of budget magic” shifting around existing funds was sufficient to resurrect those projects from limbo. Senator Hobbs has insisted that next year a new revenue source must be tapped for his next wave of pet highway projects–headlined by billion-dollar-plus replacement for the Highway 2 trestle in his home district–and he’s floated a carbon tax.

Simultaneously, Hobbs has opposed a clean fuel standard–which was a priority for climate groups that failed to pass this session. Hobbs’ opposition, given his leadership role, may help explain that failure. The clean fuel standard, which California was the first state to adopt, would have greatly reduced Washington’s carbon footprint, which is dominated by the transportation sector.

The wave of highway projects let loose yesterday was headlined by another billion-plus project: the North Spokane Corridor, creating an US Route 395 freeway bypass of Spokane. Another project will squeeze an extra northbound I-5 lane in Downtown Seattle between Seneca Street and Olive Way. Whether rearranging deck chairs will be enough to alleviate titanic I-5 congestion seems highly dubious.

Gondolas Offer A Way to Rise Above West Seattle’s ST3 Controversy

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Portland Aerial Tram. (Photo by Cacophony)
Portland Aerial Tram. (Photo by Cacophony)

A gondola tram could be the ideal way to deliver West Seattle’s Sound Transit 3 stations without unnecessary expense and complications of light rail–and with early delivery rather than delay.

Voters may not have realized when they approved the Sound Transit 3 (ST3) package they locked in a one-size-fits-all “solution” to every geographical problem. That includes forcing a technology designed for gentle topography–rail–into some of Seattle’s hilliest terrain: West Seattle.

Sound Transit should be allowed some modal flexibility in case terrain challenges, financing and/or other issues arise between now and the 2030 targeted delivery date of West Seattle light rail. The lack of flexibility explains why Sound Transit’s Cahill Ridge announced at West Seattle Transportation Coalition’s (WSTC) November 2017 public meeting: “We have no Plan B.”

To get light rail from SoDo to West Seattle will require a third bridge, parallel to and taller than the current 140-foot-tall high bridge, in order to span the cement plant, warehouses, marina and Duwamish Waterway. It will drop at Pigeon Point and snake up in a maze of ramps and towers to 400 feet of elevation in barely a mile. Here’s one vision of what that could look like.

History of West Seattle’s Transit Efforts

When the Jeanette Williams high bridge (1984) and the Spokane St. low bridge (1991) were built to the “out of the way” West Seattle Peninsula, neither design included space for light rail track. In 1968 and 1970, Seattle voters rejected Forward Thrust’s light rail network and the federal funding attached to it. Between 1997 and 2005, voters approved a Ballard-West Seattle monorail expansion five times, but it never got built. 

Telecommuting Surged, Transit Use Lagged among Downtown Seattle Workers in 2019

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Photo credit: Mr. Kaya

A new survey suggests that telecommuting was already on the rise in Seattle even before fears over COVID-19 prompted the recent spike in remote work as people across the region are being encouraged to work from home to help slow down transmission of the virus.

While COVID-19 is a new threat, the congestion woes for commuters in Downtown Seattle are nothing new. However, recently released survey results from nonprofit Commute Seattle show some noticeable changes to commuting patterns among Downtown Seattle workers in 2019, including a sharp uptick in telework.

Transit, meanwhile, saw its mode share decrease 2% from its peak in the last survey in 2017, and walk share also slipped to 7%. The driving alone rate was up one point to 26%. Commute Seattle noted they were now counting ridehailing trips with just one passenger in the drive alone category, which may help explain driving’s uptick after a decade of declines. Beyond methodological changes, drive alone’s resurgence and transit’s slide may also be tied to a failure to keep buses from getting stuck in worsening congestion, particularly as we entered in 2019 the constrained period known as the Seattle Squeeze. The State Legislature’s recent passage of automatic camera enforcement of bus lanes marks a significant step to fix that–if the pilot program can be implemented well.

Commute Seattle’s Center City Mode Split Survey is conducted biannually by consultant EMC Research​. This year survey’s shows about 6% of downtown employees worked remotely or shifted their schedules to avoid peak-hour commutes in 2019, representing an threefold increase in teleworking among Downtown Seattle employees since 2010. Additionally as many as 14% of the survey’s respondents said they telework at least one day a week.

Even the increase that occurred between 2017 and 2019 was pretty remarkable, with 7,740 more workers, an increase of 46%, claiming to have teleworked on a typical weekday in 2019.

36% of respondents "used more than one mode of transportation during the week" and "25% shifted travel patterns due to the Seattle Squeeze."
Credit: Commute Seattle, Center City Mode Split Survey 2019

Another standout data point from the survey was how many commuters used multiple modes of transportation in their commutes. More than a third of commuters (36%) reported using more than one mode of transportation during the workweek, with transit topping the list of transportation choices.

Here's how respondents rated their primary mode of transportation: 46% transit, 9% carpool & vanpool, 7% walk, 6% telework, 3% bike, 26% drive alone. (Graphic by Commute Seattle)
Credit: Commute Seattle

While drive alone numbers did inch up slight in 2019, they remain fair lower than 2010, despite the fact that nearly 100,000 more workers commuted into Downtown Seattle in 2019, an area which was revised for the 2019 report to include First Hill and part of Capitol Hill.

To Stave off Recession Ready the Shovel-Ready Infrastructure Projects

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Denny Way and 7th Avenue N recently got new curb ramps. (Photo by Doug Trumm)
New curb ramps being installed at Denny Way and 7th Avenue N (Photo by Doug Trumm)

This week’s financial news has been grim. With markets getting fleeced by the spreading impacts of COVID-19 and a weak response from federal officials, the likelihood of a recession is looming. Locally, the major employers around Seattle are having their staff work from home, impacting everyone from baristas to Lyft drivers to dog walkers who are seeing their hours cut to nothing. Movements are forming to support these workers.

In times of economic downturn, federal and state governments have a choice. They can go hard into austerity measures that cut future productivity and harshly impact people’s lives. Or they can take advantage of lower borrowing costs and available labor to build projects that improve the community, keep people working, and set the stage for a more livable city.

It would be irresponsible to live in denial that the economy will continue to expand forever. Whether or not this week marks the beginning of a recession we can start formulating a HoneyDo list for our governments. It’s not to just ride out an economic downturn, but to correct long standing needs that will improve our community. Here are some ideas.

Sidewalks

Though Seattle annexed portions of Arbor Heights and North Park as far back as 1907 with the promise of adding sidewalks, the city is still about 11,000 blocks (or 26%) short of a complete network. The budget under various levies only corrects that by about 25 blocks per year.